A small and beautiful region in the Ecuadorian Andes, Imbabura Province is an area whose crafts have become famous worldwide. The skill and business acumen of this area’s inhabitants – some 400,000 people – have been the basis for the development of this dynamic northern Ecuadorian region where artisans rise before the sun to engage their looms, turn on their old sewing machines, and begin using their chisels, lathes and brushes to cut, shape and create.
If you travel to Ecuador, don’t overlook this territory that has been blessed by Mother Nature. Also known as the “Province of Lakes,” you can be assured to find a wonderful environment with temperate valleys, snowcapped volcanoes, crystal-clear waterfalls, picturesque Andean villages and delicious cuisine. All of this combines to provide diverse tourist attractions and artistry full of contrasts. The following is just a small sample of the sites where such work is created in Imbabura.
This predominantly indigenous city, located 110 kilometers (about a two-hour drive) north of Ecuador’s capital of Quito, has one of the largest handicraft markets in Latin America. The market in the “Plaza de los Ponchos” comes alive every Saturday with the arrival of hundreds of artisans, vendors, tourists and local shoppers.
Ponchos, tapestries, all kinds of wool garments, fine embroidery (most made by hand), carved wooden pieces, jewelry, stone sculptures, accessories, paintings, “toquilla” items and musical instruments are some of the products exhibited in this square, where the “bargaining” is a common and accepted practice.
Home to the indigenous Otavalo Kichwa ethnic group, Otavalo has been declared the “Intercultural Capital Ecuador.” It is a small town, but one possessing a cosmopolitan flair given the large numbers of foreigners who visit this culturally rich destination.
In addition to its restaurants, hostels, nearby haciendas converted into beautiful hotels, clothing stores and streets illuminated with lanterns, Otavalo’s main attraction is undoubtedly the handicrafts market. To it comes visitors from all over the world, as tourists spend hours marveling at the work of artisans who have learned their crafts of their ancestors and hand these down to their descendants.
Added to Otavalo’s handicrafts market is another attraction: its animal market. Every Saturday, starting at 6:00 a.m., this exotic market features rabbits, guinea pigs, cows, sheep, goats, chickens, horses, and other animals. This all presents a scene that can hardly be seen elsewhere, as it is one that seems frozen in time.
Walking through the city of Cotacachi is like going window shopping. All kinds of leather goods (jackets, pants, belts, wallets, shoes, jackets, bags and more) are seen in the windows of dozens of shops in the streets of this town of 40,000 inhabitants.
Although many of the goods follow international fashion trends, Cotacachi’s own designs are also on display here. Every weekend, thousands of people are attracted by these distinctive styles – in addition to prices that are much more affordable than those in large cities – as shoppers walk through the town’s narrow streets in search of the perfect garment or accessory.
However, Cotacachi is not just leather. Visitors can also stop to visit the main church, with its six chapels, gilded altars, and works from the “Quito School” of art. Another point of attraction is the Las Athens scenic overlook. From there, you can view the stunning lakes of the Cotacachi Ecological Reserve, which is the largest conservation area in the western Ecuadorian Andes. In addition, hot springs, lush forests, nature reserves and snowy summits are features that you will discover in Cotacachi, along with the best leather production in the country.
San Antonio de Ibarra
Beautiful shapes emerge from walnut wood, thanks to the skillful hands of the artisans of San Antonio de Ibarra. In this small town in the middle of the Andean highlands of Ecuador, walking through the quiet streets means discovering that many houses are actually craft workshops. In these buildings can be found the precious wooden works that have made this place famous. Crafted using the techniques of the “Quito School,” and covered with gold leaf, these unique works stand out for their ravishing color and beauty.
Large and small wooden sculptures, altarpieces, altars for churches, and motifs of all kinds are carved in walnut, naranjillo, cedar and laurel. In the center of the village, works crafted by men, women and even children are sold in each house.
There is also a street named Ramon Teanga (known as “the Street of Art”), where sculptures of monumental size are created. These are made not only of wood, but also from stone, cement and concrete. There, on Saturday nights, exhibitions and demonstration workshops are held to promote the work of local artisans.
On more than one occasion at international summits and meetings, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa has appeared wearing shirts embroidered with pre-Columbian designs. These garments originate from the predominantly indigenous community of Zuleta, which is also located in Ecuador’s Imbabura Province.
The tradition of this meticulous work using thread, thimbles and fabrics is old; but the trade took on an important role in 1940s at the hacienda of former Ecuadorian president Galo Plaza Lasso. This was when the leader’s wife created an embroidery workshop for area women to create and sale beautiful garments, thus bringing in extra income to their households.
Dresses, blouses, tablecloths, rugs, towels and other items with fine finishes that reflect the features of the local physical environment and the indigenous worldview are created by the skilled hands of more than 300 embroiderers. Every two weeks, these garments are displayed at the Zuleta Embroidery Market, which has been held for the last eleven years.
Many public figures wear these highly original embroidered garments, but what many people don’t know is that Pope Francis received two of these embroidered shirts during a presidential visit to the Vatican.
The town of Atuntaqui – located just 10 minutes from Ibarra, and now with a population of 21,000 inhabitant – was rebuilt on the ruins of an earthquake that destroyed that village back in 1868. In its reconstruction, major roles were played by the arrival of a railroad stop in a nearby village, but also the development of a textile factory in Atuntaqui itself. That historic textile factory, in which antique English and German machinery is still preserved, was declared Cultural Heritage Site of Ecuador. To visit this site allows one to learn about the origin of an activity that is currently the main source of income of this community, as every year the textile fair organized in this small town attracts almost 150,000 visitors.
This small colonial city, whose indigenous name means “big drum” and whose architecture and layout reflects Spanish influences, has a pleasant climate, breathtaking scenery, and is located in the foothills of the Imbabura Volcano. The very quiet pace of life here has made many people choose this town as a retirement destination. But even if that’s not your intention, a visit to Atuntaqui will permit you to learn about the craftsmanship of its inhabitants. We can almost assure you that you won’t leave without picking up one of the beautiful garments on display in the windows on almost every street in the center of Atuntaqui.
Alfonso Tandazo is President and CEO at Surtrek Tour Operator.