We came to Otavalo by car, having pre-booked a day’s excursion to here and to Mitad del Mundo before leaving home, thinking that this would be not the cheapest but the most efficient way to fit several of the major sights near Quito into just one day of our limited time there. We were very pleased with the arrangement as we had an excellent guide in Jose Luiz, working for local company Surtrek.
We left Quito after an early breakfast, driving north. We stopped in the town of Cayumbe to take photos of the volcano of that name and to taste custard apples bought from one of the several fruit stalls along the roadside. We also stopped at a roadside gift-shop and café near Lago San Pablo, El Miralago, which is clearly strategically positioned to catch the tourist trade, with super views from its garden and local children posing with alpacas and llamas in return for a coin or two. But you can hardly blame them for cashing in like this, and since it gave us a chance to pause for refreshment as well as photos, and to help the local economy, I had no complaints!
We were able to try the local treat of biscochos (biscuits, served with dulce de leche) and queso de hoja (a haloumi-like white cheese, served in cubes on a banana leaf). The views were great and it was a restful spot, despite the steady stream of other visitors. We didn’t buy anything in the shop, other than a couple of postage stamps, but it looked to have a range of souvenirs towards the tackier end of the spectrum, although as I didn’t have a proper look round I may be doing them a disservice!
From here we continued to Otavalo, where Jose Luiz dropped us off not far from the Plaza de Ponchos where the market is held. He showed us where to go, but after that left us to our own devices for a couple of hours, for which I was thankful, as we were happier wandering around on our own than following a guide everywhere. Once we did meet up again we continued with him to nearby Cotacachi for lunch and in the afternoon went on to Mitad del Mundo.
You can easily catch a bus to Otavalo if you prefer, and if you have more time than we did and are happy to spend the day getting there and back and enjoying the market in between, it’s certainly a much more economical choice. MalenaN has a good tip on bus travel to Otavalo. But we were satisfied with our own choice of a private tour, especially as Jose Luiz proved to be a good guide and good company on the drive.
Some of the locals came to the market by bus (the ones without big animals).
Along the Pan American Highway there were several bus stops. And the bus terminal was at the corner of Atahualpa and Collahuazo.
By the way there is a railway station in Otavalo, but there has not passed a train over here since the middle of the ninety’s
Getting to and from Otavalo is fairly simple, you can do it yourself. Take the bus from the Terminal Terrestre (confirm with your hotel that the bus to Otavalo departs from here) -- your taxi driver will take you outside the terminal, and you will catch the bus on the sidewalk. Buses are frequent, but you should go early so you can have plenty of time to explore.
On your return, just make your back to the same place where you were dropped off. Before wandering around, ask the bus driver when the last bus departs -- you don't want to get stranded there after dark, unless you don't mind getting a hotel nearby.
The bus fare is very cheap, i don't remember how much, but definitely under $5 dollars. Until the bus reaches the highway, it will pretty much try to pick up as many people as possible, so you will see the cashier yelling out of the door, the bus slowing down and people climbing in.
Please watch over your cameras and stuff -- do not leave it on the bin on top of your seat -- when the bus gets crowded or goes inside the tunnels it gets fairly dark, and unfortunately, it becomes an easy target for thieves. One couple on the bus had their camera and camcorder stolen that way. The bus hardly stops, so the thieves will just jump out and make a run for it. By the time you notice, the bus will be far from the drop area...
On your return, once you arrive back in Quito, there will be plenty of taxis waiting around. Negotiate the price before you hop in or ask the driver to turn the taximeter on.
Before coming to Quito I had read that buses to Otavalo leaves from Terminal Carcelen, in the far north of Quito. To know how to get there I asked for direction. Someone told me to take the bus to La Y and from there take another bus to Carcelen. When I left in the morning they told me at my hotel to take the yellow Metrobus from La Marín to Ofelia and from there another bus to Carcelen.
At La Marín I bought the ticket for Ofelia, which was 25 cents (June 2011). On the way to Ofelia the bus stopped at La Y (two different stops) but I decided to continue to the end stop Ofelia. From La Marín to Ofelia it took over half an hour and when we arrived there people quickly went to line up in queues for other buses. The queue for the Carcelen bus was the longest and when the bus arrived the queue dissolved as everyone tried to get in at the same time. Anyway I got on the bus! The bus linking Ofelia with Carcelen didn’t cost anything (not when you have already paid for the Metrobus).
At Carcelen most people went directly to the ticket booths, but I had to buy something to eat first as I hadn’t had breakfast and there were several small booths selling snacks and drinks there. Then I went to buy the ticket for Otavalo, which was $2. To enter the terminal you have to pay another 20 cents. On the bus ticket not only the seat number was written, but also the bus number. As it was Saturday , and market day in Otavalo, a lot of people were going there and my bus was not the first leaving, but the third.
To Otavalo it took 2 hours and the bus stopped at the terminal, but many people left the bus already at the Panamericana and took a short cut to the market. However, it is not far to the market from the terminal either.
Coming back to the terminal in the afternoon a bus was just leaving for Quito and I went aboard and bought the ticket on the bus. To Carcelen it took 1h 50 minutes
At Carcelen I went to the line for La Y (wanted to see if this way was quicker than the one over Ofelia). On the bus I paid 25 cents and at La Y the line for the Metrobus was very long. As I had already paid 25 cents I didn’t pay again for the Metrobus to La Marín. As far as I can see it doesn’t matter if you change at La Y or at Ofelia, as both routes took a very long time.
We stayed in Peguche, a small village just besides Otavalo, on walking distance to the city centre.
We just needed to follow the train tracks to reach the centre of Otavalo.
As you can see on the picture, the streets in Peguche are still originally, here you can still see a bit of the real Ecuador.
Within Otavalo everything can be done on foot. And on foot is always the best way to observe the local life.
There are plenty of buses passing by Otavalo so no matter where you're coming from in Ecuador you'll probably have easy access to it since it's on the Panamerican highway. So just hop on the bus and go :). The bus fares in Ecuador average at about $1 USD per hour.