A two-hour drive north of Quito through the Sierras is Otavalo the largest Handicraft Market in South America. The market serves as a gathering place for both trade and social activity. The 'official' market day is Saturday when people from all over the country come to sell produce, livestock, and handicrafts. Bargains on sweaters, ponchos, blankets, rugs, jewelry, pottery and hammocks are to be had every day. Ask for a "descuento" while dickering for anything from guinea pigs to woolen sweaters. On Saturday mornings the market begins early as local villagers arrive in town with fresh produce and animals to trade and sell. Early risers can see the trading of cattle, pigs, chickens, and guinea pigs along the Pan American highway west of town between 6am-8am.
Otavalo has been host to one of the largest markets in South America for hundreds of years and dates back to pre-Inca times when indigenous people would arrive from all over Ecuador to trade or sell their goods. Otavalo is the commercial center for some seventy-five small indigenous communities in the region and although there is a market every day in Plaza de Ponchos, the highlight is the weekly Saturday market where thousands of vendors spill out of the plaza and into the surrounding streets. Almost 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, and almost anything else one could imagine.
Otavaleños have been weavers and merchants for centuries and despite being exploited by the Incans, the Spanish, and the Ecuadorians, have proved to be adept business people. Life became much better for the industrious Otavaleños when in 1964 the Law of Agrarian Reform liberated many Otavaleños from serfdom, allowing them to own property, and freed them to work for themselves. Today, Otavalo has some 140 indigenous-owned and operated stores in town as well as hotels, tourist agencies, and other businesses. Because of their monopoly of the textile trade and associated tourism in the Imbabura province, the Otavaleños are the best-known and most prosperous indigenous group in Ecuador, and perhaps in all Latin America.
Otavalo is the commercial center for some seventy-five small indigenous communities. One of the pleasures of visiting Otavalo is experiencing how the traditional and the modern co-exist. Many travelers expect Otavalo to be a small, quiet, old-fashioned village because it is known as a thriving indigenous community. It is nothing of the sort. It is a pretty, fairly modern city with stunning scenery, a nice collection of good restaurants, and many unique stores. The locals seem affluent and comfortable and women and men in traditional dress wander by teens in skinny jeans with mod haircuts. Shops full of embroidered blouses share walls with American fashion stores and somehow this all makes sense and seems harmonious.