Otavalo Market: What to buy in South America’s Biggest Market
Otavalo Market Vendor
Vendors are friendly and willing to answer questions about where their products came from, who made them, and the different options available. The Otavaleños are known as the most economically-successful indigenous group in Latin America.
South American markets are a must-have experience, no matter if you like to shop or not. But for those of us who can’t resist the silky texture of alpaca blankets, hand-died Amazonian nuts-turned-necklaces, and the thrill of finding the perfect present for a loved one back home….the Otavalo market is a special kind of paradise. Throw in the fact that this market is a true model of sustainable tourism (the Otavaleños are the most economically successful indigenous group in Latin America) and you have yourself a very special place.
Markets, in general, can be stressful (especially when you don’t speak the native language). When we discovered that the Otavalo market is the largest artisan market in all of South America, we mentally prepared ourselves for a hard day of bargaining, fending off aggressive sellers, and pick-pockets. Our reality, however, was an extremely refreshing market experience. Yes, sellers will offer you “precio especial!” just for you, and there are sections that get congested with locals and tour groups alike. But, unlike so many other markets we have visited, the people allowed us to browse in confidence and admiration of their work, answering any questions and asking their own when questions of culture came up. They bargained fairly – lowering the price enough but unafraid to communicate the quality of the work when clarification of the price was needed.
Day tours to the Otavalo Market abound from Quito and it’s an easy self-guided daytrip, especially if you have a little bit of Spanish under your belt. Saturdays and Wednesdays are the main market days, but there are many vendors any day of the week. But first, let me indulge in my own version of window-shopping; in explaining the things that I wish I could have bought and would have if I didn’t have to carry them on my back for the next 6 months (I’ve included the ones that were worth carrying too!). Do yourself a favor and take a whole day to savor the sights, smells, and bargains of the Otavalo market. You won’t regret it.
Vendors sell every piece of jewelry, from silver bangle bracelets to indicate seed-and-thread cuffs and coordinating earrings, but without a doubt it’s the necklaces that steal the show in the Otavalo market. Nearly every woman vendor will be adorned in her own gold threads, a traditional choker-like necklace with many layers of shiny gold beads. One woman grinned through years of smile lines as she told us they represented the corn and the harvest – a younger woman in the traditional dress said they’re just pretty.
A unique and beautiful product of the region are the tagua nut jewelry. The palm nuts are collected from the forest floor and are cut, cleaned, and polished; they are often referred to as “vegetable ivory” for their durability, shine, and resemblance to elephant ivory. Their natural color is an opaque white but they are easily died and in the market, you can find every combination of colors ranging from bright to pastel. Other jungle seeds are used in jewelry as well, and we even found unique “recycled” necklaces made from dried and dyed melon seeds. The tagua jewelry takes months to produce from the forest to the market, but these are some of the most affordable purchases in terms of their quality to price ratio. At the time of writing, we found them for anywhere from $6-18 depending on their size and complexity.
For those looking for fine jewelry, the silver necklaces, bracelets and earrings are some of the most unique I have seen in South America. There are more subtle designs available, but the most eye-catching pieces were collections of hand-cut silver in the shapes of native animals and symbols. These necklaces were out of our price range at $70-80 but they were really beautiful and well-worked pieces whose vendors were the least interested in bartering (plenty of people were lined up to pay full price!) Emeralds, opals, and jade are just a few of the native gemstones and can be found in many of the finer jewelry stalls.
Go anywhere in South America and you will see both locals and tourists sporting the unique patterns of alpaca-blend sweaters, gloves, scarves and ponchos. The Otavalo market might be the best place in South America to pick up your own, and with the best variety to boot. While the amount of real alpaca wool to artificial material is questionable (you get what you pay for), the sweaters are warm, unique, and a charming reminder of your visit – even if you only wear them to Christmas parties upon your return home. We bought ours for $15 each and received a discount for buying two at the same time. A pair of fingerless gloves (for our hike to the Quilotoa Loop) only cost $3.
Blankets, throws, and tapestries
There is a huge range of throws, blankets, and tapestries available ranging from small and simple to large (think California-King bed covers) and intricate. You can buy lush alpaca-hide throws but they come at a price; where woven alpaca products come from the sheared wool of live alpacas, the alpaca-hide artwork and throws require the entire animal. Interestingly, our favorite purchase was a small alpaca blanket – it was an impulse buy at $11 but has been a life-saver on chilly bus rides, camping, and for impromptu picnics.
There are countless little gifts ranging from wooden carved nativity sets to leather wallets, painted bowls and so much more. Our favorites were beautifully-carved gourds and real-wool alpaca toys. These can range from $0.75 – $10 depending on what you choose.
An Ecuadorian treasure worth hunting down are the traditional paintings of Tigua, a small farming community south of Quito who are world-famous for their colorful depictions of rural life and traditions. The authentic paintings are painted with chicken-feather paint brushes on stretched sheep’s hide. I have full intentions of coming back to Ecuador someday just for these colorful pieces! An added bonus is that they can usually be rolled for easy transport. Prices vary.
Otavalo Market Tips
These are just some of the many amazing items you’ll find for sale at the Otavalo Market. Don’t forget that there is a whole town to discover outside of the market – take some time to stroll through the parks, stop in for a hot chocolate, or if you have some extra time – visit the nearby waterfalls and park. Don’t forget to share this post on Facebook or shoot us a message if you visited the market yourself. We would love to know what you think of the Otavalo market, and what you decide to buy!