Ecuador’s Indigenous Otavalo Market – A Festival of Colors & Textures

Artisan with bags at the market in Otavalo, Ecuador, photo by Robin Slater

This week’s guest post about shopping at the Otavalo Market is from Robin Slater owner of Sangay Touring in Quito, Ecuador.

Otavalo is a small city of about 50,000 mainly indigenous inhabitants located some 90 minutes north by road up the Pan-American Highway from Ecuador’s capital city, Quito. Otavalo rests at 8,300 ft (2,530 m) above sea level in a spring-like fertile valley known for its dairy and rose production.

In addition to its impressive countryside setting of sparkling lakes, ageless volcanoes and patchwork-covered hillsides, Otavalo has gained its fame and reputation for its world-renowned indigenous artisan market. Although numerous other markets exist (e.g. Pujili, Zumbahua and Ambato) throughout this small, yet diverse Andean nation, none can compare to the size and variety of crafts that are to be found in this open air market.

Villagers from the surrounding areas - mainly from the neighboring village of Peguchi - bring their wares (as they have been doing for hundreds of years) to the Otavalo market and spend their day bartering, exchanging, selling and socializing. Today, the main clientele are huge crowds of foreigners looking to marvel at and/or purchase souvenirs.

Colorful hammocks for sale at the Otavalo Market, photo by Robin Slater

Although the market is more extensive and filled with more tourists on Saturdays, you can visit it any day of the week and find an impressive variety of Ecuadorian handicrafts. By 9 a.m. most of the artisans have already set up their basic stands and kiosks to display their products and the air is filled with traditional Andean music. The main difference is that on Saturdays the market extends beyond the city’s central plaza (Plaza de Ponchos) and out into the side streets. In addition, there is an early morning Saturday animal market held on the edge of the city where such animals as donkeys, pigs, chickens, llamas and horses are bought, sold or traded.

The artisans make efficient use of such raw materials as nuts, beads, wood, precious metals & stones, leather and wool to craft their wares. Artifacts commonly found include traditional musical instruments like the panpipe (or rondador); a myriad of styles of jewelry made from beads, stones and precious metals; hats (including the Panama and Fedora); wood carvings; dolls; paintings and clothing. After a few minutes strolling through this colorful open air market you will quickly realize that the woven (mostly by hand) products predominate. This is where your eyes can feast on the enormous variety of shapes, sizes, textures and colors of the ornately-woven textile products that are proudly displayed. Your head may even spin after seeing such a range of scarves, tablecloths, bags, blankets, sweaters, hammocks, wall hangings and shawls that dance before your eyes.

Mount Imbabura, Ecuador, photo by Robin Slater

As a market which has its roots in hundreds of years of Andean tradition, it is expected (and actually enjoyed by the artisan seller) that potential buyers barter and haggle over the price. If you automatically pay the first price you were quoted, you are more than likely paying at least double the normal price. I can personally vouch for this from personal experience - my wife is Ecuadorian and I look like the typical foreign tourist. What my wife is quoted is almost always at least half the price that her ‘gringo’ husband is offered. Caveat: to get better bargains, it is advisable to visit the market on any day except Saturday. Why? The higher the number of potential buyers milling around, the less likely the price will drop drastically. If they don’t sell to the first person they may well sell to the next, and so on. When there are fewer tourists, you will notice that the pricing is a lot more flexible.

Colorful plates at the Otavalo, Ecuador market, photo by Robin Slater

Robin Slater is an adventurous British-Canadian social worker by trade who evolved into an Ecuador & Galapagos travel consultant by passion & experience. He is the owner of Sangay Touring - a travel agency/tour operator in Quito, Ecuador dedicated to travel services for mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. You can follow him on Twitter.

Santa Fe Traveler note: Coincidentally, I had a friend who went to Ecuador right after I first read Robin’s post and saw the photos. I am the proud, new owner of a woven purse from the Otavalo Market.

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One Response to “Ecuador’s Indigenous Otavalo Market – A Festival of Colors & Textures”

  1. Suzy
    February 17, 2019 at 10:13 am #

    Otavalo seems to be a very colorful place. It also feels as though everywhere you need to barter if you aren’t a local. Funny how that is…

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