Cuenca gift shops are the next best thing to Otavalo, offering a treasure trove of local arts and crafts

Apr 13, 2013

The famous indigenous outdoor market in the town of Otavalo, a two-hour drive north of Quito, is one of the best places to buy Andean art, crafts, textiles and indigenous jewelry in Ecuador. But if you're visiting Ecuador and your trip is limited to Cuenca and environs, you'll find plenty of places to partake in retail therapy, souvenir hunting, and gift shopping.

The best place to start, especially if you prefer one-stop shopping, is at the Centro Municipal Artesanal or CEMUART for short (also known as Casa de la Mujer). This municipal coop for artisans was launched in 1998 in order to preserve and support traditional Ecuadorean crafts; its slogan is "Hands that Work."
 
CEMUART is located on the west side of San Francisco Plaza, at General Torres 7-33 just south of Presidente Cordova. It's situated around two courtyards on two levels with more than 100 stalls manned by local craftspeople, selling textiles, leather, pottery, jewelry, ceramics, straw baskets and hats, tagua carvings, wood carvings, needlework, wrought-iron, and much more. All the products are made in Ecuador.

CEMUART may soon have more arts and crafts company. A project to reconstruct San Francisco Plaza is scheduled to begin in the second half of 2013, with plans to build a three-level mall in the area now occupied by vendors selling mostly Chinese imports. According to plans, the the mall will have space for more crafts vendors as well as a food court.

Plaza Rotary is an outdoor market for handicrafts and everyday household items located at Gaspar Sangurima and Vargas Machuca. Here you'll find everything from wooden spoons to major furniture, gardening tools to brass bells, hand-tied rope to tin plates, vases to mattresses. This whole area is chock-a-block with street vendors, produce purveyors, shops of every sort, and the big 9 de Octubre indoor market at Mariscal Lamar and Hermano Miguel.
 
According to a posted newspaper clipping, "Folklor Latino Artesenias," just west of Padre Aguirre on Simon Bolivar, has been in business for 20 years. It's a bi-level space built around the typical colonial courtyard with huge ferns hanging almost to the floor from the upper level; a 40-foot-tall palm grows out of the middle of the floor, reaching for the conical skylight. Folklor stocks an amazing variety of items: secular and religious art, hats, chess sets, weavings, tapestries, dolls, plates and platters, shawls, clocks, jewelry, wood and stone animals and angels, ceramic fruit — all very colorful and at affordable prices.
 
Galapagos Artesenias is a smaller gift shop in the convent building on Cordova between Hermano Miguel and Borrero, but it, too, has a fascinating selection of postcards, T-shirts, artwork of all kinds, figurines and dolls, wooden boxes, masks, ponchos, wall hangings, and the like. The proprietor has an efficient shipping operation and can send packages all over the world. In addition, she's great to practice Spanish on; she's extremely patient and speaks slowly and distinctly.
 
The gift shop at the Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes on Calle Larga between Hermano Miguel and Mariano Cueva sells similar arts, crafts, and souvenirs, with a specialty in silver jewelry. If it's closed when you're visiting the museum, ask that it be opened; it is definitely worth a good, long look.
 
Finally, if you're hankering for Otavalan products, particularly textile goods, you'll find an excellent selection on the north side of San Francisco Plaza, catacorner to CEMUART. The sellers are Otavalans, most of them dressed in traditional attire.

Reposted from the Miami Herald International Edition, August 31, 2011.

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