Discover Ecuador Arts & Crafts - A Colorful World of Wholesale Import/Export Profits
If you are looking to source unique handicrafts, fair trade products, handcrafted jewelry like
tagua or other Andean arts and crafts of high quality for resale in your gift shop, boutique or online store, here
is a comprehensive list of the “artesania” found in Ecuador. Discover what Ecuador has to offer when it comes
to handmade jewelry, nature inspired crafts, and unique artisan items.
TOP 25 Arts & Crafts of Ecuador – The List
1. Otavalo Textiles
"The Spanish chained us to the looms... Now we own the looms." Colorful textiles
have always played a large part in Andean culture and for centuries Otavaleños have been famous for their textiles.
Besides being farmers, Otavaleños were weavers and traveling merchants. Producing fabrics for export throughout the
northern Andes and traveling to distant markets has been their norm from pre-Incan times. (The Incas arrived in
Ecuador in the late 1400′s.)
The history of the Otavaleños is one of enduring oppression and yet overcoming that experience,
adapting and using technology to profit immensely in the modern era. The Incas conquered the northern part of
Ecuador for about 50 years before the Spanish arrived in the area in 1532. As the Otavalo area was already famous
for textile production when the Spanish arrived, and northern Ecuador lacked the mineral wealth of Peru, the
Spanish conquerors quickly put the indigenous to work on the looms. The Spanish brutally enslaved the indigenous,
chaining them to the looms, working them from dusk till dawn. But the Spanish also introduced sheep and technology:
European treadle looms, spinning wheels, and systems of production weaving.
For almost three hundred years Otavalo was the textile sweatshop of South America. Now the
Otavaleños own the looms. As they already had the experience of producing not only traditional textiles, but
innovating products for export, Otavaleños have become the most successful indigenous group in South America.
A large measure of their success is due to the popularity of the weekly craft market Plaza de
Ponchos. Stepping into the Plaza de Ponchos is like entering a labyrinth of color.
For a first time visitor, it can be a bit overwhelming – so much to take in, so colorful and
distracting: hundreds of vendors and tens of thousands of brightly colored blankets, hammocks, bags, jewelry,
antiques, and mountains of yarn assault the senses. Fortunately, the vendors are very laid-back, relaxed and
polite. If you have wisely scheduled some time, you can browse at your leisure and enjoy the variety. The vendors
will not hassle you, but politely offer to show you all the colors and styles available of whatever product you may
be interested in.
First impressions can be overwhelming. Explore slowly, savor the experience.
2. Panama Hats
Question: What do. . .
Johnny Depp, Sean Connery, Edward G. Robinson, Kate Moss, Robert Duval, Truman
Capote, Keira Knightly, Charlton Heston, King Edward VII, Paul Newman, Sigourney
Weaver, President Theodore Roosevelt, Peter O’Toole, Mark Twain, Clark Gable,
Napoleon III, Tom Wolfe, Graham Green, Malcom Lowry, Sydney Greenstreet, and
. . . all have in common?
Answer: The Panama Hat
This “prince” of straw hats has long been a favorite of royalty, nobility, writers, hollywood
stars, singers and celebrities. Popularized in the 19th century, the Panama hat is considered the finest straw hat
in the world. Lightweight, light colored, breathable, and incredibly flexible, the Panama hat signifies luxury,
elegance and sophistication. Ideal for a warm sunny day, it is one of the few hats that has remained in style for
Yet the strange truth is that the Panama Hat is made exclusively in Ecuador! The special straw from
which these hats are made, the toquilla palm leaf, only grows in the warm lowlands of the Ecuadorian coast, 100 to
400 metres above sea level. Confusion arose when Ecuadorian straw hats, perfect for protection from the sun on a
hot day, were worn by workers constructing the Panama canal. President Theodore Roosevelt visited the construction
site in Panama, and was photographed wearing one of these straw hats, increasing its popularity immensely. And many
hats from Ecuador were sent to Panama and from there distributed throughout the world. The name of the point of
sale was applied to the hat, rather than the place of origin, therefore the hat became known as “the Panama
The toquilla straw hat has traditionally been manufactured in small coastal villages and in the
mountains. The toquilla palm leaf is shredded into fiber strands, sun dried, woven and trimmed by hand. As the
straw is rather soft in its natural state, it cannot be machine woven. And since they are made by hand, every
Panama Hat is unique. While a simple straw hat can be hand woven in a day, the better quality hats may take weeks
or even months to complete.
The two production centers of Panama Hats in Ecuador are Montecristi and Cuenca.
Using very thin straw and a tight weave, master weavers in the coastal town of Montecristi produce the finest
Panama Hats in the world. These hats can take several months to produce. With thin, tight weaves and a straw of a
natural light color, these hats are soft, flexible and of ultimate quality. The finest hats are therefore called
“Montecristi”, named for the town in which they are made.
3. Tagua Nut (Vegetable Ivory) Jewelry
The tagua nut is a dried seedpod from an Amazonian palm tree that
grows in the tropical rainforests of Ecaudor. It is known as “vegetable ivory” for its creamy white appearance,
virtually identical to the ivory taken from elephant tusks.
Like the ivory from elephants, tagua is totally natural. But no
animals are destroyed in harvesting this renewable resource. Tagua products provide income for those dwelling
within the Amazon rainforest, and are harvested without any harm to the tree.
The tagua “ivory nut” is used in jewellery, beads, buttons and many handicrafts produced
throughout Ecuador, employing approximately 50,000 people. Resembling the finest ivory in texture and color, it is
just slightly softer.
All types of decorative items are made with this material: small decorative animals, bracelets,
earrings, necklaces, rings, buttons, back-scratchers, pendants, Christmas ornaments and beads. Jewellery made from
Tagua is popular with women throughout the world. And modern designers are incorporating tagua beads into the
production of natural jewellery and hip clothing.
4. Amazon Balsa Wood Bird Carvings
Nature inspired balsa wood carvings of colorful birds and animals are produced by the Quechua Indigenous peoples
of the Amazonia rainforest. These can be found in Puyo and Pastaza. They range in quality from colorful souvenirs
to highly accurate carvings of Amazonian wild birds that will please the most discerning bird watchers.
In the village of Ahuano, on the Rio Napo, is a wood carver who produces the most accurate bird reproductions
with a great attention to detail. Unfortunately, the number of artists creating this work has declined over the
last decade. We talked to many in the area who used to do balsa wood carving a few years ago, but are now employed
in pizza shops or other businesses.
Among the various animals sculptured in the incredibly light weight balsa wood are colorful toucans and parrots,
turtles, fish, frogs, monkeys and dolphins. Besides individual and groups of animals, other products created in
balsa are hanging mobiles, napkin holders, pens and crayons.
5. Wood Carvings
Ecuadorian artists produce world acclaimed woodcarvings in small town called San Antonio de Ibarra. It is
located approximately 5 kilometers south of Ibarra, the provincial capital of Imbabura. The town is a concentration
of wood carving workshops, galleries, and furniture showrooms.
The wood sculpting tradition of San Antonio dates back hundreds of years. In colonial times, the
Quito School was famous throughout Spanish America for its religious statuary. Saints and sinners, crucifixes and
angels were produced in a realistic style that inspired religious devotion.
After the devastating earthquake of 1868, when most of Ibarra was in ruins, artists from the Quito
School were brought in to repair and rebuild churches and civic buildings, and also to restore damaged works of
art. A painter from this famous school, Javier Miranda, hired an assistant from San Antonio, Daniel Reyes, to help
with the work of restoration. Miranda recognized that Daniel Reyes was very talented, and took him back to Quito
where he was trained as his apprentice, learning the ways of the Quito School.
When Reyes had achieved the status of a master, he returned to San Antonio and set up a
workshop. The Ecuadorian government helped Reyes set up his workshop and also a school where the traditions Quito
were passed on to a new generation of artists. Workshops multiplied throughout the town and it was soon recognized
that the artists and sculptors of San Antonio were not only adept at continuing the famous techniques of the
colonial era, but the heirs of this tradition passing it on to future generations. In 1944 the Instituto Superior Tecnológico “Daniel Reyes” was officially founded
in San Antonio, teaching art and design. Today the school is a leading institute of art and design
instruction in Ecuador.
Today, as in the centuries past, you will find many religious statues in San Antonio. Realistic
portrayals of the sufferings of Christ enduring the crucifixion are graphic with wounds and blood.
Other favorite religious themes are the saints, such as San Miguel (Saint Michael), and the famed
Virgin of Quito, crowned with a halo of stars, holding a chain binding the serpent of satan. Saint Francis and
copies of Michelangelo’s Last Supper are also favorite religious subjects. More humorous subjects frequently
encountered are various depictions of Don Quixote, and a trio of drunk musicians. For animals, the eagle is a
Sculptures vary in size from a few inches to 15 feet high, ranging in subject matter from
Aztec/Inca inspired suns and abstract pieces to nudes, cowboys, the Inca Emperor Atahualpa and the liberator Simon
Bolivar, animals, dancers, monks, mothers holding children and carved doorways and mantels. Many abstract pieces
represent musical harmony, romantic love, the sun and moon, and family affection.
Mass produced pieces for the home include small decorations for the fridge and wall of butterflies,
chickens, automobiles, dancers; practical household items such as vases, candle holders, picture frames, plates,
decorative palm trees, shelving, boxes, storage chests, candy and nut bowls, mixing bowls and spoons for cooking,
carved fruit, key holders, paper weights and desk ornaments of all kinds.
Exquisite hand carved furniture can be found in styles ranging from classical Greek and Roman to
Rococo, as well as antique reproductions to the latest modern styles.
Prices of the carvings in San Antonio range from a couple of dollars to several thousand. Some of
these carvings make their way to the Plaza de Ponchos in Otavalo for the Saturday offerings. But for the greatest
selection, a trip to San Antonio is a must. While the largest stores are centered on the main plaza, and 27 de
Noviembre street, there are many smaller stores and workshops along the backstreets. It is work taking the time to
explore the side streets to see the carvers at work creating their masterpieces.
6. Andean Pan Pipe Flutes
Music has been central to Ecuadorian life for thousands of years. One of the central musical instruments from
pre-Hispanic times in the Andes has been panpipe flutes. The Kichwa word Antara refers to the classical panpipes
played for ceremonial and romantic purposes.
Rondador is another common word used for panpipes. Some consist of two rows of tubes (Zampona) so
that both tubes can be blown simultaneously, one for the melody and another for the harmony. Other types of flutes
produced in the Andean highlands are the sisca, quenillas, quenas, quenachos, mama quenachos, and chulis.
7. Inlay Silver Jewelry
Discovering unique handmade jewelry, precious items crafted as a work of art and a labor of
love, can make shopping in Ecuadorian markets truly an adventure. Silver jewelry inlaid with semiprecious stones
and conch shells is an interplay of color, pattern and history. Common design motifs incorporated into many of the
silver pendants are ancient Incan calendar symbols.
The most common Incan symbol incorporated into the jewelry is the Chakana, a three stepped
cross with a hole in the center. The three steps represent the three worlds, i.e, the heavenly realm of the spirit,
the human realm and the underworld and death. Three other Incan concepts represented by the Chakana are the 3
realities of Love, Knowledge and Work.
Sun, moon and stars, animals, spirals, geometrics of ancient design will all be found incorporated
into these beautiful objects.
8. Dream Catchers and North American Indian Inspired Crafts
Dreamcatchers, which originated in Ojibwa culture have become adopted by Amerindians in many
countries as a symbol of indigenous culture. Consisting of a hoop with a woven web or net, and decorated with
feathers, cloth and beads, these nets, like a spiderweb, are believed to catch anything bad in the air. According
to Ojibwa beliefs, a dreamcatcher can change a person’s dreams. At night good dreams are allowed to filter through,
while bad dreams or nightmares get caught in the net, then disappearing in the light of day. A different version is
that nightmares pass through the holes in the net and disappear, while the good dreams get caught in the web and
then slide down along the feathers to the dreamer.
Crafts and clothing inspired by the traditions of North American Indians are found in Ecuador.
Whether it’s due to a feeling or respect and solidarity with the Northern American tribes, a love of all things
Indian or just a desire to cater to North American and European tourists, items like dream catchers, eagle feather
war bonnets, bone hairpipe chokers, beaded wristbands and leather tipis, these items that you would expect to find
in Great Plains Indian trading posts are found here for sale in the craft markets of Ecuador.
Bone hairpipe chokers are available as well, but rather than being made with bone hairpipes,
the long beads are actually tagua vegetable ivory.
9. Leather work
Take a 25 minute drive north from Otavalo on the Panamerican highway and you will come to the
town of Cotacachi, renowned as the leather capital of Ecuador. In Cotacachi there are approximately 80 shops
selling vast quantities of high quality leather jackets, hats, luggage, handbags, wallets, belts, boots, shoes and
Most of the shops are located on one avenue, 10 de Agosto street. What you will find in this
charming town are quality handmade leather items at bargain prices. Most leather items here are hand made. You can
have items custom made if you come with a photo or can sketch out your design.
Internationally recognized, this small town, self-proclaimed as an “eco-city”, won the
Participative Democracy, Dubai 2000 award for its for sound social, environmental and economic policies, and Unesco
honored it with the City of Peace prize for its culture of dialogue and democracy. Indigenous mayor Auki Tituaña
has held office for ten years (democratically re-elected), and has worked hard to bring many improvements to the
Clean streets, investments in education and social benefits combined with respect for the
environment makes Cotacachi the best small town in Ecuador, and a favorite retirement center for foreigners.
A museum in Cotacachi states that the first leather working association was formed in 1864, the
first activity being the tanning of hides. That has changed, for now with a high regard for protecting the
environment, tanning is no longer performed within the town, and leather workers only use environmentally friendly
products when dyeing and finishing. There is no toxic waste dump or chemicals from the leather industry being
dumped into the river.
Coctacachi’s stylish leather boutiques offer something for everyone. If high quality leather items
at a bargain price are high on your shopping list, then Cotacachi is a must see in Ecuador.
10. Colorful Tigua Art
Of all the bright and colorful art spotted in Ecuador, the tigua paintings are undoubtedly
the the brightest. These small canvases just scream color. Tigua is a folk art created in the Cotopaxi area of
Ecuador, a group of small villages southwest of Quito. The canvases are filled with scenes of rural life:
Indigenous farmers herding llamas, sheep and goats, spinning yarn and harvesting, and celebrating their life
against the omnipresent snow capped Volcan Cotopaxi looming in the background.
Besides filling canvases,the brilliant colors of the Tigua paintings are incorporated
into various household objects: spoons, forks, picture frames, bowls and platters.
TO BE CONTINUED......