Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Otavalo, Ecuador – A Market Lover’s Paradise


Photo by  Adalberto Perez
By the time I reached Ecuador on my first South American trip, I had suffered market overload. After travelling through Bolivia and Peru and having purchased an array of pottery, knits, and paintings, I needed to give myself (and my heavy backpack) a rest. But then I learnt about the Otavalo market.

Located two hours from Quito, a trip to Otavalo is a step back in time. Saturday is market day, and the best day to visit if you want a taste of what market life is like for the Otavaleños. Some Quito locals had told me to arrive on a Friday and to set my alarm for early Saturday morning. The beauty of the markets can be seen when the sun is barely over the horizon, way before the place is overrun with tourists jostling for the best photographs to post on their Facebook page.

The markets have existed since pre-Colombian times, and a short walk across the bridge leads to the animal market that looks like it could be straight out of the pages of National Geographic. Not for the faint of heart, these markets will leave animal liberationists seething and unable to cope with the matter-of-fact treatment of the animals, but for those able to handle such things, it is a chance to discover what life is like for the locals. Bartering, yelling, laughing, and backslapping Otavaleños weave between the clucking chickens and squealing pigs, while the heavy scent of fresh manure hangs over the dusty market.

Photo by PICQ
In stark contrast to the animals is the artisan market, located in and around Poncho Plaza. Andean pipe music mixes with locals speaking Quechua, and a kaleidoscope of colours fills the square and surrounding streets. Woven wall hangings depicting exotic birds and scenery, thick woollen ponchos dyed blue with agave juice, woollen hats, mittens, and socks all entice the passer-by to part with their money.

The one thing that struck me when I strolled the streets of Otavalo, is that even though the locals were dressed in their traditional attire, they didn’t appear to be doing it for the tourists (as I have experienced in other parts of the world, including in other parts of Latin America). The women’s colourful shawls, intricately embroidered shirts, and layers of beaded necklaces are part of their everyday garb. The men, for their part, have long braided hair and wear sandals, ponchos, felt hats, and calf-length white trousers. This lends an authenticity to this market that people from all over the world come to visit.

Otavaleños are renowned for their textile making and are savvy business people. They are now one of the most prosperous indigenous groups in Latin America and today, 80% of Otavaleños are involved in the textile industry and their products are sold around the world, including in Europe and Asia.

Prior to the 1400s, the Otavaleños used the back strap loom to create their textiles. Then the Incas arrived and Otavalo became an important administrative centre for the Incas. The Incas were smart enough to see the strength and uses for the Otavaleño textiles, so they collected these lovely pieces and put them to use throughout the empire. After the Spanish arrived and Ecuador fell under their rule, Rodrigo de Salazar, a Spanish conquistador, set up a weaving workshop on his land and employed hundreds of workers to produce beautiful, durable textiles to be sold and used throughout South America. Despite the sweatshop conditions, the Otavaleños produced beautiful work and adapted their technique with the weaving tools and fibres given to them by the Spanish. This is how they also learnt how to produce their textiles in mass quantities – a skill they employ even today.

In the 1960s, the Otavaleños adapted a weaving technique from Scotland and developed a material known as Otavaleño cashmere. Then, in 1964, the Law of Agrarian Reform granted workers title to own land. This meant Otavaleños could legally weave in their own homes, and from this law, a thriving cottage industry grew and continues to expand.

After a day spent wandering the streets and enjoying the locals, colourful crafts, and eating freshly cooked humitas, fried bananas and lentils, I ambled back to my hostel, arms fully loaded with various textiles I couldn’t resist. Luckily, I’d purchased a woven bag to load my goodies in and send it all back to Australia. With a rich history and beautiful, hand-made products, it’s impossible to not to buy a piece (or five) of Otavaleño history to take home and relive memories of one of the most captivating and historical markets in the world. 

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