It’s 7 a.m. high in the Andes, and I’m in the middle of a scene most travellers never see in a lifetime. A mist hangs over the mountains in the distance as hundreds of Quechua farmers, wearing ponchos and felt hats and traditional black smocks, pass me by. They’re heading to market, pulling along their pigs and sheep and cattle. The squeals of the pigs and the shouts of their owners proclaim the occasion: it’s market day in Otavalo.
While Quito and the Galapagos present two very different faces of Ecuador, this is the third, and some would say the real Ecuador – the native world of the Andes. And throughout Ecuador and much of South America, the mountain towns are inhabited mainly by one native people: the Quechua (spelled and pronounced Kichwah in this area), part of a large indigenous group that speaks the language of the Incas.
There are other towns in Ecuador where you can see Quechua culture, like Riobamba, but Otavalo is perhaps the most famous. That’s because it’s the centre of the Ecuadorean weaving trade, and every Saturday, tourists flock north from Quito to buy some of the famous textile work the local Quechuas produce, at one of the largest artisan markets anywhere.
But before the textile market begins, there’s the animal market. And if you don’t mind a bit of mud and the smell of pigs and cows, it’s a spectacle to see. On a bare field at the edge of town, with the peaks of the Andes in the background, men haggle to get the best price for their cattle and horses and sheep. Nearby, women pull stubborn pigs down the trail as they struggle to resist, trying to avert their fate.
It’s a colourful scene, and well worth getting up this early. And on the way out, I notice another side of the animal market. Beside the road are women with mesh bags containing rabbits, chickens and guinea pigs – called cuy (say “quee”) – the animals mountain people keep in their yards. Guinea pigs are pets in North America, but here they’re food, a staple of the Quechua diet.
After a quick stop for breakfast, I’m ready for the main event. The textile market goes on all week in the Plaza de Ponchos, the town’s biggest square. But on Saturdays it explodes, spreading down the streets in several directions and taking over much of the downtown. And if you’re looking for something – almost anything – you can probably find it here.
The big attraction, of course, is the Otavalo textiles, made by local weavers in their own homes. In some villages almost every house has a loom in the back room. And they are spectacular: blankets, sweaters, scarves, hats, gloves, wall hangings, and of course, ponchos, all made from the fine local wool or alpaca. And as beautiful as they look, the fabrics feel just a good, so soft and pliable it’s hard to believe they’re not made of silk.
Once you’ve seen as much as you can in the Plaza de Ponchos – and bought as much as you dare – it’s time to move on down the side streets, where everything from gold jewellery to knick-knacks to toys and household goods is on display. And in an odd transposition of culture, there’s a whole street of stalls selling North American Indian finery: dream catchers, feathered ornaments, even full-size headdresses. Apparently, the Quechua have an affinity for their native American brothers.
There’s also food, if you’re a bit peckish, or just curious — soup, of course, and roasted plantains, and popcorn and little bags of assorted grains that pass for snack food around here. If that doesn’t appeal, one end of the Plaza de Ponchos is devoted to vendors selling fruit, vegetables and an amazing assortment of spices, like the ones below. (The dark-coloured bag at the top left contains dried cinnamon flowers, which have a similar flavour to the bark.)
I’ve been to a lot of markets around the world, but the Saturday market of Otavalo, Ecuador tops them all. The action, the colour, the sheer variety and beauty of the goods — it’s an event rather than a mere marketplace. And the setting, amidst the peaks of the high Andes, adds an atmosphere that would be hard to match anywhere.
Strangely, there seemed to be fewer tourists at the market this year than on my last visit, 10 years ago; Ecuador seems to be having a slow tourist season. For those who stayed away, you missed a great show.