Yellow, green, red, orange, blue, pink, purple. As I walked around Ecuador’s Saturday Otavalo market, my eyes were assaulted by a rainbow of colors. Everywhere I looked, tables were piled high with goods in every color imaginable. I realized that this is the most colorful place on earth.
The Otavalo market has been one of the most important trading posts in the northern Andes Mountains. Every day, the market bustles in the Plaza de los Ponchos (a name I just love!). But on Saturday, it swells to envelop the whole town.
Why Otavalo? And what makes the Otavalo Saturday market so special? For generations, the native Otavaleños developed skills in producing woolen textiles. Visitors can see examples of these fine textiles on older Otavaleños, particular the older men and their dapper reversible ponchos – midnight black on the outside, but a deep blue on the inside. The indigenous people would travel for hundreds of miles to shop for textiles in the Otavalo market.
But the Otavalo market is really two markets in one. There is a covered market with tiled stalls and rows upon rows of vendors selling fresh vegetables, exotic fruits we’ve never seen before, the choicest cuts of meats, fish that were recently swimming in the sea, and massive bouquets of spring flowers. We’re foodies and we love food markets, so we could have easily spent all day here.
The other market fills the main square, Plaza de los Ponchos, and features textiles. Here you can purchase your own poncho – both the traditional variety as well as the made-for-tourists version. You can also find jewelry, leather goods and anything you’d need for your house (including a leather sectional).
Tourism to the region and the town has exploded in recent years. At first, it was a few intrepid travelers looking to get off the beaten path. Word got out and the independent travelers came, followed soon after by the bus tours. Being just 2-3 hours from Quito, this is also a popular destination for solo travelers looking to meet new people and experience new things. In fact, Ecuador is one of the best destinations for first time solo travel.
But this has also brought about changes in the market itself. Yes, there are more products geared to tourists than in the past. Many visitors seen surprised at the cool temperatures in the highlands and pick up things like hats and gloves that they forgot on their packing list. However, the traditional market is still present in all of its authentic, colorful glory.
Walking through the Otavalo market, we took in the sights and sounds of daily life in Ecuador. At one end of the market, under the watchful eye of a giant street mural of a young boy, old women gather to sell Ecuadorian food. This is fast food Ecuadorian style. On our visit, fish soup, ceviche and mountains of beans were on the menu.
We’ve visited local markets all over the world, but the Otavalo market on Saturday is a sight to behold. And because you can never have enough pictures, here are a few more of our favorites from Otavalo: