Two hours north of Quito Ecuador, settled in a green valley surrounded by high Andean peaks is the colorful town of Otavalo. This area may have become yet another region noted as the Switzerland of Ecuador, were it not for the highly talented indigenous population who have discovered a way to create a modern business while preserving their cultural heritage – these people and their culture give the Otavalo Valley it’s unique flavor.
The Otavalo people were known both to the Spanish and the Incans before them as the most talented weavers in the realm. On Saturdays people would come from throughout the region to Otavalo to buy or trade for what they needed – swapping a llama for new clothes for the family or a basket full of tropical fruit for a new saddle.
During the colonization of Ecuador, the Otavalo Valley and its people were incorporated into the Hacienda System. The King of Spain deeded extensive land holdings to the most important families of the county. The indigenous people were permitted to remain on the land under the protection of the local hacienda owner and provided with food and clothing in exchange for working the lands and producing handicrafts. Life during this time was not easy as many of the hacienda owners were cruel and the local people were treated as slaves.
Otavalenos are a proud people continued their rituals and passing them down from generation to generation – some of which melded and mixed with traditions learned from the Spanish, but always remaining uniquely their own. The Otavalonos are very distinctive many still speak Quecha and dress in their traditional clothing. Men can be identified by their white calf-length pants, blue ponchos and have long pigtails, and felt hat. Women wear long layered skirts, white cotton blouses adorned with ornate embroidery, rows of beaded necklaces and bracelets, a variety of hats and woven cloth tied over the shoulders to carry babies, or other items.
Over the centuries these local people and their traditions have not changed. However during the land reforms of the 1960’s and 1970’s the wealthy Hacienda saw their lands divided, gone were the huge estates with thousands of workers. The government granted smaller farms to the indigenous people. After years of hard work, the local people had their own farms and villages and a new era began.
Yet, as many of the world’s cultures began to disappear and those unique cultural identities seemed to meld into an everyday world of Levis and Nike – the crafty Otavalo people discovered a way their culture would survive and could be passed down to future generations. They didn’t change; instead they opened their market and workshops to tourists who were in search of their own National Geographic like vacation experience.
Rather than resorting to modern machinery where most items are produced in a matter of seconds or minutes – the way of the Otavalenos continued an age-old practice where a single textile may take weeks. The process begins with creating the yarn, dying it to the select shade, then weaving by hand one color at a time to create the perfect poncho. Visitors are welcomed into the dirt-floored workshops to gaze in awe, as master weavers would create works of art.
The villages of the surrounding valley with similar practices opening up their workshops so the public could see artisans produce everything from musical instruments, to woodcarvings, to leather goods and felt hats. The Haciendas too opened their doors as a luxury hotel option to visitors wanting to explore this unique area and the ways of a by gone era.
The handicrafts of the Otavalenos and nearby villages are available at the local workshops as well as Otavalo Market everyday. Saturdays, is the biggest day and early morning hours you will surrounded by local people many dressed in their traditional attire, the clucks of chickens, chattering of guinea pigs, and squeals of pigs of the livestock market. To see this part of the market you need to get there early because by 7am the sounds of the animals begins to fade into the distance as the market transforms gone is the straw colored hay and in its place are the bright reds, greens, purples and golds of the popular artisan market.
Combining a visit to the Otavalo market, local craft villages with a stay at a historic Hacienda is one of the most popular and rewarding cultural experiences for those visiting Ecuador or the Galapagos Islands.