Otavalo-The Continent’s Most Famous Market Town

The oldest, best-known, and most important Indian market in South America takes place every Saturday high in the Andes. For 4,000 years, Otavalo’s market has served as the social and economic heartbeat of the northern highlands; today it is Ecuador’s most popular destination after the Galdpagos Islands. The otherwise sleepy town awakens at dawn to a cacophony of chickens, cows, and sheep and the trading of hemp, saddles, vegetables, grain, and textiles—bartering being the traditional livelihood of brightly dressed otavalenos who have converged from near and far away. There are tourist trinkets galore— pottery, weavings, jewelry, carved wooden animals—but visitors really come for the authentic local atmosphere, and the Indian population is here to swap livestock, provisions, and news. Early birds will want to arrive before the animal market bedlam winds down around 8 a.m., and before the bedlam of day-trippers winds up with the arrival of buses that roll in from Quito around 10 A.M. Spend Friday night at the nearby Hacienda Cusin, a 16th-century colonial plantation reincarnated as a first-class rural inn, or stay fifteen minutes (and as many light-years) away at La Mirage, a lush flower- and vine-draped oasis perched high on an Andean hillside. Just two hours by car from Quito, and one of the most casually elegant country hideaways on the continent, this contemporary inn was built to look like a traditional, centuries-old hacienda. La Mirage combines the best of local culture and artistry with the owners’ love of European aesthetics and luxury; the result is a high-altitude, impeccably run haven. Horses from the inn’s working farm transport you through ancient Indian towns, unspoiled high country, and a volcanic lake. Dining at La Mirage is as memorable for the view of the snow-capped Cotacachi and Imbabura mountains as it is for the excellent menu, enhanced by local Ecuadorian wines and served by beautiful young Otavalo Indian girls in traditional embroidered dress. After dinner, guests wander through luxuriant gardens back to their suites, where fireplaces have thoughtfully been lit to dispel the nighttime Andean chill.