Otavalo: World Famous Indigenous Market
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Otavalo’s beauty lies in its people, the indigenous Otavaleños. The Otavalo Market, which makes this market town famous, is undoubtedly one of the most important and spectacular markets in all of Latin America. The Otavalo market is attractive to visitors for both its outstanding shopping and its cultural significance. Local people use market day much the way their ancestors did during Ecuador’spre-Colombian history. The Otavalo market is a fascinating way to experience traditional Ecuadorian culture and the traditions of the Andes.
The best day of the week to hit this famous and friendly corner of the Andes is Saturday, which is the biggest market day for gringos and locals alike. It’s recommended to arrive Friday afternoon, and then do what most travelers don’t: set your alarm for 5:30am. After being jolted out of bed Saturday morning, walk groggy-eyed along Avenida Colon to the river and cross the bridge. Upon reaching the top of Avenida Segundo J Castro you’ll find yourself in a scene reminiscent of the pages of National Geographic: the Otavalo animal market. By 6am, with the sun rising and the mountains casting improbable shadows over the town, the market is already alive with squealing pigs and clucking chickens. Plant yourself on the high grassy bank abutting the market area and watch scenes of unloading, buying, selling and bargaining unfold. Take your camera (you can happily and discreetly snap away from your grassy knoll), but leave your animal rights principles behind, as livestock tender lovin’ care is not the highest priority on the day’s agenda. By the time the sun clears the volcanoes at 6:30am, much of the day’s business has already been done, and its time to head back into town to the artesania (handicraft) market.
Otavaleños cooking in the market. Photo by Casa Matico.
This market is centered around ‘Poncho Plaza’ but extends up and down Salinas street and all intersecting streets for several blocks in each direction. All day long, the whir of cotton candy machines, Andean pipe music, and Quichua, the native tongue derived from the Incan tongue, drift across the square. A blinding maze of colored textiles spills from the square out across town, encompassing the area between Quito and Calderón and Bolívar and 31 de Octubre. As you stroll the streets you’ll find everything from jumpers to armadillo shell guitars, wall hangings to ceramic fried eggs. Don’t restrict yourself to Poncho Plaza, as you’ll probably get better bargains away from the main square (the more items you buy, the lower the prices you can haggle), and the goods on display start to diversify as the market weaves its way through the side streets.
On the stretch of Jaramillo between Quito and Quiroga streets, mothers and infants share the street with geese, puppies, pigeons and cuyes (guinea pig –a popular local food). Down on Quiroga between Jaramillo and 31st de Octubre (in front of the Plaza de Toros), the ponchos and babywear are supplanted by potted plants, skinned calf heads and bleating goat herds. The northern edge of the textile market is bounded by Calderon, where salesmen extolling the joy of Tupperware stand between stalls of snakeskin, herbal remedies, and bars of magical soap used to ward off jealousy.
A few blocks north, the streets are overtaken by stalks of ripening bananas and pyramids of citrus fruit. The produce market (open roughly the same hours as the Artesanias market) begins on 31st de October at Calderon and runs past the former cock-fighting pit (which was outlawed in 2012, but there may be clandestine fights aroundOtavalo still) to a covered market bursting with tropical fruit and vegetables. Non-carnivorous folk will have to avert their eyes, as some of the meat stalls — splattered with eyes, jaw bones, ears and muzzles — are straight out of Vegetarian Hell. On Plaza Copacabana by the small fun fair and the local train station, there’s a smaller but still interesting food market, featuring mountainous piles of potatoes and multicolored sweets.
Otavaleños have become the most prosperous and possibly the most famous indigenous group in Latin America — you may have seen them in your own hometown selling their woolen sweaters or strumming Andean tunes. In the past ten years, Otavaleños have begun globe-trotting in a successful campaign to export Andean culture — and earn big bucks along the way.
Otavaleño child playing.
In part because of their economic success, Otavaleños have managed to hold on to centuries-old traditions without adopting a ‘quick get dressed, here come the tourists’ cultural identity. They are proud people and it shows. Otavaleños are still easily identified by their distinctive dress: women wear intricately embroidered blouses and a wealth of beaded necklaces, while men have long, braided hair and wear calf-length white trousers, ponchos and sandals.
History has it that Otavaleños have been talented textile makers and businesspeople since ancient times, prior even to the Inca invasion. Under Incan rule in the 15th century, Otavalo became an important administrative center, as new crops and animals were introduced to the area. A year after the Spanish conquest, Ecuadorian land was parceled-out to the Spanish. In Otavalo, Rodrigo de Salazar set up a large weaving workshop (“obraje”) on his land; by the mid-1500’s it employed hundreds of workers and produced a large share of the textiles used in colonial South America. The Spanish introduced new tools and fibers to the weaving industry, and by the early 1600’s, the Salazar workshop had become the most important in the country.
The textile boom in Otavalo took off in the early 1960’s, when Otavaleños working at Hacienda Zuleta began to use weaving techniques introduced from Scotland. And so was born the material known as Otavaleño cashmere, which with its low price and high quality soon found important customers in Ecuadorian cities. The weavers diversified their products and soon established themselves throughout the country. Now, with over 80% of the Otavaleños involved in textile industry, products from Otavalo are found in markets around the world, from neighboring countries such as Venezuela and Colombia to Guatemala and the United States, Europe, and even Asia.
Otavalo can be visited in a day from Quito, but with such a limited time frame, you would miss out on the beautiful scenery and great variety of activities the surrounding area has to offer. The majority of the 45,000 or so Otavaleños actually live in around 75 separate communities outside Otavalo, such as Peguche, San Jose de la Bolsa, Selva Alegre, Cotama, Agato and Iluman. In these villages you can witness Otavaleños’ centuries-old weaving skills put into practice, in addition to buying the end results of the process.
Just as Otavalo is famous for its textiles, many of the nearby villages and towns are famous for their own particular crafts. In Cotacachi, the center of Ecuador’s leather industry, polished calf skins perfume the air. In San Antonio de Ibarra, where the local specialty is woodcarving, the main street is stacked high with statues of intoxicated monks, picture frames, and furniture.
Andean Lakes and Hiking around Otavalo
In addition to a nearby waterfall, Las Cascadas de Peguche just a few minutes north of Otavalo, there are a number of pleasant lakes jaround ust outside Otavalo by which you can pass a lazy afternoon or an action filled hike up a volcano. The larger Imbabura region, sprinkled with mountain lakes, provides great opportunities for horseback riding, mountain biking, sailing, trekking, and climbing. Excellent horseback riding excursions are offered by several haciendas in the area. Popular hikes include Lagunas de Mojanda, Laguna Cuicocha, Volcan Imbabura, and Pinan Lake and Apuela hot springs in the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve.
A visit to Otavalo without a visit to Lago San Pablo would be a shame. The lake is formed by a depression between towering volcanoes on all sides and indigenous and mestizo populations live around the lake. There are several excellent restaurants and hotels around Lago San Pablo that provide a picturesque alternative to Otavalo, and is located just ten minutes south of Otavalo.
Otavalo offers a plethora of places to stay. The vast majority are clean, friendly, and convenient family-run hostals in the center of town, offering bed and shared bathroom at low, low prices – anything from $2 up. If you want your hot water guaranteed and more luxurious surroundings, there are a few hotels where you can settle down by the fireplace with a glass of wine for around USD 25 a night.
Many hostals allow guests to make use of their kitchens, so if you are in the mood for do-it-yourself gourmet and saving your sucres, you can buy morning-fresh produce from the market and start chopping. If you don’t have the energy to cook after a day’s retail therapy, you can make the most of Otavalo’s many cafes, bars, and restaurants, which offer everything from French crepes and Italian pizzas to book exchanges and daily movies. Many people arrive in town on Friday in order to start bargaining early the following day, so don’t roll in too late, especially during high season, or you could be wandering the streets looking for a place to hang your hat for the night. To avoid such a situation, you can make reservations at many places beforehand.
There are many traditional restaurants and some that cater to tourists lining the streets of Otavalo. There’s also plenty of street food for the intestinal risk takers out there. One of the legendary spots is the Pie Shop, right on the Plaza de Ponchos, and yes, they serve pie, amazing pie. The best dining experiences tend to be in hotels outside of the city, two worth mentioning are Cabañas del Lago and Puerto Lago both on Lago San Pablo, ten minutes outside of Otavalo.
To enjoy the tranquility and beauty of the nearby valleys in an historic setting, you can unpack your bags in one of the neighboring haciendas. These grand expansive ranches date back to the days of the conquistadors and have been the stage for much of Ecuador’s rich history.
Many haciendas lost expanses of land in the 60’s and 70’s due to indigenous revolts, but today most live in harmony with the local indigenous communities. The 90’s have found many haciendas converting themselves to luxury travel destinations providing lodging in the historical houses, fine dining, and excursions into the expansive Andean landscape by day. For a list of recommended haciendas, please visit ee.com’s Haciendas of Ecuador page.
Weather and Climate in Otavalo
The weather in Otavalo is pleasant all year round with average highs in the mid-60’s F (20-25 C) and lows around 50 F (7 C). The major factor is rain, which can come at any month of the year and any time of the days, though afternoon showers are most common. The cycle tends to be a few days with some rain, then a few days with full sun. The sun can be quite intense when there is no cloud cover, so a high SPF sunscreen is highly recommended, especially around the middle of the day. Temperatures drop when it’s rainy, and a light rain coat or jacket are recommended. Note that Otavalo is surrounded with high volcanoes, and the weather gets substantially colder the higher you climb in elevation, with the tops of volcanoes regularly below freezing.
Located just 1.5 hours via car or 2 hours via bus from Quito, Otavalo can be visited in a single day from Quito.
If you are bus-bound there are several buses per hour that leave from the Carcelen Bus Station in Northern Quito. Two companies that have buses to Otavalo are, Los Lagos (Tel: 2572266 / 2572267) and Co-op Otavalo (2510323). Los Lagos’ buses leave approximately every 20 minutes from 5am til 8pm, 7 days a week. Likewise, Co-op Otavalo buses leave every 20 minutes from 5am til 8pm, although the last bus with both companies may leave earlier on weekends. A one-way ticket with either company costs about USD 2-3. Sit on the right hand side of the bus for the best views of the city on leaving the terminal, and for stunning views of Cotopaxi and Cayambe volcanoes, visible on clear days. Journey time is approximately 2 hours.
Buses leave the Otavalo terminal Terrestre located at Calle Athaualpa y Calle de David (three blocks to the southeast and two blocks to the northeast of Plaza de los Ponchos) Sit on the left hand side to get the best views. Remember that the last buses back to Quito, particularly on weekends, get very full – so don’t wait until the last minute to buy your ticket, as you may have to wait a while to get a seat on a bus.
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Updated 7 May 2013 by Jason Halberstadt