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A Taste of Otavalo
Latin America Specialist Sam re-lives his recent stint in Otavalo, a place known for its beautiful landscape and talented weavers and crafts...
All good holidays to Ecuador start with a couple of days in Quito, the country’s capital. I was met here by my wonderful guides Andrea and Javier, and together we took in the city’s chaotic streets and beautiful UNESCO Heritage-listed Old Town, and we felt the burn of the Equatorial sun whilst lunching atop El Crater on the outskirts of the city. We checked out a host of Quito’s hotels, including most memorably the wonderfully quirky design luxury of Runi Loma on a hill overlooking the city, and the classic royal style of Plaza Grande on Independence Plaza. I stayed in the more mid-range Casa De Le Ronda, very much my type of hotel, on the historic cobbled La Ronda street, bursting with stylish small bars and restaurants after recent renovations.
After a brief exploration of Quito done, we headed two hours north to the Otavalo region, famous for its textiles, artisanal crafts and leather goods. This much I already knew, what came as a surprise was the startling range of climates and landscapes in such close proximity. Lush green forest covered mountains, high dessert scrubland, even sugar cane growing valleys, all under the gaze of Volcanos Cotacachi, Imbabura and snow-capped Cayembe. Even more surprising still, after the Spanish-Latino look of the Quitaneans had been replaced by the indigenous faces and traditional dress so familiar to me from previous visits to Peru and Bolivia, was that, as we rolled through the town of Salinas, distinctly West African faces took over. Jasci explained to me that several generations ago a slave ship had become shipwrecked on the Ecuadorian coast, and the survivors – fearful of recapture and re-enslavement – travelled hundreds of miles inland seeking safety. When they happened upon this high Andean valley, with its seemingly heaven sent African crop-friendly micro climate and fertile soil, they set up community and have remained here ever since. If you want a souvenir, the traditional African clay masks they still make in the town are something nobody will believe you picked up in Ecuador!
Up here in the far north we visited a few lodges, one of which deserves a special mention from me. Hacienda Zuleta is a working farm that has been in the family of its current manager, Fernando, for generations – a family of noted importance and power that includes former presidents. The farm produces, amongst other things, the finest cheese in the country, and incorporates miles of horse-riding, mountain biking and trekking trails, as well as the most significant and best preserved archaeological sites of the pre-Incan Caranqui culture. These include large truncated pyramids that you can stroll across at your leisure, towered above on either sides by the deep green cliffs of the valley.
I hiked through this valley to the very end, where the property’s own Condor Sanctuary is located, accompanied in different parts by Llamas, cattle, and even Fernando’s dogs. I had planned a second hike in the afternoon, this time up the mountain to the Condor viewpoint, where these immense birds (second largest in the world behind the Albatross) can swoop within 20-30 feet of you. However, a combination of my delicious three-course lunch, the approaching rain clouds, and the tempting cosy fire-warmed libraries, lounges and living rooms of the Hacienda’s main building meant I didn’t venture back out into the wild that day. Now, normally a place like this, the property of a president, I would feel uncomfortable in; it’s really not my “thing”. However, Fernando had an incredibly warm and down to earth persona, matched by the atmosphere of the grounds, which made you feel like you were simply a friend of the family. If you have the budget (it’s certainly not cheap!) try to stop by here for at least a couple of days, it truly is a special place!
For those looking to keep the costs (slightly) down, I stayed at a delightful organic mountain farm known as Casa Mojanda. This place is a real gem, located on a hill behind Otavalo town itself, it is the perfect place from which to enjoy the famous indigenous market Otavalo is home to. Again, like Hacienda Zuleta, Casa Mojanda has a very homely feel and Betti, the co-owner, was a great host and so hands on you definitely left as more of a friend than a stranger.
Our time here was cut short, as it was time for us to hit the high altitude twisting roads and head South along the famed ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’. My only advice for any trip to Otavalo is to make sure you stay longer than a couple of nights, or you might just regret it. There is so much to do in the area: extensive walking, visiting the indigenous markets and the Mojanda Crater Lake, horse riding, or simply swinging in your hammock and reading a book. Otavalo is a must-visit for any trip to Ecuador and the perfect place to get outdoors and explore the stunning surroundings.
If Sam's trip has inspired you, take a look at our favourite itinerary that includes Otavalo:
Ecuador and Galapagos family holiday
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