95km (59 miles) N of Quito; 515km (320 miles) NE of Guayaquil; 537km (334 miles) N of Cuenca

Otavalo is one of Ecuador's most popular destinations. The locals, known as Otavaleños, have been famous for their masterful craftsmanship for centuries, and the artisans market here is world-renowned. Otavaleños still wear traditional clothing and cling to their heritage. Men wear their long, straight, black hair in distinctive ponytails, while married women wear multistrand gold-bead necklaces. Saturday is the main market day, when the impressive market spills out over much of this small city. But luckily for travelers with tight schedules, the market has become so popular that it now takes place on the other 6 days of the week, too, albeit on a smaller scale. In addition to shopping at Otavalo's market, you can explore the back roads of the province and visit local studios. Some of the smaller towns specialize in specific crafts: Cotacachi, for example, is known for leather work; Peguche for its weaving; and San Antonio de Ibarra for its age-old woodcarving techniques.

Even nonshoppers will love Otavalo and its surroundings. The town has an almost perfect setting. It's nestled in the Sunrise Valley in the shadow of two protective volcanoes, Cotacachi and Imbabura. According to local legend, Cotacachi is the area's symbolic mother, and Imbabura is the father standing watch. To feel the inspirational powers of Mother Nature, I recommend spending a few days exploring the area, breathing in the fresh air, gazing at the dark-blue waters of the local crater lakes, and standing in awe of the snow-covered volcanoes. Plus, after you find the perfect alpaca sweater, you can wear it as you stroll around Cuicocha Lake or hike in the mountains.