A visit to the indigenous market of Otavalo in Ecuador is probably one of the most advertised activities in Quito’s guest houses and travel agencies. It’s said to be one of the largest and oldest indigenous market of South America and every single guide book will tell you it’s a must-do if you’re visiting the Quito area. That’s exactly the reason why I wasn’t sure if I’d want to go. Would it be a market entirely catered to tourists? Would it be full of tacky souvenirs and pushy vendors? Would there be any authenticity? At this point, we had been living in Ecuador for 4 months so the bar was set relatively high when it came to true local and indigenous culture. A quick Google search later, I still wasn’t sure about Otavalo’s authenticity and if it would be worth the trip. I feared the market would only disappointed after all the extraordinary nooks of Ecuador I had seen. After long internal debate, we hopped on a bus to Otavalo. While the main market is on every day, early on saturday mornings there is a lively animal market as well. THAT, I didn’t want to miss! So we made sure to arrive in Otavalo on a friday, leaving us some time to get acquainted with the town and its surroundings before we’d hit the markets the next day. Though we encountered quite a few foreigners, the town didn’t feel touristy at all. My alarm went off at the crack of dawn and we made our way to the animal market. My rule of thumbs for experiencing market scenes is to get out of bed ridiculously early and arrive on location as soon as you possibly can. First things first: breakfast! We had skipped our morning meal at the hotel to win some time. Great move, as it turned out; not only were there no other tourists at the market yet but we also got to taste the local breakfast which consists mainly of ‘interesting’ animal parts – Oh dear, what did I sign up for?
To me this was the highlight of the animal market: getting in early, being hit by the savoury aromatics surrounding the stalls, eating with indigenous merchants replenishing themselves after a long trip to town… It doesn’t get more authentic than that. Once our stomachs were filled, we started mingling with the livestock.
Though there wasn’t much else for us to do than snap a few photographs and get stomped by scuffling pigs, I loved walking through the market, getting an idea of how Andean people do business and finding out the running prices for livestock. Now before anyone starts judging, keep in mind that these animals might be jammed into small vehicles to get to Otavalo and they might be kept in tiny cage during market time but in their ‘daily lives’, most of them run freely over luscious fields and hills getting plenty of fresh air and “exercise”, probably more so than I get. As soon as the novelty of the indigenous animal market wore off, we wandered toward the main market. And there they were- I spotted them from a distance: the tacky tourist souvenirs. At the same time there were also some splendid crafts which any visitor would be lucky to take home. I hated that I only had a little space left to bring home Ecuadorian souvenirs!
By lunch time, we were done with markets and relaxed in a hip café overviewing the main plaza – to be fair, Douglas had already given up long before lunch and was sipping on his third health juice by the time I arrived.
So did we find authenticity in the market of Otavalo?
That’s a definite YES! We found Otavalo to be an interesting crossroads between indigenous traditions and tourist oriented comfort. You could easily fill up your plate with local staples and only minutes later you could be savouring an ornate café latté. The quality of the crafts is descent and there are definitely good deals to be made. Though you can find more authentic market in Ecuador, Otavalo didn’t feel like a tourist trap at all and was a experience to remember. Heck, I’ve even included it in my list of 100 best travel experiences so far! If you’re just passing through Ecuador and want to hit a market, Otavalo is a great option. Spend the night, wake up early and you won’t be disappointed.
Markets, fun or boring? What do you think? Let me know in the comments!
The post “In search of authenticity at Otavalo Market, Ecuador” first appeared on Travel Cake.