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.
Otavalo hosts several major festivals, including San Juan on June 24, which is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks as indígenas from the surrounding villages parade in costumes and masks, dancing and singing their way to the Church of San Juan, west of town. The festivities last for several days, blending with the Inti Raymi celebration of the solstice on June 21 and those for San Pedro on June 29, and together are known as “Los San Juanes”, providing a Christianized gloss to what was doubtless a pre-Columbian celebration. The San Juan fiesta once involved a kind of ritual fighting (tinku) between rival villages, but today the ceremonies are largely confined to ritual bathing in the Peguche waterfall, followed by shindigs in the outlying communities; foreigners should only attend these events if they have an invitation to do so from a local, and should show sensitivity at all times.
Another big event, the Fiesta del Yamor, during the first two weeks of September, is a twentieth-century and primarily mestizo celebration, seeing bullfights, music, dancing and traditional food and drink, including yamor itself, a chicha made from seven types of corn and prepared over twelve hours. Among the smaller events are Mojanda Arriba (Oct 30–31), a two-day walk from Quito to Otavalo, stopping at Malchinguí over the Mojanda hills, marking the foundation of the town, and Diciembre Mágico, a minor arts festival in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
There are several fine haciendas in the Otavalo region, originally built to oversee local obrajes, which generally cost more than accommodation in town, but are well worth it for their character, colonial architecture and beautiful grounds. Anything newer country hotels lack in historical charm, they often make up for in comfort and location. Most places listed offer horseriding or hiking expeditions.
As well as those listed below, there are many other good upmarket places to stay around Otavalo, in the nearby weaving village of Peguche, around Cotacachi and near the Lagunas de Mojanda, all close enough for you to get an early start at the Saturday market.
5km west of Otavalo near the community of Yambiro t 06/2920750, w www.alishungumountaintoplodge.com. The ever-changing play of light and shade across Imbabura and Lago San Pablo is experienced nowhere better than at this peaceful lodge, perched on a hilltop and backed by the forests of its own 40-acre private reserve. The four cosy and fully equipped guesthouses, each self-contained with wood-burning stove, kitchenette and garden, have huge windows which make the most of the extraordinary views. Price includes breakfast and dinner, two hours horseriding, wi-fi access, unlimited bottled water, tea and coffee; there’s also no check-out time. A range of activities is offered, including talks by a local yachac (healer) on the rich archeological history of the reserve and region. over $121
9km southeast of Otavalo, on the edge of San Pablo del Lago t 06/2918013, w www.haciendacusin.com. Beautiful, early seventeenth-century hacienda, set amid peaceful gardens with little cobbled courtyards connected together and bursting with flowers. Rooms feature en-suite baths and striking views of the estate and its environs, and some have fireplaces and beamed ceilings. The complex includes a converted monastery, garden cottage, library, games room and an excellent restaurant. Many activities offered, including horseriding. Reservations required. over $121
Panamericana Norte, Km5 t 06/2946116, w www.haciendapinsaqui.com. Historic hacienda built in 1790, which hosted Simón Bolívar and signatories of the 1863 Treaty of Pinsaquí between Colombia and Ecuador. Stately drawing and dining rooms with huge fireplaces, courtyards with trickling fountains, and luxurious but simple rooms pervaded by the faint aroma of furniture polish and wood-smoke evoke a bygone age. Equine-related trappings and trophies abound, particularly in the snug bar, hung with stirrups and show-jumping memorabilia. All rooms cost the same, though some are far larger than others, and breakfast is included. Guided horse rides $30 for three hours. over $121
12km east of Lago de San Pablo t 02/2662182, w www.zuleta.com. A working dairy farm and hacienda dating from 1690 and former home of Ecuadorian president Galo Plaza Lasso, set in bucolic countryside near the village of Zuleta, famed for its embroidery. Nine comfortable guestrooms with garden views accommodate visitors, who are treated as guests of the family. The farm produces delicious organic fruit, vegetables, trout and dairy products, and activities include horseriding (multi-day programmes available), embroidery trips and visits to condor repopulation projects. Reservations and minimum two-night stay required. over $121
Just south of Quichinche t 06/2922607, w www.laspalmerasinn.com. A 150-year-old hacienda in a countryside setting with great views of Cotacachi and Imbabura, offering accommodation in garden cottages with fireplaces, family suites, rooms within the main house, and dorm beds ($15) including breakfast. Plenty of activities are offered and the main lodge includes a games room, restaurant, two lounges, internet café and reference library. $51–80
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.
With business acumen as honed as their weaving skills, many Otavalo weavers have been able to afford travel abroad thanks to the popularity of their craft; and while thousands of Otavaleños have set up outlets across the world, their prosperity on the international market hasn’t tainted their cultural identity. For the most part, Otavaleños still wear traditional garments even as they own gleaming pick-up trucks, electric looms and modern hotel blocks. Women can often be seen in embroidered white blouses (camisas), shawls (rebozos), black-wrap skirts (anakus), gold-coloured bead necklaces (walkas) and red-bead bracelets (maki watana), with their hair wrapped up in strips of woven cloth (cintas). Men sport dapper blue ponchos (ruwanas) and mid-calf-length white trousers (calzones), with their hair braided (shimba) beneath felt hats (sombreros). Both wear alpargatas, sandals made from the fibre of the penko cactus.