Saturday is market day in Otavalo, not just any market but the largest and most famous artisan indigenous market in South America. I must confess, it felt pretty big but not immense. Two main streets are closed to traffic and the sellers are setting up their stalls on each side. That, together with the stalls stretching all over Plaza de los Ponchos, makes it quite a maze for you to explore. The little town of Otavalo becomes very busy on Saturdays, bustling both with locals and tourists.
They mostly sell the same things: sweaters, bags, ponchos, hats, woven rugs, paintings or alpaca and llama wool garments. Don’t be surprised if you’ve seen similar artisan items sold at similar prices in Quito. It looks like the demand outstripped supply and artisans turned to manufacturing handicrafts on an industrial scale. However, the traditional weaving communities and the highly skilled indigenous artisans are still present. If you know where to look, you will find some shops that sell good quality items for local consumers.
Check out a few stands before you buy anything and never pay the asked price if you find it is more than what you are willing to pay. You should shoot for a 50-25% discount on the asking price. Feel free to walk away and see how the price drops. Anyway, it’s a great way to practice the art of negotiation in Spanish.
But even if you’re not in the market for handicrafts or you’ve already bought your souvenirs, the visual story told through the colors and materials incorporated into the artwork by indigenous craftsman is definitely worth seeing.
Both men and women have long braided ponytails and majority of women and girls wear the traditional outfit of beautifully embroidered white blouses, with a long blue or black skirt and colorful woven belt according to marital status and necklaces according to stature and wealth. One cannot help but be charmed by this people who proudly wear their distinctive traditional attire.
Being on a longer tour through South America, therefor traveling light, we weren’t in a position to shop anything bigger that a souvenir or heavier than a Panama hat (which is Ecuadorian by the way), but it was a great opportunity to take photographs. The variety of colors from the fabrics, blankets, rugs, ponchos, paintings or carvings, as well as the variety of fruit and vegetables offer a feast for your eyes and for your lens.
At some point you’ll definitely be hungry, especially with all the temptations around, so if you want a great meal check out the many local food counters. From roasted pig and fried fish to yummy little bags of roasted corn, you’ll find something to your liking among this delicious typical of Ecuadorian food.
Here are a few tips to help enhance your time in Otavalo market:
- Take your time: There’s a lot to see in Otavalo so take your time. The Otavalo market is an experience: shop, take pictures, eat with the locals, observe the local way of life.
- Bring small bills: It will be easier and more economical for you to just pay the agreed price without waiting for any change.
- Don’t be afraid to bargain: The vendors do it for years and not only with tourists so they are used to it. It may be a new thing for you, just try to offer what you think is fair and see what happens. You might even have some fun doing it.
- Ask before taking pictures: Another thing is to try and ask for permission to take photos. Ok, if you photograph people on the move with a long lens is just like street photography and you don’t have to ask. But for a close up portrait it’s always nice to ask.
- If you’re coming from Quito, make sure you go to the Carcelen bus station in the north and not to Quitumbe in the south of Quito as they are about 30 km apart
- If you return to Quito remember that the bus from Otavalo will leave you in the same terminal in the north so you need to figure out the connections if you want to continue your journey out of Quito, normally further south. In this case, it would be great if you can bypass Quito entirely.
- If you want the comfort of a travel agency to arrange the Otavalo trip for you, Guanguitagua comes highly recommended.