I’m really passionate about markets. I love exploring the maze of stalls, feeling a thrill at not knowing what gem I might find, and then haggling the price down in a foreign language. Knowing I was about to explore one of the largest indigenous markets in South America had me champing at the bit.
Otavalo, in northern Ecuador, is a market enthusiast’s dream. On every day of the week, merchants fill Plaza de Ponchos, the main market square, with bright textile stalls and often sprawl out onto nearby streets as vendors cram for space.
It’s humming and hot, and so colossal that it’s easy to get lost in the jungle of blue canopied stalls. Like any market elsewhere in the world, there are similarities between vendors as the same tourist trifle pops up again and again, soccer shirts among ponchos, hammocks among bracelets, again and again until it all forms one bright blur.
Keep an eye out though, a few beauties can still be found here.
What to buy
Whatever catches your eye. While there’s plenty of made-in-China tourist fodder at Otavalo market, you can easily tell them apart from the quality alpaca knit wool, or the lovely handmade jewellery (especially if the stall’s owner is crafting the goods they sell to pass the time). But don't worry too much about finding 'authenticity' and have fun at the market.
Taking a tour vs independently visiting
We visited Otavalo independently by taking a two-hour public bus from Quito for US$2 (as of 2016) by going to Terminal Carcelen. Our Spanish language skills are minimal at best and we managed fine as far as locating the bus company supplying tickets to Otavalo and conversing prices with stall owners.
I found Otavalo safe, if a little tired looking in places (but that’s Ecuador for you) and locals are used to seeing tourists so a little basic Spanish is all you need to get by. Tours are pricey and the information that guides provide is unnecessary when you have the whole internet at your fingertips. So do yourself a favour and take the challenge of travelling to Otovalo on your own steam.
Otavalo’s craft market isn’t the only market in town, the animal market is a market for locals – unless you’d like to take home an Ecuadorian cow, but still a fascinating peek into life here in Otavalo. Many Otovaleans drive in from the surrounding villages to trade pigs and chickens in their everyday clothing. While some wear jeans and t-shirts, many wandered around in bowler hats, Spanish influenced waistcoats and woven skirts.
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