Story and photos by Norma Davidoff
Additional photos by Manos Angelakis

Ecuador Cuenca Colonial Atrium

The Thrill of the Hunt... For Hand-Made

I’m looking at an alpaca shawl in lustrous blues and greens shimmering like a peacock. I bought it in Ecuador for a song... just $5. It was  delightful to discover so much, lovingly handmade--- hecho a mano, as they say in Spanish. My beautiful belongings make me smile. They  recall the rich experiences I had in this South American country so near the U.S., but so distinct in its culture.

Ecuador is renowned for its markets, but you don’t have to wait for market days to find a vast array of things to get your juices going. What makes  the crafts so exciting is that there is a person behind each and every  one.  The goods are everywhere.

Cuenca, a World Heritage site for its Spanish Colonial architecture, home to  four rivers and clean fresh air, is full of wooden balconies, wrought  iron, and low buildings. But it’s the people and products that really  give it color. Local women sport black braids... almost down to their long, full velvet skirts. They vie for your attention in this small  city, so easy to walk around with gorgeous views from its many hills.  It all adds up to feeling, well, equable... and that’s even before you get  to the equator... which is what Ecuador is named for. Beyond the cities,  deep in the Amazon jungle, native crafts are exciting, organic, and a  mainstay of the population.

Ecuador Panama Hats 2

Let’s start with the Panama hat or pacatoquilla which really is an Ecuadorian hat brought to Panama to protect workers building the Panama Canal. You know the hat. It’s all the rage on  fashion pages--a straw fedora, with a black grosgrain band and a brim to block the sun. It’s practical, sporty and fetching on women and men -- all at the same time. Many places around Cuenca produce the hats. I chose Hermano Ortega Museum and factory for its extensive exhibit of all the processes in making them.

Ecuador Panama Hars ready and waiting to be formed

Contract piece workers in small villages hand-weave the straw hat base. They  wash the straw in river beds, high in the mountains, and then weave it.  After they get far enough along, these country folk come to town with  big sacks full of straw hat “beginnings”. Husbands and wives arrive  together in native dress. It was a thrill for me to see them smilingly  toting their work to Mrs. Ortega for finishing.  

At the factory, the goods are steamed and blocked on hat molds for  different sizes; grosgrain ribbon completes the picture. The Ortegas  have expanded into chic straw handbags and high-fashion hats that are  unabashedly feminine. They supply clients like high-end couturier  Hermes of Paris, as well as selling them at the factory. The  merchandise is stunning at prices that seem like a steal to tourists.  The original Panamas, toquillas, range from $10 to $250.  Whatever the price, just get one! 

Ecuador Woman Embroidering

Much craft work is done at individual homes, but a crafts cooperative called Centro de Bordados Cuenca, made up solely of women, is a place to see  “process”.   The co-op is designed to help indigenous women make a living beyond their subsistence farming. Do you like to embroider? Here straw  hats are embroidered with patterns... flowers and butterflies -- in soft  pastels at $10. Watch the women and pick up hints for your own  needlework.  The others looking on are the children who accompany their  moms to work.  Embroidery is prominent in the culture of the Asue people who are expert with needlecrafts.

Ecuador El Ejito Park

Embroidery is just one of the many traditional hand-crafts that Ecuadorians  learn. How about knitting? At this women’s artisinal, you’ll find thick hand knit sweaters of alpaca and other exotic animals in the $50 range. Hand-embroidered holiday cards, that can be framed, are just $5.  

Around Cuenca’s flower market at Plaza de San Francisco, the enterprising  Otovalo natives sell hand-mades seven days a week. These native  Ecuadorians, with their layers of slim round gold necklaces, long  skirts, and strong faces are fascinating. Dealing with the people is  even more of a thrill than buying the sweaters, shawls, and chilenas (big scarves) they offer.

Ecuador Otovalo natives

Remarkably, one finds men knitting at craft stands, open daily, in El Ejito Park in Quito, the capital city. The government of this exquisite Spanish  colonial city encourages crafts in this leafy park. It is a great place to pick up scarves, wooden boxes, jewelry, and, of course, knitted  hats, scarves, socks and more--- at low prices. According to  anthropologist Barbara Grunenfelder-Elliker, people from the Andes find  it acceptable and normal for men to knit and for women to manage  cattle. The guiding principle is to complement one another. She  explained that textiles have long been part of Ecuador’s heritage.  Before the Spanish came, Inca emperors kept records on woven textiles.  The Canari and Otavalo people made special clothes for Inca royalty.

Ecuador Cuenca Ceramics

The location of these crafts, however, follows Spanish tradition.  Neighborhoods are arranged for certain trades. In Cuenca, just a few  streets contain all the bread bakers (special ovens of course.)  And  there is a neighborhood for ceramics.

Like most crafts people, Don Jose Encallada combines workshop with home.  It’s truly cottage industry---the whole family lives and works in the  area around the central courtyard, typical of Spanish architecture. His son and daughter-in-law produce pottery, creating their own personal  styles. So there is something for almost everyone’s taste, many in  vibrant colors and patterns sought after by local restaurants that serve on Encallada’s wares.

Some family members create the traditional rust-colored pottery used for  cooking. Don Jose has perfected a unique black ceramic. He chars it in  the kiln and scrapes off the burnt part, leaving a matte finish. I  bought drinking cups for $2, soup containers with handles for $5, and was tempted to buy much more. So much to see, so little time!

Ecuador Quechua Women with handcraft bowl

Other ceramicists use different methods to great effect. The Quechua people  in the Amazon rainforest create vessels totally natural and organic. The Cotacocha Ecolodge and the local government encourage the natives to  work at crafts for a living, rather than hunting animals and selling the parts. They make pottery using corn husks as rainforest sandpaper.  From volcanic rock they paint the pottery: red, coffee, or black.  After it dries for two days, stones from the river polish the pottery (no firing and glazing). 

A paint brush created from a child’s hair, so that it’s incredibly soft  and fine, is used to paint patterns on the pottery. As opposed to the  unisex attitude in Quito, here only the women are allowed to paint the  patterns from nature... flowers, sun, moon... even some creatures not so  pleasant. There’s a black scorpion painted inside my little orange bowl! It has a place of prominence in my home, a reminder that takes me back  to Ecuador in my thoughts.  I say to myself “Just take me back”---for real!


GETTING THERE: Copa, Delta, and United fly to Quito.

EASE OF ECUADOR: Its currency is the U.S. dollar and its electricity is the same as the U.S.


Hotel Crespo, Cuenca-Art deco touches. Ask for courtyard room.

Hilton Hotel, Quito- Excellent location; major museums and crafts nearby.

Cotacocha Ecolodge-simple accommodations in Amazon rainforest.

WHERE TO SHOP: Centro de Bordados Cuenca-handmade embroidery, weaving, sweaters. Parque Industrial, lote 605, Calle P.

Ceramics-Don Jose Encallada

Hats-Homero Ortega Av. Gil Ramirez Davalo 3-86,

Quito Artisanal Markets in El Ejido Park and at Juan Leon Mera Market-off Avenida de Amazonas, www.Ecuador/travel,




© March 2016 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.


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