Otavalo – Stripy Trouser Redux
Many years ago – okay seven – my mother-in-law and I bonded over the acquisition of some very hippy-ish, stripy trousers that we each bought at the famous Otavalo market. On that day I also acquired a Charango and a flute-like instrument whose name I don’t recall. The Charango and flute survive to this day, but the trousers disintegrated to my dismay. Now I done got me a new pair!
Once we managed to finally get into Ecuador, it was a leisurely three hours to Otavalo. We were quite excited, not least because we were moving again, but also since we’d been to Otavalo briefly in 2008 and have some great memories of the area. Surrounded by three volcanoes, the town sits at 8,441 feet (2,573 metres) and has a very nice, laid-back vibe. That feeling continued in our hostel, which was fronted by a lovely Otavalan lady in traditional dress. We had been briefed by friends who had previously stayed at the hostel to seek out Christian, and that evening we found him looking after the cafeteria above our room. There are some people in the world who are natural “fixers”, and Christian is one. Friendly, helpful, gesticulative, extremely knowledgeable and well-connected, during our stay he mixed rum cocktails for us in the evenings and took us out for a frenetic-but-fun day. I’m not sure he ever once paused for breath as he regaled us with stories of Ecuador, Europe and other places. Our Spanish comprehension received a much needed top up. More of that later.
Established in our commodious lodgings, a super large batch of washing organised and electronic thingamajigs all charging, we struck out. Only two blocks away was the famous market, largest on Saturday but there every day, and full of self-similar stalls of tourist items, probably manufactured in China. It’s amusing, friendly, colourful, safe and feels authentic because everyone is in indigenous dress.
I am not sure if I have mentioned my theory of friendship bracelets before, but as far as I can tell the Central and South American economies must depend in large part upon them, given the sheer quantity on display over the region.
Standard bartering rules apply, go for half price and try to end up somewhere less than 60% of the original price. Beware that things may not be what they seem, alpaca wool…probably not, at those prices. Anyway, bucket loads of colourful, stripy hippy pants (American sounds better here rather than the British “trousers”) drew me in and left me six dollars down; well, twelve after I added a suitably possibly-indigenous-made bag for the camera. Whilst happy with my purchases, I have a sneaking suspicion they were made in China.
The local people’s market is a few blocks north and much more interesting, if a little lacking in friendship bracelets. All the staples and a much less sanitised set of colours, smells and textures. Local indigenous dress, fruit, vegetables, tv remotes, food stalls….you name it. Alison even managed to find a choco-banana after interrogating two teenage girls chomping on said treats whilst minding a stall. The price was exactly the same as those in El Salvador in case you are wondering (30c).
We spent a lazy couple of afternoons wandering around Otavalo, sampling a few restaurants, poking our heads in a few churches, perusing the markets and people watching. Alison even braved a haircut which apparently hit a new record for speed and amount of hair left on the shop floor. I braved a barber too. His shop was full of images of sculpted designs shaved into the sides and backs of people’s heads. Fortunately, when he held up the mirror to show me the back of my head it was free of rap symbols. Probably just not enough space back there if truth be told.
Back to our “fixer”, where did he take us on our day out? Well his car was in the shop so it was local buses all the way. First stop:
Fresh off the bus, we jumped into a pick-up that took us up the hill to Lake Cuicocha. The lake is a volcanic crater, filled with clear blue water. Two islands sit in the middle. Nothing lives in the water because gas bubbles up through the bottom, but it is home to lots of birds. Apparently you can drink the water straight from the lake, but we declined on this occasion, given our proven propensity to contract typhoid.
Christian, still not having drawn a breath, gave us a choice: walk around the volcano’s rim for four hours or take a small boat for a tour of the lake. Citing possible altitude adjustment issues, we opted for the easier path. A brief walk later past various traditional lunar and solar calendars, explained in great detail and at high speed by Christian, we found ourselves in a surprisingly informative visitor centre before reaching a jetty surrounded by…..friendship bracelet sellers! Actually the calendars were quite interesting and merit more of a mention. It’s amazing that so long ago people devised such precise ways to measure the heavens with simple stone structures.
The boat required six people before take-off so we attached ourselves to an Ecuadorian couple holidaying from Quito and embarked. It was leisurely, narrated in Spanish and a nice way to spend the late morning. Many photos were taken with our new friends and afterwards they treated us to a sugar cane drink, complete with additional shot of strong alcohol. Strong enough to make me wobble. They even gave us all a lift into the nearby town of Cotacachi.
We took lunch at a local food court and tried a fantastic soup that only appears during Easter, Fanesca, available with fish or purely vegetarian. It’s a very hearty meal and it seems a mystery to us that it only appears once a year. Get the recipe and cook it!
Just outside of Otavalo you can find the Peguche waterfall, walking distance from the main road where a couple days earlier we had been unceremoniously dumped by our bus into Otavalo. On the way in we stopped to talk to a motorcycle policeman, Christian’s cousin (Christian knows everyone here). The walk is pleasant: there are a few Artesanal stalls nearby but the waterfall, while pretty, is not breath-taking. It’s definitely more of a nice walk than a touristical wonder. Of course we had Christian’s super-fluid commentary to make up for that and by the time we got half way there he was offering to negotiate for us to buy property in Ecuador. Not entirely sure how we got into that. Interestingly, foreigners can apparently only purchase a hectare unless involved in something useful that the government approves of. And, according to Christian, unless you have an Ecuadorian to negotiate on your behalf, foreigners can expect to pay way over the odds.
It seems mildly curious to me that prices can double for Gringos throughout South America. Fair enough at markets people will try to fleece you, taxis too; that’s standard everywhere. But museums and many other tourist places often have a local price and foreigner price that differ wildly. Imagine if we did that in the UK, there would be uproar at the discrimination: Chinese people charged double for Edinburgh Castle?!
The rains came on just as we descended into town and we managed to get completely soaked in only 100m. Just like in Edinburgh, the formerly-ubiquitous taxis mysteriously disappear at the first sign of precipitation.
A poorly-mixed but sufficiently alcohol-fuelled cocktail and a super-bland vegetarian meal marked our last night in this great little place. But after three days in Otavalo, it was time to move on again. To summarise: our stay was akin to rediscovering an old acquaintance, understanding them in more depth and leaving no longer mere acquaintances, but firm friends. How’s that for corny!