The Otavalo artisan market – The grey-ish shades behind the shiny surface

If you look for things not to miss in Ecuador you’re gonna certainly stumble upon the artisan market, roughly a 2hr busride from Quito. The market is referred to be one of the most famous in whole South America, and the main market day is saturday. So this weekend we finally managed to go and visit it.

We browsed through the market first friday evening after we arrived in Otavalo, the vendors where already packing up. We were simply overwhelmed by the beauty, colorfulness and number of the items sold: ponchos, blankets, hammocks, jewlerey… It is easy to be carried away by the sheer number and, obviously, by the incredible price of the items, so we were already thinking about what to buy for whom as a gift and souvenir. Luckily we decided to wait for the next day and think through this.

As we really try to buy things from responsible sources in Germany, preferrably organic, local and fair-trade, whenever we need to buy something new, the question arose quickly: is it reasonable to buy on this market? Where do the things come from? Who produces them – and under which conditions? What does “artisan” really mean?

We weren’t very lucky trying to research this online. Nobody seems to be very interested in where the things come from and under which circumstances they’re produced. The traveller’s blogs and travel-agencies homepages only speak about the “indiginous and traditional origins” of the market, of the beauty of the handicrafts and the great prices.

So slightly frustrated we got up on Saturday in the hostel we spent the night – El Geranio – had breakfast and decided to ask the friendly staff about what they could tell us about the market and whether it is fair to buy your souvenirs and gifts there. We were lucky: it turned out one of the workers (or the owner?), Dani, also works as a professor in Otavalo and focuses on fair and direct trade and so he knew quite a bit about the trade situation in Otavalo. He told us that there is a strong hierarchy withing the sellers in Otavalo and that the ones selling on the famous market itself are a very powerful and whealthy group. They even are a strong voice within the municipality. Many of them are driving big cars, living in Villa’s and have strong connections with exporters to Europe and the US. On the outskirts of the market then you find the poor sellers, as they can’t afford the high fees of having a marketstand within the market plaza.

The people on the market square are usually only the sellers of the products. But where do they then come from? He told us that in order to find out more about the power-structures of the market you’d have to get up early on a saturday and observe the plaza, around 6 am. This is when the sellers buy the products from the producers themselves. The producers travel from far away by bus in order to sell their handicrafts to the sales-men and they tend to not have much say in the negotiations. So what happens, according to this worker at the hostel, is, that the producers end up getting a miserable price for their products, while the sales-men at the market sell it for – in comparison – a horrendous price to the gift-hunting tourists.

So when you purchase things on the famous Otavalo market, where you think you support “poor indeginous people”, you end up supporting those who are anyways very well off already and exploiting the, usually, poor, rural, powerless producers. Another thing is that the vendors often don’t bother lying to their naive and credulous consumers. A gigantic blanket, hand-made and with alpaca-wool, with a beautiful pattern for 25$? Forget about it. Most likely this is machine-made acrylic fabric, that feels very similar to alpaca-wool.

We could convince ourselves about this by visiting family-led handicraft store that Dani recommended to us as being high-quality and, above all, sincere, in Peguche, a small village very close to Otavalo. It is called Artesanía El Gran Condor and judging by the size of their store it is obvious their business is going very well. Here they tell us: the beautiful gigantic blanket with Alpaca-patterns that you see all over the market in Otavolo being sold as 100% Alpaca, is in fact a mix of acrylic and cotton, with rougly 5-10% Alpaca-wool. They do have products made of 100% Alpaca – but in this case you will pay 180$ for a sweater or the same price for a scarf or blanket the size of about 1/4 of the big Alpaca-pattern blanket.

We decided, to also not purchase things at El Gran Condor. We would like to support family producers who are worse off than this family-hold, flourishing business. So we left Otavalo saturday evening without having bought anything, but with the plan of coming back one of the coming weekends and join Dani and his sister (who leads an export-business of Otavalo fabrics) on a saturday morning and get in touch with the small, rural producers who sell their products to the businesses at the market. To see who maked these beautiful handicrafts and give them a fair price for their products.

Still though, from a photographer’s point of view, the Otavalo market offers incredible moments to be captured. So I couldn’t hold back and still took a bunch of pictures that I don’t want to keep back from you. I hope you enjoy.


  1. ken

    Hello Joanna,

    Wonderful post, the photos are very telling. We also visited the Otavalo Market. My wife bought a hat. Me, nothing. Just bunch of photos. I tried to carry on conversations but with my NADA Espanol, did not get very far. Your story sounds like Fair Trade and Direct Trade concept in Coffee Industry worldwide, especially in Latin countries. We were in coffee business for 8 years, my second career. We scouted all corners of Central and South American coffee producing regions. The overwhelming majority producers are small farmers with about 10 ~ 20 hectares or even less. These poor farmers have no access to higher paying customers, in debt, small crop, and trying to survive so they often sell cheap for fast cash to the “Coyotes,” bankers, Coops, or large exporting companies. This is the generation cycle of these dirt farmers. We try to buy directly and pay them market fair value. Of course, we were a small potato so made only a few farmers happy. We sold our coffee business and building. Now retired, in the process of moving to Ecuador. We think about exporting coffee and cacao based on Fair and Direct concept……but retired…. work again? Anyway, thanks for sharing…. the best. Ken

    1. Post
      Joanna Nogly

      Hey Ken,

      thank you so much for your comment and personal experiences! I am happy you liked the post. It is always great to hear from people all over the world who try to do their share of eradicating injustices. I think you should totally keep up the good work and make use of your experience and contacs, if you can and want to when you’re retired in Ecuador. This is such a beautiful country with so much potential that can feed everybody in a fair way. But obviously I can also understand if one wants to just relax and have a good time after a whole life of working 😉
      My partner and I started a CSA in our hometown in Germany and are considering adding fair-trade, organic chocolate and coffee to it… so who knows, maybe we can even cooperate at some point in the future? 🙂 🙂
      Take care!


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