A Day in Otavalo, Ecuador

(Note: the photos from this trip are here but not integrated into the narrative like they should be.)

Greetings from Ecuador!

We arrived last night in Quito’s ultramodern, less-than-a-year-old airport conveniently located nowhere near Quito.  But that was OK since our first night’s hotel reservation was in Otavalo, so we could catch the Saturday market there.

Our hotel person had kindly offered to arrange a ride from the airport, which didn’t show up, so we just took a cab, which is still the most expensive thing we’ve done here at $60.

The airport is connected to Quito and Otavalo by a beautiful new smooth highway on which you can travel as fast as the slowest truck in front of you, which often was less than 15 mph.  So it took about two hours to get to Otavalo, and when we found our hotel it was locked down tight.  Repeated ringing of the doorbell was to no avail (despite the fact I had called ahead from the airport saying we were on our way), so I called back and after ringing for about a minute we finally got let in.

We learned in the morning that our building was over 150 years old, and it definitely has the kind of charm that you know wouldn’t survive a quake.  The rooms were super clean, modest, but the beds were fine, and in the morning it only took about 20 minutes to get the hot water going (apparently the young man who was keeping house forgot to turn on something or other).  In the meantime, though, we were kindly offered coffee by two little old ladies in the kitchen who I assume were part of the housekeeping staff; they appeared to be brewing it in a sock (Tonia editorial:  it’s NOT a sock, just a fabric brewing filter used around these parts).

Our main things to do in Otavalo were to see the Saturday market - both the main one and the animal market - and, time permitting, the Condor Park, a raptor-rehab-and-education bird park on a hill overlooking Otavalo.  The animal market only runs til 9am, so we splurged a dollar to take a cab over to make it in time.  This is where people come to buy and sell primarily food animals.  I was prepared for it to be much worse than it actually was, although there were definitely some chickens being handled pretty rough.  Still, most of these animals probably have it a lot better than factory-farmed animals; the only difference is we don’t see those.

The main market is so large it basically takes over most of the city center, and every category of thing is for sale: produce, street food, ticky-tacky, handwoven ponchos and other garments, hats (we each got one), and it’s easy to miss that some of the market stall buildings are elegant colonial-looking structures that have clearly been there a while.

The funny thing to get used to about the money here is that (a) they officially use the US dollar, although you often still get old Ecuadorian dollar coins as change, and (b) street food is basically free because it’s so inexpensive - 15 cents for a fried corn dough thing, 18 cents for a sweet roll, 25 cents for another kind of sweet roll, 25 cents for three bananas - you can find more money than that lying in the gutter in Mission Street.  And cabs cost about a dollar to go anywhere in the city (it’s a small place, but still, a dollar!).  So we snacked our way through the market and for lunch we split a plate of mote (basically wet popcorn), llapinguachos (potato pancakes), and pig meat pulled straight from a pig that was spit-roasted whole, so we got to look at his face while eating him.  Apparently his aborted last meal was a tomato, since that’s what was stuffed in his mouth. (The plate of pig+stuff was $3.)
The afternoon activity was the Condor Park, a Dutch-owned park/reserve on a hill overlooking Otavalo that had numerous raptors including the splendid Andean condors.  They had a great bird show with free flying birds who go out and roam over the city (the park’s amphitheater is on a bluff that has a tremendous view of the valley) and Tonia got to hold this very small falcon whose name I currently can’t remember.

Following the locals’ example, we walked the ~2.5 miles back down and enjoyed spectacular views of Otavalo and the surrounding volcanoes, plus the occasional owner-operated roadside stand serving roasted cuy…

…and finally using the lovely stairway down to Otavalo as we approached the city edge…

We finished the day by taking a bus to Quito, from which I write this paragraph.  The Lonely Planet Ecuador guide uses the words “comfortable” and “efficient” to describe Ecuador’s intercity bus system.  Last week I was in Germany, and Rick Steves’ Germany guide uses the same words to describe the Deutsches Bahn.  Both are true, but for very differently calibrated values of comfort and efficiency.  On the other hand, the fare system in Ecuador seems considerably simpler than Germany’s: it costs a dollar per hour of travel.  (No extra charge for the loud Ecuadorean ballad-pop playing over the bus’s PA system.)  What I like most about the bus is the smoothnew qa fof he wew8fhf n9ri ride.
The hotel we stayed at in Quito was disappointing due to its location, but the manager (who was very nice and tried to be helpful) suggested if we wanted to walk to dinner there were a couple of “typical” Ecuadorian restaurants just down the street.  The low-end neighborhood restaurants are comedores: out front are two or three big pots with whatever tonight’s dinner is; someone explains the menu, and if you like it, you get a plate of it, school cafeteria style, and then sit at one of several large communal tables.  Apparently this evening’s selection was testicle soup and sizzling wok of viscera, so we opted instead for what appeared to be a local fast food joint and had a pork chop and fries.  While standing in line there, I asked the local behind me (in Spanish) “What dishes do you like here?”  He replied “None.  I’m here because my friends wanted to eat here.”  Oh well.  The pork chop and fries were good.

The only remaining challenge was sleep, something the glowing reviews on Booking.com did not mention, which is unfortunate since that’s how I chose the place.  Sleeping was made difficult because the LED streetlights were inches away from our window and set to Perma Noon brightness, plus occasionally a dilapidated school bus blasting cumbia and full of drunk partiers would drive by, and at around 3am someone turned up their radio full volume for no reason, plus drunks were wandering around.  And because of the old building construction, you could hear every step anyone took anywhere in the hotel.  Even with good ear plugs, it was one of the worst nights of travel sleep I’ve had in many years.  It was disconcerting, too, that the room doors were the type of doors found on cargo containers that can be padlocked from either side.  (My review will say “Keep looking”.)

A proposal for the International Shower Rating Scale

  1. A bathable river, or a bucket of cold water and a rag

  2. There is a trickle of cool water from a spout or faucet located about four feet off the ground.  If you stoop under it and writhe, you can clean many parts of your body.

  3. Like #2, but the spout is high enough you don’t need to stoop; instead you find yourself staring up into it in despair.

  4. A bucket of hot water and a rag or sponge

  5. As #3, but sometimes the water is hot, if you pay for the heater to be turned on.

  6. There is good water pressure as well as both hot and cold water, but the temperature is erratic, so you must do the Shower Dance to avoid getting scalded or frozen.

  7. Good water pressure and water that stays at the set temperature for long enough to finish your shower.


-0.5 if a badly designed or leaky enclosure causes use of the shower to flood the bathroom.

-0.5 if the drain stops up so that you spend most of the shower standing in your own filth.