Otavalo - Ecuador's biggest indigenous market

 

After a very long travel we finally arrived in Ecuador, the fourth country of our trip through Latin America. 

 

We stayed in Otavalo for a week,  hiked around between the beautiful mountains of the Andes, visited indigenous families and shopped at several markets. 

 

The city Otavalo is famous for its big market and the handcrafts which are made by the indigenous people. 

 

We had a long trip from Popayán, the last city we stayed at in Colombia, to Otavalo, in Ecuador. Our travel took more than 16 hours, was about 480 kilometers long, in 3 taxis, 2 buses and one minibus. It was a long time sitting and sleeping on the bus, but at least we had no problems crossing the border to Ecuador.

 

The final part from Tulcán to Otavalo was supposed to be only three hours. However, carnival and celebrating people who blocked the streets made the trip last longer. We arrived in Otavalo at night and the bus driver kicked us out somewhere at the Pan-American road. It was raining, dark, we had our heavy backpacks and tried to find an empty taxi which could take us to our Hostal. The last part was quite annoying.

 

 

We loved the city Otavalo and the very nice Hostal with friendly staff who always had good information for a trip. 

 

More than 90 000 people live in the city of Otavalo, most of them are from indigenous tribes. The city lies at an altitude of 2 550m above sea level and is surrounded by three huge mountains at 4 600 meters. It's the largest indigenous town in the Imbabura Province, in Ecuador.

 

 

The women of Otavalo still wear their traditional clothes most of the time. It consists of a white blouse with flowers on the shoulders and a long black skirt with a colourful belt. Their long dark hair is held back with a band, fitting the rest of the clothes. Around their neck and arms they have golden or red beads which symbolize their wisdom and represent their age.

 

Almost every woman was in her traditional clothes, but only a few men still wear theirs. The tradidional clothes for men are white trousers with a blue poncho. Today, they wear NorthFace and Jeans.

 

However, most of the men still have long hair, braided tightly. It's symbolizing power; children and men wear it with pride. Anyway, most of the teenagers don't have long hair anymore. The reason: Outside of Otavalo, the indigenous people are a minority and they are treated badly. Therefore, teenagers, especially those who go to univeristy, cut their hair to hide their origin.

Indigenous market

Some indigenious woman who are bargaining for two guinea pigs on the market.
Some indigenious woman who are bargaining for two guinea pigs on the market.

Otavalo is famous for the big craftsmarket on Saturday. People from everywhere around the globe come to visit it. At the "Plaza de Ponchos" there is a market everyday, with plenty of handcraft articles. The otavleños, the name of the habitants, are well know for their weaving textiles.

 

On Saturday, the market is exploding and about one third of the town is used for it. Around the Plaza de Ponchos, they are selling textiles in different colours: pullovers, woolies, socks, trousers and scarfs from alpaka and sheep, music instruments, carpets, jewellery and much more.

 

Next to the market are stands to lunch with a choice between deep-fried fish, suckling pick, potatoes and cuy, which is guinea pig, a speciality from the Andes region.

 

A bit further away is a huge building where they sell fruits, seeds and vegetables: the Mercado Municipal, a two-storied building. On the other side of the Pan-American road, North-west of Otavalo, is a huge animal market. Locals are coming to this place from everywhere and try to sell their cattle or buy new once. At this place you can get everything: Alpakas, guinea pigs, chicken, pigs and piglets, cows, horses, sheep and baby dogs.

 

Laguna de Mojanda

 

The four lakes Laguna Mojanda, Laguna Chiquita, Laguna Negra and another tiny lake at an altitude above 3 700m over sealevel are hidden between the two big mounais Fuya Fuya, which means "cold cold" in Quechua, and Cerro Negro. Those lakes were created by volcanos. Their last eruption was many years ago, in the middle Pleistocene (>200 000 years).

 

We hiked for almost five hours on a dirt road, around those lakes. The hike was 15 kilometers long and easy, only some parts were more tricky as the street started to be very muddy. The highest point around the lakes lies at 4 263m. We went up to the Cerro Negro, at almost 4 200.

A new record for us!

 

The way up was only a few meters long, but intense. We crawled up, on all our four, only to have a more or less awesome but foggy view over the three lakes. During the hike, it was foggy for almost the whole time and a thunderstorm arrived as we were on our highest point. We were lucky and just came back before it started to rain.

 

Laguna Cuicocha

Our gardian Flou followed us 6 kilometers and left us because of food.
Our gardian Flou followed us 6 kilometers and left us because of food.

Another hike we did was around the 3km large Laguna Cuicocha, at an altitude of 3 200 meters above sea level, North-west of Otavalo. Cuicocha means "lake of the guinea pig" in Kichwa (Quechua), named by the two islands in the middle of the lake. 

 

The Laguna is 200 meters deep and is located in front of the volcano Cotacachi. The volcano is almost 5 000 meters high, the last eruption was more than 3 000 years ago and created the lake. It's possible to hike a loop around the lake. We did the almost 13km in four hours, the highest point was at 3 500m above sea level.

 

We were a bit disappointed in the beginning, because the fog didn't allow us to see further than only a few meters. During our hike, we had a little guardian. Flou, how we called him, was a little black dog who had slept at the entrance of the park and had decided to follow us on our hike. He followed us until we met another couple who was hiking around the lake and stopped for lunch. 

 

Close to the lake lies the city Cotacachi which is famous for it leather handcraft.

 

Handcraft trip in Otavalo

Dominga showed us how to braid Totora and how to create mattresses with it.
Dominga showed us how to braid Totora and how to create mattresses with it.

The last trip in Otavalo was with an organization, in order to visit indigenous families, to see how they make their handcraft and if possible try it by ourselves. It was a great experience!

 

Wilmer, a young Ecuadorian man, was our guide and driver. The trip took 4,5 hours an was about 60km long.

The first stop of our trip was in San Rafael, South-east of Otavalo and next to the Laguna San Pablo, where we visited Dominga, a indigenous Ecuadorian woman who is creating mattresses with Totora, a plant species called juncus in English which grow next to the lake.

 

First we got an introduction to the material she is using and then she showed us how she is working it. We sat down on the floor on one of her mattresses and observed how she braided the grass. It seemed complicated and she did it very fast, but after a while, she motivated us to try it too: Two strings down, 2 over the stems and 2 under, pressing it flat with a stone and again 2 over and 2 under the stems. Doing this again and again, it seemed to be easy but it was the contrary. The hardest part of Dominga's work is to kneel on the ground the whole time, crooked and concentrated. Those mattresses are only made there and are sold to all the other places around. 

The family of Luzmilla is working in the process of colouring wool and weaving since many generations.
The family of Luzmilla is working in the process of colouring wool and weaving since many generations.

 

Afterwards we went to Luzmila, another indigenous women who is specialised in weaving.

 

She lives in Peguche, North-east of Otavalo and showed us the difference between sheep's wool, alpaca and baby alpaca. She prepared the wool with a metal comb and let us feel the difference. Before the combs, people used thistles.

 

She showed us as well how they colour the wools, the different colours which are possible for dyeing and how they obtain the colours. They use dyeing nuts, plants and worms which live in cactuses.

 

Luizmilla showed us as well how to weave, a very complicated process which only a few people still know.

 

 

 

Don, a friendly old indigenious, who is one of the only ones left who still use the old machines which they used years ago.
Don, a friendly old indigenious, who is one of the only ones left who still use the old machines which they used years ago.

 

The third stop was some meters further in Peguche, at a musician family. They showed us the different music instruments and explained what they were made of. The main part was an explanation about the panpipes, the different kinds that exist and where they come from. They also showed us how to play them and let us try. 

 

In Carabuela, North of Otavalo, we visited an other indigenous man who is a specialist in weaving, too. The old man, who was just called "Don", showed us how to prepare the wool and how to create the string on a very old machine. It looked complicated. Laura tried it but nearly failed. I think that for this work, you need a lot of experience.

 

Don showed us as well the clothes he weaved and told us about the people from around the glove, who are coming to him to learn his practice.

 

 

The last destination of our very interesting trip through the indigenous villages was in San Antonio, as well in the North of Otavalo.

 

This place is famous for their handcraft in wood. We visited a workshop of two Ecuadorian men who were carving religious figures out of pieces of wood and coloured them with paint and gold leaves. It was interesting to see the different processes and to observe them working.

 

Afterwards, the figures look like they are made out of porcelain. The statues are sold to privates in South-America or Europe, but mostly churches, especially from Colombia, buy them. 

 

Price: ca. 1000$. 

 

Summary

 

The first place in Ecuador was a great experience!

We had a fantastic Hostal and enjoyed the nature around Otavalo.

 

I'm proud we reached a new altitude without any problem. 4200!

 

The huge indigenous market of Otavalo, with the animal market, the textile market and the fruit market, was impressing.

We also visited Cotacachi, which is famous for leather handcrafts.

At all those place they had so many beautiful things that we had to buy a second bag to carry everything.

 

The highlight of Otavalo was our trip through indigenous villages, in order to visit families and to see how they work on their handcraft.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Same same but different view!