Guest post by Leticia Rigatti and Ryan Luckey
Welcome to Ecuador!
After a long drive through the sugarcane fields of the Cauca Valley, Colombia, and then passing through beautiful mountainous desert landscapes, we passed through the Colombia-Ecuador border with ease… what a pleasant surprise! Before we knew it we were driving an impressively well-maintained highway into Ecuador, just as night fell around us. The next day we drove down to Otavalo, hailed as the crafts center of Ecuador, famous for its animal and artesania markets, where by chance we found a nice campsite designed for campers and RV’s!
This is Kichwa (or Quechua) territory, a diverse people spanning the entire range of the Andes from Colombia down to Argentina. The Kichwa are descendants of the Incas, and many of their modern settlements are in areas that they have inhabited for thousands of years. While modernity has certainly arrived in the area, it’s still Indigenous land, and we have felt like we are experiencing something ancient.
During our first walk through Otavalo, we found out about a grassroots organic market, la Feria Imbabio, on Saturday mornings, organized by small-scale gardeners from the surrounding villages. Sounds like the place we have to be!
Here we are at the Feria… Leticia is sharing seeds with both market sellers and visitors. In the back on the right is Ryan’s father Paul, who is visiting from California
The Feria is completely grassroots and organized by the sellers themselves, who make decisions together about how to organize the market. While we were really delighted to find it, we were surprised to observe that besides us, not a single tourist came to the Feria, which felt like a missed opportunity both for the Feria sellers and the oblivious tourists just blocks away.
The Artesanía (Crafts) Market
Most tourists come to Otavalo for its famous artesanía market, where Ecuador’s colorful crafts are intermixed with some imported crafts from Peru, Bolivia, and even Colombia. However, the majority of items for sale are locally produced, and quite an impressive range of patterns and textures can be admired on a leisurely walk through the town.
Hammocks and ponchos above…
These are gourds that have not been painted, but actually have been burned to produce the different tones, and then the figures carved by hand with a knife.
Paintings of Otavalo and the surrounding mountains and villages
Good Examples: Community-based Tourism
After a couple days enjoying Otavalo’s markets and the indigenous faces walking through the streets, we headed out to a region West of Otavalo called Intag, home to beautiful mountains and several grassroots community tourism projects.
Community-based tourism refers to tourism projects where visitors are invited into a local community, and the local people share activities and services like food and lodging in a way that they deem harmonious with their own culture and traditions. The community members decide how and in what way tourists can interact with their communities. These projects, generally in rural areas, often involve educational projects that use local materials and resources to create an economic base for the local community, while teaching a practical skill to the visitors.
We visited two such projects in the Intag region, each run by women, and based on the artesanal transformation of local and sustainably grown materials into marketable goods.
The first project we visited is located in the small community of El Rosal, where a women-run cooperative produces natural products based on Aloe Vera grown in their gardens.
“Welcome to El Rosal, home to friendly, happy and enterprising people where nature caresses your senses.”
The cooperative was created by a partnership with a Spanish foundation 10 years ago. In a village of 11 families, 10 women have participated over the years in producing soaps, shampoos, creams and lotions based on Aloe Vera combined with other local plants. The products use the minimum quantity of processed ingredients.
Leonila walked us through the process of harvesting and preparing the Aloe for soap and shampoo production.
The cooperative is creating an alternative small-business model for local communities out of a locally and organically grown crop, the Aloe Vera. At the same time, the women are empowered through their own creative process, and through managing and making a small salary, which for women in rural Ecuadorian communities is rare.
After learning about the soaps and buying a few for our house, we took a quick tour around Leonila’s gardens, which were surprisingly diverse… there is clearly an intuitive permaculturalist in the family.
We found the experience to be a clear example of not only how this type of project can benefit the local community through healthy and small scale economic stimulation, but also how rich an experience it can for the visitors, both in learning a new skill, and in forming a relationship with their hosts. Gracias Leonila and El Rosal!
Cabuya (Maguey) Artesania in Plaza Gutierrez
In Plaza Gutierrez, a couple hours away, there is another community-based tourism project centered around two women’s run cooperatives, this time processing and producing artesania from the Cabuya or Maguey cactus. The Mujer y Medio Ambiente (Woman and Environment) and Flor de Choco (Choco Flower) cooperatives cultivate the Cabuya around the town and surrounding hills, and rotate harvests in different areas to ensure they always have a crop. The Cabuya passes through several steps to be processed into the final product…
One of our hosts Vulma shows us the first steps in preparing the Cabuya
After being partially skinned by hand, the Cabuya is passed through a machine that seperates the fibers into strips, which are then put out to dry in the sun as seen in the photo below:
During our visit we found the town’s soccer field full of Cabuya harvested just the day before…
Paul and Leticia take a closer look…
Once dry, the Cabuya is died using natural plant dyes from the area, and then passed to another village where it is processed into a type of string and then brought back to Plaza Gutierrez, where the women weave it into beautiful bags, hats, belts, placemats, table pieces, floor mats, etc…
Here’s Leticia with 6 women of the cooperative, sporting her new Cabuya hat!
In the case of the Cabuya cooperatives, no external funding was used to start the project. The women began with the help of a friend who trained them, and little by little by investing their time and energy into the work, and now their business is growing. The cooperative now incorporates 43 women from Plaza Gutierrez and a couple of the towns closeby.
We are currently coordinating to see if we can return to Plaza Gutierrez to film all the steps of production and share this wonderful work with the world.
For more information about community-based tourism in Intag, or to arrange a visit to these communities, visit the office of La Casa de Intag in Otavalo.
It is heartening to find these organizations forming in small isolated communities here in Ecuador. What better way to do tourism than to build relationships with local communities while learning skills that promote self-sufficiency and sustainability?
We’ll keep you posted with other good examples we find in the coming months…
For now, blessings from Ecuador! Paz -
Ryan and Leti