On a Wednesday morning, the market in Otavalo, Ecuador heaves with activity.
Stalls are stuffed with local wares: The ponchos for which the Otavalo market is famous. The hat for which Panama stole the glory. A bounty of chow— quinoa, fingerling potatoes, ceviche de chocho— for which most foodies would clamor.
Otavalo is an unassuming town like many others in South America, with a church at the center, a plaza for strolling, and a seemingly constant clatter in the air.
Otavalo is located between the capital city of Quito and the border with Colombia. If you’ve never traveled in Ecuador, chances are you’ve probably never heard of it. But if you’ve ever listened to Andean music, its sound is undoubtedly familiar.
The place immediately strikes a cultural chord that rings clear. The indigenous people there are running their own show. The Otavalo market appeases local demands as much as those of tourists.
Even before the Inca invaded, the people of Otavalo—a.k.a. Otavaleños— were known as skilled merchants, especially with regards to textiles. That much has not changed.
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EXPLORING OTAVALO, ECUADOR
Otavalo is located two hours north of Quito on the Pan-American Highway, in a lush valley roughly 8200 feet above sea level. The volcanoes that border it—Imbabura and Cotacachi— jut up into the sky, rising 650 feet above the town.
The town remains small even today, with around 50,000 inhabitants. Many of these are either white or mestizo, a cultural mix including indigenous roots.
As in most South American towns, people congregate in a parque central, where they are seemingly in no hurry. Vendors hawk snacks, and entertainers perform amongst the easy-going throng.
There’s a public park near Otavalo’s town center with a plunging waterfall (Las Cascadas de Peguche), hiking trails, and areas to picnic. Most of the area’s indigenous people live in nearby villages, and visit the town on market day.
BRIEF HISTORY OF OTAVALO
The people of Otavalo, Ecuador are believed to descend from the Cara culture, a pre-Colombian civilization. The Cara were forcibly incorporated into the Inca civilization around 1500 AD, along with other small local chiefdoms. All of these cultures shared similar languages, art, agriculture, and settlements.
When the Spanish conquered the Inca in the 1530s, diseases caused significant damage to the indigenous population. The Spanish enslaved around 20% of the surviving locals. Most of them were relocated to extremely hot, humid locations, and more people perished there.
On the more positive side, Rodrigo de Salazar set up large weaving workshops in Otavalo. The town soon became the textile center for colonial South America.
Thankfully, enough Otavaleños survived that, unlike other Ecuadorian chiefdoms, their ethnic identity remains intact. They lost their language in the 1600s, adopting Quechua and Spanish, but have nevertheless remained distinct. Around 40,000 still live in the Otavalo region today, with several thousand others settled elsewhere.
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THE PEOPLE OF OTAVALO
Because they haven’t stopped wearing their traditional clothing, Otavaleños are easily identifiable.
The men wear white calf-length pants, blue or gray ponchos, and felt hats. They also have a long braid of hair, nearly down to the waist, called a shimba. The women sport white blouses with black skirts, and they display plenty of gold necklaces and red coral bracelets.
In addition to the Otavalo market (which is the most famous in Ecuador), Otavaleños are known for spreading Andean music across the world. The economic success of this venture has helped them preserve their cultural heritage, with traditions dating back hundreds of years.
The Otavaleños remain proud of their distinctive identity. They continue to share elements of their culture through international concerts and local weekly markets. You can find it proudly displayed in indigenous-owned stores and galleries bordering Pancho Plaza in Otavalo. There are also numerous educational endeavors working to keep it alive for generations to come.
THE OTAVALO MARKET
The Otavalo market is an absolute must-see for anyone interested in Otavaleño culture. Before most tourists are even out of bed, vendors are commuting on mountain trails from nearby villages such as Peguche, Agato, and Lluma to set up their stalls.
The Otavalo market is renowned for its handicrafts. But in certain places, such as the edge of Pancho Plaza, the market has a much more everyday feel.
Vegetable vendors offer a wide assortment of whatever’s in season. You’ll find wonderful collections of squashes, pumpkins, and beautiful produce grown in the fertile valley. Women sit amongst towering bags of grains and seeds, selling them by the kilo. Artisans work steadily in their stalls, weaving sweaters, hats, and mats.
On market days, the streets of Otavalo are clogged with carts. Automobiles are directed to move around the city center. Locals amble through early, avoiding the late-morning arrival of tour buses bound for Quito. Aisles upon aisles of textiles adorn the streets with color, hats are stacked into precarious towers, and an easy bustle pushes through like a friendly breeze.
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THE MUSIC OF OTAVALO
Musical groups from Otavalo, Ecuador (known as conjuntos) have been instrumental in establishing the traditional Andes sound as a tour de force in the world music scene. Generally the men play percussion and wind instruments, as well as Western stringed instruments. Men and women sing traditional songs, both in Quechua and Spanish.
Not only has the Otavalo music scene flourished regionally, but its competitions have become national events. Annual festivals are held to discover the best of the best, which will often go on to perform internationally. Many conjuntos have been recorded professionally, and are included on albums distributed across the world.
This success has helped to sustain this very unique culture by providing a financial gain, as well as instilling a passion for traditional customs. Where many indigenous groups have seen their culture become a mere sideshow for tourists, Otavaleños have kept their heritage close to the heart, incorporating new ingredients of their own choosing.
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THE FUTURE OF OTAVALO, ECUADOR
In a world consumed with technological advancement and modernization, the people of Otavalo have staked a claim to conserve their culture.
The language, the art, the music, the unity all has value. Those Otavaleños who have found success through their skills return to share an appreciation for their culture, teaching younger generations about their uniqueness.
Many indigenous populations around the world struggled with colonial exploitation, and have since become reliant on aid programs from developed nations. But the people of Otavalo have managed to chart their own route to survival. Best of all, they’ve done it by embracing who they truly are as a people rather than adopting new cultural identities.
There’s a bright future ahead for Otavalo, Ecuador, but this future is intrinsically connected to its past. Otavalo has always been a place filled with art, music, and literature. And centuries after the arrival of the Inca and Spanish, the Otavaleños remain a people who thrive by keeping their cultural traditions alive. –Jonathon Engels; photos by Emma Gallagher