Every Saturday morning the streets of Otavalo transform themselves into the largest outdoor market in South America. Hundreds of stalls flood the streets with colorful textiles, creating a rainbow labyrinth that reminds me of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.
The market is known for its excellent shopping but also for its cultural significance. Local artisans sell their goods in the same fashion that their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. The indigenous Otavaleños have been known for their mastery in weaving since pre-Incan times, and this is on full display at the market. Colorful blankets, scarves, hats, wall hangings, and sweaters fill a majority of the stalls, alongside other artisan goods such as pottery, leather purses, beaded jewelry, and embroidered clothing.
We spent several days in Otavalo (which I highly recommend) so we were able to wake up early and enjoy the market before the crowds from Quito arrived. Many of the stalls were still being set up when we headed out in the morning, so we grabbed a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop and watched the market come to life. The stall owners placed dolls in uniform rows, hung purses on hooks, and folded blankets in small stacks. The market was in full swing by the time the last blanked was folded.
Emma and I walked the streets, stopping when something caught our eye. I bought an embroidered dish towel because the woman running the stall took such pride in her work. Emma got several lama key chains for her friends. I was pleasantly surprised when she successfully haggled the price down. “India,” she said when she saw the impressed look on my face, and I knew that she was crediting her skills on our 2015 summer trip.
Unlike India, the stall owners let you look without pressuring you to buy anything. It was such a different experience than what I’m used to. Sometimes they wouldn’t even acknowledge that we were there until we greeted them.
There were food carts throughout the market, often creating traffic jams in the middle of busy sidewalks. Emma snacked on chocolate covered marshmallows. I tried cevichocho, a popular street food in the highlands. I said yes to everything option given, so my concoction included beans, chicken, plantains, salsa, onions, popcorn, and a squirt of lime juice.
It was about the same time that I felt I was seeing the same thing over and over that the crowds became unbearable. I have an aversion to big crowds. I hate walking slow and really dislike when people stop right in front of me, so we did what we do–found another coffee shop. This coffee shop had tall stools at a high counter, offering a great bird’s-eye-view of the market.
Shopping at the market is fun, but for me, watching people is far more enjoyable. When we were walking around the market, I was more aware of all the tourists (probably because they kept stopping in front of me), but sitting at the coffee shop I watched locals embrace one another and catch up over short conversations between customers. They were jovial and took such care to straighten up their stall after each visitor walked away.
As with many things in life, I had a greater appreciation for the market once I stepped outside its borders.
- If at all possible, I recommend spending a few days in Otavalo (or at the very least, the Friday before the market). This allows you to watch the market come to life and beat the crowds that come for the day from Quito.
- Bus travel between Quito and Otavalo is frequent and inexpensive. We walked to the bus station in Otavalo and were able to get right on a bus leaving for Quito. It takes about two hours and should cost no more than $2.00 (a dollar per hour of transportation is the general rule in Ecuador).
- Make sure you haggle prices at the market. We were always able to shave a couple dollars off of the initial asked price.
- Come with an appetite. There are lots of food carts selling local snacks that are fun to try.