Otavalo: The Largest Indian Market in South America
by Karen Misuraca

In the green Andean highlands of Ecuador above the small town of Otavalo, a procession begins before dawn every Saturday of the year. Women and girls sail along the footpaths in long, indigo skirts and ruffled white blouses draped with red and gold beads. Men are solemn as bankers in dark blue wool capes, fedoras and white cotton pants. Little boys carry squawking chickens and baskets of guinea pigs. Each back is bent with a high bundle of rugs or bright skeins of wool to sell at the largest Indian market in South America.

For more than 400 years, Otavalo has been one of a string of market towns on the Incas' Royal Road from Cuzco in Peru. Food and animals were brought from the eastern lowlands to trade for highland goods. Direct descendants of the Incas, the Otavalenos are famous for their fine weaving and knitting, and their sweaters, wall-hangings and tweed fabrics are highly prized.

The Royal Road is today's Pan-American Highway, which brings daytrippers to the Otavalo market from the capitol city, Quito.

The Saturday market begins with lively trading for dried corn, hand-spun wool, tools and live farm animals. After a breakfast of thick, steaming corn soup bought from a street vendor, Indian families chat and barter for a weekÕs worth of provisions before setting up for the main event, a huge outdoor bazaar for tourists. Booths and tables are lined up side by side on a web of narrow streets and in two plazas at opposite ends of town. Before the crowds arrive, this is the best time to browse and take photos.

Multicolored wall hangings and rugs hang in rows, like banners at a medieval joust. Among the array of goods are mounds of coral and silver necklaces, children's sweaters embroidered with llamas; bright backpacks, leather belts and purses. The finely woven, Panama-style hats can be rolled up in a suitcase. Some of the most popular souvenirs are the little toy buses crammed with paper maché fruits, vegetables and passengers. Before long, you understand why big fabric tote bags are sold all around the marketplace.

A rush of noise signals the arrival of the tourist buses, and the bartering begins. You ask the price of an item, roll your eyes, offer half that amount, then settle for about two-thirds of the original price. About $15 buys a top-quality sweater or poncho of lana puro, pure sheep's wool. The heavier sweaters with longer nap are made from alpaca, a type of llama.

Most of the wool is hand-spun, colored with natural dyes, and hand-loomed or hand-knit. Vivid reds, purples and navy blues are dyed with cochineal, a tiny red insect like a ladybug that feeds on the prickly pear cactus. Browns, oranges and yellow colors come from various parts of the walnut tree and the nuts. For traditional dark indigo skirts and shawls, the wool soaks in pots for two weeks with the indigo plant or with zarzamoras (blackberries).

Buyers haggle, mothers sit on the ground feeding their babies, kids and puppies race underfoot, and soon, Saturday afternoon and the shoppers are gone.

Serious shoppers stay a night or two to combine the market with visits to weavers' workshops in villages scattered throughout the valley, and for sightseeing in the beautiful lake district of Imbabura province. Otavalo is located in a lush agricultural plain at 7,000 feet in the Valle del Amanecer, the Valley of Dawn. The snowy peaks of extinct volcanoes of Cotacachi and Embabura, both topping 15,000 feet, are reflected in Lake San Pablo.

A sunset drive around the lake finds a sweet country life in progress. Watermelons grow on green vine curtains across earthen walls. Village ladies and their daughters, ever in their long skirts and white blouses, scrub laundry and wash their hair and their babies in streams that rush off the steep sides of the old volcanoes.

Choose any day but Saturday to hire a taxi driver to take you on a half-day tour to visit artisans in their home workshops. In tiny villages surrounded with corn and barley fields, eucalyptus groves and cactus fences, the families live in small, whitewashed houses around packed-dirt plazas, each with a simple white church.

Hatmakers and leather workers live in Cotache, doll makers in Ilumn, weavers in Peguche, and in Agato is Otavalo's best-known weaver, Miguel Andrango. His wall hangings and rugs in Andean and American Southwestern designs are exhibited in the Smithsonian Institution and in galleries in San Fe, New Mexico and in New York. Andrango's daughter, Luz Mara, produces elaborate embroidered table linens and blouses.

Every taxi driver knows how to find the Andrango's Tahuantinsuyo Weaving Workshop. Just knock on the door and someone will eventually come to guide you through the backyard, where a few chickens and a pig reside, past a pile of dried corn and a back-strap loom, up the stairs to a nicely outfitted retail shop. Prices here are higher than in Otavalo, but if you wait to buy an Andrango weaving in Santa Fe or New York, bring a well-endowed credit card.

IF YOU GO:

Getting There: Otavalo is two hours north of Quito on the Pan-American Highway, a winding, two-lane mountain road. Taxi fare is about $50 one-way, and plenty of taxis are available for the return trip. Negotiate the fare beforehand, and make it clear that you are in no hurry and wish to enjoy the scenery. Mas despacio are the words for "slow down". Buses from the main Quito terminal are an inexpensive alternative, but you may be distracted from the spectacular snowcapped peaks when your bus passes on blind curves. Mas despacio doesn't cut in on buses in Ecuador.

Where to Stay: One of the most beautiful country inns in Ecuador, Hosteria Cusin is a 17th century hacienda with glorious gardens, antiques-filled rooms, a popular dining room and bar; with riding horses and mountain bikes for guests. Ten minutes drive from Otavalo. Book through Casamolina, 53 E. 66th Street, New York, NY, 10021 (212) 988-4552.

Hotel Ali Shungu in Otavalo, owned by American expatriates, has a garden courtyard, mountain views, an excellent restaurant and 16 comfortable rooms with baths.

Five minutes drive from Otavalo on the shores of Lago San Pablo, Hosteria Puertolago has mountain views, chalet-style buildings, sweeping lawns, large, comfortable rooms with fireplaces, satellite color TV, private baths; lakeside restaurant and bar.

©Karen Misuraca; all rights reserved.