Otavalo market – artesanal shopping or tourist trap?

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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.

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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.).

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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?

 

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The funky leather and crochet shawl goes for $20.

 

 

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Loose rocks, clay and stone sculptures in Otavalo

 

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Black and white or tecnicolor?

 

None found.
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