What to Buy in Ecuador: Shopping for Artisanal Souvenirs in Quito

Did you know there is a female aloë vera plant (in this photo) and a male version? And that each are used for different purposes? (©photocoen)

Did you know there is a female aloë vera plant (in this photo) and a male version? And that each are used for different purposes? (©photocoen)

“Do you know ortiga?” Doña Rosa asked? Fortunately, I did so I knew it would sting a bit. She rolled up my sleeve and held my hand in hers. She took a handful of fresh stinging nettle leaves and rubbed them over my lower arm and hand, which would improve the blood circulation and remove stress. It didn’t sting as much as I remembered from my childhood, when getting stung by stinging nettles was common part of playing in the forest behind my home.

I had just arrived at the Mercado San Francisco on Calle Rocafuerte, Quito’s oldest market (1893, although nowadays in a new building), where I could taste all kinds of exotic fruits, traditional foods such as papas con cuero (potatoes with pork), drink chicha (a non-fermented beverage derived from maize) and freshly-made fruit juices. One particular corner displayed dozens of medicinal herbs and flowers, and other remedies such as natural essences. The women of these stalls provide limpias, energy equilibrium treatments that are an important part of Andean culture.

From Nettles to Rose Petals

I was just getting a demonstration of what a limpia entails, however, a full cleansing is done behind a curtain. You need to undress so the limpiadora can work your entire body in order to reenergize you, to help you get rid of fears, or to eliminate bad vibes, depending on what you need.

The second scrub was definitely softer, with a mixture of bitter herbs, followed by petals from roses and other flowers which are particularly suited to help you relax and remove headaches and muscle pains. The cleansing was rounded off with a rub of mint leaves and other sweet aromatic herbs.

Souvenir tip: Doña Rosa sells natural essences as well as prepackaged herbs to make your own tea. She can tell you exactly which herbs helps for which ailment.

Rubbing my arm with stinging nettles (©photocoen)

Rubbing my arm with stinging nettles (©photocoen)

Doña Rosa was one of the artisans I met on a walking tour called Live Quito Like a Local, organized by Metropolitan Touring. What other interesting elements of Ecuadorian culture were in store for me?

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You’re in Quito, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978, and you want to learn all about Latin America’s best-preserved, least-altered historic center.
  • The Live Quito Like a Local walking tour brings you to the heart of traditional Quito where artesanos preserve age-old traditions, to places that may not be easy to find on your own.
  • You don’t want to just walk by some of these intriguing shops without learning more. Thankfully the walking tour includes a translator (English speaking, that is).
  • Good for: anybody who loves to learn about traditions, local foods, and handicrafts.
Bonny hands us a bag, practical to carry souvenirs bought along the way (©photocoen)

Bonny hands us a bag, practical to carry souvenirs bought along the way (©photocoen)

That morning I had been picked up from my hotel, Casa Gangotena, situated on Quito’s history-filled San Francisco square. I met Bonnie and Patricia, my two guides, and we were on our way. The morning hours were spent in the San Roque neighborhood, which lies right next to the plaza and the hotel. It is one of Quito’s traditional neighborhoods and I was about to learn something about some of San Roque’s oldest arts and trades.

Healing Scars

We stopped at a shop full of hand-made religious figures. Interestingly enough, the owner was working on the face of a person, not on a figure. “Señor Gonzalo is highly regarded in the area,” Patricia explained. “He has a method to heal scars”.

Instead of seeing how the owner was restoring broken or damaged sculptures, I saw how scars or mutilations on living people were being treated with powders and pastes. Truth be said, my presence felt a bit intrusive. One customer told me he had just gotten his first treatment and would have to return every three days until the scars were gone, but he was confident the result would be beautiful.

Removing scars (©photocoen)

Removing scars (©photocoen)

Agüita de la Vida – elixers

Señora Rosita prepares elixirs. I tasted one that consists of 21 plants from the Amazonian forest, which she had boiled to make an energizing infusion. The red color came from the ingredient called horchata. The infusion warmed my body and may have contributed to the energy I felt throughout the day as more interesting stops followed.

In the 1940s-1950s, using herbs in this way was considered witchcraft and was a delict in Ecuador. Fortunately, things have changed. Shops with dried and fresh herbs plus a vast number of other natural remedies are omnipresent in Ecuadorian towns and it is not uncommon nowadays for Western-educated doctors to use these remedies as part of their treatments.

Souvenir tip: Señora Rosita sells dried herbs to make your own agüita (also prepackaged with a combinations of herbs), as well as little bottles with essential oils.

Dried herbs (©photocoen)

Dried herbs (©photocoen)

Traditional Hats

Señor Cesar Anchalla followed in his father’s footsteps and wants to continue the tradition of making stylish hats. He presented me with a green hat with a feather, which I had seen indigenous women in Quito wear. “This is for daily use,” Señor Cesar Anchalla explained. “For special occasions they will wear a black hat with a peacock feather. A hat says a lot about status. You can wear flip flops if you like, but you are judged by the hat you’re wearing so people here make sure they have the right hat for the right occasion.”

We moved on to white hats once worn by Quito’s water carriers in the days that the city had no water system and water was hauled from wells and sold door to door. The inhabitants of Saraguro – a town south of Quito – wear a traditional hat, whose brim is so sharp that people sometimes use it to hit one another in a fight after they get drunk.

Each type of hat seemed to have a fascinating history and a tale to tell.

Hat with peacock feather (©photocoen)

Hat with peacock feather (©photocoen)

Souvenir tip: a hat, of course. Expect to pay around $70 for a traditional black hat.

I could have stayed here much longer, and I will return to learn more, but Bonnie insisted we had to move on. We were expected at the Pastelería Chez Tiff where we were about to see part of the traditional chocolate making process. Ah well … some things shouldn’t be kept waiting, now should they? But that will be another story.

Practical Information

Traditionally made sweets called colaciones (©photocoen)

Traditionally made sweets called colaciones (©photocoen)

  • Other (edible) souvenirs you may find on this walking tour are red/black/white quinoa, amaranth, turmeric roots, chunks of panela (unrefined sugar cane), traditionally made sweets such as colaciones, and, of course, Pastelería Chez Tiff’s delectable chocolate.
  • Part of Metropolitan Touring’s Live Quito Like a Local walking tour winds through the San Roque neighborhood and includes visiting the San Francisco Market. The second part takes you to the emblematic street of La Ronda and Quito’s most imposing sites around the Plaza Grande and Plaza San Francisco. The tour includes a grand lunch at one of Quito’s top end hotel restaurants such as Casa Gangotena.
  • If you don’t feel comfortable having a limpia in the San Francisco Market, you could ask the woman to come to your hotel. I don’t know whether this is common practice but I do know that Doña Rosa regularly comes to the Casa Gangotena Boutique Hotel to give treatments.
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