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Two hours drive to the north of Quito, through spectacular rolling green valleys and backdrops of snow-capped mountains, Otavalo (pop 21,548; alt 7950 ft) as a town is nothing spectacular. But its huge Saturday market (smaller, more user friendly markets Wednesday through Friday as well) is its raison d'etre.
The market is actually three markets rolled into one. On one square is a collection of "kioskos" and stands offering a wide variety of textiles (rugs, ponchos, jackets, wall hangings), wood carvings, clothing (including the recent addition of a limited array of t-shirts), sweaters and the famed "Panama Hat" in addition to jewelry & curiosities. On the street to the side and back of the square is a very busy produce market, and a totally different square has an animal auction.
The Otavalo Indians are distinctive and can be spotted anywhere in the world. The men wear their hair long and braided under a black trophy hat; they have white, calf-length trousers and blue ponchos.
The women's colorful costumes consist of embroidered blouses, shoulder wraps and a plethora of colored or gold beads. Quechua is their first tongue and Spanish their second.
They are noted weavers, and the town of Otavalo is the nucleus for more than 75 scattered Otavaleno communities, each a weaving center. They are noted traders and travel extensively in search of new markets.
Other places to visit en route to and near Otavalo:
Just 32 km north of Quito is the town of Calderon, famous for its "bread dough dolls". The main street is lined with shops making figurines out of flour and water. The origins of this practice can be traced back to edible figures made for All Soul's Day. The figures had a cross placed across the chest in red, green and black and were placed in cemeteries as offerings to the hungry souls. Today they have become hugely popular as a souvenir, especially the Nativity Set. But you can also still see them in the Indian cemeteries on All Soul's Day.
A small town, Cotacachis main street is lined with store after store of leather - leather jackets, leather skirts, leather hats, leather bags, leather briefcases, leather toys, leather purses, leather, leather, leather. Prices vary with quality
SAN ANTONIO DE IBARRA
Off the main road between Otavalo and Ibarra, San Antonio de Ibarra is well known for its wood carvings. The main square and the main road are lined with shops, galleries and boutiques.
Peguche is a small town to the northeast of Otavalo. Peguche is known for it's weavers, just off the main square behind the church the Cotacachi-Pichamba family who have a shop with excellent quality tapestries.