Only two hours’ bus ride from Quito, OTAVALO (2535m) is one of Ecuador’s top attractions, thanks largely to its world-renowned Saturday market. For hundreds of years, indígenas from at least seventy surrounding villages have brought their crafts and produce down from the hills for a day of frenzied barter and sale here. Nowadays, it draws producers from across Ecuador and Colombia as well, along with hundreds of overseas travellers who flood the town’s streets every weekend and fill its disproportionate number of hotels. Although much of the business is still local – including an animal market that’s as authentic as they come – substantial sections of the market are devoted to tourists, with a boggling range of carvings, clothing, craftwork, musical instruments, ceramics and souvenirs. It’s most famous, though, for its weavings, sold mainly at the Plaza de Ponchos in the heart of the tourist zone, a dizzying labyrinth of colourful hanging tapestries and garments. During the week, Otavalo has a quiet provincial air, but walks to the nearby lakes, mountains or weaving villages are more than enough to keep you busy here for days.
Apart from market days and boisterous fiestas, this is a quiet provincial town with only a few landmarks and attractions. Starting at the Parque Central, you’ll find a statue of Rumiñahui, the valiant Inca general who led a fierce resistance against the Spanish, the elegant municipio building and the main church of San Luis, on the park’s western side, perhaps less striking than Otavalo’s other major church, El Jordán, two blocks east at Calderón and Roca.
A block and a half south of the park is the wonderful Museo de Tejidos el Obraje, Sucre 6-08 and Piedrahita where lifelong weavers Don Luis Maldonado and his wife, Luzmaría, demonstrate traditional methods of local textile production, from cleaning and carding wool to spinning, drying and weaving it on pedal and backstrap looms. The town’s other museum, the Instituto Otavaleño de Antropología (Mon–Fri 8.30am–12.30pm & 2.30–5.30pm; free) across on the northern edge of town just off the Panamericana, has exhibits on archeology, ethnography, musical instruments, scale models of the town’s fiestas and a small academic library.
If you’re around on a Sunday afternoon (about 3–4pm) head to the north side of the Plaza de Ponchos to view a brisk game of pelota de mano, in which two opposing teams hit a tiny, hard black leather ball high into the air across the square with their bare hands.
Positioned between the peaks of Cotacachi and Imbabura, Otavalo’s environs are far prettier than the town itself, whose new hotels, craft shops, restaurants, internet cafés, textile outlets and cargo exporters now swamp the last remaining scraps of older architecture.
Otavaleños have been accomplished weavers since pre-colonial times, when they traded textiles for achiote (a red dye) and cotton with peoples from the Oriente. The Incas finally took control of the region in 1495, beginning almost five hundred years of exploitation of the Otavaleños’ skills. The Incas brought llamas and alpacas with them for wool, which was easier to weave and dye than cotton, and extracted tribute from the weavers. The locals, meanwhile, adopted Inca clothing, a form of which can still be seen in the traditional dress of native women; it reputedly resembles Inca dress more closely than that of any other indigenous people of the Andes.
The Incas only ruled for forty years before the Spanish swept in, soon establishing infamous obrajes, forced-labour sweatshops in which men, women and children were put to work for endless hours in atrocious conditions. With the introduction of silk, the spinning wheel and the treadle loom, Otavaleños began producing large quantities of quality textiles, supplying Spanish aristocrats all over the colonies. Not much improved for the indígenas after independence under the equally pernicious huasipungo system, but in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution in Europe allowed the mass production of textiles, sending the obrajes into decline. The Otavalo weavers continued to work on a small scale in the traditional styles – often using old techniques, such as the backstrap loom – to satisfy local demand. This changed in 1917 with the adaptation of techniques used to make Scottish tweeds. The new fabrics, known as casimires, proved hugely popular in Ecuador and rekindled the industry, but it wasn’t until the Agrarian Reform Law of 1964 that the oppressive huasipungo system was finally made illegal, breaking up the great estates and giving indígenas their own five-hectare plots of land. More importantly, the weavers could at last profit from their talents by setting up their own home businesses, and the rise of regional tourism opened up the Otavalo valley to the outside world and spread the word of its marvellous textiles. Thanks to the success of the weaving industry, the Otavaleños are now one of the most prosperous indigenous groups in South America, as well as being at the political and cultural forefront of the country’s under-represented peoples.