Otavolo, Ecuador, S.A.
Facts, Photos, Information, a Poem and a Short Story
by Jim Nasium

Otavolo is a small market town
that stays open four days a week
you can find anything you need there
the Indians are humble and meek
people from all over the world
seem to end up there
they buy and sell things all day long
no one seems to have a care

The time I spent in Otavolo
is very dear to me
each day I stayed for some reason
is clear in my memory
surrounded by beauitful countryside
the town hasn't changed in years
so peacful and plesant and friendly
there's not one thing to fear


Market day in Otavalo (pop. 28,000) is a must for any traveler to Ecuador. Every Saturday, Amerindians from the surrounding villages gather to sell produce, livestock, woolen goods and other handicrafts. The market is well known by tour groups, so don't go expecting to be the only tourist, but do go: Otavalo is a truly unique Ecuadorian experience. The people are a sight in themselves. The men of the area dress in traditional white pants, blue or gray ponchos and felt hats and have their hair braided in long pigtails; the women wear white blouses with black sashes and skirts and lots of gold-colored necklaces. You're likely to see other distinctive outfits, as well, as people from surrounding regions also come to Otavalo to buy and sell goods.

There are several components to market day, some geared to the local inhabitants, some to the many travelers who visit Otavalo. It all begins at dawn, when the animal market gets under way out on the edge of town. I found this the most interesting part of the market activities: As the sun comes up, the large, vacant lot is transformed into a place of squealing pigs and lowing cattle and hundreds of Indians milling about as they size up the merchandise or try to make a sale. By 9 am, the activity moves to the hundreds of handicraft booths spread through the downtown. The center of the action is the "Poncho Plaza," but vendors extend out for several blocks in all directions. Almost any craft item produced in Ecuador can be found in Otavalo, but the specialties are the colorful textiles (blankets, ponchos, sweaters, tapestries, hand bags) produced in the area. Other good bets are musical instruments (charangos and zamponas—pan pipes), ceramics and hats (panama and felt). Be aware that pickpockets and petty thieves are active in the market: Keep a close accounting of your valuables.

Plan on getting to the handicraft market early (try to overnight in the area and arrive before 10 am, when the tour groups descend on the place and the market gets very crowded). Be sure to bargain. Start at about 20%-25% below the initial asking price and go from there. Haggling is possible even if you have trouble with Spanish numbers: Bring a paper and pen to write the figures down. (Many of the vendors carry calculators to make the process easier.) If you can't make it to Otavalo on Saturday, you'll find a smaller selection of craft booths on other days, as well, especially on Wednesday. A large number of permanent craft shops and galleries are also located on the downtown streets near the Poncho Plaza.

If you still have energy after shopping, stroll through the food markets (one near the train station, one at Calle Jaramillo and Juan Montalvo). Like the animal market, these are attended more by the local people than by travelers, but that's what makes them such interesting places to visit. You're likely to see women balancing baskets of produce on their heads, lots of live chickens and tables full of colorful foods—whole pigs, exotic fruits, piles of grains and vegetables.

On my way to Otavolo the first thing I stopped to see when I entered Ecuador from the Colombian Border near Ipileas was a convent and church that had giant hedges around the graveyard on the grounds, kept by nuns who exercised their creativity on an almost daliy basic

The Border

I made my way slowly through the open country side and across The Andes Mountains. The bus I was in was an older brightly painted bus that had trouble winding up and down the narrow mountain dirt roads paved with pot holes, and arcoss many narrow bridges over raging rivers. Every now and then the bus would stop at a small road side rest for us to buy some food, or something to drink, purchase fruit, have a smoke or take a pee; what ever....

The mountains

Each man living in the nearby village has a little section of the side of the mountain, for his own, to grow what ever he needs for himself and his family, and all he could carry and sell at market.

The Farmed Mountains Sides

Along my way I stopped in small mountain towns high in the Andes that look as if they are right out of a story book. The Rooms For Rent in town were small and the beds hard but the folks I met there were happy living their simple lifes of raising sheep and llamas, and selling wool, and wool goods in the market town in the valley below.

Mountain Town

Many of the buses I traveled in looked like this one. They were cheap, and stopped in places along the road that the bigger buses with glass and padded seats wouldn't stop. The drivers would wait until the whole bus was full, with both people and some cargo. You can see the bus is actually half truck and not in very good condition...

The Bus

I stopped in many market places to buy Indian wares, fruit, and doo dads. Some were outdoor open air markets, while other were enclosed, and under a roof. The main market, the one you see, was only open four days a week, but for 24 hours a day and the rest of the week the market was dead. It was a lot like a non stop four day party for most every one there, and a good time for all...

The Market Place

In the market town of Otavolo an Indian Lady I was flirting with one day down at the market gave me some beads right off her neck. I think she liked me. All the Indian women in Otavolo wear these gold beads and the traditional outfits you see them wearing in the photo...

The Border

Ecuador has some of the most beauitful beaches I've ever stayed on in the world. This is Sua Beach a way off the beaten trail kind'a place that I was lucky to stumble into way back in the mid 1970's. It's North West of Esemraldos beyond the land owned by The Dole Plantation...

The Beaches

Of All the many countries I have been to and stayed in while in South America, Ecuador, especially Otavolo remain my favorite...

Try to arrange one or two extra days to enjoy the small villages and beautiful countryside around Otavalo. Tour companies in Otavalo run guided excursions to the villages. Some of the tours visit the workshops of local weavers and other artisans. Among the nearby towns are Cotacachi (known for its fine leather goods), Peguche (musical instruments), Iluman (home of the Inti Chumbi handicraft coop) and Agato (weavings produced on traditional back strap looms by master weaver Miguel Andrango).

Spend some time at one of the beautiful mountain lakes in the area. Lago San Pablo is right outside Otavalo (you can hike there), and is large enough for boating—inquire at the Puertolago hosteria. Laguna de Cuicocha and the Lagunas de Mojanda are a little farther afield, but easily seen on day trips. Las Casacadas de Peguche (the Peguche Waterfalls) are another popular destination for hikers from Otavalo.

Bicycling can also be a great way to spend part of a day: We particularly enjoyed a three-hour excursion in which I paid a taxi to drop me off at a high mountain pass on the Selva Alegre Road. From there, it was an easy downhill ride to Otavalo with plenty of scenic vistas along the way (volcanoes, farms and lots of curious Indians).

Two villages in the mountains north of Otavalo also offer shopping opportunities. San Antonio de Ibarra is known for the woodcarvers whose shops surround its traditional town square, and Cotacachi is Ecuador's leatherwork center, with stores and workshops stretching for blocks along its one main street.

The area around Otavalo is Ecuador's lake district. One of the largest lakes, San Pablo, is less than two miles southeast of town. A modern hotel, Puertolago, has been built on the shore with a spellbinding view of Imbabura, which rises from the opposite side in a succession of steeply pitched farm fields, topped by rocky slopes that disappear into the clouds. A smaller but even more dramatically situated lake about eight miles by car northeast of Otavalo is Cuicocha, a water-filled volcanic crater in the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve. It's at an elevation of 10,000 feet and is 700 feet deep, with geothermal hot spots on its floor that create strong vertical currents. While taking a boat tour of the lake, which has no fish and only a handful of Andean coots, I was told of a scuba diver from Quito who was unaware he was ascending until he turned on his lamp and saw the rock face of the crater rushing by. He lost consciousness and, in an area with no decompression chambers, was fortunate to survive.

In addition to volcanoes and lakes, the area is dotted with haciendas, many of them are now family-run inns.

©2005 Jim Nasium

Here are some links to other great web sites about Ecuador:

14 Photos Of Otavolo

Photos Of Ecuador

Ecuador Tours & Travel

Ecuador Explorer.com

Ecuador News

Ecuador Ministry of Tourism

Hostelling Ecuador: Backpacker Accommodation


*** Would you like to read a short story? ***

Coffee Bean Oil And Sandwiches
By Jim Nasium


A short story about time I spent in Otavolo, Ecuador.

had no idea what I was looking at the first time I saw a bottle of the stuff, and never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd find a way to make so much money, so easily...

Once, many years ago, on a sunny day back in the early 70's I found myself in a small town high, in the Andes. I was very tired and hungry from my morning run and climb into the mountains and I needed to rest. The air is very thin in this area and my gringo lungs just can't handle it as well as the Indians could.

I decided to have something to eat, and a lot of coffee to get me going again so I could make it back to my hotel on the other side of town. I walked into a small cafe just up the cobble stone street from the big market in the small market town of Otavalo, Ecuador. I needed to rest because of the thin mountain air after a hard day of climbing, walking, bargaining, and bickering over some beads, embroidered shirts, ponchos, belts, pants, and all kinds of things for ones head. The coolest thing about Otavalo is that the town is alive, VERY alive all day and all night four days a week, and then when once the market shuts down, the town is dead the other three days. The whole town is centered around a large Indian market and the folks who have stalls there will only work four days a week but they work 24 hours a day. The market is always busy and there is always something happening there for a young wild eyed man like myself.

I walked into the cafe and sat down at a table in the back corner of the place. I was only sitting there for a short while when a very cute Indian girl, about twenty, comes up to my table and asks me if she could help me, and clearly announced that she was at my service. I asked her for a menu, and a cup of coffee, with sugar, and no milk. A few minutes later she comes back with a nice white coffee cup dish and a large white coffee cup sitting on it full'a hot water. She hands me a bowl of sugar and said "will there be anything else" ?

I asked her why she gave me a cup of hot water, in my very best Spanish. She must'a not have understood why I was asking her that question because she said to me "you asked for cafe sin leche [coffee with out milk] didn't you"? Yes, that's right I said, in my very best Spanish, I did ask for a cup of coffee with out milk but this is a cup of hot water. No sir she said to me, this is [cafe sin leche] coffee with no milk.

By now I had been in the Andes for about a year and a half and by this time and I had been through each every hungo field I could find and let it be known that I was a very hard core kind'a red eyed hippie who enjoyed the snow and herb in Colombia but never the less, as fried as I was, I was still able to tell the difference between a white coffee cup full of hot water and a white coffee cup full of coffee. I still had a few brain cells left that still actually worked and I KNEW the difference between hot water and coffee.

Just then the waitress turned and started to walk away from me and as I watched her ass sway I called out to her to come back. She just kept going then went behind the counter where the day old bread, and cookies, and stuff like that sat roasting in the mid day sun that came in from the large opening to a court yard on the one side of the building.

I got up and I called out to her again just as some guy came out from the room behind the counter which must have been the kitchen. The man asked me nicely what was wrong. I asked him to come back to my table with me and I calmly pointed out to him that I got a cup of hot water when in fact I had asked for a cup of coffee, no milk. You got coffee with no milk he said to me very matter of factly. I was flabbergasted... I didn't know what to do...

The man called to the back room where the kitchen was and another woman, his wife I guessed, brought out another cup of hot water, and then the man sat down at my table and said " my friend, let me show you how to make the most wonderful cup of coffee you will ever have".

His wife placed the cup of hot water down in front of him and then the man, who I guessed was the cook / owner grabbed a large bottle of dark thick goo, that was sitting on the table near the napkins, and let a few drops of the goo fall slowly from the bottle he held in his hand, into his cup of hot water and instantly the cup of hot water turned into coffee. The cook then added some sugar to his own cup and advised me not to use too much'a the coffee bean oil stuff, in my water, the first time.

I put a few drops of goo in my cup and I added some sugar and when I tasted it, I was very impressed with it's richness and aroma. We sat and talked and then after a short while he got his daughter to bring out some freshly baked pan de casos [cheese bread] and pan de dias [fresh baked bread of the day] and fresh baked sweet cakes and we had a good old time just talking about Otavalo, and other places I had been, drinking coffee, passing time. By the end of my second cup I knew for sure that it was too late, I was off and running, and was gone. The coffee oil goo hit me big time. I was actually biting my lip and shaking my leg. I guess I put way too many drops of the goo in my second cup'a water because I was winging, and off to the races. By the end of the third cup and fourth pan de caso I knew I wasn't going to be going back to my hotel any time soon to sleep, to say the least. the story goes on.

Later that night after my third shower and during my fourth "walk" I stopped back in to see the guy who owned the cafe and who turned me on to coffee bean oil, a Mr. Patty Castro. Patty and his wife had just sat down to dinner so they offered me some fine hot food; rice, eggs, vegetables, soup, cheese and bread with fruit and sweet cakes for afters, and, it was all free! It was during that meal, shortly after I put some fried eggs and cheese that were part of my meal between two pieces of bread, that Patty Castro learned about the sandwich.

Patty and I talked about him and I selling sandwiches out'a the cafe and down in the market. The very next day, we started selling sandwiches out of the cafe, waiting for the next open market cycle to come around. Patty was happy as could be about selling sandwiches. He planned to sell all kinds of sandwiches too; like ham, ham and cheese, cheese, eggs; scrambled or fried, eggs and cheese, and the big boy of the lot was the ham egg and cheese sandwich. It was so sad to me that Patty didn't have any beef, or mutton, he said it cost too much. To me, it was amazing! Patty never saw a sandwich before in his whole life until that day I made one in front of him, and even more amazing was the fact that we were going to make a lot of money there, selling sandwiches from now on.

The next few days during the markets off cycle we spent cleaning out a spare room Patty and his family had in his house, behind the cafe, for me to move into. Patty wanted me close so I could help them with sales, and besides it would save me the cost of a hotel room. Once I was settled in Patty's house his daughter, who turned out to be older than she looked, and I became "good" friends. She and I spent time together doing all kinds of things and she even helped me make a sign for the front of the cafe, and one for in the window of the cafe, that said: REAL SANDWICHES in red and yellow, and then there was a list of the kinds of sandwiches we offered under the giant real sandwiches on the top on blue.

The very first time the four days and four nights open market cycle came around after we started selling sandwiches Patty and I were busier than he had ever been. We had fun selling sandwiches to hippies and tourist and locals. Patty and I became the very best of friends, the talk was that his daughter LuzMiel, and I were in love and getting very serious. You know what they say about rumors right. Why she thought I was in love, to this day, is something I'll never understand.

About three months or so later after our sandwich business took off and was doing well I got in a bit of trouble with the local police for cutting a rather large San Pedro cactus down that I found in a park, and for eating it. It was a very yummy and juicy cactus that had magical powers. After much ado and a trip to another world [the police station] I had to leave Otavalo, OR pay a large fine. There were no cattle fields anywhere neat Otavalo, which meant there were no magic mushrooms to pick, so I had to use magic cactus to get a buzz. To this day I have never been back.

I was afraid to pay the fine because once the cops knew what I was into and where I lived and had got some money from me, I knew they'd only want more money, and then more money as time went on, and if I didn't pay them just once, no matter how many times I did pay them, they'd lock me up until I did, so I left; I had no choice.

I bused it to a small town high in the mountains that had a decent hotel, a cafe, whore house and some hot sulfur springs. I stayed there for awhile and relaxed; nothing like sitting naked in a hot sulfur bath on top of snow capped peaks in the middle of nowhere...
©2004 Jim Nasium

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