If you're going to Ecuador, either alone or with a tour, one of your destinations is sure to be Otavalo. Your visit should include their world-famous market or if visiting in early September, the Fiesta del Yamor celebration.
Located within easy driving distance, two hours north of Quito, there are many day trips available. It's best to allow several days to see not only the famous market in Otavalo but to visit the nearby villages. The villages follow an ancient craft and supply many of the textiles sold in their own markets as well as in Otavalo. The spring-like climate makes this an all-season destination, but the warmest months are July to September.
Market Day in Otavalo
The busiest market day is Saturday, but the markets in Otavalo are open every day. If you get up very early, you can experience an all-day market experience beginning with the animal market. You can wander from market to market, buy a meal from a vendor, wander the food and produce market, and consider the arts, crafts, and textiles before making a purchase at the artisan market. These Otavalo Market photos are slow to download, but worth the wait for a look at market activity.
The advantage of staying overnight before the market is getting there before tour groups arrive and prices tend to go up. Whenever you go, do bargain. It's expected and once you get the hang of it, fun. If you're not sure you can dicker over the price, rehearse your technique ahead of time. Practice making disbelieving faces in front of the mirror, walking away, and rejecting the first several prices.
You might find a better buy down one of the side streets away from Poncho Plaza, where the main artisan market is. Look for Otavalo embroidered shirts, carved wooden parrots, or textiles and tapestries. Ecuadorian textiles are world-famous for their quality and history.
The history of the textiles goes back to Spanish colonial days when the land around Quito was granted to various people, including one Rodrigo de Salazar who had the grant at Otavalo. He set up a weaving workshop, using the Otavaleño Indians, already skilled weavers, as the workforce. Over the years, with imported new techniques and tools from Spain, the weavers at Otavalo supplied most of the textiles used throughout South America.
The downside of this economic success was that the Otavaleños were sometimes forced to labor at the looms in a system called Obraje. Today the Otavaleños have diversified their techniques with techniques from Scotland. Hacienda Zuleta created the Otavaleño cashmere and created a worldwide market for its textile products. You can see some of the techniques in the demonstrations at the Obraje Weaving Museum.
Otavaleños wear clothing distinctive to their area—embroidered blouses, beaded necklaces, and skirts for women. Men wear their long hair in braids and their clothes include white trousers, ponchos, and sandals.
The nearby villages of Peguche, San Jose de la Bolsa, Selva Alegre, Cotama, Agato, and Iluman villages are famous for their textiles. Visit with Miguel Andrango Master of the Loom Otavaleño weaver, for a description of his trade, then go to Cotacachi for leather goods, and to San Antonio for woodcarvings, picture frames, and hand-crafted furniture. Of course, you know that Panama hats are really made in Ecuador.
Fiesta del Yamor
You might be in time for the Fiesta del Yamor, celebrated every year to give thanks at the second solstice. Being close to the equator, this is the season of harvest. The celebrations date back to Inca rites of yamor occurring the two weeks before the solstice.
As part of the offering to the sun god, the best corn was chosen to be ground and mixed with water until fermented, creating a potent liquor called chicha. The preparation of chicha is still followed, with Chica de Jora the best known, and it lubricates the processions and festivities of the fiesta. It's spring counterpart, Pawkar Raymi, is held in spring as a tribute to the new crops and devotion to Pacha Mama, Mother Earth.
Other Sights to See
Don't leave the area without seeing San Pablo, Mojanda, and Yahuarcocha lakes. The crater of Cotacachi volcano is now a lake called Cuicocho, or Lake of the Gods. The Cotacachi/Cayapas Ecological Reserve is located here to preserve and protect fragile Andean plant species.