Otavalo, a market with a history

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From plaid hats to traditional skirts, coral bracelets, weaved belts, pillow cases, shawls, tapestries, baskets and rugs… and, of course, the ever-present poncho, the Otavalo Craft Market is the one of the most colorful showcases of Andean culture in the world. It has certainly made this small provincial town an arts-and-crafts capital, as well as one of Ecuador’s prime destinations.


A market of a town…


Otavalo is the type of place everyone tells you to go to, if you haven’t been. It could easily rank second after Cotopaxi in terms of most visited tourist sites in continental Ecuador. And there’s a simple reason. On Saturdays, the town actually becomes South America’s largest indigenous market.


Visitors arrive for the traditional wares sold at the Poncho market (Plaza de Ponchos) and on the many streets that lead up to it. It takes place from 9 AM to about 2 PM, by which time many vendors start packing up their goods, or are in the process of doing so.


The town, however, gets busy much earlier than this at its fascinating animal market, which begins before daybreak. Another place to have a peek is the colorful Municipal Food Market, where you will find the most vibrantly colored and exotic fruit and vegetable varieties of this highly fertile region!


The animal market

Guided more or less peacefully on a rope leash by their owners from farms in the outlying hills, pigs, goats, llamas, sheep, horses (and many other farm animals) crowd the dirt-covered expanses just outside the town. A lot of it is friendly barter, but heated arguments can be sparked by the price of a hen or a rabbit. Guinea pigs, those cute furry creatures Westerners keep as pets, are priced at around a dollar and famously cooked rotisserie-style to become one of rural Ecuador’s central delicacies.

Things to look out for

Maybe a pan flute, an armadillo-backed charango (a tiny ten-stringed guitar common to all Andean nations), a colorful woolly poncho made of llama or alpaca, a colorful naïve painting depicting typical Andean lifestyles, gaudy fuscia-and-blue checkered table spreads, the gold beads Otavaleño women wear around their necks…


A unique fashion

Some believe Otavaleños are the closest example we have today of Inca fashion, but we are quite sure a very deep mixed heritage has defined Otavaleño ware throughout the ages, with the strings of gold beads around their necks, stunning ruffled blouses, and hats with the characteristic peacock feather that women wear. Men walk around in uniform blue ponchos, light pants and characteristic long braided hair…


How Otavalo´s business culture spurred

In 1917, a well-to-do Quito socialite approached an independent weaver of the Otavalo area and asked him if it would be possible for him to imitate Scottish tweed sweaters. He’d pay. Apparently, the First World War had made importing products from Europe especially difficult. There are other versions of the story. One tells of a hacienda owner who locked up the two best Otavalo weavers in a cell until they figured out how to make the sweaters, subsequently locking up more Otavaleños to learn the process from them. And yet another version says the sweaters were imitated independently by skilled Otavaleños keen on striking up business with the whites who were unable to import the sweaters from Europe. What clearly unites the three accounts (apart from the time frame) is the fact that Otavaleños were already considered master craftsmen, endowed with the ability to work the looms to their advantage, reaping important benefits from the weaving industry and transforming it into what it is today.

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