HOW TO SPEND 2 DAYS IN OTAVALO & VISIT LAGUNA CUIOCOCHA

Famous for its sprawling indigenous market at the weekends, Otavalo is also a perfect base for popular hikes at the stunning crater lake, Laguna Cuicocha, sat at the base of Cotacachi Volcano. It’s a great place to get your first taste of Andean scenery and to test out your hiking ability at higher altitude. Otavalo is often offered as a day trip from Quito by hostels and tour companies but this small indigenous town deserves more of your time and there’s enough here to fill two or three days. Read our guide for the best things to do in Otavalo as well as our tips to the Laguna Cuicocha hike.

BEST THINGS TO DO IN OTAVALO

1. Visit Peguche Waterfall

The waterfall is one of the main tourist attractions in Otavalo, a beautiful 50 ft. (18 m) cascade located within the protected forest “Bosque Protector Cascada de Peguche.

 

The waterfall is a 45 minute walk from the town centre or you can take public transportation. Buses leave every 20 minutes from Parque Central Simon Bolivar or you can flag a taxi anywhere in town ($2 one way).

 

We recommend walking along the well-maintained trails leading to the falls as it is a great way to take in the beautiful surroundings of the Andean foothills.

 

There is a voluntary entrance fee (it is customary to pay $1 or $2) and all proceeds go to the conservation of the surrounding areas and local community.

2. Wander Around South America's Largest Indigenous Market

If there’s one market to visit during your time in Ecuador, it should be this one.

 

Whilst every South American local market is a mix of vibrant colours, friendly voices haggling, rough woven textiles and the wafting scent of cooking meat, Otavalo takes this recipe and turns it up to 11 – the market is the oldest and largest Indian handicrafts market in all of South America.

 

It spreads out from the main square for a couple of blocks in each direction and sells everything from blankets and ponchos to jewellery, instruments, leather goods, platters, spices and more, all made by the talented indigenous craftspeople who live in the region.

 

On quiet days the market only goes as far as the central plaza but Wednesdays and Saturdays are the busiest days.

 

For a wilder experience, try to get there on Saturday for the additional animal market and get lost in the madness.

 

The animal market dates back to pre-Inca times when jungle products were brought up from the Amazon to trade with highland products and include a huge variety of animals to eat or buy such as guinea pigs, goats and birds! Why not buy a guinea pig and save it from certain death – it’s a delicacy in Ecuador.

3. Hike Laguna Cuicocha

Laguna Cuicocha is a popular crater lake in the region that is perfect for a full day hiking.

 

Laguna Cuicocha which translates to Lake of Guinea Pigs was given this name due to the shape of the two islands that can be seen in the middle of the lake.

 

The lake was created around 3,000 years ago when the volcano erupted, with two islands in the middle formed from the cooling lava and rainwater eventually filling up the crater.

 

A circular trail goes around the lake and you can hike around the entire thing for amazing views of the islands, lake and Volcano Cotacachi.

HOW TO HIKE LAGUNA CUICOCHA

How To Get To Laguna Cuicocha

Take a bus from the central bus terminal in town to Cotacachi.

 

From here you will then need to get a taxi to the Laguna Cuicocha Visitor Centre which should cost you around $3-6 (one way) depending on your haggling skills. Ask the taxi driver to meet you where he drops you off as there won’t be any taxis waiting around once you’ve finished to take you back.

 

We did this a little differently though – the owner of our hostel offered to take us to the Laguna and back for $25.

 

After a little math we worked out a round trip by ourselves would cost around $14 total. So, ask yourself if it’s worth the extra $10 for the convenience of being taxied all the way there and back to avoid taking buses and taxis.

 

We were shattered after this hike and knowing that we didn’t have to mess around with public transport on the way home and that we were heading straight back to the hotel was a nice feeling.

What To Expect

The lake sits at 3,246 metres (10,650 ft) so if this is your first experience of trekking at altitude then take it easy.

 

If you have been in Quito for a few days before this, then you should have acclimatised and not have any issues. 

 

Once you get to the lake you can either go left (clockwise) or right (anticlockwise). Most blogs say go anticlockwise as you get the best views first. However, we decided to go clockwise as it is a slightly easier hike as there is less of an incline.

 

This way you will see the amazing views at the end as you reach the highest point of the trail, with the lake to your right and Cotacachi Volcano off in the distance.

 

This is the perfect point to take a break and have some snacks or lunch if you brought one.

 

We met a few people who had taken the harder route, anticlockwise and as our paths crossed, they were asking us if it was worth completing the journey. Of course, not everyone is the same but the anticlockwise route is more strenuous, especially given the altitude.

 

The hike can take anywhere between 3-5 hours depending on your fitness and how many times you want to stop.

 

We stopped 4 times for about 20 minutes each to take photos and play with the drone and ended up doing in 5 hours in total. Download maps.me if you want more detailed information on the trail.

What To Bring

The trail is well laid out and changes between gravel and sand.

 

If you have hiking boots, then wear them but we did this in trainers and didn’t have any issues apart from them getting a little dusty.

 

Whilst you are hiking at high elevation, the elevation gains on the trail aren’t substantial, so it won’t be the hardest hike you ever do. But be sure to take lots of water, stay hydrated and take lots of breaks if you feel like you may be suffering from altitude sickness.

 

Other essentials; sun cream, a rain jacket and any other weather-related items depending on what time of year you are visiting.

 

In terms of food, there are two restaurants at the lake. We ate at the one down on the waterfront because we were so hungry after the hike. It was $8 for a huge piece of chicken with rice and chips, obviously not the cheapest meal in Ecuador so we would suggest eating in the town where it is cheaper.

 

Pack a few cereal bars or sandwiches before you start the day and that should be enough to get you through.

IS A DAY TOUR FROM QUITO WORTH IT?

Here’s a quick example of why you might want to consider visiting Otavalo for a few days rather than booking a day tour, although we understand that choices are usually based on time more than money.

 

Lonely Planet offers a full day (10 hours) tour to the market along with a visit to Laguna Cuicocha for £47.60 

 

Or Community Hostel offers a cheaper tour from $45 

 

The tours run from 07:00 AM, arriving back between 16:00-17:00 and will take you to the market, a brief stop at Laguna Cuicocha for photos, lunch and a couple of other stops along the way.

 

So, whilst you will get to see all the highlights of Otavalo, a minimum of 4 hours of your day on this tour will be spent on transport going there and back.

 

If you decide to visit Otavalo and stay there, then two nights in a hostel will cost £28 along with a few extra costs to get yourself to the Laguna but that’s it.

 

It seems the better option for us as you aren’t getting ferried around in a minivan all day, and you can spend as much time as you want at the waterfall, market and Laguna.

 

If you don’t have the freedom of spending a couple of days there but still want to go, then book onto a tour. You will probably be able to find cheaper ones in person in Quito than online. If you have enough time and want to save money, then Otavalo is worth a couple of days of your time.

 

We’ve broken down this day tour along with two others from Quito in more detail here.

To see how this fits in to a full Ecuador backpacking itinerary over three weeks, check out the post below:

 

WHERE TO STAY IN OTAVALO

Your typical backpacker hostel hasn’t reached this region of Ecuador yet but because it’s off the beaten track, prices for private rooms are rather agreeable.

 

Most places with ‘hostel’ in the name are small family-run hotels and you should be able to find a private room for the same price as a dorm in Quito.

 

We stayed at Hostal La Rosa which was in the centre of town, a few blocks from the market and it cost us £14 for a twin room for one night with breakfast included. We would recommend staying here as the owner runs a private taxi service which we booked to take us to the Laguna Cuicocha hike, making the day much easier.

PLACES TO EAT IN OTAVALO

We ate at local places with most offering the menu of the day (menu del dia) costing $2-3. You’ll eat soup, meat beans and rice and if you’re lucky you may get a juice or tea.

 

If you are looking for some western comforts then try Yannuk Café for great brunch options.

 

Try ‘The Pie Shop‘ for the perfect treat after a long day of hiking at the Laguna.

HOW TO GET TO OTAVALO

How To Get To Otavalo From Quito

Getting to Otavalo from Quito is simple and takes about 2 hours by bus.

 

The bus leaves from the northern bus terminal in Quito, called Terminal de la Ofelia.

 

It’s a bit of a journey outside the city and took us around 40 minutes to get there in a Uber (costing $8) or you could take a metro bus from the central terminal in town.

 

Once at the bus station, find one of the counters selling tickets to Otavalo and hop on the next bus. Buses in Ecuador are super cheap, and the ticket cost us no more than $2 each.

 

Bus timetables don’t seem to exist for these smaller journeys in Ecuador and buses will leave when they are ‘full enough’. You can just turn up to the station and shouldn’t have trouble finding a bus as they leave frequently.

How To Get To Otavalo From Mindo

If you are coming from Mindo then there is no direct bus – you will have to take one bus back to Quito which drops you off at the northern bus station and then take a second bus from there on to Otavalo.

 

Bus timetables aren’t a thing in Quito so we just turned up when we wanted to go and in most cases, we were able to jump on a bus right away.