Whole pig roasting
Culture & tradition,  Ecuador,  Monday walks

To market, to market …

There are such markets in every Ecuadorean town, small or large, but it is Otavalo in particular that draws the tourists. This is due in part to its size. It has to be one of the largest markets not just in Ecuador but possibly in South America, at least on a Saturday, the principal market day. Then not only the central Plaza de Ponchos is jammed with those selling and those buying, but also the surrounding streets. The other factor in its popularity is its location, an easy day trip, from Quito.

The people of Otavalo and the surrounding area, known as Otavaleña, have been making textiles for centuries. As tourism to Ecuador has grown, their goods have become well-known and popular, and the market has grown because of this, and also because the local people have spotted a good opportunity and made the most of it! They are recognised as the most prosperous indigenous group in Ecuador, and perhaps in all Latin America.

The textiles are mainly of the practical variety, such as blankets, thick jumpers, ponchos, scarves, hats and so on, rather than the purely decorative wall-hangings that you see in other cultures. But it is not only textiles that you will find for sale here. We saw pictures; musical instruments (mainly the ubiquitous pan-pipes, but also drums and other percussion instruments); hats; jewellery; wood-carvings and tagua nut carvings; leather handbags and larger woven bags; hammocks and cushions and more.

On one side of the square I spotted a few stalls selling simple meals such as roast pork, corn and soups. But otherwise the emphasis in this part of town is very much on handicrafts.

Of course the sellers are hoping that you will buy, but we didn’t experience too much pressure. However when I stopped to look at a stall for any length of time I would raise their hopes and there would be a rapid explanation of the goods and how wonderful they were!

For the most part we were happy to wander up and down, soaking up the atmosphere and taking lots of photos. A few people were happy to pose, especially those stall-holders hoping we might make a purchase, but they tended to do so quite stiffly. The result was a less than natural look with no sense of the bustle and activity of the market. So mainly I used my zoom lens to grab candid shots as I find these more natural and wanted to capture the activity as much as the individuals.

Traditional Otavaleña dress

As I wandered around the market stalls taking my photos I began to realise that all the women were dressed in a similar style, rather different from the indigenous people I had seen in Quito. This is the traditional dress of the Otavaleña. It consists of white blouses, with coloured embroidery (usually of flowers) and flared lace sleeves, worn with black or dark skirts. They wear their hair long, but instead of plaiting it, as the women of Quito do, most tie it back with coloured braid in a loose ponytail. They usually have many strings of gold beads around their necks, and strings of coral beads around their wrists. Many of the older ones fold a cloth over their heads, known as a fachalina.

The men traditionally wear white trousers, cut off just below the knee, with dark blue ponchos and felt hats. Their hair too is worn long. We saw relatively few men in this costume compared to the number of women wearing the traditional dress. However, many had the long hair and felt hat, albeit often combined with modern jeans and t-shirts.

Buena Vista

In need of refreshment and a sit-down after an hour or so of wandering around the market, we looked for somewhere where we might also get a view of the action. We found it at the Buena Vista café, which lived up to its name. We climbed the stairs to the first-floor room which was quite cosy with lots of wood, a small library of travel guides to browse, and bright cushions on the chairs. We secured a table near the window and ordered our fresh juices. By that point in our trip we had realised that no other cold drink came close to these for taste and refreshment in Ecuador! As we drank we were able to step out onto the tiny balcony. From there we could take some photos of the market from above and all the activity going on beneath us. A great place to finish our walk around the market.

Looking down at stalls covered with blue awnings
Looking down on the market

It’s been a short one but I hope Jo will accept this as a Monday Walk!


Having resisted temptation all morning I fell at the last hurdle! We’d finished our walk and arrived a few minutes early at the pick-up point for our return to the city. We were easy prey therefore for a couple of sellers operating on the streets outside the market! Although attracted by the colourful scarves I’d seen on many stalls I hadn’t planned on buying one, as I had a pile already at home. But one older lady who approached us had a good selection. They were so bright and cheerful, and she was so interesting (showing us photos of her home near Lago San Pablo), that I cracked and bought one. And I have to say that I have worn it regularly every winter since. It retains its bright colours even twelve years later and is often admired by friends and colleagues, so it has more than justified the impulse purchase!

I visited Ecuador in 2012


  • Marie

    We were there last June – midweek so stalls were set up in the square only – which was actually surrounded by roadworks which took away from the experience. But – we also sat in the window of that cafe!!! We bought very little – not because we weren’t drawn to the crafts and colours but because it was our first day in Ecuador! We’d arrived the previous afternoon and with a few weeks stretching ahead of us, we felt it was a bit too soon to shop…. of course we weren’t to know that our trip would be curtailed and our only further shopping opportunity would be at the airport!! Ah well….

    • Sarah Wilkie

      A nice coincidence! I’ve skipped shopping on trips because it felt too early in, but sometimes regretted it. In Nepal I saw some beautiful thangka paintings on our first day. I didn’t buy any on the assumption I’d see plenty more, which I did, but never as good.

  • wanderessence1025

    We enjoyed the market at Otavalo when we went to Ecuador in August of 2022. Did you happen to stop in Hacienda Cusín while you were there? What a cool hacienda. I bought a scarf too, along with some small paintings. Thanks for taking me back through my memorable time in Ecuador! ~Cathy

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I find it interesting how the dress varies from place to place, even communities that are relatively close to each other like the villages around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala 🙂

      • equinoxio21

        Atitlan is a perfect example. The headdress or the huipil can vary from one village to the other. Even better, the Maya-Quiché they speak can be totally different. Amazing.
        I would a worthwhile trip (from my days as a would-be anthropologist) to dedicate time to go around every village and document, clothes and language of every village around Atitlan… Probably been done already by a PhD student.

  • rkrontheroad

    South and Central Americans have some interesting head covering choices, don’t you think? Great market shots, although as a non-meat eater I almost didn’t continue scrolling down past that pig!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Oh dear, I did wonder if some people might find that pig a bit off-putting! But it’s an intrinsic part of the local markets there and besides gave me a good opportunity for that title 😆 Yes, the head coverings are interesting, especially the way they choose to fold the fabric and balance it on their heads rather than tie it in some fashion as would be the norm elsewhere.

  • leightontravels

    I have seen my fair share of pig’s heads in markets but not sure I came across one as grisly as that beast. Lordy, proper Stephen King stuff. Or should I say William Golding. In any case thanks for tasking me to Otavalo, this is surely another reason (as if we needed one) to get to Ecuador one day. Love all the colour here and your selection of excellent people shots. A fine market is often characterised by its people and these folk look like they have a thousand stories to tell. Good on you for getting the scarf.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      We saw quite a few roasting pigs in Ecuador but he was one of the largest and fiercest! Glad you enjoyed the people shots – a market is such a great location for them.

  • grandmisadventures

    I’m so glad that you broke down and bought it since it has turned out to be such a favorite. I love markets like this but I really love how you have caught the people in these real moments

  • restlessjo

    The textiles look wonderful, Sarah, and I could use a hat for the summers here. The guys look really distinguished wearing theirs. Really, it’s the least you can do to make a purchase. They are providing you with good entertainment value. And thanks for the wander.

  • Monkey's Tale

    I love the different way of dress throughout Ecuador and much of SA. I thought I’d ask how things are there right now given the news of drugs and violence, but I see you visited a while ago.

  • wetanddustyroads

    Ha, I also have a hard time walking past a pretty colourful scarf. Beautiful photos of the people, as always (that pig is another story). It’s interesting to see the women in mostly the same blouses, but it’s lovely.

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