If you’re traveling to Andean Ecuador, chances are you’ve included Otavalo in your list of places to see. And if you haven’t, might I suggest an immediate addendum to your travel itinerary. This beautiful town, nestled between the volcanoes Imbabura and Cotacachi, is both picturesque and historically significant. Not to mention being the place to go to collect those lovely souvenirs that will aid in showing off your travels to friends, family, and unsuspecting door-to-door salesmen.
Otavalo is an ordinary South American town with an extraordinary history. The native Otavaleños have managed to carry their people and their traditions through the conquests of both the Incas and the Spanish. Part of the credit for their endurance goes to the trade of the people: textiles. Using both traditional backstrap looms (a slowly dying art) and upright looms, the Otavaleños create beautiful, hand-woven goods ranging from sweaters to rugs, and from small-scale wall hangings to giant blankets. And all of these are for sale in the Poncho Plaza, the heart of Otavalo.
Poncho Plaza is a colorful whirlwind of activity on any given day, though the intensity multiplies one-hundred-fold on Saturdays, when blue and yellow awnings line the streets surrounding the plaza as far as the eye can see. While this is certainly the best day to wander amongst the people, most of whom still dress in the brightly colored traditional clothing, it is also the worst day to shop. Tourists descend on the area in a mad frenzy, and vendors have no problem rejecting your attempt at bargaining with so many panama-hatted targets at hand.
But never fear! You know that Saturday is just for getting a price estimate (considering, of course, the standard Saturday price-gouge) on all of the fabulous knick-knacks you’ve been staking out. And boy are they ever fabulous. Silver necklaces and earrings crafted in Incan designs are very popular sellers, as are t-shirts showing the Incan sun calendar. But, if you’re going for the authentic, I highly recommend the striped, woven pants and hoodies that the locals have worn for years. Perhaps snag yourself a brightly patterned tapestry while you’re at it. If you’re into the music scene, you can pick up a CD of traditional Andean music performed by local groups, or, if you’re more of a do-it-yourselfer, perhaps one of the many hand-made guitars. And for those more into the dust-catching side of things, you can’t go wrong with a set of metal spiders or any number of jade figurines and amulets copied from local artifacts.
Of course, gearing up for a good spending-spree always works up an appetite. So while you’re wandering around, why not try out some of the fish or fruits being sold. Or perhaps you could head to one of the many restaurants lining the plaza—being sure to get a terrace seat to watch the goings-on below—and sample the cuy (pronounced kwee), an Andean specialty. For those of you actually brave enough to do so, it’s worth mentioning that guinea pig tastes rather like rabbit. Small rodents, and all.
During all of this time, I highly recommend cultivating good relationships with the locals. Buying from them is a start, but even better is actually talking to them. Minimal Spanish goes a long way, and you’ll find that many who work in the tourist industry speak a bit of English, as well. The Otavaleños are some of the most genuine, kind, and happy people you will ever meet. After several meals at a particular restaurant, the waitress, with whom I was then on great terms, expressed how much she liked my lacy top. Having been absolutely charmed by her friendliness, I later presented it to her as a gift. To my surprise, the next day she hunted me down on the plaza and gifted me with a traditional blouse that she had embroidered herself. Reciprocity is the way of life in the Andes.
But you may still be wondering, when do you actually buy anything? Well, I’ve found that Tuesday and Wednesday seem to be the best times for this. For venders, the moneymaking glow from the weekend has faded, and the next Saturday seems far away. Feel free to offer half of the asking price, and, if you’re persistent and nonchalant, you may well get it. This, of course, is not a free license to be rude. Remember, these people are trying to make a living, so if they seem genuinely insulted, the rule of thumb is that they probably really are. Be patient and respectful, and remember – if they won’t budge on the price, chances are good that around the corner there’s something a bit less expensive that’s just as worthy of that door-to-door salesman.