The best part about market day in Otavalo, Ecuador, home to the largest indigenous market in South America, isn’t so much the bottomless piles of colorful merchandise on offer. Chances are good that you’ve seen much of it elsewhere, quite likely in your hometown, maybe even being sold by Otavaleños themselves, albeit at a much steeper price.
Holding most appeal is the never-ending dialogue between past and present that can be seen and felt, if not necessarily heard, around every corner and down every aisle of the sprawling collection of stalls on Plaza de los Ponchos –ground zero for the shopping masses that visit on Saturdays– and those that spill over onto several blocks of a number of adjacent streets to consume nearly a third of the town’s center.
The incessant chatter of commerce has been the cornerstone of Otavalo, a town of some 90,000 about a two-hour bus ride from Quito, and Otavaleño life for hundreds of years, pre-dating the Spanish conquest, pre-dating even the Incan invasion, when the value and quality of the locally-produced textiles was already firmly established.
Those are roots that the Otavaleños have clung onto so fervently that they’re said to be the most commercially successful indigenous group in Ecuador. Many of the businesses in town are Otavaleño-owned, their children well-educated. They travel extensively to sell their goods –yes, quite possibly even to your hometown mall—and to play their music. The ‘Andean’ music you hear on the streets of most cities around the world is oftentimes Otavaleño in origin.
While the locals are most known for their textiles –and there’s plenty of rugs, tapestries, wool sweaters and jackets, pants, shirts and skirts on offer— there’s also a hefty sampling of leather products, jewelry, musical instruments and even shrunken heads available, too. (The latter are said to be fake.) But there’s also a steady influx of cheaper imitation imports that might require a somewhat more discerning eye to identify.
Prices have jumped markedly in recent years –according to complaints anyway, from some expats who have been arriving in Ecuador in increasing numbers in recent years—but that doesn’t mean that there’s not good shopping to be had and good bargains to be found or made. I’m not a very good shopper so I’m the wrong person to ask. Sorry.
Bargaining is expected but don’t be an ass; be happy with a twenty to thirty percent drop and spend your savings at the ‘food court’ set up on the square’s northern end.
That’s where I spent the bulk of my hour or so at the plaza, breathing in the colors –and the occasional broiled suckling pig scents—and seeking out photographic opportunities. There’s no shortage of either, even during the market’s waning hours when I snapped the majority of these images. Most locals still wear traditional clothing: the women elaborately embroidered white blouses, sometimes with lace frills, worn over dark wool skirts, wrapped in shawls and bedecked with gold-colored necklaces and headdresses called fachalinas; the men blue ponchos, light-colored calf-length pants and dark bowler-style hats.
Like the majority of Saturday visitors, I came on a day trip from Quito, but many suggest arriving on Friday night to witness the entire market experience, beginning with the early morning animal market located where the town’s fringes intersect with the Pan-American Highway. I missed that and am somewhat sorry that I did judging from the stories I’ve heard.
The city is pleasantly set in a valley flanked by volcanoes that stab the sky at nearly 5,000m, Cotacachi the highest at 4,495m (16,388ft). There are enough natural attractions to justify spending a night. Indeed, the traditional market notwithstanding, to me the highlight of my visit was the nearby Parque Condor, a bird rescue and release sanctuary, which I’ll write about soon.
Getting there: About two hours by bus from Quito. Departures every 20-30 minutes daily between 5am and 8pm from the Carcelen bus station in the city’s far northern fringes. $2.20 one-way (March 2015). Ask upon arrival when the last bus back departs; service sometimes ends earlier on weekends.
Twenty more images below.
Otavalo Market, Food and Spice Section
And a Few More From the Market
All images © Bob Ramsak 2015. All rights reserved. High resolution images available.
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