By Michael Carignan
In part one of this three-part series I talked about our stay in Quito, Ecuador’s capital city of 2.1 million people. In part two I will talk about leaving the city and traveling through the countryside to the city of Otavalo, home to what is consider South America’s most famous outdoor market place and Indian fair.
Otavalo is a city of 50,000 inhabitants and is the capital of Otavalo Canton in Imbabura Province. Ecuador is divided into provinces and cantons similar to how the U.S. is divided into states and counties or parishes within that state.
Provinces, as our guide, Marco, pointed out, especially in the mountains, are named for one of the main volcanic peaks in the province. In this case Mt. Imbabura at 15,050 ft. above sea level and not nearby Mt. Cotacachi at 16,235 ft. Cantons are often named after the indigenous people of the region. In this case the Otavalenos people.
The Otavalenos are well known for weaving textiles, mainly of wool and linen from alpaca and sheep. The most noticeable trait of these people is their small stature. A tall Otavalena male only reaches a height of about five feet. Many of the women were barely four and a half feet tall.
Typical dress for a male consists of trousers and a dark poncho. Women wear white, embroidered blouses with flared sleeves and dark colored skirts. Both sexes have long black hair usually tied back with a multi-colored woven band. A type of fedora adorns the male’s head. Again according to Marco, a Ecuadorian’s dress has a style distinctive of their tribe.
Otavalo is about 60 miles north of Quito. Its market place operates seven days a week but on Saturday it is at its peak with the number of vendors, types of goods and visitors at the maximum. Our tour was scheduled for Saturday.
We were picked up very early by Marco and driver in a van. Marco spoke very fluent English and was as knowledgeable as he was nice. The only other members of our group for the day was a couple, I would guess in their early 40s. They were from the Canary Islands off the north coast of Africa, which is own by Spain. She was a federal judge and he was a lawyer. She spoke a fair amount of English but his English was much like our Spanish, a word here and there. Even with the difficulty in communicating it was easy to make friends.
It took awhile to get out of the city and on to the Panamerican Highway but soon we were on the rural mountainsides. As expected with the abundant rain and warm temperatures of the equator region there was lush greenery.
On distant mountainsides we began noticing rows of whitish buildings in clusters here and there. Marco explained that they are greenhouses for raising roses. Ecuador’s number one industry is growing decorative roses for export primarily to the U.S. but to other world markets as well.
That statement brought about a discussion of Ecuadorian economics, which I found very interesting. Growing shrimp for export is the number two industry in Ecuador. That of course takes place along the coastal regions.
Oil was discovered in the tropical rain forests in the northeast part of the country and oil has become the number three industry. The oil is piped over the mountains to the Pacific coast where it is loaded on ships and taken to the U.S. for refining. The gas is then shipped back to Ecuador where it is subsidized by the federal government. Regular unleaded gas sells for $1.38 per gallon. Premium for $1.45 per gallon and diesel was cheap at $1.05 per gallon. And those prices were the same everywhere, even on the Galapagos Islands.
Tourism ranks fourth as an industry in Ecuador and then comes textiles.
Along the way to Otavalo we had to cross from the southern hemisphere back into the northern hemisphere. We stopped in a tiny village that had a square with a monument commemorating the site and a line of red bricks through the square marked the equator. (Marco said it was only symbolic and the real location was still another 300 ft. north.)
We continued our journey until we made a pit stop at a tiny wayside business. A small store was the main business where they offered coffee and other drinks along with a variety of foods. The place also had restrooms, of sorts. Located down the hill behind the store were the facilities. A woman stood at the top of the stairs to reach them and requested a quarter each to use them. No paper was allowed in the toilets. If you used paper it went in a separate receptacle.
The property had a magnificent view of a distant lake and one of the volcanic peaks. A young girl dressed in mountain garb and leading an alpaca was available for photos as were three cut out figurines featuring indigenous dress that you could stick your face in the opening for a photo of yourself in native clothes.
We had done some reading up on Otavalo and my wife, Dawn, asked Marco if we were too late to catch the animal market at Otavalo. The market is split into three parts, the live animal market, the foods market and the handicrafts market. The live animal market is usually just on Saturdays and starts early in the morning and is usually over by late morning. Marco agreed to make it our first stop.
Upon arrival we had to park some distance from the market. Once we entered the grounds it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The grounds were just an open, fenced in, muddy field. Scattered all around were indigenous people with their animals. There were small animals such as puppies, kittens, chicken and duckling, rabbits and guinea pigs. They eat guinea pigs in Ecuador and the species they grow are much larger than we see here. Their intent is to feed the entire family on one. For larger animals there were sheep, goats, pigs, cows, ponies and, of course, alpacas.
There were a few folks selling handicrafts as well but only a very small amount.
From there we went to the center of town. After being dropped off in the town square we walked about a block to where the foods market began. Just guessing I would say the foods market was five times larger than the farmer’s market we’re accustomed to held on the Capital Square in Madison, Wisconsin and maybe 10 times larger than the one we frequent in Olympia when we’re in Washington. They offered every type of fruit and vegetable you could imagine along with dried and cooked meats, soups and stews, you name it. One big local item was a plastic bag full of cooked snails with lime juice squeeze into the bag. The locals love it. We didn’t try it.
The handicraft market was primarily textiles but also leather crafts, woodcarvings and other trinkets.
We left the marketplace and traveled to Peguche, a village nearby, to visit a weaver’s workshop. We were allowed to watch him work and looked at the many items he had made, which were for sale.
From there we traveled to one of the many haciendas in the area for lunch. The haciendas were the centerpiece of large Spanish ranches of years gone by. Now, in order to keep them maintained they are used as restaurants for tourists. This particular one had gorgeous gardens all around the outside.
For lunch I tried ceviche as an appetizer for the first time. The dish is typically made from fresh raw fish or seafood marinated in citrus juices such as lemon or lime and spiced with chili peppers. It is not cooked but served fresh. It is quite popular with the locals who like to garnish it with freshly popped popcorn. Mine was made with shrimp and it was very tasty.
When we returned to the van we were joined by a young lady, an Otavalenos, who rode with us for a ways and sang for us a couple of songs in her native Quichua tongue. She stood in the van while she sang. There was at least six inches clearance from the top of her head to the ceiling of the van. We guessed her age at maybe 12 years old but later found out she was 18 and likely full grown. She gave each of us a small gift to thank us for visiting her country.
From there we returned to Quito. Along the way Marco showed interest in where we were from and we told him they were expecting snow back home that night. He said it never snows around Quito because they are on the equator. When we arrived back in Quite we were greeted by a two-block stretch that was covered in white. It had just hailed and there was as much as four inches of hail in spots. Marco was speechless.
Next we travel to the islands.