Otavalo is famous for its Saturday market, one of the most famous in Ecuador and possibly all of the Andes, but it was Otavalo’s lesser-known animal market that captured our fancy. The craft and textile market at the Plaza de Los Ponchos has a great reputation but in the past 20 years the textiles have gone from predominantly hand-woven goods made of natural fibers and dyes to goods that are mainly machine-loomed with synthetic colors and fabrics. We knew the animal market would be an interesting experience when, as we entered, there were several ladies in traditional costumes holding plastic sacks full of squirming cuy (guinea pigs).
As those of you who’ve been to the Andes know, we’re not talking about pets…we’re talking about food. Prior to the Spanish introduction of cattle, pigs and goats, the llama and the cuy were the primary sources of meat protein in the Andes. Even today, a cuy al horno is de riguer for special occasions in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. The only time I’ve tried it was in Cusco and the little fella was brought to me on a plate, fresh out of the oven, with an aji (chili pepper) in his mouth and pepper shaped into a sombrero on his head (see photo). The taste was chicken-like, a little greasy with many small bones and way too little meat. In all, probably more calories were burned searching for edible scraps of meat than I gained from eating the meal.
We had arrived at the animal market as the rain started to pour. The market is a kilometer or so outside of town and the road was clogged with pick-up trucks transporting livestock. We carefully made our way across the slick pavement, along with a 500 pound pig being coaxed by a small boy twisting its tail. We crossed the street and climbed a small hill to get a good visual orientation. The market was about the size of a muddy football field, with different sections for each animal. The smaller animals – chickens, turkeys, cats, dogs, cuy -- were towards the front of the market and the larger animals – cows, horses, pigs, goats – were towards the back, where they could be loaded and unloaded from trucks. The cuy ladies were standing in the cuy section, scanning customers’ eyes for signs of interest. One lady held a particularly fat cuy by the neck and told me he could be mine for eight dollars. The chicken ladies were in a line, holding the larger chickens upside down by the feet. The smaller chickens were in makeshift pens and the chicks were crammed in crates, selling five for a dollar. Near the duck section, an indigenous woman bargained for a crate of ducklings while her daughter watched. Mom and daughter word traditional mantas – large, loomed blankets that hold just about anything, including babies on mother’s backs. On the daughter’s back, the manta incongruously held a blue-eyed, blond haired Barbie doll. We passed a well dressed couple selling turkeys; he wore a blue fedora, wool poncho, white pants and sandals and she was dressed in a white embroidered blouse with a blue skirt and wool scarf. The couple looked very self-possessed and whatever the man’s secret was for keeping his white trousers mud-free…it was definitely working. His immaculate wife held three turkeys on rope leashes. Two of the turkeys were very clean as well, but there was no secret to how they did it…they sat directly on top of the third turkey.
Our kids loved the market, but they didn’t like the sight of several kittens stuffed into a mesh crate. My son concocted a scheme whereby he would buy a crate of ten kittens (each kitten costing a dollar) and, after keeping one for himself, liberate the others. I had just finished explaining the impracticality of that scheme when we walked by the puppies. A year-old puppy, costing five dollars, stared into my son’s eyes and I knew we’d be having the same conversation all over again. It was time to leave.