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Andes’ Markets, Ecuador

Andes’ Markets, Ecuador
by Candyce H. Stapen

In Ecuador’s Andes, along with formidable mountains, scenic valleys and centuries-old haciendas, we discovered intriguing native markets. We met locals, learned about traditions and bargained for hand-crafted items.

When we arrived in Iluman, a small village known for its felt hats, all the shops were closed except for a small eatery. Whenever my daughter Alissa and I travel to rural areas, we always take along an old Polaroid camera, the kind that delivers a print within minutes. We give the photos as gifts to local families.

Once Alissa and I started photographing the seven-year-old girl handing out sodas in the café , the street came to life. Soon the girl's mother and a neighbor arrived for photos. Suddenly our new-found friends opened shop doors for us. We happily tried on an array of nattily constructed fedoras until we found the two that fit just right.

Otavalo, about two hours from Quito, hosts a well-known market, a regional highlight, typically held Wednesday to Saturday. For local color, we followed the oinks and grunts, the bleating and braying to the animal market held early, around 7 a.m. on Saturday morning, the fair's most popular day. Wearing traditional attire, men with long black braids, white pants, blue ponchos, and black hats dickered over the price of horses while women arrayed in black skirts, white blouses embroidered with flowers, and strings of gold beaded necklaces cooked up roasted pig for the earnest tradesmen.

For most travelers the real bargains start in town. Craftspeople set-up rows upon rows of stalls that fill the square and spill into the side streets. The weavers of Otavalo are well-known. On market days they sell heavy, knit sweaters, blankets still smelling of llamas, intricately patterned bags, wall-hangings, and backpacks. The blankets sell for about one-fifth of U.S. prices. We thought ahead, stowing away blankets, bags, and sweaters for next year's holiday presents.

Another famous and authentic market is Saquisili, about 90 minutes from Quito. Events start on Thursday with an animal market. Geared more for locals than tourists, this market had scores of farmers bartering for llamas, horses, and sheep. Women tugged on the ropes around their newly purchased piglets, dragging the squealing broods into the back of pick-up trucks.

Nearby, other women sat in front of colorful pyramids of mangoes, pineapples, and oranges brought up from the coast. Just beyond were the tourist stalls laden with tee shirts, sweaters, wall hangings and ponchos. Alissa bought an embroidered tee shirt and a faja, a woven swath of material used to cover braided hair. When the woman offered to use the faja to wrap Alissa's hair into a guaago, she was thrilled. This was the native looked she craved.

To visit Saquisili, we stayed at La Cienega. Parts of this grand manor home, adorned with fountains and flower bedecked courtyards, date to 1695. Rooms vary in size. Although ours proved small, we liked La Cienega’s authentic atmosphere.

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