Travelling along the Pan American highway from Cotacachi, about 5 kilometers south of Ibarra, the road winds around and down a long curve. A turn to the right onto one of two parallel streets will take you into the village of San Antonio de Ibarra. Known far and wide throughout Ecuador and the world of wood-carving, this famous little town has been turning out wooden works of art for centuries.
The streets are lined with galleries, shops and showrooms, as well as bustling workshops where talented carvers turn cedar, laurel and other woods into everything from religious statuary, modern sculptures, Rococo furniture, antique reproductions, decorative home furnishings such as plates to mass-produced tourist pieces.
The town is a charming mix of wide, steep cobblestone streets, old colonial buildings of brick and adobe, shops and homes.
Lovely churches remind one that religion is the theme of much of the woodworking. When I first arrived in Ecuador I visited San Antonio de Ibarra and fell in love with a cedar Madonna and Child. The carver’s workshop and small gallery was so imbued with love and devotion that I burst into tears as I gazed into the serene faces of the Mother of Christ and the Christ Child that lined the shelves. Today the sculpture has a prominent place in my apartment.
In fact, many of the shops have that deep feeling of dedication to God and loving service to a religious life that is the lifelong focus of many of the wood carvers. Seek these shops out and give yourself the gift of basking in a truly unique environment of peace and tranquility.
Busy wood carvers spend their days turning pieces of wood into intricate art objects and figurines.
Religious art is everywhere.
You can find the most beautiful hand-carved furniture, heirlooms to pass down to your children and grandchildren, all at prices far less than you would pay in the U. S.
If you take a bus from either Cotacachi or Ibarra, I suggest you catch a town bus at the Pan American highway and ride up the steep hill to the town square. From there you can check out the shops around the square before exploring the streets that lead downhill back to the Pan American. Far better to walk down than up.
You can easily spend at least half a day wandering the streets and side streets, poking around in the tiendas and workshops in search of wooden treasures to take home, and snapping pictures of everything from wall graffiti so fine it should be considered art to busy carvers turning out their wares.
Once you arrive back where you started, at the bottom of the hill at the Pan American Highway, you’ll find lots of sculptors’ tiendas and workshops, where they make everything from saints and giant statues of Jesus to hairy mastodons and Inca emperors. Some of these monumental works are 12-15 feet tall. Sculptures are made from stone, wood or resin.
Also on the Pan American is one of the only antique shops in the area. The shop has some antiques and also makes pretty good reproductions. Most of the furniture is rustic. There’s usually a good selection of tables large and small and benches.
You’ll also find decorative items and pailas, those bronze pans that are used to make the famous local ice cream called helado de paila. Sometimes they have antique carved wood doors.