Indigenous Culture and Pride in Otavalo

Long before the Inca and then the Spanish conquered northern Ecuador in the 1400s and 1500s, the indigenous people of the Otavalo region were renowned as weavers and long-distance merchants. Otavalenos traveled far and wide selling textiles and other items made in their fertile land of lakes, green fields, and volcanos.

Today, that’s still true. If you meet an Ecuadoran somewhere in Europe or the Americas selling Andean clothing and crafts, chances are good that he or she is from the Otavalo area. Only now, trade goes the other way too. As tourism increases in Ecuador, visitors from around the world flock to the town of Otavalo for its craft market—which fills the central Plaza de Ponchos every day and spills out into the surrounding streets on Saturdays.

Tourist shopping at Otavalo market
Tourists shopping for rugs at Otavalo market

Many of the goods in the tourist market are made by machine in local factories (or, rumor has it, in China). But the villages around Otavalo are still dotted with artisan’s studios, where beautiful things are made by hand in traditional ways, using local resources. That is something we love to see. So on our last stop in Ecuador, we spent three days in Otavalo exploring its markets, craft workshops, and scenic landscapes.

On the outskirts of town, a once-grand hacienda house and textile factory have been turned into the Otavalan Living Museum (Museo Viviente Otavalango). Starting in the mid-1800s, the factory employed hundreds of indigenous workers in miserable conditions. After it closed, descendants of some of the workers pooled their money to buy the ruined buildings and turn them into a museum of the local Kichwa culture. It’s a quiet place, operating with very little money—an obvious labor of love.

Chris and friends at  the Museo Viviente
Chris with one of founders of the Museo Viviente and her son, who was our guide

When we visited, the son of one of the museum’s founders gave us a tour in wonderfully slow Spanish, with a little English mixed in. He showed us traditional clothing worn for Kichwa festivals, old agricultural tools and furniture (including a bed like the one his grandparents slept in and raised guinea pigs underneath), musical instruments, and hand looms. Older members of his family demonstrated traditional embroidery techniques and weaving with a backstrap loom. A small gift shop let us buy items made by the museum’s artisans to benefit both them and the museum project.

Hands doing embroidery
Man in hat weaving with backstrap loom

For a wider view of the region, we took a day tour called “Indigenous Villages and Lake Cuicocha” with the highly respected, community-based tour company Runatupari. With two local English-speaking guides, we visited villages and small workshops around Otavalo known for making intricate wool rugs, floor mats and baskets from lake reeds, jewelry from the ivory-like seeds of tagua palms, and a variety of musical instruments.

Boy weaving reed mats
A boy in the village of San Rafael weaves a mat from totora reeds that grow on the shores of nearby San Pablo Lake

In recent decades, Otavalo has become famous for its folk music, featuring guitars, drums, and breathy reed and bamboo “pan pipes.” Many of the groups performing traditional Andean music on street corners and in concert halls around the world are Otavalenos.

Woman making panflute
Otavalo woman in traditional dress  weaving a rug

Our tour also included visits to a park with a beautiful waterfall and to volcanic Lake Cuicocha, which is sacred to the indigenous community. For travelers like us, who rarely have their own transport, local tours are a great way to get out into the countryside. They’re also a good way to meet local people who can speak (or at least understand) enough English for us to have conversations about life in their area. One of our guides told us proudly about how he works on programs for kids—run through local radio stations and schools—to keep Kichwa language and culture alive.

Lake Cuicocha on a cloudy day

Otavalo’s location is well suited to commerce and tourism. (The town is located midway between the capital city of Ecuador and the Colombian border, along the PanAmerican Highway, which runs the length of South America.) As a result, the area is becoming more prosperous. We were impressed by the clean, sturdy, well-organized municipal buildings constructed in the past few years to house Otavalo’s daily food market and the weekly livestock market.

The food market provided us with a vast array of fresh fruit and hearty chicken and potato stews. The livestock market offered us a fascinating day of people- and animal-watching, as Otavalenos bought and sold everything from tiny ducklings to cows and llamas.

As elsewhere in Ecuador, we were intrigued by local variations in the traditional clothing worn by indigenous women. In the Otalavo area, that clothing includes a white blouse colorfully embroidered on the sleeves and chest and a long, straight, plain wool skirt. The skirts are often wrapped so that the wording sewn into the end of a bolt of fabric—such as “Made in Britain” or “100 Percent Wool from Turkey”—is visible on the side as decoration.

Women generally also wear a plain wool “everything cloth,” which can be used as a head covering, as a shawl (tied around both shoulders or only one for a toga-like look), or as a carrier for everything from babies to newly purchased chickens. Both men and women traditionally wear their straight black hair long—men in a braid, women in a ponytail wrapped with a colorful woven band.

Otavalo woman carrying three chickens in a sling on her back.
Otavalo woman in a hat buying gold necklaces

Women also typically wear necklaces of gold-colored beads. Our guides told us that the older a woman is or the more esteemed she is in her community, the greater the number of strands she wears.

Otavalo was even busier than usual when we were there because it was the season for municipal elections. Instead of the yard signs for candidates ubiquitous in the United States, people hang flags outside their homes with the symbol of the party they support.

Walking back to our guesthouse from dinner, we chanced on some election rallies and were pleased to see female candidates and to hear people espousing environmental messages. There, too, Otalvalo’s indigenous pride was evident. One candidate told the crowd, to loud approval, that although some people may say climate change isn’t important, we campesinos [farmers, country people] know otherwise.

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