Otavalo market – artesanal shopping or tourist trap?


I finally made it to the much hyped Otavalo market. All the tour operators in town sell a $40-$50 tour including transportation, some including a trip to nearby Ibarra, Cotacachi or La Mitad del Mundo, but being the adventurous (or penny-pinching) type, I decided to go it alone.

Quito to Otavalo Bus

At 7:30am I was scarfing down my eggs at the hostel of choice (the bare bones but centrally located and friendly Casa Kanela in the Mariscal district). At 8:00 I left the hotel, walked 5 minutes and waited for the bus half an hour to “Eloy Alfaro” which took me to bus station Terminal Terrestre Carcelen (in the far north if Quito). At 9:15ish I arrived at Carcelen, and stood in line 20 minutes to buy a ticket. Apparently you can’t buy them on the bus like most other bus routes. The bus ride was pretty direct, with the driver only stopping to yell Otavalo! Otavalo! a handful of times. At 11:30 we get to Otavalo, after which I walk about 10 minutes to the market. Total travel time? 3:40! Almost double the 2 hrs commonly advertised. It may be faster by private tour.

To get back after taking the Otavalo to Quito (Carcelen) bus, I took the 5 min transfer bus from Carcelen to Ofelia station, where I took the Ecovia (light rail) to the Seminario Mayor station and walked about 30 minutes back to the Mariscal (though I could have taken another bus or a cheap taxi). This ended up being about the same time.


Waiting in line to buy a bus ticket.


The Otavalo Market Shopping experience

In Otavalo I wandered the streets for 3 hours, the market covers several city streets, with the main square being Plaza de los Ponchos, but I quickly became somewhat disenchanted. It is hard to find nice, handmade goods that I was expecting. They are really a needle in a haystack of tacky kitsch mass produced souvenirs. Or even worse, handmade but still really ugly goods. (Makes me cringe that someone spent so much time making something so ugly.).


Plaza de los Ponchos


Did I get gringo-priced?

I saw one stall with a product I liked (unfortunately to remain anonymous because it is a Christmas present for family members who read this blog). I hadn’t seen it elsewhere in the market and I liked it, it seemed handmade and perfect for family member X. The man quoted me $12 each, or since I was looking at a couple similar pieces, $40 for 4. I offered him half, or $20, which seemed to offend him (market salesmen are excellent actors if nothing else). He offered me $30, and we finally settled on $25, after which I had pretended to walk away. He threw the items (which looked fragile in a plastic bag, so I took them out again and wrapped them in my scarf. I felt pretty good about my bargaining skills. I later saw one other stamp selling similar item and out of curiosity I asked the price. $12. Ok, they obviously have some price fixing system.

Fast forward a week in Cuenca Ecuador during the November Fiestas (celebrating the 193rd anniversary of Cuenca’s independence). Many craft vendors come to Cuenca this week. I immediately regretted shopping in Otavalo because in Cuenca, all the stuff on display was handmade and unique whereas in Otavalo, maybe 20%. I saw a booth in Cuenca with more of the same item. The man was slightly deaf and I found myself shouting “Cuanto cuesta!?” at him. $3 each. I realized than the man in Otavalo had initially quoted me a price ($12) that was 4X times the normal value, and we had settled on a price slightly more than twice the actual value after I agreed to buy 4! This doesn’t bother me so much for $25, but not all the items are that expensive, you can easily spend (and be gringo-priced) out of hundreds of dollars. So I bought one more of the item without haggling with the man for $3. He wrapped it carefully in newspaper, and put it in a nice giftbag. Based on the price, and the handling of the art (with care vs carelessly) I believe that the man in Cuenca was the original maker if the items, whereas the man in Otavalo was a reseller. I didn’t try to confirm that with him being so hard of hearing. If that is the case, it might be a case of markup rather gringo pricing. A 100% markup on relatively inexpensive items is not unheard of.  So if you can, BUY DIRECT

What to buy at the Otavalo market (or not)

  • Ponchos in wool – kinda cool but I would never wear
  • Alpaca scarves – mass produced that I doubt are real alpaca because they sell for $6 and shed hairs all over
  • “Ecuador” woven shoulder sling bags
  • Big wool or alpaca llama-print socks, also mass produced because you see the same ones all over! ($4)
  • Hippie pants and headbands (made if stripey cottony material
  • Hammocks in bold stripey colors
  • Sling chairs also in bold stripey colors. I really liked these but nowhere to hang them and too big to pack to the US ($25)
  • A gazillion ugly keychains
  • Wall hangings that seem to be hand woven
  • fluorescent colored dream catchers, kinda tacky
  • Embroidered white cotton shirts, baby dresses, napkins and tablecloths
  • Typical Otavaleno brightly colored belts
  • Typical Otavaleno necklaces of multi-string glass gold beads – I thought these were cool because you really see the local indigenous women wearing the same thing, but to me not worth the $20-$30 quoted
  • wire-hammered jewelry, made by hand but similar to what you find all over Cuenca
  • Leather cuff bracelets, for that a hippie/punk look
  • Tagua nut carved animals
  • Huge necklaces and earrings made out if the tiny glass seed beads
  • Cute but mass produced dolls of Otavaleno people
  • stone carvings of animals, stone mortar and pestles, and loose rocks/polished stones
  • clay fabric stamps in cool Incan looking designs
  • Funky shawls made fm from patches of leather crocheted together ($20)
  • Panama hats of cheaper quality /looser weave than I have seen in Cuenca ($15)
  • Weird rainbow striped knitted face masks/hats that you could probably only wear to burning man ($10)
  • Knitted hats and scarves
  • Knitted blankets (often coming in either black, gray and white, or technicolor rainbow, not much in between with just some nice neutral colors)
  • bags woven from agave fibers. I thought these were pretty cool but poorly made (bad quality leather, zippers that get stuck…) $40
  • handmade ceramic wall hangings
  • towards the far end of the market, normal clothes I believe more for the locals than tourists
  • typical market food – secos, bread, caldo de gallina, fries fish, juices

Have you been to the Otavalo Market? What was your experience like?



The funky leather and crochet shawl goes for $20.




Loose rocks, clay and stone sculptures in Otavalo



Black and white or tecnicolor?


None found.
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