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Getting to Equador

Having only briefly researched Ecuador before arriving in the country, we didn’t quite know what to expect of Otavalo, our first stop. What we did know is there’s a famous market every Saturday. To try to get there in time we caught a 14 hour bus from Cali to Ipiales, the Columbian border town. We arrived closed to midnight and made our way quickly to a hotel called San Jose, 100 metres from the station. We didn’t fancy finding out how dangerous or safe the town was, but walking out of a bus station late at night never feels like a great idea.

Country: Ecuador
Type: Small City
Language: Spanish
Currency: US dollars
Average daily spend: €30
Number of days: 3
Accommodation: Hostel
Month: August

Crossing the border

The following morning, anticipating large crowds and long queues due to the influx of Venezuelans, we rose at 6am to ensure we’d make it to Otavalo on time for the market. We found no queues and practically zero wait times. There was a Unicef and Red Cross presence at the border and a few Venezuelans seeking refuge there wrapped in blankets, but the numbers were certainly low. The Venezuelan queue at the immigration office was completely empty. We looked it up after and found that sadly, Ecuador had very recently closed the open border on the 26th of August to those without a passport and visa. Up to 7,800 Venezuelans a day would have passed through just days previously.

An introduction to Ecuadorian transport

Once through the border, we took a taxi to the nearest bus station and jumped on a bus to Otavalo – literally while it was moving out of the station. A man greeted us outside of the taxi and pointed to the bus for Otavalo which had already pulled off, but was now looping back towards us. While I was trying to figure out how to ask when the next bus was in Spanish, he was motioning us towards the moving bus. The next part wasn’t a decision, it just happened. What started as a walk turned into a run as we started to run alongside the moving bus. He opened the undercarriage and the 3 of us tried to throw our two large bags onto the moving bus. It took more than one attempt but we got our bags in. I was expecting the bus to stop once the driver realised we were attempting to get on. It didn’t stop. It may have even sped up. Free of our bags, we were able to run a little quicker and caught up with the now open door of the bus and lept on. One arm holding on, the other now waving goodbye to our mystery helper as the bus drove out of the bus station and on to Otavalo.

The market

The market didn’t disappoint. It’s the oldest and largest market in South America dating back to Inca times. Although now largely catering to tourists, it’s still very much a locals market too. We spent the first few hours getting our energy levels up and watching the locals trade and haggle, from a nearby coffee shop on the main square (Plaza de Poncho). They clearly love the ritual of a good haggle. Almost every deal was done after the suitor would attempt to walk away and the vendor would call them back, both sides clearly happy with whatever presumably predictable deal they’d come to. We soon got involved ourselves and couldn’t resist the appeal of the handcrafted llama goods. Ciarán came away with a jumper and Emma a blanket, as well as a cushion cover and a small llama 🦙! Emma was definitely better at haggling than Ciarán.

Saturday night in Otavalo

That evening we mustered up the energy to stay out and catch some of Otavalo’s Saturday night live music. While waiting for a band to start at 10pm in what appeared to be the main spot for live music, we dropped into a local bar which appeared to have quite a bit of life inside. The bar had a pretty genuine 80’s theme going on. The bar was busy and mostly occupied by an ever growing group of men which turned out to be the 30th anniversary of something we couldn’t quite decipher. Presumably a school reunion. Eventually one of the group setup his guitar and mic and kept us well entertained with popular tracks that everyone seemed to know. We’d heard one or two of the same songs on our most recent bus in Colombia so we can only presume the ballads in South America cross borders. 

// Video from ciarans phone

We moved on to the next venue to catch a 4 piece band made up of teenagers who played more Andean style songs. The addition of a violin made the songs sounds not all that dissimilar to Irish trad music, if you squinted your ears. The few songs we heard that evening we heard in every moving vehicle throughout Ecuador for the next month. Bus drivers, taxi drivers, random cars, on repeat. There was definitely different versions played at different speeds, sometimes with the violin, sometimes without. I think the only certainty that existed in our lives in Ecuador is that we’d hear these songs when we got in a vehicle.  

// Video from ciarans phone 

Lake Cuicocha on Cotacachi Volcano

We arranged a lift up to the Cotacachi Volcano with our hotel receptionist and after having to take a detour up the back roads of the Volcano due to a road closure, he dropped us a few minutes from Lake Cuicocha. A 5 hour loop would take you all the way around the lake.

We had lunch and managed to make it about 1.5 hours around and took the same route back. We’re not sure whether it was all the travelling of the previous weeks, the altitude, or a combination of both, but we definitely didn’t feel like hiking for 5 hours. Cotacachi is 4,944 metres above sea level and it was clear that altitude was going to take some adjusting to. We spent several hours enjoying the view and meditating while waiting for our lift back.

Food and drink options

We were fortunate to catch Otavalo during its market, but outside of that, the town offered plenty of life and very friendly and interesting people. Every night there was a great local food market where we were able to eat some basic but very tasty food for $1.50 (fried rice, potato & eggs) and the main square had some good coffee shops, a craft beer bar and probably more live music bars than the two we found on our one night out.

Otavalo provided an interesting and authentic introduction to Ecuador and Andean culture, offering excellent people watching in the square observing the indigenous fashion, hair styles and haggling skills.