At Otavalo, a small town two hours north of Quito, the craft traditions of indigenous Ecuadorians take centre stage. Its Saturday market is widely reckoned to be the biggest and best in South America for textiles, ethnic jewellery, and traditional crafts. Rows and rows of well-stocked stalls offer countless variations on traditional themes, many adapted to visitors' current tastes. A large food market and animal market complete the scene. The craft and food markets continue in smaller form throughout the week.
Otavalo men wear black hats over long black hair tied in a single plait, with a blue poncho, white trousers and sandals. Women choose colourfully embroidered white blouses beneath finely woven shoulder wraps and as many chunky gold necklaces as they can decently afford, with a full black skirt (often finished with a gold braided hem) adorned with an intricately woven cloth belt.
In colonial times the indigenous people of Otavalo were put to work in obrajes, or weaving workshops, to produce textiles, wool and cotton for their Spanish masters. Though the skills of the craft were instilled by force, today they are cherished and passed from each generation to the next. Otavaleños now stand out as proud examples of prosperity and cultural confidence that other highland communities are becoming keen to emulate.
There are many craft workshops in villages around Otavalo where you can see a range of crafts in action from traditional weaving on shuttle and backstrap looms, to pan pipes being made (and played).
The caldera of several of Ecuador's extinct volcanoes are now filled by crater lakes. The most accessible of these is the beautiful Laguna Cuicocha ('Guinea Pig Lake' in Quichua), situated just north of Otavalo on the southern slopes of Cotacachi volcano. Islands in the lake resemble a pair of guinea pigs, and are said to have been used as a prison by the Incas. A pleasant day's walking takes you around the rim of the crater, with llamas carrying your lunch.
Antisana and Papallacta
To the east of Quito, the only road rises to a high pass between the four snow-capped peaks of Antisana volcano (5,758m) to the south and the mountains of Cordillero El Diviso to the north, both of which are protected ecological reserves.
There are excellent short walks in the hills near the road in landscapes of open páramo (high moorlands), forested ravines, rocky outcrops and glaciated lakes. It is often possible to see condors cruising the sky.
Back at ground level this area is rich in thermal waters and a stop in the hot springs and spa at Papallacta is a must.
Mindo cloud forests
The western mountains shield Quito from the moist air of the Pacific, which saturates their seaward slopes. Here dense cloud forests provide some of the most biodiverse environments on the planet as birdwatchers, orchid specialists and butterfly enthusiasts will testify. The pleasant small town of Mindo has come to be the focus for ecotourism visitors to the area, with small lodges in the town and its surroundings.
Hummingbirds are a particular favourite, zipping between the feeders that lodge owners provide, displaying a staggering variety of plumage in metallic greens, blues, rusts and oranges, some with exuberantly long bills, others with impressive tails, wacky little crests or even little 'boots' of white feathers.