Sunday, August 7, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Market Days -- The Village Markets Of Ecuador Are The Place To Find A Vibrant, Local Culture

Universal Press Syndicate

It's 8 a.m. in the plaza.

The onion ladies line up across from the corn ladies. "Indigenas" with their heaps of baskets sit to the right, pottery sellers to the left. The rope sellers sit in one corner, often plaiting, working from a sheaf of "cabuya," the wispy fibers of the agave plant that are used for rope and string bags.

Plastic dishes, barbecued guinea pigs, soap, pasta, baby chicks, freshly cut flowers - all have their designated places.

This is market day in Ecuador, where clouds lift from glacier-covered volcanoes, creating an opening for the equatorial sun; where high-altitude light streams over green and golden hills and into the plaza at the heart of the village.

The people who live next to their corn and potato fields come to town once a week for the "feria" - the market. They buy, sell and barter food and supplies, see friends and family.

For the traveler, it's a chance to participate in an indigenous culture by bargaining for crafts, meeting the artisans, simply watching and, with luck (or a calendar of saints' days), stumbling on a fiesta.

Most visitors to Ecuador pause only briefly to visit the old colonial capital, Quito, before flying on to the Galapagos Islands (an Ecuadorian national park) or descending to the Amazon rain forest at the eastern edge of the country. They miss a remarkable combination of mountains and culture, easily accessible from hotels and restored haciendas.

Overall, Ecuador captures the diversity of all of South America - coasts, mountains and jungle - compressed into a country no bigger than Colorado.

Ecuador suffered Incan and Spanish conquest and centuries of oppression. But native cultures have survived, and about 40 percent of the 10 million Ecuadorians identify themselves as indigenous people (who prefer the Spanish "indigena" to "indio," Indian).

Heritage displayed

It is in the markets that this culture - this rich heritage - is seen in microcosm. The combination of experiences is a fertile gathering of hundreds and thousands of indigenous people, each wearing the distinctive ponchos, hats and shawls of their communities.

Foothills beyond towns, beneath crystalline mountain light, are covered by tiny farm plots postage-stamped to 60-degree slopes in a mosaic that reaches almost to the bases of 20,000-foot volcanoes.

On our first bus trip to visit a market, we boarded in Quito and headed for Otavalo with a busload of tiny and immaculately dressed Otavalena women, their plump babies asleep on their breasts.

Curtains of rain lifted to reveal fields and lines of eucalyptus trees sparkling in the sun. Clouds swirled away, unveiling the mountains. Here and there, a woman watched the traffic pass as she worked with a spindle of wool and tended her small herd of cows or sheep by the road.

At virtually every market in Ecuador are the stalls of the Otavalenos, master weavers, shrewd capitalists, and the most affluent indigenous group in Latin America.

Wealthier tribes live in North America, but their recent riches have come from oil, uranium or casinos. No one can match the Otavalenos for their success in using their own culture - as weaving specialists - to enter the multinational economy without sacrificing their ethnicity. And they've done it entirely on their own.

Bargaining in Ecuador is an art, a performance and an act of friendship. The bottom-line price averages 75 percent of the original asking price.

Ecuadorians let you go gracefully when you choose not to buy. Remember, though, that you may regret not buying that lovely hand-woven belt that you wanted for 4,000 sucres ($1.86 U.S.), whose weaver would not sell for less than 5,000 sucres ($2.33), after initially asking for 7,000 sucres ($3.26).

Otavaleno merchants deliver textiles to local markets, and also to Paris and New York.

About 45,000 Otavalenos live in Otavalo and the surrounding villages and countryside; 85 percent are involved in the textile industry in some way - from a family hand-weaving two ponchos a month to owners of factories cranking out 300 ponchos a day on electric looms. Other Otavalenos live in cities, merchandising to the surrounding areas.

Every Saturday the extravaganza of the market takes over Otavalo. Just one hour north of Quito, Otavalo's is the most visited market in Ecuador.

An animal market begins at dawn at the edge of town; the domestic market overflows from the market building into the streets, its vendors providing food and supplies to villagers and townspeople; and the dominant families of Otavalo sell their textiles in more than 500 stalls in the bustling Plaza de Ponchos.

The Otavalenos carry the greatest variety of market crafts in Ecuador, since only they, as wholesalers, have access to everything.

You can find every item of traditional men's and women's outfits for sale here: the dark blue Otavalo men's ponchos, embroidered blouses, necklaces of gold beads that are actually Czech-made glass Christmas-tree ornaments, coral or coral-colored plastic bracelets, belts and shawls, bags, sandals, dark wrap skirts. The Otavalo woman's outfit comes closer to traditional Incan dress than any other contemporary Andean clothing.

You'll also find tapestries, blankets, baskets, bread-dough ornaments, fedoras and Panama hats, antiques, pan pipes, wood carvings, leather work, chunky wool sweaters and shawls - in designs made for the non-indigenous taste -along with imported alpaca and vicuna rugs, sweaters and antique weavings from Peru and Bolivia.

Commercial bus tours can take you to the leather-workers of Cotacachi and the wood-carvers of San Antonio de Ibarra.

To step out of your passive role of tourist, try the more locally oriented Otavalo market on Wednesday. Or visit the Otavalo weavers on your own. Simply take a bus or taxi out to the villages that lie within a few minutes of Otavalo - Peguche, Agato, Illuman, Quinchuqui or Carabuela. Knock on the door of any weaving workshop with a sign. These are the treasure hunts that lead to the purchase of a poncho or belt directly off the loom.

For shopping, Otavalo, with its heaps of textiles made and wholesaled by Otavalenos, is the place.

But if your primary interest is the diversity of indigenous cultures, or if you want to buy folk crafts made for the indigenas and to buy them from the makers, you must look beyond Otavalo.

Getting to the villages

We went to seven markets in 10 days. Basic "market Spanish" allows visitors to bargain and buy food. And the small scale of Ecuador makes traveling easy. Tours can always be arranged from Quito or Cuenca. You can rent your own car, but independent driving inevitably isolates you from the culture, and car-rental prices are comparable to those in the United States.

Consider public transportation - bus, rail, air - between major stops, with taxi rental (relatively cheap) locally. You can ask your taxi driver the list of questions you have accumulated. Especially if your Spanish is weak, a guide can provide crucial additional insight. An occasional splurge on a van or Jeep with a driver and guide will allow you to venture into the back country. We tried most of these options.

Ambato and Riobamba - three and four hours, respectively, by road south of Quito - are the biggest of the markets. Tens of thousands of indigenas wearing the red ponchos of the central Sierra come to Ambato on Monday and to Riobamba on Saturday.

Thousands of traders take over a dozen plazas and the streets that link them, selling everything from cooked snails to underwear, from furniture to barbecued guinea pigs.

In these larger towns, one or more market buildings (mercados) house some stalls, especially food stalls. But everywhere the sellers spill out onto the streets. These big-city markets bustle with commerce and people, with a surprise on every corner.

Riobamba, a provincial capital of 100,000, attracts more indigenas to its market than any other, which is not surprising since 250,000 indigenous people live in the province.

Here in the Parque de la Concepcion is perhaps the best non-Otavaleno arts-and-crafts marketplace in the region, with a full array of ponchos, belts, old jewelry, a variety of hats, and the lovely string bags called "shigras" that virtually all Ecuadorians use as purses.

Cuenca, in the southern mountains, lies farthest from Quito, too far for a comfortable bus ride and worth the inexpensive air fare. Cholas (women of Indian/white heritage) come to the Thursday and Saturday markets in this old colonial city to sell their week's worth of freshly woven Panama hats (which come, despite their name, from Ecuador) and to buy fresh straw for the week of hat-weaving to come.

Small-town markets, such as Pujili's and Saquisili's, are largely produce and livestock exchanges; any "art" for sale consists of indigena clothing.

Rural markets

Even smaller villages such as Tzalaron may see just 10 or 20 traders quietly bartering with 200 locals - 80 percent of their trade being in produce.

Rural markets take place on hillsides surrounded by fields and ridges and clouds, a very different setting from the eroding stucco and narrow cobblestone streets of the cities. These smaller markets were our favorites, the truest window into the indigenas of Ecuador.

Tzalaron looks like one of the primitive paintings of the Tigua Indians come to life, with each indigena tableau perfectly set off by Andean hills.

Only the most isolated markets in Ecuador do not have a line of stalls manned by the ubiquitous Otavalan traders. At many markets the only crafts available are those sold by the Otavalan middlemen.

A family of artists

In our own journey, we saw the same Otavalo merchants in Pujili, Latacunga and Ambato. They became old friends, greeting us in each new market. Even the famed Saquisili market, known for its local color, is one-third Otavaleno.

Just off the plaza, at the Pujili Sunday market, Orlando Quindegalle rewarded our faith in serendipity and in the possibility of beating the Otavaleno merchants to a treasure.

We were ready to end our visit when he walked over and struck up a conversation. Quindegalle welcomed us and told us about his Tigua Indian paintings on sheepskin. He had learned from his father, in their home in Tigua country an hour or two by bus past Pujili to the west. Did we want to see his work? Of course.

He led us back between the Otavaleno stalls on a side street, untied a cardboard box, and out came 20 vivid scenes of volcanoes, llamas, farmers and weavers.

We couldn't settle on one, so Quindegalle insisted we accompany him home to nearby Latacunga. There we would find more. The young man would be unavailable the next day, off to help his father in the Tigua fields. At first ambivalent, in the end we decided to trust the charm of his smile.

We followed Quindegalle from the bus stop in Latacunga to a small apartment where his mother, two brothers, a younger sister and her family, and a cousin lived together. All the men painted, but 22-year-old Orlando was the most accomplished artist. We bought a painting, turned down a request to be godparents of his newest sibling, took pictures and promised to send prints.

Orlando Quindegalle kept reminding us that his paintings made fine "recuerdos de Ecuador." Souvenirs, memories - good for us, income for Orlando. He was right, of course, and the trade was a good one.

Stephen Trimble lives in Salt Lake City. He writes about and photographs Western wild places and native peoples. ----------------------------------------------------------------- IF YOU GO

Some tips on visiting Ecuador

Dozens of travel agencies along the Avenida Amazonas in the capital city of Quito provide virtually identical service in arranging basic itineraries and day tours.

To identify guides sensitive to local culture, ask pointed questions of agencies.

Metropolitan Touring (Avenida Amazonas 239; P.O. Box 310, Suc 12 de Octubre, Quito, Ecuador; phone (593-2) 560-550; fax (593-2) 564-655) is the largest of the corporate agencies - practically a wing of the government.

Their U.S. representative is Adventure Associates (Suite 110, 13150 Colt Road, Dallas, TX 75240; phone (800) 527-2500.

(Booking transportation and rooms through an agency gives you someone to call for help when things do not go as planned.)

Daniel Koupermann's small company, Ecotrek (Calle Larga 7-108 and Luis Cordero; P.O. Box 01.01.5020, Cuenca, Ecuador; phone (593-7) 842-531; fax (593-7) 835-387) can arrange personalized itineraries for trips focusing on markets, shamanism or the diversity of Ecuadorian culture, as well as national parks, natural history and the jungle.

Ecuador's English-language magazine "Q." lists cultural events and includes articles about the current issues in Ecuadorian tourism: balancing positive economic impact with conservation of resources and the integrity of local culture.

Visiting weavers

To visit Otavalo weavers in their home villages, look up Rodrigo Mora at Zulaytour (on the corner of Calle Sucre and Calle Colon, Otavalo) or the Otavaleno guide Zulay Saravino at Diceny Viajas (in the same block).

At Guanansi, just outside Otavalo, the weavers hope to sell their sweaters at their own market rather than through the middlemen of Otavalo. The community has created an alternative market, but hasn't been able to promote it much.

Where to stay

Several old haciendas near market villages have been restored and renovated as hotels. They make good bases for market visits.

Hosteria Cusin is a lovely spot with homey warmth and great food (Ecuadorian, with a continental touch) near Lago San Pablo a few miles from Otavalo. Phone (593-6) 918-013; fax (593-2) 504-167.

Hosteria La Cienega is a stately and historic hacienda just outside the village of Lasso, north of Latacunga.

Though it is a good location for visiting markets in the central Sierra, La Cienega lacks the personality and charm of Cusin (phone for reservations in Quito: phone (593-2) 549-126.

To market, to market

Here are the market days in various villages (secondary market day in parentheses):

Monday - Ambato, Loja.

Tuesday - (Latacunga), Quito (clothing and crafts, Avenida 24 de Mayo and Calle Benalcazar).

Wednesday - (Ambato), (Otavalo), Quito (Santa Clara Market, La Floresta Market).

Thursday - Cuenca, Saquisili, Tulcan.

Friday - (Ambato), Tzalaron.

Saturday - Azogues, Cotacachi, (Cuenca), Guano, Guaranda, Latacunga, Otavalo, Pelileo, (Quito, clothing and craft market - see Tuesday), Riobamba, Zumbahua.

Sunday - Alausi, Biblian, Canar, Chordeleg, Gualaceo, Guamote, Licto, Machachi, Peguche, Pujili, (Quito, Santa Clara Market), Salcedo, Sangolqui, Saraguro, Sigsig, (Tulcan). More information

For general information on visiting Ecuador, contact the Embassy of Ecuador, Tourist Information, 2535 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20009. Phone (202) 234-7200.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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