Country Ecuador | Dates June 19-21 | Accommodation El Andariego
Having missed many other major markets for one reason or another, we were determined to make it to the Otavalo market which is often described as the largest market in South America. We decided to stay over rather than do a day trip, as that would allow us to wake up early and experience the market from the moment it opened. Plus, the less-visited city with street tiles of blue, red and yellow (colors of Ecuador) surrounded by indigenous villages seemed like a cool place to see. Getting There | We took a bus from the slightly-sketchy Carcelen bus station. 2 hours, an awful Jackie Chan movie, weird air noises from the bus and near vomit incident later we arrived in Otavalo. We grabbed dinner and then took in the view from the rooftop deck of our hostel.
We awoke early (before 6) and got ready for a day of Saturday markets, starting at the very local animal market where – you guessed it – animals are sold and traded. By 6:30 we were on the streets with apparently every other person in town, following the hoards toward the market. After crossing the Pan-American highway, we followed the trucks, people, animals and dust through a pseudo market outside the market – people holding pigs on twine strings standing on the side of the dirt road and bartering before the market even began.
We wove our way down and into the fenced official area, stumbling first on the vacas (cows). People held cows from calf to full-grown bovines on leashes, tied them to wooden poles in the ground, and yelled out details and occasionally prices. We next headed back past the pigs and sheep, many of which were still in the backs of trucks, and into the area with smaller animals. Women gripped chickens with their bare fists, cages of guinea pigs (cuy) were for sale as they’re eaten in this part of the world. Chicks sold for cheaper than dinner in boxes with holes punched in them. Native women in traditional dress with layered gold necklaces and men making purchases walked around, as did a sprinkling of tourists. This was one of the best and most authentic experiences of the trip (almost as good as the Belen market – sensing a theme).
In the market a woman approached us and showed us photos of herself working on her loom, mi trabajo, she said, and attempted to sell us textiles which we did not buy. Overall, it was a very unique and authentic experience and worth the slight hazards (animals walking, bird feathers flying, strange stares).
We then headed over to the famous Otavalo market, taking life by 8 am. In the week the main plaza (an entire block), Plaza de Ponchos, is the market. “How different could it really be on the weekend?” we wondered. Very. The market spilled block after block through the streets, literally shutting down large parts of the city. The stalls multiplied past tourist goods and textiles to include many more “normal” goods like clothing, shoes, more textiles, food, etc – things people actually need and come in from the surrounding villages to buy. We wandered around and got lost in the market for hours, glad we’d made our purchases Friday so we could simply look at the innumerable colors and take all the chaos in on Saturday. It was certainly an experience, and well worth the trip. Although I will say prices were higher than expected, even with bargaining.
Right outside downtown on the other side of the Pan-American highway is this old cemetery. On Mondays and Thursdays the local people visit to pay respects, leaving offerings of food and flowers in a ‘day of the dead’ type tribute. We weren’t here the right days to experience it, but got to see the massive old cemetery’s beauty and whitewashed tombs. A stray dog joined us for the walk.
The downtown was bigger than expected, although by no means large. Many shops selling textiles echoing patterns of those sold in the market, some amazing bead stores, and usual restaurants. The highlight of the town for me was this gas truck that was driving around playing what I believed to be amazing music; apparently a chime that alerted people if they needed to come out and buy propane. We also visited the mercado central (of course!) – a huge and very clean one at that – with not only the usual goods but a section for corn, spices, and an entire upstairs dedicated to clothing and goods, as well as food stands. There is a nice mirador over the city up a relatively quick set of blue stairs (just look for the cross and giant hummingbird), which was worth a quick walk, too.
We planned to check out some of Otavalo’s hiking offerings, but to be honest we were exhausted and got too lazy. I regret that we didn’t hike the 3-hour circuit from town stopping at the Peguche waterfall , the condor sanctuary and the sacred tree, El Lechero. Maybe next time.
We were bored to death of the menu, so we choose a brewpub Cavacan for some good american-style burgers and another craft beer (this one not so good, tasted like water). We had some delicious pastries in Otavalo, especially from a pandaria on the side of the square where the market is held which had exceptional pan de leche. Our final lunch was at Do’lite, a delicious menu for only $2.50 that included not only the standard soup and segundo and jugo, but also an appetizer of popcorn kernel snacks and a dessert of fresh pineapple.