Cotacachi: A Pastoral Ecuador Village Enticing Newcomers from Many Shores

by Linda McFarlin

Cotacachi, Ecuador, somehow managed to remain under the radar despite my travels from Vilcabamba and Loja in the south of the country to Ibarra and Otavalo in the north and back again. 

The  two volcanic peaks that shelter this vibrant green valley can be viewed briefly from the Pan-American Highway as one journeys past on the way from Quito and Otavalo north to Ibarra.  But since buses rush past the right-hand-turnoff to Cotacachi, it's easy to miss one of Ecuador's most idyllic areas.

Cotacachi is a meld of “edificios” with red and brown tiled roofs and multi-colored walls. On the main square there is an imposing cathedral topped by a bright-colored statue of Jesus.  Turning off the Pan-Am, the town is a brief three-kilometer ride that winds its way past verdant pastures, dramatic ravines and a leisurely flowing Ambi River where cows graze, guarded by an assortment of children and dogs.

The historical and cultural beginnings of this town are hidden deep in the past.  One hears tales whispered proudly of how the people this far north managed to resist the Inca conquest until the 16th century.  Legend has it that the Incas were unable to have much influence here and finally gave up after only a 20-year subjugation of the north.  

Unlike its namesake, the female volcano Cotacachi that is mostly shrouded behind mist and cloud, the town of Cotacachi is coming out of hiding. 

From Sleepy Pueblo to Emerging Health Center 

Village life is changing in many ways. Under the guidance of Auki Tituana, a very progressive former mayor, the town cleaned up its act, literally, and now boasts some of the cleanest streets in Ecuador.  

UNESCO built a gleaming white-tiled market where vendors display an astonishing array of fresh produce.  Meat and chicken now sit in closed refrigerated compartments rather than remaining out in the open, drawing flies.  This new-found focus on cleanliness has attracted more businesses centered on healing and wellness.  

Cruz Andina is a physical and mental rehabilitation clinic in town that heals using various alternative modalities such as magnets, ultra-violet light, laser acupressure and electro-magnetics.  The clinic is housed in a building on Diez de Agosto just past the produce market.

The price is only a few dollars per session.  Occasionally, Cuban doctors come for months at a time to practice energy medicine. 

The facility was formerly known as Sol de Vida.   It closed for a while but is now open and doing healing energy work.  It has a public swimming pool, jacuzzi, sauna and steam room.

There are a number of hotels in Cotacachi that range from inexpensive hostels to luxury hotels.  Click here to read about Cotacachi hotels.

A world-class five-star Relais & Chateaux spa and retreat, La Mirage, welcomes those in need of R & R to its luxurious massage rooms, indoor swimming pool, gardens, gourmet restaurant and well-appointed accommodations. 

Many people are coming to the area to partake of the excellent, low-cost dental care in Cotacachi and nearby Ibarra.

Jehovah Witnesses have a small community on the outskirts of town.  Many others come to administer to body and soul with a variety of religious, spiritual and physical offerings.  Several years ago, Transcendental Meditation’s Maharishi Mahesh Yogi sent trainers to teach local people the ancient art of Ayurvedic massage.

Jambi Mascaric is an indigenous healthcare program founded in 1996, which trains health volunteers and midwives.  It is reviving and showcasing the use of traditional native medicine and establishing health care centers and birthing houses in many of the surrounding smaller villages.

A very strong participatory democracy has had an invigorating effect on grassroots health care and educational programs in the Cotacachi area.

The Charm of Old-World Colonials Still Beckons

While many are being replaced by new concrete buildings, there are still a number of quaint old colonial structures tucked in among the 3- and 4-story shops and residences that make up the biggest part of the village.  A mainstay of Ecuador real estate, these lovely colonials hint of an old-world past steeped in rustic elegance.  Five colonial buildings are designated as historic buildings, but have received little in the way of funds for renovation and upkeep.  

Those old colonials that are still around are in various states of disrepair, sometimes requiring total renovation.  The front of one such structure was beautifully restored by its Ecuadorian owners.  The gutted interior was transformed into a 5,000 square foot adobe home complete with lawn, indoor swimming pool and gardens.

Click here to see if there are any colonial buildings currently for sale.

New Developments are Springing Up as Newcomers Continue to Arrive

Currently there are numerous and varied residential Ecuador real estate developments underway, ranging from single-family homes, duplexes and casitas to condos and townhouses in gated communities. Developers are both Ecuadorian and North American. 

One of the most well-known architects in Ecuador, Patricio Falconi, designed and is supervising the construction of single-family homes in El Encanto.  These remarkable homes come with a ten-year guarantee.

Also popular are the condominiums built by Jorge Quilumbaqui, an indigenous builder with a penchant for lush gardens.  His first building, Primavera I, sold out quickly, primarily to North Americans. 

Four more condo buildings comprise Primavera II, with even more garden space and established trees.  Primavera II is also sold out, but resales are sometimes available.

Homes are of various types and materials.  One community, San Miguel, is entirely filled with similar white adobe or brick houses. The first 'gringo' development in town, the lots are all sold and owners are building their homes.

Barro Viejo, (old mud in Spanish) an architectural firm near Quito, has built several amazing pastel-colored adobe houses of rammed earth in Cotacachi. These buildings charm the eye and delight the heart with their exacting custom features and curvacious interiors.

With the wide-open spaces and gently rolling hills that surround the village of Cotacachi, there is ample room for home sites large and small.  Cobblestone roads lead out of town in several directions.  

Indigenous barrios are tucked away here and there, filling the air with the laughter of children and the music of frequent fiestas.  For those wishing to recapture a simpler and quieter lifestyle, Cotacachi or one of the nearby villages may well be the place.  These villages have lilting names like Peguche, Quiroga, El Ejido and Imantag.

Several large haciendas, picturesque dairies, hosterias and numerous farms dot the landscape.  Fields are still worked by hand.  Occasionally oxen can be seen pulling a wooden plow. It’s easy to imagine stepping back in time in such a setting or turning back the clock hundreds of years.

Locals report that land prices have risen markedly in the last decade, yet they are still low compared to other Latin American countries and even other nearby towns like Otavalo and Ibarra.   

Ecuador real estate remains a bargain in many parts of Ecuador and this is one such area where it is still possible to live like a Don on his hacienda.  However, this may no longer be politically correct since locals tend to think of any expat as wealthy. 

Living in rural Ecuador in an imposing hacienda-type home exaggerates the difference between rich and poor, haves and have-nots.  In other words, you will be inviting comparisons and theft.

Cotacachi is also the name of the canton (like counties in the U.S.).  It is one of the largest cantons in Ecuador and covers the urban area of the city itself, the mountain areas where many of the indigenous live, and the Intag, a remote semi-tropical region.  

Population
Approximately 9,000

Altitude
Approximately 7800 feet

Current Buyers
Baby boomers, investors, health practitioners, second home and vacation home buyers, artists, green buyers, some young families.

Location 
The town is a 2 to 2 1/2 hour ride from Quito, about 65 kilometers north.  The Pan-American Highway takes you within about 3 kilometers of Cotacachi, where a right turn at the Pan-Am overpass will bring you to the town square.

Attractions  
Known for its leather goods—coats, jackets, purses, shoes and specialty items—picturesque Diez de Agosto, known locally as “Leather Street” is increasingly becoming more elegant as prosperous shopkeepers vie for the attentions of affluent clientele.  

The town square is charming, with several colonial buildings, a well-manicured park with flowering trees and inviting park benches and imposing cathedral.

Cotacachi is reputed to be the musical capital of Ecuador and abounds in almost weekly celebrations, parades, festivals, fiestas and religious observances.  

The most unusual is the Dance of San Juan/Inti Rymi festival in which indigenous men and women march through the streets for days, dressed in costume and re-enacting age-old rituals.  This can be a very dangerous celebration and each year several die as a result of fighting and being tear gassed by police.

Cotacachi has a thriving expat community that is melding with the indigenous population.  The enterprising newcomers have opened a number of businesses, including restaurants, used book stores, a bar, and an ice company.

 Participatory Democracy Program
Becoming a Model throughout Ecuador

Twelve years ago, the village's new mayor at the time, Auki Tituana, implemented a program called participatory democracy.  This exciting new program has given an incredible boost to the people of this canton.  

Each year, more than 1,000 representatives of various community organizations meet to plan the following year’s goals.   Once the goals are set, various committees are formed to insure that the goals are met.  The resources of the canton government are then applied toward making these goals a reality.  

At last count, 130 of Ecuador’s 215 cantons have implemented some elements of Cotacachi’s participatory democracy.


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