Disappointing touristy fare at Otavalo’s saturday artisan market

Ecuador travelogue: Chapter 32 | Read other chaptersSee photo gallery

South America’s largest indigenous market

It’s true that the Otavalo region of Ecuador has some of the finest artisans, weavers and craftsmen that produce stunning handicrafts, textiles and various other types of art that is characteristic of this region. Themes include various scenes from rural life, animals and birds, nature and people highlighting Ecuador’s indigenous culture. Over the years, fame of Otavalo’s artists and their products have penetrated international markets. Saturday market has been held for several decades as a place for artisans to come together and sell their creations.

↑ It was interesting to watch people setup their tents and wares for foreign tourists who usually arrive around noon in buses from Quito

This prompted more and more people from around the world (including me) to gather in Otavalo and savour one of the finest handicrafts market in the world. As the demand outstripped supply, artisans turned to manufacturing handicrafts on an industrial scale. Improvement in infrastructure made it easy for goods to travel throughout south and central America.

Indeed, you can find Peruvian bags with pictures of llamas wearing colourful hats and Mexican hammocks or Maya calendars in most tourist markets of south America.

↑ I can easily pass off as a Latino or a local Ecuadorean as long as I don’t walk around with a DSLR dangling from my neck. If you speak Spanish, you might get a lower initial quote. Bargaining is to be expected but not too much.

Tourist brochures are full of descriptions of Otavalo’s crafts market. It’s a huge market, don’t get me wrong, with stalls stretching over several city blocks making it an impressive maze itching you to explore. However honestly I wasn’t as excited by the fare as I was to walk through lively lanes draped in textiles and filled with crafts. The market was thriving for sure, but were did the handmade crafts go? The stuff for sale was mostly mass manufactured with each stall carrying more or less the same items.

↑ Great chance to see a ‘local market’ but if you don’t need to travel to Ecuador to buy this.

The city of Otavalo is quite busy on a Saturday. Animal market operates early (5am or so) at the edge of the city followed by a produce market (fruit, vegetables and grocery supplies) around 7am in the middle of the town. By 9am, the produce market ends and a spectacular sight unfolds in the town centre – Plaza de los Ponchos. Several city blocks are closed for traffic and vendors are setting up stalls for what would soon become South America’s largest arts and crafts market. Most of the visible stuff sold here is machine-made touristy junk, but spend more time and you’ll find authentic hand-made crafts too, for twice the price.

↑ Handmade items look distinct and cost double the price. I was looking for a painting or craft depicting works of Guayasamin, Ecuador’s most famous painter and sculptor, but I couldn’t find anything that was hand painted.

Busloads of tourists arrive just before the lunch hour and having spent three hours in the market, that’s my cue to get out. If you miss the spectacular Saturday market, worry not, there is a market for foreign tourists at the Plaza everyday.