Near an indigenous market town in the midst of farmland on the slopes of the Andes, meet weavers and flute makers still practising their traditional crafts
The road towards Otavalo bounces up into the Andes, past black pigs lolling in the dust and squat cows grazing on knee-deep grass. Fields of broad beans, lupins and corn are close to harvest, bordered by fiercely-spiked agave plants with their alien blooms sprouting skywards. Where the terrain becomes too steep for agriculture, pumas, spectacled bears and condors still live.
As in Quito, the markets of Otavalo are a gathering point for inhabitants of the surrounding countryside. Mass today in the main church is being said in Kichwa, the indigenous language evolved from that spoken by Incas from Peru – invaders who then succumbed to the conquistadors. Outside, local Imbaya people are quietly searching for custom, the men mostly wearing tautly sculpted felt trilbies over a single long, plaited ponytail; the women with necklaces of glass beads wrapped in gold leaf, navy blue ponchos and white blouses exquisitely hand-embroidered with flowers.
The daily food market is filled with produce carted down from the fertile volcanic soils of the Andes – blackberries and tree tomatoes; plantains and alfalfa; all manner of corn and beans. In the market’s central corridor, lunch is beginning to be served.
Locals tuck into steaming bowls of clams, chicken soup, black pudding mixed with popcorn, and hornado – whole roasted pig. Rosario Tabango proudly displays the certificate that declares her hornado the best in all Ecuador, presented by the country’s president. It is at turns crisp and chewy, and intense with salt, garlic and smoke from the wood it has been roasted over – gathered by Rosario on trips into the mountains.
Although Imbaya dress is mostly worn by the stallholders in Otavalo’s handicrafts market next door, it is hard to find for sale here. Since pre-Columbian times their forebears will have precisely fed the demands of their consumers, and right now that means offering neon polyester ponchos, Che Guevara T-shirts and Bob Marley bobble hats to tourists who are briefly passing through.
Traditional crafts are far better preserved in villages northeast of Otavalo. In Agato is a low stone workshop crammed with simple looms, baskets of alpaca wool and a hutch of squeaking guinea pigs. Here, Luz Maria Andrango is weaving a guagua chumbi – a ‘baby belt’ used to tighten an Imbaya woman’s blouse. It is coloured with natural dyes made from yellow lichen, red cochineal beetles, indigo and rich brown walnuts, and will take her 10 days to finish.
In nearby Peguche is the flute workshop of José Luis Fichamba, established for 46 years. ‘I made my first pipes at the age of 10, and soon gave them to my friends so we could form a band,’ he says. The son of a weaver and grandson of a musician, José Luis still makes the paya (small panpipes), the rondador (larger panpipes that play two notes at once), and the gaita (a long wooden flute typical of Otavalo, most frequently played at the Inti Raymi festival).
As he offers a tune on a rondador, he says, ‘When I play these, I feel like a very special man – there are not too many people who play the rondador in Ecuador now. Once they were heard all over the Andes.’ José Luis’s music is exceptionally heart-felt, all the more softly beautiful for its village setting with snow-capped volcanoes beyond – and far removed from the tune most commonly played on panpipes in bars back in Quito, Abba’s Dancing Queen.
The drive is short but jarring between Otavalo and Hacienda Piman, in high country northeast of Ibarra – much of the 1.5 hours and 22 miles is over ancient cobbled roads.
Log fires crackle away alongside rustic antiques and family portraits in Hacienda Zuleta, a working farm.
Explore surrounding villages on horseback or visit the nearby breeding centre for endangered condors, before enjoying a meal prepared with milk, cheese and organic vegetables from the farm (from US$247).
Call 00 593 999 57 45 67 to visit to the Andrango workshop (US$5 donation). Jose Luis Fichamba’s flute-making workshop is signed from the road through Peguche (paila pipes, US$5).