For hundreds of years, Otavalo has hosted one of the most important markets in the Andes, a weekly fiesta that celebrates the gods of commerce. Vendors hawk a dizzying array of handmade traditional crafts as well as an ever-increasing number of slyly disguised imports. The market tradition stretches back to pre-Incan times, when traders would emerge from the jungle on foot, ready to conduct business. The exquisite weavings and textile-making skills of Otavaleños (people of Otavalo) have been exploited by the Incas, the Spanish and, eventually, Ecuadorians. However, life improved for many after the Agrarian Reform of 1964, which abolished the long-standing tradition of serfdom and permitted local land ownership.
These days the market has morphed into a broader cultural crossroads and has become something of a must-see destination for tourists from around the globe. It certainly feels light years away from the tiny town backpackers visited in the early 1990s. But don't let its popularity dissuade you from visting. Otavaleños and indígena (indigenous) people from the surrounding villages still wear traditional clothing – women in embroidered white blouses, long wool skirts, fachalinas (headcloths), woven belts, canvas sandals and strands of beads; and men in felt hats, blue ponchos and calf-length pants, hair braided in one long strand. And while certainly many struggle to profit from their crafts, otavaleños are the most commercially successful indígena people in the country.
Architecturally, the town isn't especially attractive, and the number of modern stores selling things like flat-screen TVs and sneakers rival those selling more traditional products. However, despite the mercantile focus, the vibe is friendly and relaxed. And you can always just look up and around at the surrounding mountains. Their peaks, their hidden lakes and their small slope-side villages will keep you occupied long after the shopping is done.