On our recent trip to Ecuador (which was much too short – we WILL go back!), we spent most of our time in Quito and the Galapagos Islands. But were able to venture to two towns that are reachable in a couple of hours from Quito: Otavalo and Papallacta.
The World-Famous Otavalo Market
The market in Otavalo, about an hour and a half by car from Quito, stretches back to pre-Inca times and is the largest artisan market in Ecuador. Vendors hawk a dizzying array of wares ranging from fresh produce and hand-dyed yarn to hats, blankets, leather goods, locally carved wood trinkets, rugs, tablecloths, shoes, sweaters . . . pretty much everything but the kitchen sink! The exquisite weavings and textile-making skills of the Octavaleños and indigenas from the surrounding villages, wearing their traditional clothing, was something to behold! There’s something going on every day in Otavalo but Saturday is official market day and the stalls take up half the town.
For us, the market was complete sensory overload. The colors of all the goods laid out meticulously in the vendors’ stalls were so beautifully arranged that we could have easily shopped for hours. Using our bargaining skills to the fullest (it is expected to bargain with the vendors there), we finally found “Panama” hats that not only fit, but are the right mix of affordability and quality.
So why the quote marks around “Panama?” Because the hats have been made in Ecuador, and nowhere else, since the 1800s. In fact, they’re the country’s most famous export. The story goes that, when some genius hit on the ideal of a straw hat that is durable, breathable, and offers great sun protection, there wasn’t a big market for such a thing in Ecuador. So they took them to Panama, where they were a huge hit with the 49ers passing through to stake their claim for gold in California. The hats quickly caught on, and pretty soon anyone traveling through Panama wanted one. The name stuck, even though every authentic Panama hat is stamped “hecho en Ecuador” on the inside.
The quality of the hats is dictated by the thickness of the toquilla straw and how tightly it’s woven – the thinner the straw and the tighter the weave, the better. In fact, some top quality hats are so tightly woven that they can hold water. In Quito, we visited a shop where we tried on hats ranging from $60 to $500, and they even had some $5,000 (no, we didn’t try those on!). The good ones were too rich for our blood and we were hoping we could find them for less in Otavalo. And we weren’t disappointed – we found a stall run by a very helpful lady who showed us how to pick a hat that was the best balance of quality, price, and fit. When we finally settled on a couple, we were able to bargain her down from $80 to $40 – but she was a toughie for haggling!
On our list for Ecuador next time is a visit to the town of Montecristi, where Panama hats were born and where most of them are made to this day.
More Otavalo pics:
The Termas Papallactas
After spending five days constantly on the go in the Galapagos (it was unforgettable but not restful), we needed a bit of R&R before returning home to Panama. John, the travel planner extraordinaire, had thought that one through beautifully and planned for us to spend two nights at the Termas (hot springs) de Papallacta. He arranged to have a driver pick us up from the Quito airport and take us to the little village of Papallacta in the Oriente highlands, about a two-hour drive. If you’re coming from downtown Quito you need to add another 45 minutes or so, depending on traffic – which means this excursion is probably better as an overnight.
At 13,000 feet, Papallacta was a bit on the chilly side when we were there, but what a fantastic place to rest up for our trip home to Panama. The setting is lovely, with spectacular mountain vistas and a sprawling hot springs resort consisting of a network of public pools and a hotel complex. The accommodations, restaurant, service, and hot springs were fantastic, just what the doctor ordered. We knew right away that two nights would not be enough to explore this area properly, so it’s also on our list for our next Ecuador trip.
We really have to stop doing this – every country we discover lately goes back on our list for a return visit! But we know we’ll be back to Ecuador. It seems like a perfect place to rent a car, just follow our noses, and explore. The excellent highway system is fairly new, and (with the exception of Quito), traffic is light. The stunning Andes views, charming villages, and vibrant culture are all calling us back. Hasta pronto, Ecuador!