About 2 hours north of Quito is the Otavalo Market. The oldest, best-known and most important Indigenous market in all of South America, it has been conducted on this spot since pre-Inca times. Nestled in a valley, craftspeople from all over the region come to Otavalo to trade and sell their work. Otavaleños are known for their weavings and were exploited for their textile making skills by the Inca and more harshly by the Spanish. After the Agrarian Reform of 1964, otavaleños were allowed local land ownership, a long tradition of serfdom was abolished and the people were able to start making a living on their own work. While many indigenous groups still suffer to live well on their crafts, the otavaleños have become the wealthiest and most commercially successful indigenous group in Ecuador and many live in comfort from the local textile industry.
We began our visit to Otavalo in the food market. This was an overwhelming walk through smells, sights and sounds that I haven't experienced anywhere else. For these people, knowing where your food comes from it isn't a movement or a trend, it's a way of life. If I needed to buy a cow eyeball, that would have been an easy task. (I'll spare you the photo.) The fruit and spice stalls in particular were amazing, full of tropical fruits I had never seen or tasted and mountains of spices totally foreign to me.
We then walked over to Poncho Plaza, the main square of handcrafts. A maze of stalls full of shrewd salespeople is packed into a large plaza and easy to get lost in all their cloth walls. The colors and patterns were a feast for my eyes, and conducting business and discussing prices with these tiny indigenous women was so much fun. They can size you up upon first glance, and if they get your into their stall, it's really hard to leave without buying something. (Hopefully I picked up a few tips for this summer's Open Market season!)
It's important to point out that while the market conducts a lot of business between the indigenous and Ecuadorians, the main areas are definitely full of products made for the tourist industry. You have to be careful and picky if you want things that are actually handmade, or traditionally made. I did buy a few things that are cheap and fun, and participating in the market as a buyer was an experience not to be missed, but I saved buying the woven things for Peguche where I knew the pieces had been handwoven and quality materials had been used.