Entering deeper into the northern tip of the Andes, you could easily have passed into the kingdom of Far Far Away, as the bus winds through lush green fairytale-esqu patchwork hills. Although the constant sound of the air brakes as you descend into the valleys will bring you back to reality. In Ecuador the faces begin to change from those further north in Colombia, and the style of dress takes on a more time-honoured appearance.
The bus ride from the border to the famous market town of Otavala takes around two hours, half of which is taken up by drug stops (Colombia has that reputation after all), and we spent a lot of time watching police, and one guy wearing a hat suitably advertising him as the CRAC officer, pull people and bags off for a thorough search.
We also spent time listening to a guy who’d boarded the bus for no other reason than to tell everybody that pollo frita (fried chicken) causes cancer, using a book of laminated photos for emphasis, including one reference to Homer Simpson and a lot of photos of fried chicken, which only made us hungry (he was actually selling some Chinese herb supposed to help prevent cancer).
Lucky for us Ecuador is not Colombia, and anybody can board the bus at anytime selling anything, including a little plastic bag of cubes of roast pork, potatoes and corn for a whopping $2. With a soundtrack of badly dubbed Van Damme classic Bloodsport showing in the background, we munched away without having to leave our seats, while a little local girl danced in the aisle and pulled sour faces at Matt (not sure if it was the mandarin she was eating or just Matt in general).
At 2,560 above sea level, Otavalo was the highest elevation we’d hit on this trip since Yosemite’s Tioga Pass many months ago, and arriving outside of market day we took an immediate liking to the place. Back when the colonists rules these parts, they made the locals work back breaking hours weaving their traditional much loved fabrics which they’re famous for. Sadly nowadays, tourists flock in to buy cheap replicas from China, and once again the people feel they’re being exploited. Though the tourist numbers make business seem great, if you get speaking with the people you’ll find enough of them thinking ‘f*&k you’ to well meaning tourists who won’t pay for authentic goods. Keep that in mind when you start to barter.
The majority of Otavalo’s women get about town in white cotton blouses with short lace sleeves, colourfully embroided with floral emblems, over long black or indigo wrap skirts. They accessories with stunning gold beaded chokers, felt fedora style hats and the occasional bright fabric-wrapped ponytail. The necklaces were once made of real gold, a status symbol to a womans importance and wealth, however the Spaniards soon saw to that when they shipped all the gold to Europe, so they’re now made of gold coated crystal shipped from the Czech Republic (which are still expensive as we found out when Sarah was quoted $50-$100 each).
The hats differ in style between men and women, with the men also sporting long ponytails, white ankle length trousers, traditional fabric sandals and predominately blue or black ponchos. Spending a few days wandering around Otavalo, we came across quite a few interesting fashion statements of indeginous vs western. A group of teenage school girls in full traditional dress each sporting black sleeveless puffer vests, a women in traditional skirt, beaded choker and fabric wrapped ponytail sporting a t-shirt and denim jacket in place of the traditional blouse, while her husband sported a traditional ponytail, hat and poncho over trendy jeans.
Friday night hinted at things to come as one of the streets bordering the main plaza became inundated with hippy expats selling typical handcrafted hemp and crystal jewellery offerings. Come Saturday market day the town turns crazy, and we threw open our hotel window to find not the peaceful street of the last few days, but blaring music and stalls stretching as far as the eye can see. Tourists flock in, easily identified by carrying their backpacks on their front and committing major market faux pas by flashing fancy jewellery and swinging expensive cameras from their necks.
The difference in the quality of the traditional felt hats on offer is quite noticeable. If you wander the market during the week and pick one up from the stalls amongst the tourists tack, you can immediately feel the flex in it. Pick one up on market day from a stall surrounded by locals and dare to put it on your head and you’ll likely be greeted with an old woman screeching
($80) at you before snatching it back and wiping the inside rim with her sweater, implying that your head has soiled her wares (true story). Take your time if you’re looking to buy as you’ll eventually stumble across the one you want, and if you’re lucky, the friendly stall holder won’t mind your dirty gringo head trying them on.
He’ll also have the perfect size in the perfect colour as soon as you ask him, and will happily barter with you with a smile on his face. We managed to find such a stall, reaching an agreeable price after a little back and forth when Matt, pointing at a smiling Sarah with her green hat on, gave our final price adding
‘Para mi bonita esposa?’
With laughs all-round the deal was done, we all shook hands and everybody walked away happy.
We learnt a quick lesson about hesitating to buy, when a painting we’d been eyeing for the last couple of days was nowhere to be found, even though the stall owner had promised us he’d be back again tomorrow. So as soon as Sarah spotted a backpack she liked it was bartering time and again a happy deal was struck for about a third of what you would pay for something similar in London. We wandered the market for hours but never did manage to find him before retiring to the food stalls for a $2.50 feast of roast pork (with crackle!), white corn kernels the size of marbles and fresh lemonade.
For a more upmarket choice you can try the slightly overpriced Mexican restaurant Tabasco, which has a great view over the main plaza. The husband and wife team are friendly and have done a pretty decent job recreating authentic Mexican fare with limited availability to Mexican products. Don’t come here if you’re on a stingy budget though, you’ll walk away pretty peeved.
After a day spent walking the stalls, we agreed that the general vibe of town today wasn’t as friendly as the previous few days and prices seemed to inflate as well. Needing a little pick me up, we indulged in cheesecake and coca tea funky Sisa Terrazas cafe, which we highly recommend.
Three floors of metal staircases, architectural quirks and huge street facing windows, coupled with old coffee machines and antiques scattered about, this is our top pick if you want something fancy while you’re in town. Plus they had a huge menu of live music coming up in the high season, what more do you need.
If you’re looking for cheap accommodation Hostel Maria is a good choice with our double room with ensuite costing USD$14. Close to the main plaza with friendly local staff, the price is right (we walked to at least 10 other hostels/hotels who all wanted USD$20 plus), rooms are clean, though be warned hot water can be a bit hit and miss and the WiFi in the rooms isn’t that great.
For more pics of Otavalo and Ecuador check out Flickr.
For ideas on what to do in town before/after the market check out our Alternative Otavalo blog here.