We’ve been dying to see this market since we first made plans to start our trip in Ecuador over a year ago. And believe me, it didn’t disappoint.
The Otavalo Market is probably the largest in South America. Most people come for the hundreds of booths full of ponchos, scarves, paintings, sweaters, and other handmade items, but there are two other markets nearby that don’t get as much attention: the animal market and the vegetable market.
We visited all three last weekend, and we enjoyed them all even more after getting so much background on the sellers and their wares during our tour of the villages the day before.
the animal market
Fernando from Casa Mojanda dropped us off at the animal market at 8 a.m. along with new friends Howie and Ann from Boston. The market actually starts much earlier – around 4 a.m. – but since we weren’t planning on buying or selling animals there was no need to get there that early.
You can buy and sell cows (vacas), pigs (chanchos), chickens (pollos), guinea pigs (cuys), horses (caballos), sheep (ovejas), goats (cabras), dogs (perros) and kittens (gatitos). Ann is fluent in Spanish, so she asked for some of the pricing:
- Chickens were $9.50/pair
- Calves were $35 each
- Cows sold for $175
Everything and everyone is packed on a big open field, and you step in and around all the people and animals (and their messes). Surrounding the animal market are food booths that cook up pigs, chicken, and other items for the attendees.
It is probably a good thing pigs can’t lift their heads up because there were plenty of whole cooked pigs just feet away from the live pigs that were for sale.
Many older indigenous people do not want their photographs taken because they believe it captures the spirit. But the more modern-day indigenous people have learned to make a few bucks off curious tourists. We were instructed to always ask before taking pictures, and Warren paid $1 as requested to take a picture of this man with his goats. (Ecuador uses the US dollar.)
the vegetable market
“Take a look at those melons!” Okay, I couldn’t resist that one. You would not believe how big some of the produce is here. Giant melons, papaya and cabbage along with a colorful array of fruits and vegetables that are not always familiar.
We bought a variety of produce, a large bag of seasoning, plus a bag of rice for a grand total of $3.50. I’m fairly certain we paid the tourist price for the spice ($1.00) since I’ve seen it in the grocery store for less, but I chalk that up to an “ambiance surcharge.”
After living in Seattle, we are pretty used to buying local fruits and vegetables at the area farmer’s markets. But this vegetable market was huge in comparison, and I can see how you could get lost just shopping for food. I thought about my friends Karen and Katy, who go to their local farmer’s market every week in Edmonds, and I wondered what they would create with the foods we saw. These are the times I wish I was a more creative cook.
the crafts market
Imagine the biggest, most colorful market you’ve ever been to. Then magnify that times 10 and you’ll get the Otavalo Market. You can buy just about anything you want here, and we watched our friends Howie and Ann negotiate like pros to buy gifts for family and friends back home.
The negotiation is part of the charm of the market. It is like a dance, and I think most people end up paying/receiving what they want in the end. What I don’t understand is why they both don’t state that number in the beginning. Negotiation is a fine art, whether you are talking about companies, houses, or scarves, and it is a real pleasure to watch people who enjoy it do it well. I am not one of those people.
The sellers are very friendly, and the time to arrive at this market is in the morning. After lunch swarms of people arrive. To really enjoy the market, visit with the sellers, and have plenty of room to maneuver, go early.
Since we’re only buying consumables on this trip we had to bypass the handsome poncho Warren is wearing in the top photo, but it was tough to walk away. Warren told him in the beginning that he was not going to buy, and the man still wanted him to try it on. He was without a booth in the market and just had a stack of ponchos sitting on a bench, which is technically not allowed but rarely enforced.
This gentleman was brilliant at sales, because he got the attention of several passersby as he haggled and talked up his product loudly to us. Even though we didn’t buy, he had a crowd of onlookers when we left. This guy got out of paying a booth rental fee and drew a crowd for his product. Pretty shrewd, if you ask me. I’m betting he sold out within an hour.
We saw guys playing cuarenta, a local card game, in the square. It’s a pretty fast-paced game that can be played for points or money, and there is quite a bit of trash-talking involved. It is a fun game to play and watch, and were surprised to see the hatmaker we met the day before playing the winning hand. Small world.
Street meat and teenagers
What is street meat? Well, my definition is any food bought from a cart in any city in the world. It is the food truck’s less glamorous cousin. Roasted nuts, falafel, hot dogs, tacos, fries…you name it, I’ve tried it. And usually I love it.
One thing we were warned about in Ecuador is drinking the water (the same would be true of them coming to the US – your system just has to adjust) and eating street food because it would be less hygienic than that in a restaurant.
So we sat down with Ann and Howie to have some chicken and rice and it was delicious – really no different than any chicken and rice dish I’ve ever eaten except for the fact that there were actual chickens watching me eat it. The pork was a little more worrisome since it had been cooked and sitting out all morning, and of course we bypassed water and lettuce.
As this trip progresses, I’m anxious to try the “street meat” in each location – “food of the people” and all that jazz. Not only is a great way to see what the locals like to eat, it is a great chance to meet local people as well.
They were college students studying tourism and wanted to know what we liked best about their country, how we decided to visit here, and where we were from. They were absolutely adorable, and their enthusiasm was infectious. They were also quite charming, telling me that I looked very, very young. (okay, maybe I added the second “very”)
We took pictures and exchanged Facebook info. I can’t imagine what our Facebook list is going to look like at the end of this trip.
Thoughts on the day
It was overwhelming to the senses to visit all three markets.
I was afraid it would be tough for me to see the animal market because I’m such a softy, but it went better than expected. You can see the obvious need these people have for animals, both to work and to eat, and if I’m going to buy chicken or beef wrapped in plastic at the store I can’t really fault someone buying it a little earlier in the process, can I?
The vegetable market was probably my favorite part, simply because I wanted to be able to buy at least one of everything and know how to prepare it. It was also where we did the most interaction with people since we did our grocery shopping there.
The crafts market was an explosion of color, and the people were so friendly, both sellers and shoppers alike. As with many markets, you tend to see some of the same products over and over again, but there were many standouts and it is worth it to seek them out.
Lunch at the market was a great experience, and in the future I’ll probably bring sanitary gel or wipes with me. My friend Catherine from Casa Mojanda told me the thing to worry about is the cleanliness of dishes and utensils since they use the same water for washing all day. A discreet swipe of gel on your utensils will take care of any worry.
We spent about 6 hours total at the market, and by the time we left we were mentally and physically tired. It is a lot to take in, and we’re looking forward to a second visit in the next couple of weeks to practice Spanish. The market does run every day in a much smaller form if you happen to be here on a day other than Saturday, but if at all possible we recommend visiting all three markets on a Saturday.
*Many thanks to Howard Silverman for agreeing to pool our pictures of this very fun day.