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The Villages of Ecuador

Story and Photos by Sandy Klim

Geek Squad
Ecuador's picturesque landscape features mountains and a deep green countryside.

The van hugs the road of the lush volcanic highlands nestled near the city of Quito, Ecuador, passing meadows of brilliant flowers and emerald trees. We pause at the top to take in the spectacular beauty. Four seemingly lost sheep bleat at us, and I realize a small rope around one of the sheep’s collar has caught on a scruffy bush. Gingerly, I free him and he runs away with the others.

“Are they lost?” I ask our guide.

She laughs, “Oh no, they’ll find their way home.”

I smile and understand. This country exudes a homespun warmth that can be felt from near and far, brought about by the colorfully attired indigenous people to a land rich with sparkling lakes, archeological treasures and towering volcanoes.

The wandering sheep are merely partaking in the beauty (and a little grass) before meandering back to their village.

Ecuador truly captures all of South America’s natural diversity in a country the size of Colorado. The country straddles the equator, hence the origin of its name.

We journey south to visit some of the small villages that dot the country’s landscape. Our destination is the Galápagos Islands (see part II next issue), but I find these villages filled with artisans, bakers and craftsman as fascinating as the giant turtles and blue-footed “boobies” we’ll see on the next leg of our journey.

The amazing aspect of each village is that each is known for a particular specialty. You’ll often find dozens of shops featuring a variation of the same craft on a single village street.

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We pull into Calderón, famous for its bread dough figurines and handicrafts. The art is an extension of an annual tradition held each Nov. 2 known as Day of the Dead, when family members light candles and place simple bread figures on the graves of their departed.

Craftsmen have taken this idea and turned it into a fascinating marzipan art form. Pieces are formed using real bread dough mixed with bright dyes and glue. Handcrafted little dough figures often feature traditional indigenous costumes. Ornaments and classic nativity scenes are popular, as well as more standard fare such as key rings and magnets. We watch, enamored, as a young girl’s fingers move nimbly to craft these tiny works of art.

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After stocking up, we head to Guachalá, the middle of the world—literally. Here, south meets north, the hemispheres divided by a monument at the equator. Yes, the story that water drains clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere, and pretty much straight down at the equator is true. Known as the Coriolis Effect, we’ve witnessed Mother Nature at her best. A quick demonstration by our guide astounds us all.

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The sweet-scent of baking bizcochos fill the streets of Cayambe.

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As we head to Cayambe, it’s not difficult to guess what this village is famous for—bizcochos! There are dozens and dozens of shops, restaurants and cafés boasting the best bizcochos in Ecuador. Bizcochos are delicate pastries shaped somewhat like biscotti. But the similarity ends there. These flaky delicacies have a buttery texture that melts in your mouth. Coupled with café con leche (coffee with hot milk), it’s a delectable treat. We arrive at one of the more famous shops that bakes over 6,000 bizcochos daily. The sweet aroma tempts our palates even before entering the small kitchen where workers are hand-shaping trays of the treat. A mere two dollars yields a large bag of these warm and crumbly delights.

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Nibbling along the way, we head to Cotacachi, the leather village. The 149 or so shops that specialize in leather goods are a departure from the handicrafts and traditional goods we’ve seen. Beautifully crafted shoes, belts, jackets, purses and boots line the windows and shelves. The scent of fresh leather greets you at each store upon entry. These exquisitely crafted goods, a bargain when purchased locally, are shipped around Ecuador and to surrounding countries.

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Bargains can be found throughout Ecuador, but perhaps no area is more famous than Otavalo, a bustling village about two hours north of Quito. The city’s main square, Plaza de Ponchos, is home to one of the most celebrated crafts markets and masterful artisans in South America. Located in a valley, it’s surrounded by the stunning peaks of the Imbabura, Cotachachi and Mojanda volcanoes.

We wander through the market streets, serenaded by Andean pipe music, as locals artisans offer up embroidered shirts, watercolor paintings, jewelry, pottery, carved wood pieces, tapestries and Panama hats (actually made in Ecuador and shipped to Panama). Bartering is expected here, and buying two or three of anything leads to some deep discounts or the popular phrase “special price, just for you!”

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Weaving techniques that have been passed down through generations are still used today Peguche.

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Near Otavalo, the quiet village of Peguche is a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the market. The town and surrounding area are famous for woven textiles, all created using ancient techniques handed down through several generations. You gain an appreciation for the colorful shawls, blankets and tapestries as you watch the artisans hand-weave intricate patterns on large looms with precision. It’s tough to barter down a $40 tapestry that you know has taken hours to create, though haggling is expected.We ended up at $38 (though I was honestly embarrassed to negotiate two bucks off of something so beautiful!).

Laden with shawls, blankets and trinkets, we make our way back to Quito. Our guide tell us that, sadly, we’ve only scratched the surface of this amazing country. It’s a country that in a short time has come to feel like home. I plan to come back to mainland Ecuador soon, but now we’re headed to the Galápagos Islands. And the adventure continues.…

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