TOP 25 Arts & Crafts of Ecuador – The List
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.
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.
2. Panama Hats
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 centuries.
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 Hat”.
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
An amazing palm tree grows in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador. Known as the tagua palm, this tree produces beautiful material suitable for making natural jewelry and fine carvings. The walnut sized seed from this plant, known as tagua nut, is also called “vegetable ivory” – for it is a creamy white material that rivals the finest ivory taken from elephant tusks.
Eco friendly and animal friendly, the harvest of ivory from this renewable resource is produced without harm to the tree or endangered species of animals. Tagua provides much needed income to support the traditional lifestyles of the indigenous dwellers of the Amazonian rainforest.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.
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 favorite.
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.
Please note: We are NOT able to sell silver jewelry: shipping of silver, gold and other precious metal items is prohibited by both the post office and private courier companies.
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 even saddles.
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 town.
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......