A trip to Otavalo doesn’t have to end when the market vendors pack up shop; there’s plenty to do outside of town, not least explore the many nearby weaving villages, which often each specialize in certain crafts. Local tour agencies combine visits to several villages, giving you a cross-section of the different techniques and traditions employed by each. Peguche, within walking distance northeast of Otavalo, has a cooperative that features weaving demonstrations and a secluded waterfall nearby, while the villages huddled around the reed shores of Lago de San Pablo, 3km southeast of Peguche, are also home to many weavers. The villages celebrate colourful fiestas, including the banner-waving processions of Los Pendoneros, held in San Rafael and San Roque on October 15. San Rafael hosts the costume ritual of El Coraza on August 19, in which one of the village’s wealthiest men appears in a feathered hat hung with so much gold chain and jewellery that his face is concealed. If you turn up at any of these fiestas, try to be discreet (or better yet, invited), as they can be rather private affairs. The festival of Pawkar Raimi held in Peguche and Agato (Feb & March), usually includes plenty of music-making and concerts open to all.
The Lagunas de Mojanda, three lakes surrounded by brooding, cloud-hung peaks south of town, are set in ideal country for hiking and horseriding, while another popular excursion is to Laguna Cuicocha, on the edge of the huge Cotacachi-Cayapas reserve, extending from the páramo down to tropical forests in the coastal Esmeraldas province. The lake is best reached from Cotacachi, 11km north of Otavalo, a smart little town famous for its market, leather goods and boutiques. Your best bet for leaving the crowds behind, though, is by taking a bus west to the remote Intag region, where small villages such as Apuela and Junín nestle in richly forested hills, and where you can soak in thermal springs at Nangulví and visit nearby pre-Inca ruins at Gualimán.
Otavalo, as of late 2010, will be the jumping-off point for a new road down to the coast, skirting the edge of previously very remote communities near the southern fringes of the Cotacachi-Cayapas reserve before joining the main highway to Esmeraldas at Quinindé. This will cut many hours off the journey for anyone heading to Atacames and neighbouring beach resorts, as well as several northwestern cloudforest reserves, including Los Cedros.
The best accommodation near the lakes – and one of the most peaceful hotels in the region – is Casa Mojanda, 3.5km up Mojanda road from Otavalo (t 09/9731737, w www.casamojanda.com; over $121), a collection of beautiful whitewashed cottages poised on a hillside, with stunning views of the Imbabura, Cotacachi and the Cushnimuri mountains. Run by an American–Ecuadorian couple, the hotel features an organic garden that supplies delicious produce for its largely vegetarian restaurant, and a portion of the profits goes to the Mojanda Foundation, supporting progressive educational and environmental initiatives. Many of the cottages have their own fireplaces and the price ($200 a double, with tax), includes breakfast, afternoon tea and dinner. Among the other perks are an outdoor Japanese-style hot tub, games room, piano and library, plus guided horseriding tours ($25 per two hours) and hiking expeditions. There’s a cheaper “dormitory” for large families, and discounts for children and nationals too.
A little further up towards the lakes on a side road, La Luna (t 09/93156082, http://www.hostallalluna.com/; $16–25) is a good choice if you’re on a budget but desire a relaxed and attractive hotel outside Otavalo. It features comfortable rooms with or without private baths and fireplaces, as well as dorm beds ($6), and a campsite ($3). Buses for La Luna leave Otavalo (Mon–Fri 1pm & 6pm) from Piedrahita and Jaramillo, or a taxi costs $3.
A grandiose, flag-lined boulevard welcomes you to COTACACHI, west of the Panamericana and 11km from Otavalo, signalling that you’ve arrived somewhere special. As well as being a self-proclaimed “eco-city” which has successfully cut down waste and pollution, Cotacachi is a prosperous community thanks to its flourishing leather industry.
Dozens of smart boutiques selling every conceivable form of leatherware line 10 de Agosto, the main street running north–south up to the Parque San Francisco, the focus of the Sunday leather market, and the best place to pick up a bargain on a bag, belt or jacket.
To escape the smell of tanned hides, head to Casa de las Culturas, at the corner of Bolívar and 9 de Octubre, a handsome old building ingeniously reinvented after a fire, housing a small collection of paintings by Guayasamín and some pre-Columbian ceramics, as well as temporary exhibitions, internet access, a library and tourist information (t06/2915140, wwww.cotacachi.gob.ec). You could also stop in at the nearby Museo de las Culturas, García Moreno 13-41 and Bolívar, set in a cloistered colonial building and showcasing Cotacachi traditions through costumed mannequins and exhibits on craftwork and fiestas. It lies in the shadow of the white-domed La Matriz church, which stands on the grand and leafy Parque Abdón Calderón.
West of Laguna Cuicocha, the dirt road climbs to 3300m before descending into the remote and subtropical Intag region, where only a few isolated settlements sit amid richly forested hills. The area has become a focus of conservation efforts and several private reserves are guardians of these precious portions of Chocó bioregion cloudforest, one of the world’s ten biodiversity “hotspots”.
You can visit two reserves near the village of Santa Rosa about 34km from Cuicocha. The Intag Cloud Forest Reserve (t06/2648509, wwww.intagcloudforest.com; $44 per person in groups of eight or more, including meals and guided walks; reservations essential), which protects five square kilometres of primary and secondary forest ranging from 1800 to 2800m in altitude. High rainfall (2500mm annually) and humidity nurture an incredible array of flora and fauna, including more than twenty types of hummingbird, which you can expect to see zipping around. Visitors can stay at a simple lodge, equipped with solar-heated showers and composting latrines, and get to enjoy delicious vegetarian food. The owners helped found DECOIN, a local environmental organization that works on regional ecotourism projects and provides information on all the latest developments.
Santa Rosa is also the base for the nearby Reserva Alto Chocó, a 2500-hectare cloudforest concern run by the Quito-based Fundación Zoobreviven, 6 de Diciembre N32-36 and Whymper (t02/2522916, wwww.zoobreviven.org), which welcomes volunteers to work on reforestation projects, trail maintenance, environmental education programmes and patrolling the reserve against illegal loggers.
Covering more than two thousand square miles of the western Andes, the Reserva Ecológica Cotacachi-Cayapas was established in 1968 and spans from the summit of Volcán Cotacachi (4944m) down to the coastal lowlands (300m), protecting ecological habitats from the páramo grasslands in the east to the dense rainforests of Esmeraldas province. The reserve is part of the Chocó bioregion, which extends into southern Colombia, where high levels of rainfall support one of the earth’s most diverse ecosystems. Twenty percent of Ecuador’s endemic plants are found here, as well as thousands of mammals, birds and insects, including Andean spectacled bears, ocelots, jaguars and river otters.
From Cotacachi and Otavalo, it’s easy to get to the centre of the highland section, Laguna Cuicocha (“Guinea Pig Lake” in Quichua), a spectacular crater lake at 3060m, located at the foot of the dormant Volcán Cotacachi in the southeastern tip of the reserve. The two islands in the middle of the lake, Isla Wolf and Isla Yerovi, are a pair of old volcanic cones that grew up from the floor of a collapsed crater 200m below, and according to legend were used by the Incas as a prison. They’re off-limits due to on-site research, but you can jaunt across the lake on a motorboat ($2 per person), or learn more about it in the visitor centre. Better still, you can walk around the rim of the crater on a well-kept, circular trail. The ten-kilometre hike (best walked counterclockwise) takes about five hours to complete, though your effort is rewarded by wonderful views of Cayambe and Cotacachi on clear days, not to mention orchids and giant hummingbirds, and even condors if you’re lucky. The trailhead is behind the guard post at the reserve entrance; check here about safety conditions before setting off as there have been sporadic robberies.
The access to climb the snow-dusted peak of Volcán Cotacachi begins at some antennas to its east, at the end of the dirt road heading north from the guard post. It’s not a technical climb, but there is some scrambling near the top as well as risk of rock fall. A guide is recommended, not least because fog often makes finding routes difficult; ask at El Mirador restaurant or tour agencies in Otavalo.