Otavalo is a popular place to learn Spanish and has a couple of good language schools.
Festivals & Events
Some small surrounding villages still celebrate pre-Columbian rituals that can last up to one month.
Inti Raymi: A Flame That Will Not Be Extinguished
Inti Raymi, the Festival of the Sun, is the most important celebration on the Incan calendar. To the Kichwa-speaking inhabitants of the Ecuadorian highlands, it’s an opportunity to give thanks to their greatest god, Inti (Sun) and thank Pachamama (Earth) for the latest harvest. It falls on the solstice, around June 21, and signals the beginning of the New Year for the indigenous highland communities.
In Otavalo and around, you may be awoken on the first day of the festival by bands of brightly dressed musicians and dancers, spinning in circles and shouting out songs with enthusiasm as groups of stringed instruments and pipes march in imperfect time, summoning Inti’s force with each expulsion of breath, each vibrant strum of their guitar. The massive bombo indio (Indian drum) thumps out a communal heartbeat.
Clad in the zamarros (woolen chaps) that protect them from the Andean winds, and often covered in masks and topped with broad-brimmed, ribbon-festooned hats, the revelers from rival fire brigades, community groups and others dance their way to the Capilla San Juan, just on the other side of the Panamerican Hwy from downtown Otavalo.
San Juan is a Catholic festival that happens to occur on June 21 and, as in much of colonial Latin America, was superimposed over the existing ‘pagan’ rite. The Church tried to ban Inti Raymi in 1535, but decided against this strategy later.
Chicha is drunk, fritatas are eaten, each group is announced and applauded, and the dancing and merriment continues for several hours. In Otavalo, outsiders are welcome to watch and attend, but in neighboring Cotacachi, decades-old feuding often results in real violence and occasional death (just check YouTube), so watch yourself there.
On succeeding days, ritual cleansing baths (Armay Chishi) are taken – in neighboring Peguche, at around midnight the following day. You may observe or take part, as many foreigners do. Note that you are rubbed with a stinging nettle, which hurts a bit, but is supposed to help in the purification process.
Inti Raymi goes on in a joyous way for about a month after the solstice, each community celebrating in its own way. If you wish to experience an authentic Ecuadorian tradition, here’s your portal to the sun.
Always reserve in advance for the weekend rush, even in budget hotels. The many highly recommended options outside town, often located down rural lanes amid lovely pastoral settings, provide a much different experience and are great places to hole up midweek for quiet and relaxation.
A new community tourism initiative in neighboring Pijal is opening the Kayambi community to visitors. The Sumac Pacha organization (www.casainteram.org/pijal) can arrange a stay in one of the four rustic cabins overlooking Lago San Pablo and Volcan Imbabura, while getting a taste of a more traditional way of life.
Otavalo has some very good restaurants and some nice dining at lodges outside town; many accept nonguests with reservations.
Keep an eye out for some of the street food, including the snack called churo: tiny Andean lake snails that are packed in little baggies with salt, lime and onions, and are sucked out from their shells while on the go.
Drinking & Nightlife
Several bars are on Morales between Sucre and Jaramillo. La Taberna feels like a real bar, while the others are rather vacuous Pilsen-filled wastelands. Artesenal beer has made its way to Otavalo, and there's a little scene bubbling up on Quito and Jaramillo, including an 'Irish' bar.
Thursday through Saturday, the disco scene (mostly salsa and merengue) can simmer late into the night on Av 31 de Octubre.