Market Day in Otavalo

To market, to market, to buy a fat pig,
Home again, home again, dancing a jig;
To market, to market, to buy a fat hog;
Home again, home again, jiggety-jog;
To market, to market, to buy a plum bun,
Home again, home again, market is done.
~Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme

Otavalo is a town in the province of Imbabura, about 110 kilometers north of Quito. It is renowned for its market – the most economically important craft market in all of South America. On Saturday, the main market day, one third of the town becomes full of stalls selling textiles, tagua nut jewelry, musical instruments, dream catchers, leather goods, fake shrunken heads, indigenous costumes, hand-painted platters and trays, purses, clothing, spices, raw foods, spools of wool, animals, and almost anything else you can think of.

Yesterday we travelled to Otavalo to experience this market first hand.  We had the choice of travelling with a guided group for about $30 each, or travelling by bus on our own.  We decided to venture out on our own, equipped with some basic instructions on how to get there.  Remember, we don’t speak Spanish yet….but what better way to learn than to dive right in!

Finding the bus station

First step was to get to the Carcelen bus station.  Again we had a few choices – private car through our hostel for $10, taxi for $5 or local bus for 25 cents which we could catch at the end of our street.  Seemed simple enough.  But which bus?  The buses don’t have numbers and they all said “Carcelen something or other” on their sign.  We let a few buses go by as we tried to decipher the Spanish signs displayed in the front window.  Finally I just flagged a bus down and asked “Carcelen bus station?”  The bus driver stared at me blankly, but his assistant (each bus has a driver and a guy who collects the fare), said something in Spanish and nodded his head.  That looked promising, so we hopped onto the bus quickly as he was already starting to leave.  Bus fare is .25 per person.

The bus ride took us through the city to the North.  This was our first real glimpse of the city beyond our neighbourhood.  We were surprised by the number of American fast food joints – MacDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Tony Roma’s. Business owners were opening up their shops – unlocking large padlocks that secured their premises.  Trucks full of oranges were setting up on every block – $1.00 for a bag of 20 oranges.

We were motioned to get off the bus at what looked like a bus station – except it wasn’t the Carcelen bus station – doh!  Luckily we met up with another group of travelers who were also trying to find their way to Otavalo (four were from the UK and one from Israel we later learned) and a couple of the girls in the group could speak Spanish.  Turns out we were at the Ofelia bus station and we now needed to catch another bus to the Carcelen bus station.  Once at that station, it was very clearly marked where to buy your ticket ($2.00 each) and where to find the bus.  It would be another two hours or so before we reached Otavalo.

The bus ride to Otavalo

This inter-city bus was a step up from the regular city bus.  Comfy, reclining red velvet seats, curtains on the windows, and even a TV at the front of the bus.  They played an American film (Unstoppable) – Spanish with English sub-titles.  It wasn’t quite as nice as a Voyageur bus, but pretty close.  We settled in for the ride, our knapsack securely on our laps.  We had been warned never to put our bags in the overhead compartment or on the floor – as it was common practice to steal the bags from above, or to cut open the bags on the floor and steal the contents unbeknownst to the owner.

Up and down we went as we traversed the Andes mountains, mesmerized by the beautiful vistas all around.  The trip was pleasant and uneventful – just the way we like it.

The market

Otavalo was a much larger city than I had imagined.  As the bus made its way through the busy streets to the bus station, we caught glimpses of the market stalls that seemed to have sprouted on every inch of sidewalk available.  Street upon street of vendors – everywhere you looked – vendors were selling everything imaginable.

As we left the bus station, we thanked our fellow travellers for their help and made our way into the center of town on our own.   We were only browsing, so we just glanced at the merchandise for sale as we passed by each stall.  Any subtle pause in our step would prompt the vendor to start offering his wares to us.  It was better to just keep moving slowly.  Thankfully, the vendors were not aggressive at all, and pretty much left us alone.

There were very few tourists at the market, probably because this is low season.

The market population was primarily locals of which many are indigenous people who were easily identified by their traditional dress.  The men wear blue ponchos, fedoras, white calf-length knickers and the ashimba, a long braid that hangs down their back.  Women were dressed in white blouses adorned with bright embroidery, blue skirts and shawls.  Beautiful jewellery – strands of gold beads around the neck, gold dangly earrings, and red coral bracelets seemed to be the standard amongst the women.

We meandered through the market, munching on some buns we purchased from a street vendor.  We debated whether or not to eat the street food – something we opted not to do this time (we hope to go back) as we weren’t sure how our stomachs would handle it.  You could buy a full plate of food – meat, potatoes, rice, vegetables – for as little as a dollar.

Fried pork – fritado – was a speciality . . . and there was no shortage of pigs to choose from!  Lunch anyone?

As we were heading back to the bus station, I noticed a group of “gringos” across the street all wearing funning looking hats that had obviously been bought at the market.  I remarked to Chris something like – they sure look like gringos over there….hey, wait a minute, those are our gringos from the bus!  What were the odds we would run into them again amidst the crowded market.  Chris took the opportunity to take their picture and we got their email address to send it to them.

Return to Quito

The bus back to Quito was a little more run down – the seats were more worn, most of the windows didn’t open, and while there was a T.V. at the front, there was no movie this time around.  Clearly, not all buses are of the same standard.  We did get the chance to meet a young lad from Germany who spoke excellent English.  Kevin had been travelling throughout Ecuador for the past 2 months and was enjoying his last day in the country before heading home where he would begin his first year of University, studying Physics.  You learn a lot about a person during a 2 hour bus ride.  He had arrived with no Spanish whatsoever, and after a month of Spanish lessons was quite conversational.  He shared many tips and stories with us on the way back to Quito.  He kindly helped us find our way through the maze of buses at the bus station and we all travelled back into Quito together on the trolley – a much faster route than the one we did in the morning.

Category: Ecuador, South America
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2 Responses
  1. Dad says:

    Great stuff guys! In each new country when you first mention a payment of some kind tell us what the currency is. e.g. busfare cost x pesos (25 cents). How is the peso broken down? I guess it’s universal throughout S. A. A terrific cominicating medium is skype… Just love it as does mom. Take care… Dad

    • Christina says:

      Hi Dad, Good suggestion about the currency. Ecuador uses the American dollar. I’m going to do a little intro about each country when we arrive – haven’t got around to doing the write up for Ecuador yet. But I’ll definitely include the currency – hadn’t even thought about that before. I was also thinking of including some basic facts about each country we visit like where the country is located, the population, the size, and any other interesting facts I can dig up. We love Skype too – it makes us feel so connected to everybody at home. There’s no need for a cell phone as it seems everybody uses Skype these days. Love that mom is calling me each day via Skype – feels like I’m in your kitchen each morning!