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Visiting the Indigenous Artisans of the Otavalo Market

We’ve been looking forward to seeing the Otavalo Market since we first made plans to go to Ecuador over a year ago. The main market is on Saturday, though a smaller version runs every day. Before we made it to the big market, we wanted to get some background on the artisans so we hired a local guide named Jorge, who might possibly be one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.

the indigenous people

Elderly couple carding woolWe’ve seen the indigenous people all around since we’ve been here. They dress distinctively. The women wear bright white shirts with embroidered flowers and long black skirts, multiple layers of gold beads around their necks, and their long, glossy hair wrapped with a ribbon in the back.  Men wear black felt hats covering their long braided hair, wearing wool ponchos, and often with bright white pants. They both wear a sandal that looks like a flat espadrille.

The people themselves are small – I am taller than almost every man here at 5’6″ – but they have broader chests that allow them to easily breathe at such a high altitude.

The main market is on Saturday, though a smaller version runs every day. Before we made it to the big market, we wanted to get some background on the artisans so we hired a local guide named Jorge, who might possibly be one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.

visiting the artisans

We set out around noon with another couple to tour the indigenous villages. These people are not unfriendly when you see them out, but they seem to keep very much to themselves. It is like walking up to a group of Mennonites or Amish in United States as they go about their daily lives; you just wouldn’t think of doing it. Because they speak Quichua and not Spanish, I never even expected to have a conversation with one of them, and I expected our tour to be a drive around to their villages, maybe a stop in their stores, and running commentary along the way.

Boy was I wrong (and I can’t tell you how excited I am every time this happens).

Our guide Jorge

our guide, Jorge

Artisan using a backloom to create a scarf

Artisan using a backloom to create a scarf

Jorge gave us a lot of background on the indigenous people. (First, a little background on Jorge. He speaks English, Spanish, and Quichua and can do everything from sell you a house to fix your computer. When he’s not teaching university students math and physics, that is. I’m telling you, this is a Renaissance man.)

Jorge explained that each village had a specialty, and within that specialty are subspecialties. For example, in Iluman, they are famous for making hats. Some people make doll hats, some make felt hats, and some make the famous Panama hats (which are actually from Ecuador and not Panama, surprisingly enough). When the other villages need hats, they go to a community like Iluman. When the hatmakers in Iluman need a sweater or poncho, they will go to the villages that specialize in those products.

What has happened over time is that middlemen have come through and modernized the process by giving some of the artisans material and patterns to make a particular item in bulk. They make many of the same sweater, poncho, or tapestry, and the middleman picks them up a few weeks later to sell or export. The artisan is paid and doesn’t have to find his or her customers.

Betsy tries to card wool

Carding wool is much harder than it looks

A hatmaker in Iluman, Ecuador

Ironing felt hats in Iluman

The downside to this is that the middleman creates the product based on tourist demand, so the artisans are using colors and patterns they would never use on their own. And in some instances, they are using factory-made materials and acrylic yarn instead of making their own wool yarn.

You can’t really blame them. When it comes to putting food on the table, do you want to go with your artistic sensibilities or create something below your skill level for a guaranteed paycheck?

Jorge took us into the indigenous villages surrounding Otavalo, and we actually went into people’s homes to see them work. The roads into the indigenous villages are dirt, and we walked through pigs, chickens, children at play, and barking dogs – not to mention the messes they leave behind – to get to these modest homes.

A stack of hats ready to go to market

A stack of hats ready to go to market

Gardens are plentiful, and most have a 3-plant system. First, the corn is planted. After it grows a few inches, beans are planted next to the corn stalks so they have something to climb. The two plants help each other grow. After the beans have sprouted a bit and the garden is weeded, pumpkins are planted to shade the garden and prevent new weeds from growing. The watering is taken care of by Mother Nature. Isn’t that clever? Jorge says this process has been in place for two thousand years.

The houses do not have heat, and if the floors were not dirt, they were covered in dirt. Clothes washing is done outside in the same area where yarn is washed and dried. You can’t imagine the poverty that lies behind these beautiful rugs, sweaters, and scarves.

the villages

In Carabuela, we met an elderly husband and wife who made their own wool thread and then created beautiful tapestries, scarves, and ponchos with a back loom. You can see in the photo that the man sits on the floor and attaches himself to the loom with a

This man makes his rug patterns from memory

This man creates his rugs from memory

low back brace, working thread by thread on a scarf. When he finishes the scarf, he uses a dried nettle to brush the wool until it gets a soft feel to it.

In San Roque, we met a rug maker who had done well enough to buy his 12-year-old son Wayra his own loom, and he made tapestries that our friends Ann and Howie bought. Wayra’s father had a wicked sense of humor, too. When we explained why we weren’t buying anything, he asked how many children we had. When we said none, he smiled and said perhaps we should consider getting some god-children.

Wayra’s dad also taught us the what to say when smiling for a picture. You can’t say “cheese” – that translates to “queso” here. He says “whisky” and it gives a perfect smile every time.

thoughts on the day

Weaver and his children

Weaver and his children

The poverty is definitely something to get used to. In a typical Western fashion, I kept thinking of all the things they were missing and how hard their lives must be.

But Wayra’s mom washed her clothes outside while staring at a million-dollar view of mountains, volcanos, and the city below. Wayra went to school from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day in addition to learning his father’s craft. And crops were growing out back along with a few chickens for food.

No doubt about it, these people have hard lives. But who am I to say they are really poor? Smiles come easily, children play in the streets, families live near each other, and each craftsman is proud of his expertise.

We are learning a lot about our attitudes and assumptions on this trip, and it is challenging to see some of these

girl in San Roque

Girl in San Roque

things. But we are working to expand our thinking, realize that we all have different ways of living, and that just because we have money and education does not mean we know the best way. My head is spinning after just a week on the road, and I can’t imagine how we will be changed by trip’s end.

Next up: We venture out to the famous Otavalo Market, eat street meat, and learn to negotiate like pros. Lots of pictures on that one, so stay tuned.

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About Betsy

Betsy Talbot can't live without a Moleskine notebook, her passport, and happy hour. She sold everything she owned to travel the world with her husband Warren in 2010, and she's been enjoying her midlife crisis ever since. Betsy writes about creating the life you want from the life you already have in her books and on the Married with Luggage website. Drop her an email at btalbot (at) marriedwithluggage (dot) com and check out her Google+ page.


  1. Great description! You could be an ethnographer!
    I can only imagine what it’s like to find your way in such a different world. Surprising encounters with people must really make the experience memorable.
    Keep the stories coming and enjoy your trip!

    • Rachel, the people are really what makes it interesting. That is why we really want to speak the language so we can better interact. Otherwise, you’re just looking at places like you’re in a zoo.

  2. I get home sick when I leave for just a week, so I’m looking forward to hearing about all the various cultures you encounter. :)

    • Hi, Haylee. We don’t have a home anymore, so it is harder to get homesick! We miss friends and family, of course, but they are so spread out there is really no “one” place to call home. Maybe that makes it easier for us. Or harder. Who knows? :)

  3. If there’s anything we’ve learned living overseas and from doing lots of travelling while here, our is NOT always the best way. Or as my husband always says… ‘who are we to think we have the monopoly on the right way to do things’.

    And about poverty….yes, those living in poverty particularly in the most under-developed countries seem to live in love, smiles, happiness. Why do we find this so hard in our society which provides all the basic necessities and full of over-consumption?

    Great post – I look forward to all that is to come!

    • Hi, Jody. It is hard to look at people living so differently and not put yourself in their places. At the same time I’m asking if I could adjust to living a house with no heat, these people are wondering how I can be happy without having children (and grandchildren) of my own. It is all a matter of perspective, and in that argument they could easily win (heat is easier to obtain than children).

      It makes me think of the Spanish we are learning for the word “be.” You use the version of “ser” to express permanence (“soy de Estados Unidos” – I’m from the United States) and “estar” to express temporary things, like “estoy frio” – I’m cold.

      The things we think we could not live with/without are usually “estar” type of things, and the things they cannot live without are “ser” types of things. I’ve been thinking about this a lot the last few days.

  4. I really enjoyed my time in Otavalo. It was a neat little place and I especially loved the markets on the weekend. So fun to people watch and the crafts are really fun to look through. Glad your having a great first start to your journey.

    • We took a walk down to Otavalo yesterday, which was a lot less crowded than during Saturday’s market. We sat in the Simon Bolivar park for a while and did some people watching, and it was so neat to see all the moms and dads walking their kids home from school. We saw several tourists as well – two older women, a woman traveling solo, and a family of 5. There are several hostels near the square, so it is probably easy to meet other travelers there.

  5. Marcia Gill says:

    Dear Betsy and Warren:
    Looks like you’re being blessed with lots of eye-opening experiences! You’re absolutely right, “poverty” is a relative term and even the poor in the US have a superabundance of things compared with people in other countries. We’re so accustomed to being defined by our possessions. I’ve been telling your story to anyone who will listen! Enjoy every moment.


    • Marcia, so good to hear from you! Poverty is relative – the people we’ve told about our trip and the meager extent of our possessions all say they couldn’t do it, though we are by no means poor. Less possessions = poverty in many people’s eyes – even those of poor people!

  6. I smell a travel book cooking…

  7. Thanks so much for the generosity of sharing your travels, observations and pictures. I love it!

    • JLouise, part of the fun in all of this is sharing our experiences. It forces us to evaluate what we’ve seen and take it in a little deeper than we might otherwise. You guys are a big part of us learning so much on this trip. So thank you!

  8. Joe Benik says:

    Terrific stuff, Betsy. I especially enjoyed the pictures, and your impressions of the people. When you travel, that’s what you find you remember the most fondly — the people.

    I imagine it is tough to resist the temptation to buy stuff from everybody you come across. You could give an artisan four times what they’re used to getting, and still get an incredible price. But then you’d have to carry it around for the next three years.

    Thanks for keeping us posted. I can’t wait for the next update. Hopefully, you’ll let us know what you mean by “street meat.”

    • Joe, the next post goes into “street meat” and the inability to buy things you want and can easily afford. It is a tough situation sometimes, especially when the locals consider us wealthy to be able to travel like this. But we’ve gotten pretty good at explaining our situation, and when we do people usually have questions along the lines of “why in the hell would you do that?” and forget about trying to sell us something. :)

  9. I think you hit the nail on the head. I have discovered, after 20years of international travel, that what we Americans think of as our “god given right to a lifestyle” isn’t even necessarily wanted by the majority of the world.. Certainly, most of the world is much poorer financially, and yet they are often far richer in culture, family life, and enjoying life rather than just racing around seeing how much stuff they can acquire. I am so happy that you are starting to understand this so early in your trip and wish everyone living in the good old USA could come to understand that truly…most people of the world would like their lives to not be quite so difficult but that does NOT mean that they wish they could trade lives with you. Can’t wait to hear how you enjoy the Saturday market! Have fun.

    • You’ve hit the nail on the head, Rhonda. People do want their lives to be less difficult (don’t we all?), but they don’t necessarily want to trade places with us. I’m trying to look at this from the perspective of another person who knows *a* way to be and realizes it is not *the* way to be. Hard to remember sometimes.

  10. Really enjoying your updates and insights, please keep them coming :)


    • Glad you like them, Judy. It is fun for us to think about what we’ve seen and share it with others. What is that saying, if you want to learn something, teach it? I feel like a sponge these days.

  11. You didnt buy anything from the locals, a hat or a blanket maybe,why? Why not?

    You mentioned the poverty, yet you didnt show a little money support?

    No need to go all that way and hire a guide to show you poverty, plenty of poverty in the US, in the US there are people on the streets who cant afford to eat etc. Like you said Betsy, isnt it like looking at them as if they were in a Zoo?

    • John, we purchase meals in restaurants and food stands, pay for taxis and transport as needed, tip for service, and buy our food and household supplies from the locals – just like we did back in the US. We may not buy hats and blankets, but we certainly spend money.

      If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that we are minimalists and have been for some time. With only 2 backpacks for a 4-year trip, we have to stay lean. Our efforts are much more effective in creating “virtual mingas” for places like the medical clinic we wrote about recently or contributing our time, expertise and dollars to charities along our travel route.

      We’re not traveling to document poverty, though we will write about it when we see it. Unfortunately it is all too easy to find in every single country in the world, including the US.

  12. Hi, Betsy and Warren. Just read your posts since you departed – sounds like its been an adventure already! I hadn’t realized that you had not done much overseas travel before. You are truly in for a treat as you roam the world. And am glad that you are already picking up on the “relativeness” of life. I’ve seen more smiles and more acceptance of life as it comes it “poor” places like Laos and Bhutan than I do on the streets of American cities. Your travels will clearly be more about the experiences than about “things,” whether its observing local life or dodging coups or flying for long hours (I still remember the 3 am departure from SeaTac to Taipei and then on to Kuala Lumpur and then on to Langkawi Island – WAY too long in one stretch!). I look forward to being part of the virtual trip!

    • Hi, Chuck. Good to hear from you! Our travel in the past has been either for work or week-long pleasure trips to one-flight destinations like London or Barcelona. And of course we stayed in nice hotels and all that jazz – a completely different experience. We’re looking forward to being more “in the mix” of things with the places we go – though I’m okay if we don’t run into another coup attempt again!

  13. The Saturday market in Otavalo is the largest market in Ecuador consists of colorful fabrics, Jewelry and necklaces, Reed pipes, stones, Fur carpets, clothing and Handicrafts for visitors all around the world

  14. thank you for that contribuitn

    and comments

  15. luv your comments.


  1. [...] enjoyed them all even more after getting so much background on the sellers and their wares during our tour of the villages the day [...]


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