Some people will tell you never to visit the same place twice. “The world is so big and life is so short, why waste time revisiting?”
I don’t subscribe to that point of view at all. Since life is so short, sometimes your time is better spent returning to a place you’re passionate about, instead of trying out a new place you’re only lukewarm about (and there are many places in the world I’m lukewarm about).
Especially when your visits are for a good cause – something bigger than yourself.
Museo Otavalango is one of those places I returned to multiple times during my stay in Ecuador. I first went during my first week in Otavalo, as part of an intensive Spanish course at Mundo Andino Spanish School, and had a tour of the “living museum”. I then went back around Christmas to buy some gifts for my family back home. (The postage alone cost more than the gifts!)
The premises themselves aren’t very impressive. The buildings were built centuries ago, and time hasn’t been kind. Between earthquakes, general wear and tear, and a rotating door of landlords, these buildings are really showing their age.
Why would you want to visit a crumbling museum in need of a real makeover, you say?
It’s about how and why it became a museum. This property used to be a textile factory, which changed hands many times over the years – a couple of Ecuadorean owners, some Europeans, Colombians, and more. The factory was staffed by indigenous people – but in reality they were more like slaves, working long hours for a tiny salary. (Sound familiar?)
The last owner ran into financial trouble, sold off all the factory’s assets (the machines, etc.) and then the government took back the land. They auctioned the property, and a group of indigenous families came together and pooled all their money to make a bid. They wanted to preserve the heritage and historical significance of this property, where so many of their ancestors had suffered, and use it to showcase their culture.
Even so, they couldn’t afford to make a very large bid, and rumours were flying that a big corporation was also interested in the property.
With little to lose, they turned up on auction day and waited. But in the end, no other bidder showed up, and thus they became the unexpected owners of the property, and converted it into a museum.
They have grand refurbishment plans for the museum, but without a cent of government support, they rely entirely on the museum to generate income. They charge a small admission fee (USD5) and the museum shop showcases their own handwoven goods, which are priced very reasonably. A beanie cost me just $5.
So when my now-husband Ian came to visit back in February, I unilaterally put Museo Otavalango on our itinerary.
It was my second time having a guided tour of the place, but it wasn’t boring at all because (i) I realised that I’d forgotten most of what they’d told me before, and (ii) I had to translate for Ian, which meant that I had to pay extra close attention and really understand what they were saying. No more just smiling, nodding and pretending to understand!
(They do have English-speaking guides, and you should call in advance to make sure one is available if you need one. One happened to be available while we were there, but I wanted to practise my Spanish a little more so we went with the Spanish-speaking guides.)
In the background, you can see the traditional attire for a certain festival (which name I can’t remember… story of my life!) The one with the long dangly bits covering the face is worn by a community elder during the festival to commemorate an albino man who was worshipped as a god because of his pale skin.
In the foreground, there’s a large variety of musical instruments. They even demonstrated some of them (not as easy as it looks!).
Indigenous practices, especially surrounding religion and death, are a mix of Catholicism and ancient shamanic beliefs. Above you can see a coffin with a cross on top, and laid out in front of it are the things they put in the coffin. They believe these will be sent with the deceased to the afterlife: primarily money and food (can you see the grains?).
For an additional fee (USD10 if I recall correctly), you can also get a ritual cleansing done right there! We didn’t try it, but we did do something similar a few weeks later.
The next part of the tour was new for me as well: we visited the old factory, which was closed at the time of my previous visit.
It’s completely empty now because all the machines and other furniture have been sold, but it still holds plenty of interesting stories.
Halfway down the hall, there’s a small figurine of Saint Peter (I think…) hanging from the beams. It was once at the end of the hall, but they built an extension and didn’t bother moving it to the back of the expanded factory. Once, a fire broke out and everything behind the figurine burned down, but the rest of the factory was saved. So they said that he protects the place.
At the entrance, you can go up a rather rickety staircase with no railings (not for those with height phobia!) and see the factory supervisors’ office.
From here, you can see the entire factory below, so it was easy for them to spot when someone had nodded off even briefly. They would be punished with even longer hours or a pay cut.
As you can imagine, these guys weren’t the nicest of people. According to our guides, one of them was an amateur boxer and used to practice by lining up his employees and punching them one by one!
Below you can see all that’s left of the factory equipment – random bolts and stuff that they couldn’t sell off.
If you go in a larger group, I understand that you’ll get to see and do even more stuff like learn traditional games (hence, why they call it a living museum).
I probably overuse the phrase “hidden gem”, but it’s truly apt here. They have hardly any publicity at all (no budget), so you may not find it mentioned in guidebooks. My 2015 Lonely Planet edition doesn’t. But if you are ever in Otavalo, Museo Otavalango is well worth a few hours of your time. Plus, if you’re souvenir hunting, it’s the perfect place to get your shopping done. We even customised a few items!
Hopefully, with time and enough support from the public, they will have enough funds to refurbish the museum as planned. Can’t wait to see it then!
How to get there: it’s a 10-minute walk from the city centre (you can find it on Google Maps). Or you can take a taxi ($1.25 from the city centre on weekdays and $1.50 on weekends).
Do you revisit places, or are you a “one and done” kind of traveller? I don’t think there’s a right or wrong here – we all have our own philosophies!