Riding in Otavalo, Ecuador

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Riding toward a volcano in Otavalo, Ecuador. Photos by Max Hartshorne.
Riding toward a volcano in Otavalo, Ecuador. Photos by Max Hartshorne.

Galloping Toward a Volcano in Otavalo, Ecuador

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

Colorful spices in Otavalo Marketplace
Colorful spices in Otavalo Marketplace

Otavalo, Ecuador is a town made famous by its sprawling Indian market. Today the city is building a totally new, four-story version of the market that takes up most of the downtown every day of the week.

It’s a popular place for tourists and locals, with endless stalls of brightly colored scarves, sweaters and pottery.

I was warned to watch out for the many Chinese knock-offs that are sold as genuine Indian crafted scarves, and I did notice that among the pretty handwoven scarves and wraps were lots of junky Chinese products.

I was happy to find a carved wooden skull and pleased to that my negotiating skills got to a nice price of just $8.50. One thrilled grandson later, I was thankful.

Otavalo sign
Entering Otavalo, Ecuador across the mountains.

The drive from Quito Airport to Otavalo was spectacular, a combination of high desert mesas, winding roads, and a thousand roadside signs offering roses.

We passed through the country’s rose-growing capital, with big greenhouses full of these flowers and orchids. For the two-hour trip, it cost me $70 each way.

My driver told me that this big highway was being widened and that by next year the two-lane road would all be six-lanes, three in each direction.

Looking at all of the shops and gas stations that stand in the way, it’s hard to imagine a six-lane road. After a short tour of the market, we drove out of town on a big highway and turned into Hosteria Hacienda Pinsaqui.

Inside the Hosteria Hacienda Pinsaqui.
Inside the Hosteria Hacienda Pinsaqui.

This country hacienda has 30 rooms and serves a delicious lunch in their restaurant. Each room comes with a fireplace that each night is lit by an attendant. Each room is unique, with its own signature element, be it a cool sink, a dramatic hearth, or a four-poster bed.

After coffee, I was told the immortal words I’ll never forget—“Sir, your horse is ready.” I was ready to discover this pretty country on the back of Maradona, a calm mare wearing a western saddle.

My guide was Juan Carlos, he could speak a little English and grinned at me from up ahead. Especially when he wanted to start cantering, and I kept up with him. “You like going fast?” he said. Hell yeah!

Power of the Horse

Hoeing by hand: field-workers in Otavalo.
Hoeing by hand: field-workers in Otavalo.

I am not sure when the last time was that you climbed aboard a horse and rode into the countryside, but for me, this was the highlight of my whole trip to Ecuador.

We made our way out of the stables up steep dirt tracks, beside a stream, then through a tunnel and up around a poor neighborhood.

At each house, a dog would run out and start barking hysterically at us, but Maradona remained calm, she wasn’t scared of no puny yappy dogs.

Out into a series of fields, we passed farmworkers hoeing the seedlings and cows tethered to short ropes, grazing in a circle.

At one small cinderblock house, a young woman was doing her wash, rubbing a shirt against a stone and slapping it down, following a centuries-old method.

Most of the houses were dark inside, and everyone we passed looked as if it was no surprise to see two men ride through their village on horseback.

A friendly llama outside of Otavalo, Ecuador.
A friendly llama outside of Otavalo, Ecuador.

Ecuador’s interior is often overlooked by travelers heading for the Galapagos, a full 80 percent of visitors never see places like Otavalo.

The country has four distinct environments, and it’s not hard to get from one to the other.

The views from the road and the wide-open spaces here make it a perfect place to ride.

If you get a chance to visit Ecuador, I’d highly recommend a horse excursion!

Read another story about Ecuador by the same author on GoNOMAD