Every Saturday morning Otavalo awakens from its week long slumber to launch a giant market bazaar selling crafts of all descriptions along with animals, meat, vegetables, fruit, grains and hardware. A similar market has been conducted for a remarkable four thousand years providing a central meeting point for Indian villages from miles around. A cacophony of sounds from the noises of frenzied trading to the various calls of chickens, sheep, pigs and cattle greet the early arrivals when most of the local trading is done (the animal market winding up before the majority of tourist buses arrive in the mid-morning). The women and men have long animated conversations catching up on village news and goings-on before the onslaught of travellers.
Nearby villages use age-old techniques to produce superb high quality tapestries, tablecloths, hammocks, shawls and textiles along with musical instruments (including the haunting and ever-present Andean flutes), jewellery, carvings, leatherware, pottery and paintings. The various colours glisten in the equatorial sunshine, the brightly coloured textiles almost blinding in the mid-morning sunshine.
The Otavaleños men look distinctive in their dark ponchos with their pigtail dangling from below their felt hat. The women are striking with their intricately embroidered light-colored blouses, long dark skirts and shawls, unusual folded headwear and numerous gold and beaded bracelets and necklaces.
The centre of action is Plaza de los Panchos which becomes a maze of pathways between the rows of tapestries and clothing. While it is crowded, the stall holders let you wander in peace appreciating the detailed craftwork and general market activity. While hard-bargaining is expected for the crafts (but not the food), it is conducted in a friendly, relaxed manner and there is little hard-selling.
Otavalo makes a wonderful morning journey from Quito where even the most resilient of non-shoppers are likely to end up with a backpack full of Ecuadorian crafts and clothes from this most spectacular artisan market with a carnival feel.