Otavalo, Ecuador: Arts and Crafts from the center of the world

17 April 2012 at 07:00 7 comments

By Isabel Balderrama /KF-17/ Ecuador

It’s my second to last week as a fellow in Ibarra, Ecuador and although I’ve seen and done a lot during my time here I’m still in full Panic-Mode as I haven’t yet bought a thing for my friends and family back home and time is ticking away ever so persistently.

Thankfully I quickly remember that I’m only 30 minutes away from the city of Otavalo and its world renown “Plaza de Ponchos”, a national hub for local talent and for beautiful and colorful handmade Ecuadorian crafts. With this in mind, I head out the door of my small Ibarra apartment and walk towards the nearby bus station, making sure to first have a quarter in my pocket (the cost of a one-way ticket from Ibarra to Otavalo) and an umbrella on hand since rain is pretty frequent in this part of Ecuador during this time of year.

Tourists browsing the stalls at the market on a typical Saturday morning, the fair's busiest day

Otavalo is located in the Northern part of Ecuador and it is a city of about 90,000 inhabitants, 55% of which live in the rural areas of the Otavalo Canton. FODEMI’s Otavalo agency, which I’ve talked about during a previous post, is lucky to be able to work with many of the talented Otavaleños who work the stalls that crowd the Plaza de Ponchos every day of the week, as well as several streets on Saturday mornings. Many of these borrowers come from Ecuador’s indigenous population, the females members of which distinguish themselves by wearing beautifully woven white blouses and long black skirts and the men all white from head to toe with their hair in a long single braid down their back.

Otavaleñas in their traditional indigenous garments, standing by their stalls

Otavaleño man with his "mantas" or blankets

A lot of the merchandise for sale in the Plaza de Ponchos is made locally by people such as KIVA borrower Luis and his parents, who weave the traditional indigenous belts at home, or Maria Laura who embroiders the blouses by hand. When asked about the meaning of the many golden beady necklaces worn by the indigenous women of Otavalo, the vendors explain to me that the more necklaces a woman wears, the more important her status is within her community.  I’ve also heard from others that it is significative of a woman’s age: the older she is, the larger and more numerous her beads.

There is a large assortment of necklaces of all sizes for purchase. Tradicional necklaces such as these are usually no more than 8% or 9% gold.

Bracelets, owls, and more

During my trip to Otavalo I am confronted with a lot more than just golden necklaces and full length indigenous skirts. Wherever I look there are colorful sourveniers with the words “Ecuador” written on them and often also embossed with pictures of llamas, although I’ve only heard of them existing in the southern part of the country. I am tempted to buy an Aya Uma Mask, or the devil spirit of the mountain, as it is explained to me by the vendor, but I eventually settle for an impossibly soft and colorful “manta”, or blanket and a locally printed T-shirt.

Weaved devil Aya Uma masks were ubiquitous throughout the plaza

Color is one thing the Plaza de Ponchos fair will never lack

Even though the fair generally wraps up around 2 or 3 on Saturdays, I find that I have everything I need by noon. As the skies above me begin to gray, I firmly grasp the black bag containing my T-shirts, some pencil holders, and a manta and I head home thinking “Mission accomplished.”  But who knows, with one week left in Ecuador I may be back… Now that I think about it I might have a little room left in my suitcase for that Aya Uma mask.

Currently there are about 46 loans from Otavaleños that are paying Kiva members back. Most are thankful that a Kiva loan has kept their business going and their talents engaged.  If you would like to make a difference in one of these artists’ lives you can do so by browsing Ecuador’s loans on Kiva. org or by joining Kiva’s lending team “Friends of FODEMI“.

Isabel is a Kiva Fellow working with FODEMI in Ibarra, Ecuador.

Entry filed under: KF17 (Kiva Fellows 17th Class).

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  • 1. jose  |  11 May 2012 at 22:07

    Aya Uma is not a devil is a soul of nature

    • 2. IsabelB  |  13 May 2012 at 18:48

      Thanks for the comment Jose. The vendor and one of my coworkers referred to him as “el Diablo Uma”, but you are right in that he can be interpreted as more of a spirit than the traditional definition of “devil” as an evil being.

  • […] Otavalo, Ecuador: Arts and Crafts from the center of the world By Isabel Balderrama | KF17 | Ecuador Isabel discovers one of Ecuador’s unique craft markets where colorful and artistic products are for sale. She shares a bit of culture she observes and how Kiva’s partner MFI’s are helping indigenous borrowers to thrive. […]

  • 4. pat  |  18 April 2012 at 13:40

    I am so happy Kiva is in Ecuador now, country where I was born, have lived in the States for 50 yrs. but still love to read these stories, it brings back so many memories and I am proud to loan money to the hard, talented, artistic Ecuadoreans. Thanks to all the Kiva fellows helping around the world.

    • 5. IsabelB  |  19 April 2012 at 08:48

      And thank you Pat. Your help makes a big difference in these people’s lives. I’ve seen it firsthand 🙂

  • 6. simplyriel  |  17 April 2012 at 18:30

    You look so beautiful and happy in that picture, Isabel! I can’t believe that the time has gone by so fast.


    • 7. IsabelB  |  18 April 2012 at 05:15

      Thanks Jen, it has right? April caught me by surprise!

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