Otavalo has been an Andean crossroads since pre-Inca times, when jungle traders would journey here on foot. Today’s market is a hyperbolic version of the same tradition: buses arrive from Quito delivering droves of visitors from around the globe. While the tourists bargain for rugs and sweaters, the local artisans take their market earnings to fill up on staples such as rice and meat.
Visitors will find Otavalo a friendly and prosperous place that takes pride in its heritage. The population consists of those of European descent, mestizos and indígenas (indigenous people). The indígenas, who mostly live in nearby villages, dress primarily in traditional attire. Men wear dark felt hats, short cotton pants, blue ponchos and long ponytails. Women braid their hair and wear frilly, embroidered white blouses, long black skirts, fachalinas (headcloths) and bright layered necklaces.
Otavaleños (people from Otavalo) receive international recognition for their weaving and craftsmanship but their achievement has been the result of centuries of hardship. Exploited first by colonialists and then the sweatshops of Ecuadorian landowners, this population found a possibility to prosper for itself only after the Agrarian Reform of 1964. That success is relative: even today a number of artisans live on a meager income and struggle to profit from their weavings and crafts in a system where only intermediaries can bring merchandise to market.
Otavaleños are the wealthiest and most commercially successful indígenas in Ecuador – a status which translates to owning hotels and Ford Rangers and having an indigenous mayor. This juxtaposition of savvy and tradition may seem like a contradiction but in reality it illuminates how marginalized the rest of Latin America’s native populations are in comparison.
Although Otavalo is probably Ecuador’s most cliché destination outside of the Galápagos, there are ways to scratch beneath its colorful, commercial surface. For a more fulfilling encounter take the time to converse with vendors, participate in community tourism and visit the outlying communities which are the creative source and soul of the merchandise at the market.