Where to experience traditional Otavalo culture in Ecuador

The Otavalo people of the Andes have kept their traditional festivals, dress and skills alive, offering visitors a rare glimpse of living pre-Columbian history

Team Wanderlust
16 March 2024

Encompassing a sacred landscape of highland lakes, misty valleys and mighty volcanoes, Ecuador’s northern Imbabura Province is also the home of the indigenous Otavalo people. Their eponymous town is where you’ll find the most famous textile and craft market in South America. Bustling along to a soundtrack of keening panpipes, its Plaza de Ponchos market is a riot of rainbow-coloured blankets, wall hangings and fluffy alpaca jumpers, and it has been drawing in backpackers and tour buses since the 1980s.

On the stalls you’ll find men and women in their distinctive traditional dress chatting away in Kichwa, a legacy of the Inca empire that once imposed its rule here. Typically, women wear a white blouse embroidered with bright flowers, multiple strings of golden beads (walcas) around their neck, coral charms (maki watana) on their wrists to ward off evil spirits, and a shawl (fachalina). Two wraparound skirts (anacos) are tied at the waist with a pair of woven belts (fajas) and their hair is usually worn in a single ponytail, often braided with ribbon, while a felt hat or coloured cloth (humaguatarina) keeps off the sun.

Apart from on special occasions, few men wear the traditional Otavalo dress of a white shirt, calf-length white trousers, a dark poncho and white espadrilles (alpargatas), but most wear a felt hat and style their hair in a single braid at the back as a mark of identity and pride.

During June’s Inti Raymi festivities in Cotacachi, the town’s men dress in elaborately made cowboy costumes (Alamy)

Real Indigenous cowboys roam the hills across the Andes (Alamy)

The history of weaving wool here began well before the conquest of Ecuador that was led by Inca ruler Huayna Capac at the end of the 15th century. The Incas introduced alpaca wool and more elaborate weaving styles but were brutal rulers, then the Spanish arrived in the 16th century and local communities were forced to work for long hours in obrajes (sweatshops) to produce cloth that was exported throughout the Spanish Americas. Nowadays, many of the textiles on sale may be made using electric machines, but the most prized pieces are still created by hand in family workshops.

Renowned as traders, shrewd Otavalo entrepreneurs have successfully taken their handicrafts and music all over the world. Textiles, trade and now tourism have helped them maintain their traditions in a world where many Indigenous cultures are under threat.

A resurgent Indigenous pride over the last 30 years has seen local festivals swell in scope to include sporting events, concerts of Andean music and singing, and prizes for the most delicious market food, such as hornado (whole roast hog) served with crackling, mote (hominy corn) and llapingachos (mashed-potato patties). Many families who once left these valleys to seek their fortunes abroad now return specifically during festival time to re-immerse themselves in the rich culture.

Here are six places to experience traditional Otavalo culture in Ecuador

1. Join the fiesta

The Otavalo people’s ties to their ancient Andean cosmovision, a worldview that was shared by many of the pre-Columbian peoples of Mesoamerica, is best seen at festivals following the Inca calendar. In the town of Peguche, Pawkar Raymi (Flower Blossom Festival) is held in February or March to thank Pachamama, the Earth Mother, for a good harvest. In Otavalo, Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) is a full-on fiesta of flute music, dance and feasting in June. And in September, fermented corn beer (chicha de jora) takes centre stage at La Fiesta del Yamor.

2. Visit the sacred waterfall of Peguche

Peguche is a small town famous for its weaving workshops and the Cascadas de Peguche, a series of waterfalls considered sacred. To prepare for Inti Raymi, hundreds of Otavalo men come to the falls at midnight to wash away troubles and purify their souls in the company of a yachak (shaman). These rituals are not for gawkers. At all other times, visitors can enjoy the cool spray from the 18m-high cascade.

3. See condors fly

In Andean myth, the high-flying condor is revered as a messenger to Inti, the sun. Sadly, there are now fewer than 100 wild condors in the Ecuadorian Andes and they are classified as endangered. At the hillside Parque Cóndor, near Otavalo, you can get up close to two rescued condors and a harpy eagle, as well as see falconry displays by hawks and owls. Run by a non-profit foundation that aims to foster a greater appreciation of these birds, the park offers incredible views of Imbabura and Cotacachi volcanoes and Cuicocha Lake

4. Spend time with a local family

Tour company Runa Tupari (runatupari.com) works with Indigenous communities around Otavalo and Cotacachi to offer immersive cultural experiences, alongside hiking, cycling and horse-riding trips. Homestays are with families that have built cosy ‘lodges’ kitted out with hot water and a fireplace. Guests get a taste of family life, feeding chickens and guinea pigs, gathering herbs and vegetables from the garden to prepare meals, and eating with their hosts. Typically run by women, homestays are a great way of bringing the financial benefits of tourism to remote communities while promoting and preserving traditional crafts.

5. Meet Cotacachi’s cowboys

If Otavalo is all about weaving, Cotacachi is dedicated to leather. Stalls selling belts, cowboy boots, saddles and a boggling array of knick-knacks line Calle de Cuero (Leather Street), and many of the workshops are happy for visitors to pop in and see how cow, goat and llama hides are made into leather. The town’s cowboy theme extends to Inti Raymi, when men from different communities don oversized cardboard stetsons, furry leather chaps and horse whips for a rumbunctious zapateado (stomping) dance-off aimed at waking up the Pachamama.

6. Hike a living landscape

Local legend, involving the Imbabura and Cotacachi volcanoes and the crater lakes of Mojanda, tells of Taita Imbabura (Father Imbabura), who was a mighty warrior that fought Mojanda for the love of Mama Cotacachi. He was so worn out by his wooing that the stones he lobbed at Mojanda fell short, scattering the land. It is also said that Cerro Yanahurco, a hill that nestles in the skirts of Cotacachi, is Imbabura’s son. The hike to the summit of Imbabura is not technical but takes four hours. An easier trek is the mini volcano Fuya Fuya (Mist Mist in Kichwa), which takes only two hours and affords fine views of the Mojanda lakes from the top.

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