This past weekend we journeyed to Otavalo, which is a market town about two hours north of Quito. Otavalo is known for its huge market of indigenous arts and crafts. But before one jumps to think that this is simply one huge tourist trap, let me inform you that this has been going on since the time that the Incas reigned in Ecuador. This market was one of the very first places where the indigenous people came to barter and trade. And that is still going on today. Not only is there the arts and crafts market, where you can find anything from fertility statues to purses and llama blankets, but there is also an animal market and a fruits and vegetables market. This market is still a way of life for these people and it was a unique experience to get to step into this culture.
We arrived on Friday by bus and found a great hostal only a block away from the market. Hostal America International was quiet, peaceful, and very comfortable for $7. We immediately went to find food and stumbled into a tiny restaurant where we are fruit pizza complete with mozzarella cheese, strawberries, apples, peaches, and pineapple. Now, this may sound weird but it was absolutely amazing and I will definitely be trying this when I return back to the States.
After eating we found ourselves lured into the market which was rather quiet on a Friday afternoon. We had decided to do our Christmas shopping and so we began to peruse. We spent several hours bartering with vendors over the things we wanted (this is expected and it can be very fun) and showed off what we had bought to each other at the hostal.
Shopping had worked up a hunger so we wandered around the town of Otavalo for a bit and then made our way to the Shenandoah Pie Shop. Now this place was truly wonderful. Theses ladies had about 10 different flavors of pie. Chocolate, maracuya, strawberry, blueberry, blackberry, pineapple, apple...and more. We decided to have dessert before dinner and we each bought a warm piece of pie for $1.20. It was incredible!
After that, we had to walk some more. We went in some stores in town but mostly just enjoyed the night air and the atmosphere of Otavalo. We could hear Andean music being played from inside several restaurants; this music has a sound which, for me, is enchanting as it involved flutes of all different sizes and pitches and has a rhythm that makes you want to sway with the poncho clad musicians.
Having readied ourselves for dinner, we went to Buena Vista, an upstairs restaurant that overlooks Plaza de los Ponchos (the market square) in town. We had a beautiful view and the quiet atmosphere of the restaurant was just perfect. We decided to splurge (vowing to eat cheaper the next day) on the file mignon for $5.80. It was so worth it and reminded me of my Dad's favorite steak and potato nights at home.
We were so completely full that we went back to the hostal to relax and watch television, a luxury that we had not had in any previous hostals. We just wanted a night to relax and so we gladly took it!
Saturdays are Otavalo's huge market day. The market in Plaza de los Ponchos swells to other streets and basically takes over the town. And they start to set up early is what I found out. The first sounds I heard began at 4:30am! We woke up at 6:30 and got ready to go to the animal market. This starts at 6am and goes til 10am. So we got up and walked to a local bakery just as it opened to buy a donut. Then, we started following the people to the animal market. The animal market is fascinating. It is a mass of people bartering over live chickens, cows, huge pigs, sheep, chicks, goats, and, of course, guinea pigs. We weaved our way in and out of the crowds of people and animals to look at all the variety and watch several deals being struck. I had a slight urge to try to haggle over the price of a pig, just to say that I had done it. But I resisted. It was such a unique experience though; unlike anything I have ever seen before.
As we made our way back into the heart of town, we meandered through the fruit and vegetable market. You could by anything imaginable here. The colors were magnificent.
Next, we took a taxi to Parque del Condor, which is way up on a mountain outside of the city. We could see Volcan Imbabura partly hidden under a cloud. At this park there were several unique bird species to observe and they were all so interesting. However, the main attraction are the condors. There are only 40 condors left according to the 2009 census of these (I'll be quiet frank...Ugly) birds. This park had four in captivity; which means, ladies and gentlemen, that I have seen 10% of the remaining condor species. Anyways, the park was great. Jon had assigned me to take a picture of a condor, and I did not fail him. There was a flight demonstration which was also very interesting.
We headed back into town to eat from one of the women cooking on the street. We ate a delicious
plate of llapingachos (potatos and cheese) meat, lettuce, beats, and a fried egg; this is typical ecuadorian food. And, of course, on our way out we had to stop at the pie shop for round two.
This trip was filled with good food, relaxing, and wandering through new places. But what fascinated me the most was the beauty of the people. I found myself in awe of how gorgeous indigenous women are; women of any age. Their appearance, their strength, their culture...all captured my interest. I enjoyed watching the men in their traditional blue ponchos. I enjoyed listening to the banter between friends that most likely saw each other every Saturday as they took part in this tradition. I was fascinated by the life and vigor of these people.
I stopped to talk to several vendors as I shopped on Friday. I tried to use this opportunity to practice my Quichua. One woman looked at me like I had four eyes and asked me why I would want to learn Quichua. I expressed to her that it was a beautiful language and that I was enjoying learning it. She seemed amazed and as she continued her tiny, meticulous stitches, we continued to talk. I told her that I had even heard of a Quichua church in New York; her language was not dying or reserved to her own country after all. She seemed excited at this news and her eyes sparkled. I am pretty sure she still thought that I was the strangest gringa girl for wanting to learn Quichua. But it was that conversation with her as well as another conversation with a man sewing a typical Otavalo mask that were great highlights for me. He explained to me the significance of the mask and allowed me to practice more of my Quichua. In fact, each time I passed by after that, he would fire off a question to see if I was ready. I enjoyed shopping for things to help me remember Ecuador, but these conversations as well as some others, are the things I will remember the most. These are the things I did not have to barter for, for they held the highest price.
These were just two beautiful people, with a beautiful language and a beautiful culture. We have a Creator who created beautiful people all over the world. And we are but flawed image bearers. Therefore, consider how beautiful our God must be! I cannot even imagine...but one day I know I will see in full.