Every Saturday the Otavalo Market in Plaza de los Ponchos swells in size to include peripheral streets, all crammed with small stalls featuring among other things – silver jewellery, painted wooden figures, brightly coloured blankets, scarves, sweaters, hats, gloves and socks made from alpaca wool (so soft and light), leather belts, fake shrunken heads, woven bags and evocative paintings of Ecuadorian scenes.
Otavalo is located in a picturesque valley in the Andes, (but still at 2535m!) and is overlooked by nearby mountains Imbabura (4,630m) and Cotacachi (4,995m). There are vendors in Plaza de los Pochos every day of the week, but Saturday is the main day of trade with hundreds of different stalls. Early on Saturday, vendors set up, unpack and display their goods as they have been doing for generations, ensuring they are ready for the influx of tourists and people from nearby towns to come to barter, bargain and buy.
The soundtrack to the market is pan pipe, with several vendors selling musical instruments, and others playing the music via a stereo to entertain themselves. Pretty much everywhere in Otavalo pan pipe music is played, and not just the songs you hear from buskers around the world – it is a lot more varied than that! My favourite pan pipe tune while I was in Otavalo was actually the anthem for the gas truck which does loud loops around the town in case someone needs a cylinder replaced. The song sounded to me quite hypnotic, and I could imagine it was similar to the song the piped piper played to get all the children to follow him. Didn’t make me want to buy gas though.
Aside from the artisan market, there is also an animal market several streets away which commences and concludes before the artisan market gets going; just the place to buy a new pig or goat. Towards the edges of the artisan market, you will come across the vegetable market with it’s street-level pyramids of tomatoes, onions and potatoes.
The ice cream in Otavalo is delicious, and there are many different types of street food on offer as well. I did eye the cevichocho the locals were spooning into their mouths as they walked along, but in the end decided just acclimatising would be enough of a challenge without also bringing my stomach into the mix. It did look delicious though: a small plastic bowl filled with white beans, chopped red and yellow tomatoes, toasted popcorn, red onions and coriander, sprinkled with lime and sometimes topped with sliced chicken. Next time I promised myself.
It’s funny, living in Oaxaca, corn was everywhere. I don’t think I went a day without eating it in some form: tortillas, elote, esquite, tamales, tostadas, tlayudas and memelas – but I was never offered popcorn. In Otavalo whilst waiting for your meal you will receive a dish of popcorn and a small glass of hot Canelazo (cinnamon water) which is actually really nice and isn’t as weird as you would think.
I enjoyed my time in Otavalo – I think several days there lets you see and understand life here more than taking the day tour to the market. The locals are friendly and helpful – but good luck trying to pass an Otavaleño family walking on the sidewalk! They naturally spread out to cover the entire width and there is just no getting by other than to step down onto the road, or resigning and walking their pace behind them until you get where you want to go.