Otavaleños can be found selling their handicrafts all over Ecuador. This picture of Rosa (left) and Estela (right) was taken in the coastal town of Manta in 1989.

My interest in Otavaleños took a romantic twist in 1990, with Marisol Martinez Muenala. She and her mother sold handicrafts at a store in Quito.

The Poncho Plaza is the epicenter of the Otavalo market and is busy every day. On the main market day, Saturday, the market spills out of the plaza and into the surrounding streets. This picture was taken in May of 1993.

This picture of the Otavalo market was taken in July 2001.

One of the most appealing things about Otavaleñas is their dress. I especially like the feature of the blue skirt or yana anacu, split to the side to reveal the white underskirt, or yurak anacu. At my urging, Lori tried the look for herself during our July 2001 trip to Ecuador.

From the left, Enrique Maldonaldo, Marisol's mother and Lori. Marisol's mom says that Lori's anacus and fachalina is a good start but that she needs to wear the embroidered blouse and the necklaces before she can be a true Otavaleña. Enrique wants me to help him sell weavings and other handicrafts in the United States one of these days.

Marisol's mom was happy to see me again, even though Marisol herself got married and moved to Spain.

Otavaleños can be found selling their handicrafts in many places outside of Ecuador. I came across these two women in Tlaquepaque, a suburb of Guadalajara, Mexico, in May of 2004.

The Otavaleño People of Northern Ecuador

The Otavaleños (or runa, as the refer to themselves) are a people and culture indigenous to the Otavalo valley in the Imbabura province of Northern Ecuador. The Otavalo Indians are the descendants of the Cara Indians who inhabited this region of South America about 500 years ago. In 1495 the Caras were conquered by the Incas of the south, and the Incan Empire was in turn conquered by the Spanish Conquistadores in the 1530s. The Otavaleño people today are skilled textile weavers, and are perhaps the most prosperous indigenous group in all of South America. Today, there are upwards of 50,000 Otavaleños; the majority of them still live in the valley surrounding the town of Otavalo, but they are a common site in virtually any Ecuadorian city. Within the past two decades or so, increasing numbers of Otavaleños have also been travelling overseas to sell their handicrafts in Europe, North America and other countries in South America.

It's hard to spend any time in Ecuador at all without encountering the Otavaleños. They and their woven handicrafts dominate the Saturday market in the town of Otavalo, which is the most tourist-oriented market in all of Ecuador and is probably the third most-visited tourist destination in the country, behind the Galapagos Islands and the Mitad del Mundo equator monument. Furthermore, they can be found selling their handicrafts in stores, kiosks and sidewalks throughout the country. It's impossible, for example, to walk down Calle Amazonas or the tourist-oriented Mariscal Sucre sector of Quito without encountering Otavaleños. They've set up shop along the Guayaquil waterfront, in the shadow of the Mitad del Mundo, beneath the waterfalls of Baños, and in the squares of Cuenca. I've found Otavaleños selling their wares in the coastal town of Manta. I've even encountered Otavaleño stores in the Galapagos Islands. Indeed, the people of Otavalo are everywhere.

I didn't pay much attention to them when I first stepped foot in Ecuador in 1988, but since then the Otavalos have become a source of fascination for me. I think I first truly became interested in the Otavaleño people and their culture during my 1989 trip, when I discovered a pair of 15-year-old Otavaleñitas selling artesanias along the seawall in Manta. Because I was 15 years old at the time myself, my interest in them was obviously borne of something other than a desire to simply broaden my cultural horizons. But as I flirted with them, I learned all about them.

My initial experiences with these Otavaleñitas led me to discover that these people were not only good businessmen and skilled textile weavers, but also friendly, outgoing and unpretentious. I especially enjoyed the way they dressed. My interest in the Otavaleños - and especially the young, female members of the tribe (hey, I couldn't help it; I was a teenager and they were just so damned cute) - only grew during my return to Ecuador in 1990. This interest culminated with an actual Otavaleña girlfriend, Marisol Martinez.

Of course, our cross-cultural relationship was never meant to be and I was never completely comfortable with it. I especially remember walking through the streets of Otavalo, holding hands with Marisol, and receiving more than our share of dirty looks and even slurs. The Otavaleño people have a strong sense of ethnic identity and generally do not look kindly upon romantic relationaships or marriages with "outsiders," especially gringos such as myself.

So the adolescent romantic urges passed, but today I am still fascinated by the Otavaleños. I find it fascinating that this group of people can be so prosperous and successful in the modern world yet retain their ancient customs and traditions, such as their language and their style of dress.

In their 1949 book The Awakening Valley, John Collier, Jr. and Anibal Buriton prophetically wrote about the Otavaleños:

In the valley of Otavalo there has been an awakening, a miracle of cultural rebirth. The Indians of Otavalo are rising in a wave of vitality that is breaking the bonds of their traditional proverty, making them into a society of prosperous and independent citizens.

In 2001, the valley of Otavalo is wide awake.

Refer to the following sources if you want more information about the people of Otavalo, their culture, their handicrafts and their home:

On the web

Here's a site dealing with the Otavaleño people themselves:

otavalosonline.com

The Otavaleño people are using modern technologies such as the World Wide Web to expand their handicrafts businesses. Here's one such example:

tejidos-ecuador.com

Otavalo and the surrounding region is very tourist-oriented. These sites deal mainly with tourism, but there's also some more interesting information about the Otavalenos themselves contained within these sites:

otavalo-web.com
alishungu.com
ecuadorexplorer.com/html/otavalo.html

The native tongue of the Otavaleños is Quichua, a dialect of the Incan language Quechua. Here are some good sites dealing with Quichua language and grammar:

philip-jacobs.de/runasimi/
zompist.com/quechua.html

Books

Collier, John, Jr., and Buitrón, Aníbal. The Awakening Valley. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1949

Meisch, Lynn. Otavalo: Weaving, Costume and the Market. Ediciones Libri Mundi, Quito, 1987.

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