given morning in the Ecuadorian town of Otavalo, Plaza de los Ponchos is a
rainbow of textiles. Blankets, wall hangings, handbags, table runners, alpaca-wool sweaters
and scarves beam as brightly as the equatorial sun, lighting up the largest and
finest craft market in South America.
swarm through the square and, on Saturday mornings when the market is at its
busiest, into the surrounding streets. Much of what’s on display is aimed at travellers
– from pan pipes to woven wall hangings of Andean and Galapagos animals – but this
is so much more than a tourist spot. The Otavalo market is a place of history
and tradition, continuing centuries-old artisan practices from around this
indigenous Otavaleño people, who make up approximately 50% of the town’s population,
have been weavers since pre-Incan times. In colonial days, their skills
resulted in many of them being forced into obrajes
(textile workshops), creating a textile trade that continues freely today.
at the market is one of contrasts, with traditionally dressed Otavaleño
stallholders surrounded by a modern town centre. The 4,630m-high Imbabura
volcano, which gives its name to the province, rises nearby, and the capital
city of Quito is just 90km to the south, a journey that takes you over the equator
and into the southern hemisphere.
Saturdays, the craft market begins early, with stallholders setting up at
around 6 am. A large animal market is held at the same time on the outskirts of
the city, trading cattle, sheep, pigs, llamas, chickens, rabbits and masses of
guinea pigs, turning the town into a sprawling marketplace. In the quiet of
morning, before busloads of visitors begin arriving from Quito, take the chance
to wander and chat with the stallholders in relative calm. Alongside the
textiles, there are stalls filled with myriad other crafts, from silver
jewellery to wooden carvings to Panama hats, which originated in Ecuador but became
famous in Panama. The selection of crafts is extensive, and good gifts or
souvenirs include woollen scarves, blankets and ponchos.
market is very much the public face of the region's craft industry – but it's
not its entirety. Around Otavalo is a string of villages that are noted for
their individual skills.
Cotacachi, 10km north of Otavalo, craftspeople have been making leather
products for hundreds of years, owing to the town's position surrounded by
cattle and dairy farms. Wander the main street of Avenida 10 de Agusto, known
locally as Leather Street, where over four blocks there are more than 100 boutique-style
leather stores, selling jackets, trousers, bags and even shirts, many with
workshops behind the display floor. It's the presence of these workshops that
gives Cotacachi a rare quality in boisterous Latin America: this is a town that
winds down, not up, in the evening, since so many of its residents rise early
to make goods for the day ahead.
At the very
northeastern edge of Otavalo, Peguche is celebrated for its weavings. Wander
through the village to hear the chatter of mechanical looms at work; at the centre
is Artesania El Gran Condor,
arguably Peguche's most noted textile producer. Here, the entire weaving
process, from the spinning of the wool to the mixing of the dyes, is done by
hand – a bit of calm amid the cacophony.
All dyes in
the studio, which is operated by Jose Lema and his parents, are natural. Reds,
oranges and purples are mixed from lemon juice and the blood of the cochineal
parasite; a local nut called nogal is ground down to make browns; the chilca
bush is used – as it has been in Peguche for centuries – to create a vivid
green. The results are higher-quality textiles than many of those found in the
market; good purchases are wall hangings, jumpers, rugs and embroidered shirts.
also offers a break from shopping. Just a few hundred metres east of Artesania
El Gran Condor is the entrance to the Cascadas
de Peguche, an 18m-high waterfall that plunges out of the thick forest. A walking
trail to the falls leads past a campground and through a stand of eucalypts,
from which bromeliads grow, drawing their water from the spray of the distant
which can be viewed from a bridge or a covered platform, are considered sacred,
having been a ceremonial site for centuries. It's said that a shower in your
underwear under the lower waterfall will wash away bad luck and illness, while
bathing naked under the upper waterfall will cleanse your soul.
gets a practical application each year during Inti Raymi, the summer solstice
festival on 21 June, when pilgrims come to Peguche to bathe in the waterfall’s flow.
In 2014, the solstice falls ona Saturday, meaning Otavalo will fill with two
kinds of pilgrims – religious and retail.