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Mom and baby at Otavalo

Though our trip to Ecuador was all about birding, every guide book (yes, I still read those) and online resource indicated that the Otavalo Market in the indigenous town of Otavalo was a must-see. So after two weeks of chasing birds it was time to relax (birding is exhausting!) and just take in some of the culture. And do some shopping (natch). It’s only a two-hour drive from Quito and if you drive 15 minutes further you can also visit the town of Cotacachi, which is famous for its leather goods.

What you will see

You will see Panama hats. “What?” you ask. “In Ecuador?” Yep. In fact, they are made in Ecuador, not Panama. So now that you know, this little piece of knowledge could potentially make you the smartest person at a dinner party should the subject of Panama hats come up. (Oh, and by the way, Cuenca, I hear is the best place to find the finest made. More bonus points for dinner party conversation.)


They’re made in Ecuador. Now you know.

You will see electric colors all around you. Expect happy, happy colors on all of the tables. How can you not be happy? They are woven in the wool cloth, strung as beads and painted as smiling masks all laid out on a table as though a crowd of jesters are laughing along with you. If you have the time, make sure you do a quick walk-through of the tables first before you begin buying/negotiating. There is a lot to see and happening upon all that color is a lot to take in at first. You might miss something the first time around.

Alone, each might be a little scary, but all together it's like a friendly choir. Almost.

Alone, each might be a little scary, but all together it’s like a friendly choir. Almost.

I'll take one of each, please.

I’ll take one of each, please.


The indigenous women of Otavalo wear these beads–one for every child they have. Young girls wear the tiny beads you see in the back.

What the Otavalo people are known for: their beautiful, bright woven woolen fabric.

What the Otavalo people are known for: their beautiful, bright woven woolen fabric.

What you can taste

You should eat. Really. Because there’s a lot of food. If you’re not in the mood to buy a Panama hat or buy something colorful you definitely should try the food. You can either hand-pick fruits and vegetables from the tables for purchase or buy a quick meal.


Panella, a type of brown sugar (In Asia it’s also known as jagery)


Penino dulce, which is a sweet cucumber


Achotillo or Lychee


I also had never seen so many grains and flours before.

You will likely run into my all-time favorite tomato on the planet. My favorite is the Tomates del arbol, also known as sweet tomatoes. It’s what we had as juice on our first morning in Ecuador, served as a salsa over chicken at a restaurant and when we were Tandayapa Lodge, the cook served it as dessert–baked with a sugar sauce. I think I’ve dreamed every night of that dessert since I’ve been back.


Tomates del arbol–one of my favorite discoveries in Ecuador

You will be able to try a traditional Ecuadorian dish. Best of all, is the Hornado and Llapingachos, a traditional Ecuadorian dish in this region. The aroma of this dish is what makes the market so wonderful. I didn’t get dizzy from all the colors, but from the food.

The meat the lady has in her hands in the hornado (roasted pork). The small yellow balls are mashed potatoes that are the Llapingachos.

The meat the lady has in her hands in the hornado (roasted pork). The small yellow balls are mashed potatoes that are the Llapingachos.

If you don’t believe me that this dish is important, here’s proof. In a nearby town there’s a monument in honor of the dish.

A monument celebrating food. I tell ya, there's not enough of them.

A monument celebrating food. I tell ya, there’s not enough of them.

What you will experience

Yes, there’s colorful things to buy. Yes, there’s loads of food to taste. But even if you do none of those (buy, eat), go to Otavalo market just for the experience and for the people watching.

You can practice your negotiation skills. Steve, who was being a great husband by coming along (did he have a choice?) hates shopping and browsing. Plus, too much stimuli makes him dizzy, but he was a trooper and even though he swore he wasn’t going to buy anything, an enterprising man with leather belts was persistent with Steve. Enterprising man won and Steve walked away with a new belt. (Can a man have too many belts? I say no. It’s my same argument with shoes.)


I think Steve is trying to get him down to $8.

You can also join a local game of…I don’t know what. We happened to see a group of men huddled over and yelling and cheering. I got a look at what they were doing and a man said, “Casino! Want to play?” I thanked him kindly for his offer. I so would lose my shirt.



A tip you should know

When I had booked our Andes birding adventure with Tropical Birding I asked them if they could also arrange for us a guide for Otavalo Market, and they hooked us up with the most delightful woman, Desiree, from their office who was full of so much history and knowledge about the area. Most people don’t think to ask the tour company to arrange other activities for them, but you should.  Of course, you can easily get to Otavalo on your own. Even though it’s only a two-hour drive from Quito, we like private guides who give us so much more information about the area. Besides, Desiree was so completely wonderful and engaging I can’t imagine having done the trip without her.

Tropical Birding not only helped us arrange our guide, Desiree, but also arranged a private guide for us when we had a day in Quito and also helped us book our week at Sacha Lodge. It was so much easier working with boots-on-the-ground people in the country who know much more about who to contact and how to make the arrangements, because my Spanish is crummy and if I tried to do it myself I’m certain we’d end up in some other country.

Otavalo Market

I have not been paid or compensated for anything on this trip. My gushing is authentic and genuine and on my own dime.