Every Friday afternoon, Otavalo comes to life as pick-up trucks laden with merchandise and vendors bent double under great blocks of textiles stream into town from the surrounding countryside, preparing for the fabulous Saturday market, which includes one of the largest and most colourful artesanía markets on the continent. If you can’t make it to town on a Saturday, it’s worth noting this crafts market has become such big business that most of the town’s weaving and artesanía shops stay open throughout the week; you’ll find stalls on the Plaza de Ponchos every day, and on Wednesdays it’s almost as busy as the real thing.
The Plaza de Ponchos is the centre of the artesanía activity, where indígenas dressed in all their finery offer a staggering choice of clothes, textiles, hammocks and weavings, as well as jewellery, ceramics, dolls and many other craftworks. The stalls spill off the square in all directions, especially up Sucre, all the way to the Parque Central. By 7am on Saturday morning, the market is already abuzz, even though the tour groups from Quito don’t roll in until around 9 or 10am.
Although the sales patter is not at all aggressive, you will be expected to haggle, which should result in significant discounts, often by 25 percent or more. If you want to take a photo of someone, always ask first, or better still, buy something then ask. Also, take heed that Otavalo’s markets can get very crowded, providing perfect cover for pickpockets and bag slashers, so protect your belongings.
One of the joys of the Saturday market is that large sections of it have nothing to do with souvenir knick-knacks and tourist dollars at all. Even on the Plaza de Ponchos (north side), you’ll find vegetable and grain sellers and a row of street restaurants with huge pans and cauldrons supplying food to local shoppers. Pick your way through the crowds south up Modesto Jaramillo via hardware and everyday-clothing sections to the town’s main food market, at and around the Plaza 24 de Mayo (there’s more at the Plaza Copacabana too). This covered square has all the bustle of an eastern bazaar, charged with the smells of whole hogs roasting on spits, steaming vats of crab soup and the sizzle of meat and potatoes. You can’t help wondering if some of the victuals have come straight from the livestock market (5–10am), a packed field of herd animals bellowing through the early morning mists, tugging hard on their busily negotiating owners. To get there, go to the west end of Calderón, cross the bridge, and then follow the crowds going up S. J. Castro to the Panamericana and the market ground on the other side. A second animal market by the bus station deals with fowl, cuyes (guinea pigs), puppies and kittens – and other small creatures, thankfully not all destined for the kitchen.
After the traders have packed up their stalls and the smell of discarded mangoes has turned from sweetness to decay, locals head to the cockpit (gallera municipal), on 31 de Octubre behind the produce market, for a flutter (Sat 9pm–2am). It will set you back $1 to sit around a blood-smeared circle watching two cocks try to peck each other to death.