IMBABURA, Ecuador — My wife and I had left the beaten track to visit Indian villages in the heartland of Ecuador--a small, stable and hospitable nation between Colombia and Peru, where the scenery is spectacular and the bargains abound, particularly for top-quality woven goods.
High in the Andes Mountains, not far from the Equator, we gazed out on old men trudging along, mounds of corn husks piled atop their backs, and women scrubbing clothes on rocks and bathing children in a secluded stream beneath majestic, snow-capped Mt. Imbabura.
Otavalo Indians clad in traditional outfits of wide-brimmed black-felt hat, blue shirt and poncho, white pants or skirt and espadrille sandals awaited buses along the roadside. The men's hair was braided in long ponytails; the women wore layers of gold-colored glass beads, with the number of strands reflecting their relative wealth.
The region is best known for its Saturday market in the town of Otavalo. This Saturday bazaar, located about 75 miles north of the capital of Quito, is deservedly renowned for its bright woven woolen shawls, hand-crafted sweaters, intricately designed bags and colorful folk art.
We had visited the market the previous day and spent the night in a room with a roaring fire at Ecuador's oldest hacienda, built by the King of Spain in 1602. Now we were on our way to villages specializing in various crafts, including some of those sold at the market.
Bumping along a dirt road, past men putting a thatched roof on a new home, we reached the village of Agato--a small, prosperous weaving town in the foothills of Cotacachi. Brightly clad children with angelic, dusty faces played in front of substantial adobe homes.
Luz Maria Andrango greeted us at her home, where music played, eight-grain alcohol was being served and a party was in full swing. The celebration had been prompted by the return of Andrango's husband from six months in the United States, where he was selling this famous family's beautifully hand-woven sweaters and tapestries.
Andrango's father, Miguel Andrango, is the only designated master weaver in all of South America. The quality of his products is reflected in the tightness and evenness of the weave, as well as the intricacy and originality of the designs.
The family works together in the cluttered second-floor shop as part of a cooperative, Tahuantisuyo. Incongruously, a Rambo poster adorns a wall leading to the second-floor shop. A small television and Fisher tape deck sit amid rough-hewn rugs, potholders and vests.
Everyone in the family works here, even the children. Many of the designs are created by Humberto Romero, 26, Luz Andrango's articulate and distinguished brother-in-law. He, too, wears traditional Otavalo colors, but his blue shirt is an Oxford, starched and impeccably pressed.
Romero demonstrated for us his intensely physical technique at a finely honed loom of smooth, honey-colored wood. Seated on a pillow on the floor, he creates tension on the loom with a halter-like, cow-skin brace that slips around his back. After he weaves a strand, he pulls on various rods and pushes off with his feet against a wooden block, hoisting himself in the brace to pull the wool taut in the pattern.
An apprentice to Andrango, Romero says he often travels to other Indian villages in search of new designs to perpetuate a culture that predates the Incas. He picks up an ornate, belt-like wall hanging to explain the meaning of the woven figures:
A woman carrying a bird reflects the ritual of a godmother giving a gift in honor of a newborn. A deer recalls the tradition of sacrifices to the sun god. A fruit tree conjures up sustenance. A cow symbolizes nightmares because Indian lore teaches that dreaming of a bovine forebodes ill fortune.
When an outsider visits an Indian's home, it is understood that prices will be lower than the going rate at the market. Bargaining, meanwhile, is not usually welcomed.
It's also unnecessary. We bought three handsome cardigan sweaters for about $12 each. A wall hanging that depicts four seated Indian women, one of Romero's designs, cost $5.
In Sante Fe, N.M., Los Angeles and New York City, the family sells each sweater for $35. Retailers, in turn, price them several times higher.
The Western influence in these villages is apparent through more than televisions and tape decks.
We saw a young man clad in a New York Yankees warm-up jacket (complete with All-Star Game patch) as well as plastic toy cars in one home. And Luz Andrango's husband had just brought their son a new pair of L.A. Gear sneakers and other American-made clothing; we glimpsed the young man proudly admiring his new attire in a mirror.