Otavalo Market:
Colorful, Well-Organized and Safe

The Otavalo market is just about the largest indigenous market in all of South America. On every day of the week, merchants fill Plaza de Ponchos, the main market square, with their wares, set up in small booths with blue tarps over them to keep out the rain or out in the open lining the streets. Monday the market is closed, sort of, after what are always busy weekends, but there are still some vendors around even then.

History of the Otavalo Market

The history of the Otavalo market square is colorful. In years past, people laid out their goods any old place—on the ground, on tables. Then a Dutch woman named Tony Zwollo brought her idea for revitalizing markets worldwide to Otavalo, ironically, the very place where her research had discovered the roots of designing.

She called her use of empty spaces, "female architecture." When funding was difficult to obtain, she came up with an inexpensive solution — permanent little booths that had concrete roofs to protect from inclement weather. Her market was a great success and very popular with the indigenous. Today Otavalo is known throughout the world and tourists flock there to buy the colorful crafts.

Otavalo Merchants are Savvy Businessmen

But it wasn't just Zwollo's innovative idea that makes the Otavalo market the rousing success it is today. The indigenous of Otavalo are in a class of merchant by themselves. I've been told that they are not from Ecuador, but come from Bolivia.

They may have been among the people who were relocated by the Incas who cleverly knew that to remove conquered people from their roots and transplant them elsewhere was a powerful way to keep them better subjugated.

Wherever they are from, they do seem to be a distinctive type of people. They are clever business men and women.

Even the children learn to handle money sagely at an early age and hold their own quite well when the bargaining heats up. They can figure the change in their heads quicker than I can say, "I'll take it."

Through familial work cooperatives, plenty of hard work, smart business practices and mass production of their crafts, they travel the world dressed in their indigenous costumes and selling on the streets of cities, towns and bazaars everywhere.

Here's a blog Gary wrote about Otavalo and lessons we learned about negotiating.

Eat, Shop and Pray for Bargains

I like to start my trip to the Otavalo market with a quick look around and then retire to the Shenandoah Pie Shop, on Antonio Sucre for a quick sugar fix. There are always entire pies with 2 inch meringues sitting on the counter. You'll find the more common pies like apple, chocolate and lemon plus pies made from exotic fruits.

For a dollar you can buy a huge slice of homemade pie with monster meringue. The shop is a landmark in Otavalo and I often use it as a meeting point for tours because it's a name easily pronounced and remembered by North Americans.

Supposedly inspiration for the pie shop came from a North American woman who had a craving for pie with thick meringue. Loaded with good recipes, she was kind-hearted enough to teach a local woman the secrets of pie-making and the shop was born. All of us pie-lovers owe her a debt of gratitude, whoever she was.

The Buena Vista Café is on the same street as the pie shop. Walk upstairs and you'll find a friendly Ecuadorian owner who speaks great English and a menu with nachos, sandwiches, good salads and desserts. Try to get the only table that's on the balcony overlooking Plaza de Ponchos. It's a great spot for good food and good people-watching.

Also near the pie shop is an antique shop with 1500-year-old Pre-Incan artifacts, some antique furniture and angels. You'll find old stuff and reproductions inside the shop and also outside in the street in front of the shop.

I've found antique church bells, religious artifacts, jewelry and paintings.

On the same street at the other end of Plaza de Ponchos is another antique dealer who's always hawking his oldies but goodies in the same place. He's got old bowls and ceramic pieces, copies of Pre-Colombian terra cotta and the odds and ends of domestic life in past decades.

Also on Plaza de Ponchos across from the pie shop is an indigenous tienda that carries Intag coffee, Ecuadorian chocolate and native-made purses and bags. Close by is a very creative shop where artists sit at tables hand-painting incense holders, wall art and other items in bright colors and unique designs.

Walking toward the bus station on Antonio Sucre, on the right side of the street are good shops for tapestry rugs, alpaca rugs and animals, sweater shops.

Plenty of Art

With careful attention and luck you'll find some really good painters on the square. One man specializes in monumental paintings of abstracted street scenes full of costumed people.

There are innumerable reproductions of the somber works of famous painter Oswaldo Guayasamin.

You'll find good art, hand-painted feathers and leaves, masks of all kinds.

Stone sculptures, bookends and masks. There's also very good quality jewelry of silver, semi-precious stone, spondylus shell and coral.

Don't let the beggars upset you. Some are professional and have gotten pretty brazen. If you ignore their whining and fawning, they will pull on your clothes, poke you with bony fingers and whine louder. Several firm 'no's' may be needed to discourage them.

Saturday Market Day

Market day in Otavalo is Saturday. Go early; the shops start closing up after 1 p.m. You can spend half a day and not see all the vendors, who spread out for many blocks on all directions.

During the week things are quieter, there are less merchants, less noise and chaos. I find that it's easier to bargain on days other than Saturday, especially if you shop later in the afternoon before vendors pack up to go home.

Packing looks like a major chore to me. I'd think that selling a little cheaper is preferable to having to fold it, put it in a box and drag it home. Through careful observation in the Otavalo market I've found hand-stitched Guatemalan pillow tops, molas from the San Blas Indians in Panama and gourds from Guatemala that are carved all over with tiny figures.

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