On your market. Get set. Go! Otavalo, Ecuador
High in the mountains above Quito there is a party kicking off. Stalls have been setting up around the main square all day and as the sun sets vendors start to display their wares. Quail eggs, meat skewers, beef saltado and vast pots filled with curries, rice and spaghetti sizzle, boil and spit along the pathways. The overwhelming smell however, is that of a sweet tea that is brewed with rum and dished out in tiny paper cups for 30c a pop.
Known mainly as the host town for South America’s biggest market, Otavalo is gearing up to prove over the three-day fiesta del Yamor, that it has other tricks in its bag. Stationary shops around the square have traded in their erasers and staplers for crates of beer, vats of rum-spiked tea and long tables. Their interiors are crowded with several generations of the same family – kids chasing the dog around the store, Mum scolding whilst stirring the immense pot and Nan smiling knowingly from her chair.
The centre of the proceedings is the huge stage that has been erected beside the cathedral on the main square. There bands spew forth a mix of salsa rhythms, panpipe tunes and well-known South American ballads before they are hustled off the stage to make space for the all-important election of the fiesta queen.
Being the only gringos in town, just crossing the square is proving to be a bit of an event for us. Within that 100m distance I am accosted by a teenaged boy wanting to salsa and an old man with a twinkle in his eye who promises to show me a thing or two. Inches to the left of me a young girl in the traditional floor length, one sleeve pinafore is getting handsy with her Diesel jeans-clad boyfriend while her parents exchange pained glances.
Despite the party atmosphere though, Otavalo’s primary attraction is still the vast market that fills a five block radius every Saturday morning. True to form, at around 6am while the rest of the city is still in a beer coma and while the more hardcore party-goers are struggling to fit the right key in their front door, the protagonists in the weekly show are quietly setting the stage.
Men in shorts and ponchos with long, swinging plaits help their wives to set up the metal frames of their stalls while children play drowsily under wooden tables. Over the day they will play quietly in the wings, watching and learning before taking over in the early afternoon when their parents go in search of dinner. Under strict instructions they strike a hard bargain, taking no less than US50c for a rope bracelet, $15 for an original artwork or $2 for that last chirping duckling.
When the people of Otavalo do finally arise and throw on last night’s poncho they will find solace in the food market where every wink and nudge will be discussed over crispy pig rind, fresh fruit juice and fried entrails. Finally they will build up the energy to wander the streets haggling for the week’s groceries and some new cotton underware, stopping every few minutes to chatter to a neighbour or coo over a tightly-swaddled baby.
Before they know it another Saturday will have passed in a whirl of woolen hats, maybe alpaca jumpers, Panama hats, cotton hammocks, hand-carved guitars, logo tshirts and roadside lunches. The stalls will be quickly packed up and carried back to hillside villages. The pails of coconut milk emptied out. All that will be left of the day’s business will be empty food containers and plastic bags fluttering in the afternoon breeze and a handful of dazed tourists wondering if they really just saw that.
There are more pictures of Otavalo available in the gallery