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The Spanish conquistadors were no doubt pleasantly surprised when they arrived four and a half centuries ago to find a land of weavers and craftsmen. Certainly today visitors become very excited about hand-woven Ecuadorian clothes and handicrafts. Everywhere you go, it seems, there’s something to buy. After a day or two in Ecuador your impression might be that the country is one big bustling bazaar selling handicrafts, bags, leather goods, ponchos, sweaters, wall hangings and woven waistcoats to tourists.

But as you travel further and see more of the country, away from the main tourist areas, you will see that most markets are geared towards local people, and that the merchandise on offer is of greatest interest to those who want to buy, say, plastic buckets or aluminum saucepans. You might be driving up through mountains on some remote dusty track and suddenly, spread out on the grass beside the road, will be a checkered carpet of hand-woven items of woolen clothing minded by a handful of mountain indigenas in colorful, bulbous ponchos.

The first market most serious shoppers head for is Otavalo, about two hours by bus or car north of Quito. This is one of the world’s great markets where you can buy many Ecuadorian products - not only the well-known Otavalo-made items, but textiles and handicrafts from all over the country. What you might not find, however, are everyday items that local people wouldn’t think about selling at big markets or to foreigners. The avid craft connoisseur has to look beyond Otavalo to the specialist craft villages and the smaller country markets.

Northern Ecuador is known for exquisitely embroidered skirts, blouses, tablecloths and napkins. Many of them are made in the west of Imbabura Province and can be bought in the markets of Otavalo and Ibarra . Excellent leather goods of all sorts, such as bags, purses, jackets, belts, trousers, even saddles, are made in Cotacachi, north of Otavalo, and can be bought from the shops and workshops in the village. For woodcarvings, go to San Antonio de Ibarra where the locals make everything from sculpture to furniture.

Ikat textiles, made with a sophisticated weaving technique in which the thread is tied and dyed in sections, are one of Ecuador’s specialties. The process is used to make shawls, macanas [carrying cloths], ponchos and blankets. Good ikats are made in the Cuenca [Canar] region, though the best panos [shawls with macrame figures] and scarves come from Gualaceo, and fine macanas are made in the Salcedo region.

Wool or cotton tapestries [tapices], often depicting images of indigenas and mountain scenes, are made around the village of Salasaca, near Banos and in the Otavalo area. Salasaca and Canar are known for their double-sided belts [chumbis], while knitted sweaters, gloves, socks and hats as well as woven ponchos, blankets and other woolen items are made throughout the sierra. Shigra straw bags are made in the central sierra, around Riobamba particularly.

Panama hats are woven in villages around Cuenca although they come from the Montecristi area on the coast, and some of the best ones are still made there. Cuenca is also known for its large, lidded reed baskets. Near Montecristi, the village of La Pila produces honest reproduction pre-Columbian figurines as well as [so it is said] fake antiques. Ceramics for everyday use are made in many places throughout the country, but some high-end work is produced in Cuenca. Quichua indigenas in central Oriente make coiled bowls and pots with hand painted designs of Quichua life and mythology. Chordeleg near Cuenca specializes in filigree jewelry, while Saraguro is known for its decorative shawl pins [tupos].

In the Oriente too, a wealth of handicrafts is produced by the Amazon's indigenous people. Among these, wonderful woven palms take the form of baskets, handbags and more decorative flat bowls. The Indians fire fine ceramics, and are masterful carvers of local hard or soft woods. You could also buy blowpipes and darts [without the curare poison!] as an unusual souvenir.

Other markets worth visiting include the Monday market at Ambato; the Saturday market at Riobamba [note the tagua nut carvings and the shigra bags]; the Thursday market in Cuenca at Plaza Rotary [where you might buy a cheap Panama hat]; the Gualaceo Sunday market; the Calle Cuenca market on Wednesdays and Saturdays in Quito; and the daily Bahia black market in Guayaquil. Be aware that markets are stalking grounds for pickpockets and sneak thieves, so hold tight to your bags and cameras at all times.
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