Finding Treasures in Otavalo, Ecuador

Some years back, while shopping in Ecuador, my friend and I visited the sprawling market in Otavalo. It’s home to a huge collection of indigenous South American crafts.

Music pulsed and the enticing aromas from outdoor grills filled the air. The plaza and surrounding streets were filled with vendors offering everything imaginable. From cows and chickens to scarves, handbags, antique bowls, and sterling silver jewelry…there was something for everyone.

I was on the hunt for unique, beautiful goods for my new import business, and I was not disappointed.

We maneuvered through the crowds, taking a closer look at anything that struck our fancy. I was already carrying multiple bags and dreaming about the cold cerveza I would grab when we got back to our hotel when my friend stopped in her tracks. She had spotted something interesting and wanted me to take a look.

She escorted me toward a very reserved and unassuming man. Soft-spoken but unfailingly polite, he gave me the customary Ecuadorian cheek kiss upon our introduction. Nothing about his appearance or manner could have prepared me for what I saw hanging on his makeshift display.

My jaw dropped as I took in the amazing paintings before me. The original watercolors with vibrant hues and exquisite detail were, in a word, breathtaking. I learned that the artist specialized in birds and botanicals, and I wondered how in the world someone of his obvious caliber was in this South American market rather than an upscale urban gallery.

Needless to say, I bought multiple paintings. He carefully slid each one between two pieces of cardboard for maximum protection, sealing them with tape. Before we parted ways, he shared his contact information and I vowed to visit him next time my business brought me to Ecuador.

Some time after our first meeting, I learned that he had been commissioned to paint murals for La Mirage, the only Relais & Chateaux spa in all of Ecuador. I wasn’t surprised, given his obvious talent. What really amazed me was that he was virtually undiscovered by the rest of the world.

We did, indeed, meet on my next trip. And on the one after that and the one after that! In fact, each time I visited Otavalo, I made a special point to visit him and check out his latest masterpieces. My Spanish was as bad as his English, yet we always found a way to communicate. His paintings were huge sellers for me and it was so exciting to share the beauty of his work with my customers.

Each time I met with him, in the back of my mind was a burning question: would he be willing and/or able to paint my beloved dog? Fearful of offending him, I hesitated to ask. Given his talent, what were the chances that he would stoop to painting my Labrador Retriever?

One day I just blurted out the question and somehow, through our remedial language skills and caveman gestures, he understood and nodded enthusiastically.

Once back home, I provided a photo of “Winston” via email, and to say that I was astounded by the results would be an understatement. From the expressive facial expression to his bodily proportions, Winston had been captured perfectly. The resemblance was uncanny.

There is no end to the treasures you can unearth in Ecuador. This artist was just one among many waiting to be discovered.

Editor’s Note: Getting paid to go on overseas shopping trips is a pretty special way to make a living. Find out more about import/export ideas and other ways to pay for your life or travels overseas in Fund Your Life Overseas, a free e-letter from International Living. Sign up here and we’ll send you a free report: Fund Your New Life Overseas With These 5 Portable Careers.

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