Local girls in traditional dress for the Cotacachi Easter Procession
The Andes is a magical place. With striking landscapes and traditional communities that live and thrive here, it is the heart of indigenous South America. Nowhere quite compares to the mountain villages nestled between the looming volcanoes in Ecuador and the picturesque town of Otavalo, home to one of the largest handicraft markets and the most beautifully dressed locals on the continent. Our last visit to the Andes was at the tip of South America in Argentina
, and the last time we had experienced such colourful cultural customs was in Bolivia
back in October 2012. It was a refreshing change of scenery to arrive back in the Andes. We were so excited to be a part of this world all over again.
Otavalo is famous for its markets, of which there are three; the Handicraft, Animal and Food markets. The market functions everyday, but on Saturdays swarms of Ecuadorian villagers descend on Otavalo for the big Saturday market when the streets are filled with all kinds of vibrant goods for locals and tourists alike. What makes Otavalo so special is the people, kind and friendly they are living in their traditional world and welcome in tourists like their own. The women are so beautifully dressed, in their colourful embroidered shirts, waistbands and hair ties, topped off with brilliant gold beads wrapped endlessly around their elongated necks. While the men keep it simple, with their white cotton attire, a poncho and a black fedora hat – and they are all so small! Everyone looked so proud to be wearing their clothes and displaying their customs, which has been the standard dress of their community for hundreds of years.
Plaza Bolivar. The main square.
Fried chicken and rice for US$1.40. Yum!
Locals on the street of Otavalo
Awaiting the procession in Cotacachi
Inside the food market
Grains in the market
They exist! So many delicious vegetables!
The Handicraft market tends to cater more to the tourists, while the Animal and Food markets have retained an authentic quality undisturbed by the hoards of tourists that fall on this town every weekend. We enjoyed some amazing and strange food in the market for next to nothing. It was great to be back in the land of cheap food! Our soup for lunch had all kinds of “bits and bobs” of who knows what animal, but it tasted delicious and was an appealing change from rice and beans, our basic diet of late. The Animal market on the other hand was an insightful look into the animal trade of the mountain communities. Spread out in a field was all sorts of animals to buy and sell like pigs, goats, cows and chickens. Cockfights and preachers on their Soapboxes kept the crowds entertained while we perched ourselves on a nearby hill and people watched the comings and goings of this extraordinary weekly event.
It was very exciting walking the labyrinth of street stalls in the Handicraft market absorbing all the colours and magnificent fabrics. The souvenirs themselves are quite tacky, and every single store seems to sell the same thing. When we were in Peru
we held back on purchasing too many souvenirs and fabrics, as we would have had to carry them on our backs for seven months. We’ve met many people that have sent boxes of goodies home, and the best place to do this apparently is Bolivia
. Had we known this then we may have bought more while we were there, and sadly we wish we did. We kept saying to ourselves in the markets of Pisac
and La Paz
, “If we wait until Otavalo to buy stuff then we don’t have to carry everything for so long”. It was a practical idea but now that we were in Otavalo there were so many little souvenirs that they didn’t have which we had seen in the southern Andes and wanted so badly. Silly us! We should have stuck to our motto of “Seize the moment!” and taken the opportunity when it was available. Nevertheless we were more interested in the textiles at Otavalo and picked up a few to take home, including a beautiful handmade hair ribbon which a local lady taught Iain to put in Treeny’s hair so she can look like the lovely ladies of Ecuador.
Pigs for sale at the Animal Market
People watching on the hill
Mother and Baby
The Animal Market
The Handicraft Market
Colourful paintings by local artists
Soup time in the market
Learning how to wrap a ponytail with traditional cloth
There is a lot more to see in Otavalo and the surrounding region than the markets. Sitting high above the town beneath the behemoth of Imbabura Volcano is Parque Cóndor,
a fascinating rehabilitation centre and zoo for birds of prey and owls. Its impressive location above the valley provided stunning views as we watched a demonstration on the Andean Eagle and how it flies. What we were most excited to see here was the Andean Cóndor, one of the largest birds you will ever see. With a wingspan of up to 3.5 metres this bird is huge and soars through the thermal currents of the Andes with such majestic ease. We were pretty unlucky spotting them hovering around in Peru
so were hoping to see them on our visit to Parque Cóndor.
Although we didn’t see them fly we did see two of these giant birds wandering around in their ginormous bird cage, they are really ugly when they are not flying. The owls were the most attractive creatures on display and we were fortunate enough to meet one of the feathery hooters up close and personal. The park is definitely worth a visit if not for the animals, for the spectacular walk back to Otavalo through the farms and villages above the town.
Flying Eagle demonstration
The Andean Eagle in action
Iain and Mr. Hooter
The spectacular walk back to Otavalo from Parque Condor
Otavalo from above
Who needs an Architect?
While we were in Bogotá
, Colombia, we experienced the quiet side of the Semana Santa
(Easter) holiday. In Ecuador Semana Santa
is a completely different holiday, more akin to a religious festival that lasts a whole week. With 80% of the country being devout Catholics, Easter is one of the biggest celebrations in the countries calendar. We left Bogotá early knowing that if we got to Ecuador quick enough we would make it to one of the famous religious parades happening around Otavalo. Lucky for us we made two!
Only a short, bumpy, bus ride away from Otavalo is the quiet village of Cotacachi. Famous for it’s leather handicrafts, Cotacachi holds a very formal Religious Procession where local women and men dress in their best outfits and walk to the main Cathedral holding effigies as offerings to Christ. The huge and heavy effigies of Christ and Mary were dramatic and covered in bright flowers. The mood was quite somber until one of the effigies became stuck on an overhead power line. It was such a wonderful and exciting day, seeing the locals perform this yearly pilgrimage to the church, and the vibrant colours and atmosphere that turned a melancholic activity into something so captivating. By the time we made it back to Otavalo that evening we were privileged enough to witness another event, a much more theatrical and solemn procession in the candlelight. The towns people gathered to form a convoy following the priest and the primary effigy to outposts scattered around the town that would perform, in full costume, a moment in Christ’s life as depicted in the bible.
The Cotacachi Easter Procession
At the procession
Locals filling the streets of Cotacachi
Ice Cone makers provide refreshments
The first effigy arrives at the Cathedral
The evening procession re-enactment
Evening procession by candlelight
We have visited plenty of fascinating places in our travels of South America, none have enthralled us as much as the high mountain villages of the Andes; of Ecuador, Peru
. The people that live here and their traditions, settled amongst some of the most spectacular scenery you will see, is what transfixes our imaginations. The simple way of life, their beliefs, and creative spirits will charm you endlessly. Ecuador is brimming with villages like Otavalo, some more touristy than others, but all are still embracing tourism and their cultures as two cohesive acts, with strong traditions always being the firm foundation. We just hope the villages can retain this wholesomeness forever.
to see our colourful photos of Otavalo.
Next stop we head almost back to the Amazon to visit the watery Ecuadorian wonderland of Baños de Agua Santa.