On my last trip to Ecuador, I rode across the spine of the Andes, visiting places like Riobamba, Baños and Cuenca to experience the culture of this rugged country. Now, 10 years older and just returned from a taxing trip to the Galapagos, I decided to pick one place and just sample life in the Andes: Otavalo, the colourful market town in the mountains that hosts its amazing weekly market. But while Otavalo may be a quiet mountain town, my stay there was anything but uneventful.
As I wrote in this post, Otavalo is famous for its Saturday market, where tourists shop for the amazing products of the masterful weavers of the surrounding towns. But the market doesn’t stop when Saturday ends — it just gets smaller. The Plaza de Ponchos is open for business every day, and on every street corner, the show goes on.
Part of the colour is the people themselves. The local population is mostly Quechua – or Kichwa, as the people in this area prefer to be called. And if you thought their traditional clothing was just for the tourists, you’re wrong. Every day the streets are filled with men in ponchos and felt hats, and women in black smocks with fancy lace blouses, often with multiple strands of fine gold around their necks. Many of the young women carry babies on their backs (they marry young around here), in a traditional cloth sling that crosses in front.
But then there’s the ongoing market, the one that happens every day, all over town. There are fruit markets selling a fascinating variety of produce, from the familiar to the exotic. King of the crop is choclo, the large ears of white corn that are a staple of the local diet, followed by potatoes, the other foundation of the Andean food chain: most are ordinary-looking, but you do see small, pink fingerlets and a few of the other ancestral Andean varieties.
Then there are apples and pears, cabbage and plantains, watermelon, passion fruit and guava, and long, pointed strawberries — called frutilla in these parts, and used to make a delicious juice. And seemingly on every corner, ladies with twin buckets selling cherries and dark, unfamiliar berries called napolitos. As far as I can tell, they’re lingonberries, and they’re not bad: juicy with a mild flavour and a big pit in the middle.
I had obviously arrived during the high season for fruit. But it was the season for celebration, too. One night, returning to my hotel around 10, I was startled to hear loud, live music coming from down the street, punctuated by happy shouts. It was coming from a large group of Kichwas, right outside my hotel, led by a traditional Andean band playing their flutes, drums, guitars and charango.
It was a Kichwa wedding reception, on its way into the hotel for a night of celebration. First came the band; then, two men carrying a pole on which a whole row of live chickens was hung by the feet, and behind them, two more carrying a pole with a similar number of live guinea pigs, or cuy, which are food in the Andes. Bringing up the rear was a fellow leading a fine cow, with a fancy bow tied to its head.
This was the dowry for the young couple, enough to start a productive household and contributed to by all the guests. And once they reached the party room, the celebrations started, with more music and more gifts. I looked in later to see most of the company dancing in a circle around the band, and the music continued into the night.
The next day, wandering past the Plaza de Ponchos, I heard the music again. And looking down the street I could see another celebration approaching. This was a parade, led again by the band (see photo at top), then two men carrying a wooden frame decorated with flowers, women with their own floral decorations, and local dignitaries in their finery. And to announce their arrival, a group of older men painstaking set off Roman candles in the street.
It was fiesta season, and I saw it everywhere I went. Visiting the nearby weaving town of Peguche the next day, I found a little carnival taking place, with food tents and a fearsome-looking thrill ride. And on a trip to a bird centre above Otavalo, I heard a series of loud bangs and turned to see a double row of Roman candles taking off from another local town. And when there was no celebration available, the local kids made their own, gleefully spraying each other with white foam from cans sold in every shop.
I even had a celebrity sighting. One night, as I chatted with a couple of American boomers in one of the town’s better restaurants, the owner came over and beseeched us to stay another 10 minutes. The vice-president of Ecuador, it seems, was about to come to dinner. And a few minutes later he arrived, a tall, youthful-looking fellow with a slight resemblance to Barack Obama. And after taking selfies with a few locals, he sat down to eat, leaving our hopes of an introduction unfulfilled.
It had been a long time since I’d been in Otavalo, and some things had changed. The town looked bigger — 90,000 people now, according to Wikipedia — and here and there were new, modern gringo restaurants catering to the steady stream of tourists. There was even an American-style coffee shop called La Cosecha, with sling chairs where you could look down on the Plaza de Ponchos.
But mostly, it was the same place, with its lovely churches (now lit up at night) and the ornate lamp posts topped by stained-glass representations of birds. And the Plaza Bolivar, where locals relaxed in the sunshine and children played around a heroic bust of Rumiñahui, the Inca general who fought the Spanish here in the north – and where, on my long-ago visit, I met David, the friendly Kichwa who became my local guide.
This time, my visit was a bit more nostalgia than adventure. But it was fascinating all the same, and a rare look at the “real” Ecuador, where life goes on at its own pace, set to the music of the flutes and drums. And where a celebration can break out at any moment.