I pinched the small pieces of wood close together, like oversized tweezers, the dowels the size of two little wooden chopsticks. My eyes focused on the thin, peach-painted pig that slipped over the tight ropes attached to the sticks, slowly spinning like a gymnast with a little black smile splashed crossed its face as it spun around.
We locked eyes and then we had a laugh. She had small wrinkles around her eyes, they constricted when we let out our cackles. It was a kid’s toy but still fun to see it spin around and the tiny craftsmanship was impressive. I had asked her if she had made these and she smiled and nodded yes. I pressed the sticks towards each other again and my enjoyment from her simple toy made her laugh even louder. After our giggle fit, I bought the pig acrobat & two others for the equivalent of just a few US dollars. If this is any indication on how my shopping would be, it was going to be a fun day at the Otavalo Saturday market.
The Otavalo Saturday Market
The Otovalo Saturday Market. It’s the largest market in South America and on any ordinary day it would be overwhelming but Saturdays are the most chaotic. Basically, the whole city comes out, the side streets are closed off and then it quickly becomes a maze of handicrafts and souvenirs with locals and tourists alike all shopping. The market is open each day but most vendors appear on Saturday so those are the best days to come for more variety but in turn you have to navigate a larger crowd.
Be prepared for a sensory overload! Food vendors skirt the outside of the square and there are people haggling, fabrics hanging, musicians playing and it’s a total maze. Find some marking points to remember where you parked or where the bus pick up is, the tents cover the market and it is really easy to get turned around in the sea of textiles. Make a mental note about where you entered to avoid getting lost in the sea of souvenirs, everything starts to look the same after awhile as Poncho Plaza becomes engulfed in tents.
What to buy?
If you want to spend minimal money for maximum souvenirs this, is where you should go to save. Often times you can get a deal if you are purchasing multiple items from the same vendor so do all of your bulk gift buying in one place. A lot of people will say you can find the same types of purchases cheaper in Bolivia (if you are planning a multi country trip) but I found the quality not to be as good as similar purchases in Peru or Ecuador. Often times, you get what you paid for.
There are a lot of repeat vendors here, things that you will no doubt see while you are in South America (think alpaca anything) and so if you see something you like you may be able to shop around for the best price. That being said, if I really find something I love and can’t live without, I’ll usually return to buy it before the end of the day if I haven’t found a better deal elsewhere. I’ve been burned too many times by saying, “I’ll just find a similar sweater in the next town” and then never seeing it again.
There are a lot of wood workers, leather and textile artisans and antique dealers within the market and city shops. Be prepared to find a lot of mass produced alpaca hats, sweaters, gloves and other imported goods. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with the vendor and see if they can point you towards things they have made themselves (if any at all) and then you can purchase items that are truly supporting locals.
Bring cash with you and small bills if you are planning to spend a lot at a variety of vendors. If you arrive early, many sellers may not be able to make exact change from large bills so it is a time saver to be prepared. Also, as of January 2000, Ecuador uses the US dollar so if that is your choice of currency you don’t have to worry about calculating exchange rates.
Who lives here?
Otavaleños are some of the most famous indiginous peoples in South America. They are a very prosperous people and they have fiercely held onto their traditions int he midst of modernization. They have beautiful traditional clothing, the women wear ornate embroidered shirts and are known for their beaded jewelry. You can purchase red beaded bracelets at the market which ward off evil spirits. You will see women adorned with necklace on necklace, the more the beads the higher their status. Men are normally wearing ponchos with white pants and their shoes are called alpargata, made of cactus fiber and are easily recognizable.
The Otavaleños seem to be a friendly, happy group of proud Ecuadorians. Many speak English as well as their native Kichwa, a language from the Quechua dialect which is spoken in Ecuador.
How to Get There?
Otavalo is about a 90 minute drive by car from Quito but most people will travel by bus or tour company. Buses run frequently and your hotel or hostel may also have a shuttle or smaller bus that runs separate from local transportation. I ended up taking a tour with Community Adventures Ecuador, which stopped at a few locations before our shopping trip making it full day tour of a few of the surrounding cities of Quito. I chose the tour option initially because on the way they stop at “La Mitad del Mundo” or the Middle of the World which ended up feeling like a bit of a tourist trap, there’s nothing much more to the attraction than to say that you stood there. The only interesting thing that came from this part of the tour was that we learned there may be a dependency about which attraction actually sits at the middle of the world, so there are a couple of locations you can visit. The controversy was the most exciting part.
There are also two local buses that run frequently to Otavalo Saturday Market, Cooperativa Otavalo or Cooperativa Los Lagos. Both leave from the Carcelen bus terminal and they cost a few US dollars for about a 2 hour trip. It makes for a perfect day trip from Quito.