Otavalo indigenous market

18 Feb

We were travelling from Quito, Ecuador’s capital, and heading across the border into Colombia. We decided to break the journey up with a stopover in Ecuador’s northern highlands and the small town of Otavalo was our choice. Otavalo is famous for its indigenous market, which dates back to pre-Inca times and is now the largest of its kind in the whole of South America. We were initially concerned that the whole town would be like one giant theatre production, where stone faced locals dress up for hordes of tourists to shamelessly flog them tacky reproduction handicrafts at rip off prices, but we were very wrong…so wrong in fact we ended up extending our stay in Ecuador by several days so we could discover more about the friendly and culturally rich Otavalenos (people from Otavalo) with their beautiful hand crafted products, and also to explore the rolling hills just a stones throw from the town.

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The main market is held each Saturday when, before daylight, indigenous locals arrive from the surrounding villages carrying huge bundles on their backs destined for the craft market, guiding livestock to the animal market and throwing charcoal on grills and stirring pots of steaming broth for the food market.

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By the time the tourists leave their hotels after breakfast, the market is in full swing and the whole town is buzzing. During the week, when we visited, a less extensive daily market takes place on the Plaza de Ponchos and the streets around it. With a smaller percentage of tourists we could browse at our leisure and practice our Spanish with the smiley locals.

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The indigenous folks were dressed quite unlike any other traditional Andean dwellers we’d come across on our travels and had an almost Indian look about them.

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The local women had long, straight dark hair which was normally braided at the back, and wore head cloths as protection from the sun. Around their necks they showed off layers of gold necklaces. Long sleeved white shirts were embroidered with colourful thread, and long wrap around skirts fell to their ankles where flat but strappy sandles finished the look.

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The men also had long hair, parted in the middle and tied in pony tails. They wore ankle swinging cotton trousers and dark coloured capes or ponchos. The locals were very friendly and keen to smile and say hello to us when we passed.

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The craft market sold a multitude of beautiful things – hand-made dolls, colourful blankets, funky hats, alpaca sweaters and one-of-a-kind leather bags to name but a few.

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Generations of families continue to sew and weave fabrics by hand as they have done for hundreds of years. There are no factories mass producing goods to sell here, instead locals painstakingly make every item by hand, sometimes taking several weeks to create the larger pieces.

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Bartering for a good price is all part of the fun. The vendor will usually start with a high price, you them go back with a low price, and eventually after a few laughs and numbers flying back and forth, you meet somewhere in the middle. We found that even better bargaining power was achieved if you purchased a couple of items in one go.

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The market stall owners always asked where we were from and what the weather was like in our country so we assured them they certainly had the best deal with clear blue skies and a fresh breeze compared with the predominantly grey and rainy climate we have in the UK – and that’s just our summers!

We could have gone a little crazy buying all of the beautiful handicrafts but our already large backpacks didn’t allow for too many purchases.

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At the end of the day, any merchandise which hadn’t been sold was wrapped up once again into huge bundles and carried away.

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Metal stalls which fitted together like giant pieces of Lego were dismantled and packed away ready for the following morning. Female street sweepers tidied the roads rather unenthusiastically, resting on the handles of their wooden brushes more times than they swept.

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We decided to make a day trip out of the city to explore the rolling hills which are studded with lakes and local villages, and the attraction we’d been recommended was Laguna Cuicocha. Only 30 minutes on a local bus took us to the sleepy mountain town of Cotacachi and from there jeeps departed for the lagoon, a further 10 minutes drive away (bus 1 USD + jeep 6 USD). The sky was bright and the sun was shining so we were already in good spirits but when we saw the stunning crater lake we were on cloud nine!

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The caldera was created around 3,100 years ago by a huge eruption that generated 5 cubic kilometres of pyroclastic flow and covered the surrounding area in a layer of ash up to 8 inches deep. The volcano has been dormant ever since.

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It takes around 4-5 hours to walk around the lake’s crater rim – with a couple of tough climbs as the rocky path rises and falls. We managed about a quarter of the way around walking just over one hour each way.

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The views were beautiful – the surrounding countryside was completely rural and, as one of the most productive agricultural areas in the Andes, is covered with fields.

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The lake shimmered a milky shade of turquoise.

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The lagoon’s name comes from Kichwa indigenous language and means ‘Lago del Cuy’ which translates as ‘Lake of Guinea pig’ due to the shape of the largest island in the middle of the lake. Looking at the large island covered in golden fur-like grass and with two humps resembling a head and back, we could see why. Guinea pigs are still a favoured meal for country folk in the Andes as they reproduce quickly and form a vital source of low maintenance protein.

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The lake’s caldera is around 3 kilometres wide and 200 metres at its deepest point. Sitting at the foot of the Cotacachi Volcano in the Cordillera Occidental, the lake is fed completely by rain water. The two islands, which are also known as lava domes, were formed by hardening lava following the initial eruption.

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We were surprised by the lack of tourists at this attraction and we felt a little smug that we’d stumbled upon this extraordinary place.

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We sat for a while in the sun on a bench which couldn’t have been better placed. The morning had started off a cool Andean 10 degrees but there on the bench we stripped off our layers as it felt closer to the mid 20’s.

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Back at the information centre we decided to take a 30 minute boat trip ($3 USD) out onto the lake to get a different perspective. Health and safety in Ecuador seems to be on the up and we were decked out in attractive orange life jackets. The captain of the boat, who was a cool dude, wearing fake Raybans (and of course no life jacket) smiled at us as we handed him our ticket – we must have looked quite ridiculous as none of us could put our arms down by our sides due to the life jacket’s padding.

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We chugged around the lake looking at the inner crater walls, hearing about the history of the volcano.

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An abundance of bird life bobbed around the two islands and several had made nests in the reeds.

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In certain areas patches of gas bubbles rose to the surface like a freshly poured glass of lemonade. It felt very eery to float over the bubbles in our small boat – we kept thinking there would be another eruption at any moment.

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On the way back to the shore the captain pointed out a couple of small picturesque waterfalls trickling down from the crater rim, which in the rainy season flow full and fast, adding a different dimension to the lake. The boat tour ended randomly with a shot of strong but sweet liquor produced in the area which we felt warming us from inside as we knocked it back.

We were really happy we’d not simply passed Otavalo by. The surrounding landscapes had impressed us and the hand-made crafts sold daily at the market were exquisite, but best of all was the warmth and friendliness of the locals whose happy faces really made our stay worthwhile.

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