Ecuador’s Andean North

Volcanic peaks, lakes, small villages and tons of hiking

Ecuador travelogue: Chapter 17 | Read other chaptersSee photo gallery

↑ El Lechero, a single tree on top of a hill. A lover, according to a local legend, watching his love, Lake San Pablo, at the base of the hill.

The Pan-American Highway descends into a valley as soon as it exits Quito from the northern side, traversing through dusty suburbs of the capital city. The air feels warmer here, few kilometers away from the Equator, a line that marks the extreme circumference of our spheroidal planet, effectively dividing Earth into northern and southern hemispheres. I stop at the Mitad del Mundo monument to let the significance of this line sink in.

The northern sierra region of Ecuador has some of the most beautiful hiking trails, lakes and volcanic peaks in the country. Small and large indigenous towns dot the landscape, with people still living a predominantly rural lifestyle. I am going to be spending a week in this region.

↑ Animal market at dawn, followed by produce market in the central square.

Indigenous markets of Otavalo

Otavalo, about two hours north of Quito, is ideally located in the middle of the region and therefore I use it as a base. Saturday is the day to be here. I wake up at 5am and walk to the edge of the town where the weekly animal market is held. The place is already busy; people are buying and selling small and large animals – from big strong bulls to little guinea pig babies. By 8am the market winds down and I return to the town for breakfast at another market that’s selling fruit and vegetables. By 9am, the produce market ends and a spectacular sight unfolds in the town centre. Several city blocks are closed for traffic and vendors are setting up stalls for what would soon become South America’s largest arts and crafts market. Most of the visible stuff sold here is machine-made touristy junk, but spend more time and you’ll find authentic hand-made crafts too, for twice the price. Busloads of tourists arrive just before the lunch hour and that’s my cue to get out.

↑ Otavalo’s main cathedral in the town centre and Peguche waterfall located an hour outside the town.

Hiking trails

I strongly recommend hiking from Otavalo to El Lechero which is the site of a magical tree on top of a hill that is surrounded by beautiful volcanoes, and descending further to Lake San Pablo. The trail travels through beautiful rural scenery and on the way back I hitchhike and take the bus.

Peguche Waterfall, supposedly with healing powers, is an hour away on foot. I get to see the outskirts of Otavalo followed by a walk through the woods on numerous paths that go up the hills. It starts raining out of nowhere and an Ecuadorean couple pull me into their umbrella. It was cute, everyone got wet.

↑ The Mojanda lakes, three of these, were formed after two volcanoes collapsed.

The long dead Mojanda volcanoes are located to the south of Otavalo. I spend a day here, checking out three Mojanda lakes and climbing to the Fuya Fuya summit at 4,300m, my personal best.

Laguna Cuicocha, also known as the Guinea pig lake (due to the fact that there is an island inside the lake that looks like a Guinea Pig), is the first time I circumnavigate a caldera lake, which is a lake formed in the crater of a collapsed volcano (a strange phenomenon!). The four/five-hour circular trail is quite enjoyable.

↑ On the Guinea Pig lake (Laguna Cuicocha) trail

Finally, I buy some leather jackets at Cotacachi, the leather capital of Ecuador and have a weird rendezvous with Ibarra, the capital city of this province. There is much more to do in this area, like cloud forests and touristy adventure activities like paragliding, downhill biking, etc. The variety of food and fruit is stunning and people are very gentle too.

In conclusion, there is much more to the Otavalo region than its Saturday market. In fact, the highly popularised Saturday handicrafts market was my least favourite activity in Ecuador.