Why I Love the Otavalo Market

Malls drain me of energy faster than the roaming mode drains a phone’s battery. Thirty minutes in the blinding, contrived vastness of a shopping mall leaves me depleted and directionless.

Markets are different… each market has its own character. Markets have food to sample, people to haggle with, and a buzz of personable energy.

I walked through the Otavalo market in a state of perfect Zen. On that early Saturday morning, the crowds hadn’t yet turned up, and I stood in the main square munching on a 50 cent bag of purple corn as vendors set up their displays of alpaca rugs and other cozy handicrafts.

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Saturday mornings in Otavalo begin around 3 a.m. a few minutes outside of town at the animal market, one of the largest in South America. Normally, one can find guinea pigs and llamas for sale, but I arrived around 5:30 a.m. The sun hadn’t come up yet, but most of the animals had already gone home. I saw quite a few squealing baby pigs, cages of chickens, and sad looking dogs in tiny cages. As the sun came up, Otavalo families dragged their new pets/food across the Panamerican highway between speeding buses.

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The Otavalos are some of the most economically successful indigenous groups on the continent … possibly why they still wear traditional clothing. Otavalos proudly carry on their customs, and this authenticity draws hundreds of people to travel the two hours from Quito every Saturday, alongside plenty of tourist groups.

The artesian market continues in town for the rest of the day, with food vendors speckled around the central plaza. Aside from plenty of alpaca products, one can buy handmade jewelry, cotton hats, hammocks, and voodoo-looking wall decorations. I hope to die in a snuggly pile of alpaca-fur rugs.

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If you aren’t vegetarian, mornings are the time to feast on tender pork. Although I haven’t eaten meat in three years, the sight of an entire roasted pig -complete with a tomato stuffed in the mouth- stirred a carnivorous nostalgia. Instead, I ate more corn and drank an alfalfa-orange juice concoction.

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Saturdays are an ideal time to practice haggling skills, because prices are directly correlated with market size. On off-Saturdays, prices drop dramatically. When I haggle, I never begin by asking the price; instead, I start with an insultingly low offer. Most people begin bargaining 15-20% lower than the vendor’s initial price… but I tend to look naive, and I must assert myself.

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But I liked spending money in Otovalo. Walmart might be cheaper, and maybe I didn’t really need an alpaca sweater, but when I come back to Ecuador in ten years for home decorations, I don’t want this market to have changed a bit. I vote with my dollars, so I voted for Otavalo.

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