Planning a Trip
By Plane -- The closest airport with regular traffic is Quito's Aeropuerto Internacional Mariscal Sucre (tel. 02/2944-900). From the airport, you can take a taxi or minivan shuttle to Otavalo.
By Bus -- Buses leave Quito's main bus terminal, Terminal Terrestre, roughly every 10 minutes between 5am and 8pm. Two former rivals, Cooperativa Los Lagos and Cooperativa Otavalo (tel. 02/2585-360 in Quito, or 06/2920-668 in Otavalo), now have a monopoly on this route -- although buses may be labeled with either name. The ride takes 2 to 2 1/2 hours, and the fare is $2 (£1.35). Buses to Ibarra and Tulcán drop off folks along the highway just outside of town, and do not enter the main bus terminal of Otavalo.
Otavalo's main bus terminal, Terminal Terrestre, is located on Quito and Atahualpa, about 8 blocks (a 15-min. walk) from Plaza de los Ponchos. Taxis are always available at the bus terminal.
By Shuttle -- Every hotel desk and tour agency in Quito sells day tours to Otavalo and shuttle tickets aboard minivans and buses. The rate runs around $8 to $14 (£5.35-£9.35) per person each way for just transportation, and around $30 to $60 (£20-£40) for a day tour, including lunch. These shuttles and tours will pick you up at most hotels in Quito.
If your hotel desk can't set one up for you, Metropolitan Touring (tel. 02/2988-200; www.metropolitan-touring.com) has a day tour to Otavalo costing $57 (£38) per person including lunch; the tour is available Tuesday to Saturday. For private tours, the cost is $175 (£117) for one person or $198 (£132) for two. Other reputable tours to Otavalo are run by Grayline Ecuador (tel. 02/2907-577; www.graylineecuador.com) and Travel Ecuador (tel. 02/2239-224; www.travelecuador.com).
By Taxi -- A taxi holding up to four passengers should cost $45 to $60 (£30-£40) from Quito to Otavalo.
By Car -- To reach Otavalo by car, take the Pan-American Highway (E35) north out of Quito. It's a fairly straight shot, and Otavalo is located just off the highway. You will pass first through the towns of Calderón and Cayambe. There are two $1 (65p) tolls between Quito and Otavalo. The ride takes around 1 1/2 hours.
En Route: Straddling Two Hemispheres -- The Pan-American Highway north of Quito passes right through the Equator close to Km 55. On your left, as you drive toward Otavalo, you'll see a cluster of souvenir stands and a small concrete globe allegedly sitting right on the equatorial line. Avoid the temptation to pull over here, and head a few hundred feet farther to the Quitsato Mitad del Mundo Monument (tel. 02/2363-042; www.quitsato.org), which is on the right-hand side of the road, at latitude 0° 0' 0".
Opened in 2006, this attraction was built and is run by the folks at Hacienda Guachala. The centerpiece is a tall spire that works as one of the world's most accurate sundials. Stone inlays mark the cardinal directions, as well as the solstice limits and the exact equatorial line. As far as I know, this is the most precise of the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) attractions in Ecuador, and if you have a GPS, bring it to check. At noon, the spire casts absolutely no shadow in any direction, and on the equinoxes, the shadow falls precisely on the equatorial line. The monument is open daily during daylight hours, and admission is free, although a donation is encouraged. The monument's recently opened Solar Culture Museum houses an audio-visual exhibition on the history, geography, and astronomy of the Middle of the World.
It's easy to get around Otavalo and the surrounding area by taxi and local bus. Taxis are plentiful. A ride anywhere in the city of Otavalo itself should cost only $1 (65p).
If you're traveling farther afield and looking to explore Imbabura province, taxis can be hired for $6 to $10 (£4-£6.65) per hour. A one-way taxi fare to Cotacachi or San Antonio de Ibarra should cost $6 to $7 (£4-£4.65).
If you need a taxi, call Taxis El Jordán (tel. 06/2920-298), Taxi Copacabana (tel. 06/2920-438) or Taxi Yamor (tel. 06/2921-475).
Most of the surrounding communities, towns, and cities are connected to Otavalo by local bus service. Buses leave Otavalo every 5 minutes or so for Ibarra. Other buses head to Intag, Cayambe, El Quinche, Peguche, and Cotacachi. Your best source of information is to simply head to the bus station on Atahualpa and Ordoñez. Bus rides to nearby towns or villages run 15¢ to 50¢ (10p-35p)
Otavalo is a compact city. Streets here are set on a grid running at an approximately 45-degree angle to true north. The main arteries through town are the parallel streets of Sucre and Bolívar, which run from southwest to northeast. There are two main plazas of note. Parque Bolívar is located on the southwestern end of the city and is Otavalo's civic center, with the main Catholic church on its northwest side and the municipal hall on its southwest side. The streets that border Parque Bolívar are Sucre and Bolívar, on two opposite sides, and Juan Montalvo and García Moreno. Toward the northeastern edge of the city lies Plaza de los Ponchos, which is ground zero for the weekly market, and which has become a de facto artisans market every day of the week. The Pan-American Highway skirts the city to the north.
The Otavalo Chamber of Tourism (Cámara de Turismo de Otavalo; tel. 06/2921-994) runs a helpful information office from the third floor of a building on Calle Sucre, between Quiroga and Quito. You'll find another, similar office run by the Municipal Tourism Office (Oficina Municipal de Turismo; tel. 06/2921-313) on the corner of Quiroga and Modesto Jaramillo. Your best bet, though, is your hotel tour desk or a local tour agency. My favorite local agency is Runa Tupari Native Travel [SS], located right on Plaza de los Ponchos, between Sucre and Quiroga (tel. 06/2925-985; www.runatupari.com), which offers tours to indigenous communities and the surrounding lakes, as well as cycling, horseback riding, and volcano-trekking tours. A not-for-profit organization, Runa Tupari supports rural indigenous communities.
Sunny Otavalo -- Otavalo is practically on the Equator. It's also located at about 2,700m (8,858 ft.) above sea level. The sun here is extremely powerful. To top it all off, in the main market, there is not a trace of shade. Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and a brimmed hat, and carry water with you at all times. It gets very hot, so dress appropriately -- light pants and a short-sleeved shirt will be fine. If you plan on heading out to Cuicocha Lake, you'll also need a sweatshirt (it gets cold up there).
Fast Facts -- If you need to contact the police, dial tel. 101 or 06/2920-101. The main hospital in Otavalo, Hospital San Luis (tel. 06/2922-461 or 06/2920-600), is located on Sucre and Estados Unidos. The post office (tel. 06/2920-642 or 06/2923-520) is adjacent to Plaza de los Ponchos, on the corner of Sucre and Salinas; it's on the second floor. (Yes, it looks as though the building has been condemned, but it hasn't, so head up the stairway and walk past the miniconstruction site to the post office.)
Banks are abundant in Otavalo. There's a Banco Pichincha (tel. 06/2920-214), Bolívar 614, near García Moreno; and a Banco del Pacífico (tel. 06/2923-300), Bolívar 4-86, at the corner of García Moreno. You'll find another branch of Banco Pichincha, Sucre 413, just north of Plaza de los Ponchos between Quiroga and Quito.
There are plenty of pharmacies around downtown Otavalo. The Farmacia Otavalo (tel. 06/2920-716), Colón 510, between Sucre and Juan Jaramillo, is very helpful, as is Sana Sana (tel. 06/2924-944), on Sucre and Pedraita. Pharmacies work on a turno system, which means that each pharmacy periodically takes responsibility for being open 24 hours.
It's easy to find an Internet cafe in Otavalo; there are over a half-dozen within 2 blocks of the Plaza de los Ponchos. Fast connections can be found at Mofuk CafeNet (tel. 06/2926-000), Sucre 1205 at Morales. Rates run around $1 (65p) per hour.