The Saturday Market at Otavalo has a long and storied history. The locals began trading their wares hundreds of years ago, and their woven goods are actually rather well known by folks who are in to that sort of thing. Indeed, the market is so successful that it has actually expanded beyond just Saturdays, with Wednesday as a very popular day and market activities every day of the week. But it is the success of the market that has brought about its doom.
The market is bad. It exists not as a true trading post for the locals, but by selling random stuff to tourists passing through. The wares are not all junk – some of the stuff actually looks pretty good, and much of it appears to be made locally. But in an area known for its weavings and yarns, it is depressing to see stalls full of yarns that are “synthetico” rather than alpaca or any of the other animals that are raised locally. I’m sure that the bed spreads and tablecloths are nice enough, but I am not entirely sure that the stuff isn’t “hecho en China.” I’m pretty sure that the folks selling sunglasses and cell phone cases get their supplies from the same people that provide for the street vendors in New York City. Actually, the more I think about it, the more the whole scene felt like another NYC street fair: the same ten stalls, repeated ad infinitum until they get to whatever block traffic starts up on again.
We were actually sitting in a café, having a beer this afternoon when a young woman approached us asking for directions to the bus station. She had been in town for all of three hours, one of which she spent at the café, and already knew that the best thing to do was to get out of town on the next bus she could find. If we didn’t have plans to head out to see some of the surrounding countryside tomorrow, we’d probably be following her on the next bus we could get to.
There were three rows of stalls that appeared to be reasonably authentic. They were a few food vendors (chicken soups, fried fish and a whole roast pig being carved up and served), each with seats for about 5 people, a few fresh produce vendors, a few women selling breads and several meat suppliers, mostly chicken. Beyond these few stalls, the market was a waste of time. I’ve seen some great markets, including the China-Town market in Ho Chi Minh City, street markets in Bangkok and farmers’ markets in the south of France. And I can’t help but walk away from today’s visit with a strong sense of disappointment. If the vendors weren’t all dressed up in native garb, I wouldn’t have known where we were, because there was nothing distinctive about it. Chalk up another score for the tourists ruining the tourist attraction. And yes, I’m guilty here since I’m one of the tourists who showed up today to see it. In my defense, we ate at one of the stalls and purchased real alpaca yarn, and otherwise didn’t do business with any of the vendors, so we’re not entirely culpable.
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