Today we went to the Otavalo market; the largest outdoor market in South America. It was scary getting there, but we were rewarded with a wonderful cultural experience.
Rather than taking a tourist bus to Otavalo (80 km north of Quito), we went local bussing for only $2.50 US each. We decided on this mode for the experience and the budget. The bus terminal in northern Quito is like most bus terminals – crazy busy, dirty, and a little confusing. As unappealing as it looked, Anna and I paid our $.15 to use the washroom and receive the doled out toilet paper. Not a whole lot of toilet paper considering you needed to use some of it to cover the seat too! We had to make a point not to look towards the men’s urinals… same situation at another spot today when Graham was using the washroom, but that’s a whole different story.
Not expecting assigned seats, we were initially in the wrong ones. It’s always a little more confusing when you don’t speak the language… Not a surprise, the drive was not so much fun! There were high mountains, sheer drop offs, fast speeds, rattling noises from the bus, air moving under our feet on the floor, and roads that wind through the beautiful yet terrifying Andes. Anna tried to help by closing the curtain so I couldn’t see. It wasn’t necessary as I kept my eyes closed for about 80% of the journey.
This Saturday market is huge! Vendors, who are quite friendly, come from the surrounding villages, the northern sierra, and as far away as Colombia. One section is for buying and selling animals, one section is for clothing and wares for locals, and a third section, Plaza de Ponchos, is geared more for tourists. In six hours we saw parts of the latter two and maybe 30 white folks. The market was colorful, packed and intense. Items we were drawn to the most, included alpaca blankets, shawls, scarves, and sweaters and llama sweaters. We also saw vibrant art, spreads of aromatic spices, food vendors, chicks…
Many Otavaloños still wear traditional clothing. Many women wore embroidered white blouses, shawls, black wrap skirts, gold coloured bead necklaces, and red bead bracelets with their hair wrapped in strips of woven cloth. Some men wore blue ponchos and white mid calf trousers with their hair braided beneath felt hats. Both men and women wear sandals that are made from the fibre of the Penko cactus called alpargatas.
Even though one section of the market is geared for tourists (although we saw very few white folks), the vibe, the culture, and the shopping was a fab experience for all of us.