Rugs to riches on market day

To a tranquil soundtrack of Andean pipes, Steve McKenna goes souvenir shopping in Otavalo.

It's market day in Otavalo and the colour is bewildering. A maze of stalls occupies Plaza de Ponchos displaying woven alpaca rugs, handbags, dolls, gloves, fedoras, sarongs, hammocks, blankets, sweaters and shawls as well as webs of filigree, paintings, sculptures and wooden masks etched with devilish faces. Sacks of spices sit next to random oddities such as iron presses, clay pipes, dream catchers, Panama hats (which actually originate from Ecuador's Pacific coast) and fake shrunken human heads (reflecting a gruesome cultural practice once carried out by Ecuador's Amazonian tribes).

Compared with markets I've endured in Asia, Otavalo's is remarkably calm. There's no harassment. No raised voices. Minor hustle and bustle. The tranquillity is fuelled by enchanting Andean pipe melodies, which drift, both pre-recorded from speakers and live, from musicians blowing into their wooden pan flutes. These instruments are just some of the centuries-old traditions maintained in a quaint, thriving town nestled amid a spell-binding region of lakes and volcanoes.

Souvenir hunters will enjoy Otavalo throughout the week, but Saturday is market day. Bus-loads of outsiders, Ecuadorian and foreign, make the two-hour journey from the capital, Quito, while artisans living in the surrounding towns and villages come to sell their wares and chew the fat.

A subgroup of the ethnic Quechua people - South America's largest native group - the indigenous Otavalenos had their weaving skills exploited by the Incas, then the Spanish colonialists. Now they're one of the most commercially successful, and affluent, groups in the Andes. A museum, south of Plaza de Ponchos and near leafy Parque Central, holds demonstrations of textile productions. Yet it's just as intriguing to wander Otavalo's streets, observing how today's merchants meld customs, old and new. On one hand, they've embraced modernity. I see dozens of locals on laptops, tapping into the town's free wi-fi zones. Besides Spanish and Quichua (a dialect of the old Inca language), some speak great English, too, often with a slight American accent, a sign of the close ties between Ecuador and the US. Thousands of Ecuadorians work in the US - and send remittances home. They don't have to worry about changing currencies. Ecuador replaced the crisis-hit sucre with the dollar in 2000.

Although other stalls in Otavalo flog Western-style clobber, such as jeans, fake branded soccer kits and tracksuits, most locals cling to their fashion roots. I see women wearing white blouses embroidered with flowers, long woollen skirts, headcloths, woven belts, canvas sandals and strands of beads.

Dark ponchos and calf-length pants warm the men, whose long hair, often braided, tumbles down from their felt hats. It's said that if they cut their locks, they'll lose part of their spirit and their identity.

The biggest celebration of Otavaleno culture is the Fiesta del Yamor, which marks the September harvest with festivities, fireworks, a beauty pageant and the glugging of copious amounts of chica (a fermented-corn drink).

Today, vendors rove with cauldrons of stew and wheelbarrows of fruit. Others serve freshly squeezed orange juice. Quirky cafes nearby offer good espresso, and plenty of traditional restaurants serve a variety of Andean specialities, including cuy (guinea pig).

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Coming to Otavalo under your own steam, and staying locally, means you can wake up bright and early to soak up the market's atmosphere. However, I'm on a day tour from Quito, which gives me a greater insight into the wider region.

After Otavalo, we visit Cotacachi, named after a 4944-metre-high mountain - one of several peaks on its beautiful outskirts - and dubbed the leather capital of Ecuador. Shops sell a high-quality range of jackets, belts, bags and shoes.

We zoom up to Cuicocha, a 200-metre-deep mirror lake, embedded in an extinct volcanic crater. In the middle of it, two steep-forested islands, which shot up in later eruptions, are said to resemble the backs of guinea pigs.

According to our guide, Daniel, the countryside is home to the elusive Andean bear, while endangered condors occasionally soar above.

Earlier that day, not long after leaving Quito, we'd stopped off at the equator for the obligatory photo opportunity - one foot in both hemispheres - and discovered the magic of the Quitsato Mitad del Mundo monument, a sundial that claims to be the centre of the world.

A guide there reveals the importance of the equator in astronomy and the symbolism of local archaeological sites. Early civilisations knew the precise location of the equator, and many of Quito's churches were built atop old indigenous places of worship that aligned with the route of the sun on the summer solstice.

Later, we drive past fields of potatoes, carrots, quinoa and flowers - Ecuador is one of the world's largest producers of roses - and stop for a snack at Cayambe, where we sample the local bizcocho, a milky, salty corn biscuit.

We return to Quito an hour or so before sunset. As we drive through villages so sleepy and traditional they make Otavalo look like a modern, teeming metropolis, I keep seeing the same bizarre thing: pigs' heads hanging over the doorways of makeshift little shops.

"It means they're out of meat," Daniel says. "It's like putting a 'closed' sign up. It's very common round here - especially at this time of day."

Steve McKenna was a guest of Gulliver Tours.

FAST FACTS

Getting there LAN has a fare to Quito for about $1910 low-season return from Sydney, including taxes. Fly to Santiago (about 16hr including transit time in Auckland), to Lima (4hr), then to Quito (2hr 30min); see lan.com. Melbourne passengers pay about $100 more and fly Qantas to and from Auckland. Australians do not require a visa for a stay of up to 90 days.

Touring there Gulliver arranges tours to Otavalo (one and two days), from $US38 ($36); see gulliver.com.ec. Tour pick-ups from Plaza Foch, in Quito's New Town, where Nu House hotel has rooms from $US149; see nuhousehotels.com.

More information ecuador.travel.

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