Otavalo is a busy Quichua village north of Quito, less than a two hour drive. The city's main square, Plaza de Ponchos, is home to the most famous craft markets and masterful artisans in South America. The Otavalo artisans have become the most prosperous indigenous group in South America, and you have probably seen them in your own hometown selling woolen sweaters and CDs of their Andean pipe music.
The Andean pipe music is also heard throughout the market streets of Otavalo. Market crafts include embroidered shirts, watercolor paintings, jewelry, pottery, carved wooden figurines, textiles and tapestries and the misnomered Panama hats. The hats originated and are made in Ecuador, then shipped to Panama for export abroad. They were referred to by their point of international sale. Then when Franklin Roosevelt wore one on a visit to Panama during the construction of the Canal, they became popularized as the “Panama hat”.
Otavalo textiles are famous for their history and quality. The Otavaleños were skilled weavers even prior to the Incan rule. Then in the Spanish colonial days, after being granted land near present day Otavalo, Rodrigo de Salazar set up a weaving workshop that employed the already skilled weavers. Through technological advancements, the Otavalo weavers supplied textiles to most of Latin America.
Otavaleños have managed to maintain many of their centuries old traditions. They are easily recognized by their distinct traditional dress, friendly demeanor, and profound sense of pride and self assurance. The women wear embroidered blouses, shoulder wraps, skirts fastened with beautiful woven belts and layers of gold colored beaded necklaces. The men keep their hair in long braids and are most often found in white calf-length trousers, blue ponchos and sandals.
A visit to Otavalo is an ideal short trip from Quito, with flower plantations and dramatic landscapes all along the way! The spring-like climate makes this an all season destination, but the warmest months are July to September.
Saturday is the full market when the artisan market at Plaza de Ponchos merges with the local one, however you tend to find better prices on the the other days of the week.
June 21-29 is Inti Raymi (or Pawkar Raymi), the summer solstice celebration (June 21), Fiesta de San Juan (June 24) and Fiesta de San Pedro y San Pablo (June 29) all rolled into one! The festivities pay tribute to the new crops and Pacha Mama, mother Earth.
It is celebrated with street musicians playing drums, flutes, guitars and violins, dancers and lots of drinking. The festival begins with a ritual bath in Peguche waterfalls (this is a solo spiritual dip, so no audience or cameras allowed), followed with bull fights in the plaza, regattas on Lago San Pablo and costume parties in the streets.
Fiesta del Yamor
In the first two weeks of September, Otavalo has its largest festival. The Fiesta del Yamor (also called Colla Raymi), is a fall harvest celebration. Corn, the symbol of generosity and fertility of the Earth, was honored by the Incans and is still important to the festivities today. The Incan ritual of selecting and fermenting the best corn into potent liquor called chicha two weeks before the solstice as an offering to the sun god is still followed today. Chicha de Jora is the best known and it is enjoyed throughout the celebration by both visitors and locals! Music is played everywhere; there are fireworks, cockfights, bullfighting, dancing, processions and reed boat races on Lago San Pablo.