The Ecuadorian town of Otavalo is famous for one thing: its outdoors craft market that is the biggest in South America. And I can tell you, it’s a real Mecca for those who like window (or in this case “stall”) shopping, as thousands of sellers echo “a la orden” (translates roughly as ‘for your service’) every day until the sun goes down. A stroll at the market is also a feast for the eyes: the beautiful Andean fabrics are glowing in all colours of the rainbow. And that’s the real beauty of it!
We made our way from Quito to Otavalo on a Friday afternoon to make sure we’ll be well rested for the “big day”, the Saturday market day. In Otavalo, and in general in Ecuador, Saturday is the market day, when more sellers offer their products and – consequently – the crowd is the biggest. The ride from Quito is a mere 2 hours, so for those short on time, it could even fit as a day trip from Quito. (However, I don’t recommend this, and read on to find out why.)
Pro tip: visit the Otavalo market just before flying back home, because those beautifully made pieces will fill up your backpack / suitcase and impose a considerate extra weight. Because I guarantee that once there, you won’t leave the market without some colourful pieces!
Visiting the Otavalo market on Saturday
We had an early start in the market, before most of the people arrived. Our plan (read: my plan) was to wander into every row, see all the stalls so that we surely don’t miss anything. The sun was shining, the sellers were smiling, eager to showcase their products but not in a pushy way – who wouldn’t like to shop in such a lovely environment?
Alex, our Couchsurfing host is a jewellery maker (in Spanish: artesano). He would call himself a hippy, financing his travels around South America by selling his jewellery. He learnt his skills from other artesanos travellers – abundant in South America – and he makes necklaces, bracelets, head pieces and more with different techniques, using beads, stones and seeds from the region. He’s originally from Quito but he’s been living in Otavalo for 2 years – the market is a great environment to sell his creations, and he likes the town a lot! When he gets bored here, he will continue his travels.
On Saturday Alex left home to the market before 7 am and we went to see him 2 hours later. He didn’t have a stall himself, but was sharing a little table with two other friends, also selling jewellery. Alex welcomed us with a big smile in spite of not having sold anything yet that day. He was not worried though: business is always better in the afternoon.
The best things to buy at the Otavalo market
The Otavalo market (also known as the “Hundred year old market”) stocks all sorts of Andean crafts. Many of the sellers come from nearby villages, where they practice century-old artisan traditions, and descend to the market once a week to make a living. Of course, you will find products from other regions of Ecuador and other South American countries too, so it’s a perfect opportunity to finally get that scarf or the little llama figure you were considering earlier on your trip. Just imagine that there is still space in your luggage!
As you can imagine, there are a lot of different things that one can buy at the Otavalo market: jewellery, clothes, blankets, paintings, bags, Panama hats (which are actually made in Ecuador, goods made of totoro reed, clay, wood, leather… you name it. But the most important Otavalo garment is (can you guess?) the poncho.
If you don’t know it yet, a poncho can be best described as a pullover without sleeves. The Otavalo poncho is typically made of alpaca wool mix or of sheep wool. Alpaca is a typical Andean animal, sibling of the more famous llama. Garments made of alpaca wool are extremely warm, as it’s a very dense fabric. So they make an ideal present for a relative or a friend who’s always complaining about the cold! (And we all know one… at least)
Ponchos exist in many colours, lengths, with or without a hood. Makers and sellers adapted to international fashion, so apart from the traditional style, they also sell modern designs. Poncho is not the only piece of clothes that you can find made of alpaca: jumpers, hoodies, scarves, blankets are also on offer. The vast majority of alpaca attire are not 100% alpaca – if they were, they would cost a fortune!
Perfect present ideas
When I think of markets, those kitschy, low quality plastic souvenirs, typical at markets, pop to my mind. You know what I mean? However, I have to say that at the Otavalo market everything was beautifully produced, mostly handmade and all looked high quality. A friend of ours bought presents for the whole family: paintings, beautifully ornamented little pouches, statues, scarves. I had the impression that whatever you go for, it will be a hit!
Why should you buy at the Otavalo market
Now, let me give you an important piece of advice: whatever you are planning to buy, it’s worth shopping around and haggling prices, because you can end up saving a significant amount. Being on a budget and travelling over 2 months more, we didn’t really want to buy things (in general, and even on the Otavalo market), but there were a few reasons why in the end we decided to do so:
- The vast majority of the clothes on sale at the Otavalo market are made locally – our carbon footprint is lower buying products at the source,
- Many of the sellers are the makers themselves – so we’re supporting directly the producers,
- Most of the garments are the typical “Otavalo style” that we wouldn’t find outside of Ecuador,
- Even if we find those clothes elsewhere, they are significantly more expensive – we’d be paying for transportation, for the reselling.
And also because I love colourful clothes, I loved spending the day there! My absolute favourite pieces were the Otavalo indigenous style clothes: colourful ponchos with llama (the number one domestic animal in the Andean countries), hoodies, blankets. We bought a long poncho for Anthony, and tried to find a hoodie for me but all were too big 🙁
How to haggle prices
Not everyone likes haggling (for example Anthony is not too keen) and I think it’s true that in the Western world we are rather accustomed to everything having one set price, end of story. But in South American markets in general, haggling is an important element of the buying process. Some sellers mention that they can give a discount already when telling us the price (have you noticed that online selling companies do the same?!).
I find it enjoyable to haggle in South American markets, but it’s also important because sellers often operate with a sort of double pricing: a price for locals, and a higher price for gringos (typically indigenous locals call white tourists “gringos”).
My haggling technique
Before the trip I already liked haggling. I connect it with a nice, casual conversation with the seller. However, in South America I feel that I managed to take my skills to the next level. This is my haggling tactic:
- First, I decide what I want to buy (for example the hoodie I mentioned before), by just looking at the stalls.
- I examine the hoodie (size and colour doesn’t matter at this point) at the first seller and I ask for a price – this will be my benchmark. Important: I never buy it at the first seller, but I say that I might return (if I really like it). If they shout a lower price at me upon leaving, I take that as a benchmark price.
- I ask the next seller for the price to see if it improves on my benchmark price. Every time I get a better price, I change my benchmark price. In the meanwhile, I try on the hoodies to find my size, so I’ll know what exactly I’m looking for.
- I do this as many times as I need to. Or until I get bored. Or rather until Anthony gets bored. When I find the perfect hoodie:
- If the seller says a higher price, I tell them that I saw elsewhere for… and I give them a price slightly under my benchmark. The haggling starts, both of us proposing prices… until I get my benchmark price or even lower!
If you are not so happy with the price, but really like the piece, try it on but act like you are unsure and are about to walk away. The important thing is not to show that you love the object! Many times this worked for me.
But please remember to remain ethical: the sellers make a living on their goods, so keep it at a fair price. In the end you probably make up that couple of dollars in a few hours of work, while for them every penny surely makes a difference.
Have you got a different haggling technique? Please share it in the comments section!
Otavalo market on the Poncho square
The market is set up on an empty square in the town centre, unsurprisingly called Plaza de los Ponchos. On Saturday the market continues into the neighbouring streets too – just to be sure there’s enough to choose from! Plaza de los Ponchos sits between the bus terminal and the main square called Simon Bolivar Park (Parque Simon Bolivar). This latter is not a park despite its name. All the distances are walkable.
On Saturdays, business starts very early: sellers are there just after dawn, before 7 am. Most of the people arrive in the early afternoon. In June when we were there, it never got really crowded.
Then with the sunset the market gets disassembled and soon an evening food market takes over some of the space. Make sure you don’t miss this one either: simple local street food is sold here incredibly cheap (a meal of fried egg, rice and beans was sold for 1.5 USD). You can enjoy your food with a bit of aji, the national spicy sauce, while sitting on plastic stools alongside locals and tourists.
What else to do in and around Otavalo
I wrote before that the town is famous for one thing, and that is true. But even though Otavalo is a small town there is a lot to do around. We recommend spending a couple of days longer than you normally would for the market.
What to do in Otavalo
In fact, I instantly fell in love with the town when I spotted the funny decorations on its lamp posts. Every street lamppost has a different style, so if for nothing else, it’s worth to have a stroll in town to see them. Seriously, where else can you see such cute lamp posts?!
Another highlight of the town life was the beautiful traditional costume of the local Otavaleño (people of Otavalo) indigenous women. Imagine an elegant outfit of an exquisitely embroidered blouse, a wide skirt and a multi line golden necklace. By the way, you can take this style home: buy the blouse and the necklace on the Otavalo market or in one of the many blouse shops in town. You’ll probably be the only Otavaleño-looking person in all … (<-insert your town here).
What to do outside of Otavalo
Outside of Otavalo there are even more activities. If you feel like checking out another market before the famous one, there’s an animal market on Saturday morning (6am-12am). This market has recently moved – as I learnt from fellow travelers – now it’s a short bus ride away. Mainly cattle, horse and pigs are sold. However, there are small domestic animals, like cats, dogs, guinea pigs (that they eat in Ecuador!), chicken, etc. too.
Also a little bit outside of town there’s the indigenous cemetery. On Mondays and Thursdays you can witness indigenous locals having a meal “with” their deceased ones. Watch a video of the celebrations at the Day of the Dead (día de los difuntos) here.
Nature lovers rejoice: there are many pleasant nature spots near Otavalo! Lush forest area surrounds the scenic Peguche and Taxopamba waterfalls. Both of them offer a dip to the cold blooded visitor. Near Peguche there’s an Inca swimming hole (with cold water), and Taxopamba’s shallow pool is perfect for a bath.
Mojanda, San Pablo and Cuicocha lakes (lagoons) have volcanic origins and make ideal day-hikes with picnic. The slopes of the Imbabura volcano mean an easier hike in a nice, green landscape. While Fuya Fuya mountain is a more difficult one, usually chosen by those wishing to acclimatise before ascending higher mountains.
Remember that the lakes and the mountains are at high altitude, so prepare accordingly: ascend slowly, drink plenty of water, chew coca leaves or sip coca tea.
If crater lakes are your thing, don’t miss the stunning, emerald Quilotoa lake, south of Otavalo.
Finally, you can peek into traditional weaving, clothes-making, and totora (reed) furniture making workshops in the little villages near Otavalo. Peguche and Cotacachi are particularly well-known for their various workshops which can be visited.
Getting to Otavalo from Quito
Otavalo is served by Carcelén bus terminal in Quito, so head there any time of the day. There are buses every 20 mins – you can buy your bus ticket there directly. The journey takes around 2 hours and the road is very smooth. The ticket costs 2.5 USD. You’ll arrive to Otavalo bus station which is in downtown. From there the market and most of the central places are at walking distance.
Feel free to read our articles about these destinations for inspiration after Otavalo:
Like it? Pin it!
Don’t miss any of our (colourful) travel stories!