Ecuador has an ongoing tradition of handcrafts that are practical, beautiful, and also make for great souvenirs. Popular items include woven textiles such as tapestries, sweaters, ponchos, and shawls. The famous Otavalo Market (Plaza de Ponchos, Otavalo) is one of Latin America’s oldest craft markets, operating since Incan times. These days, indigenous and other artisans sell a wide range of handiwork including ethnic jewelry, masks, wood and stone carvings, blankets, and hammocks here. There are stalls every day, but Saturday is the best time to shop as out-of-town Indians come to sell their wares.
Panama hats, named for the accessory worn when the canal was being built, are actually an Ecuadorian product, and some of the finest hats in the world. Montecristi in Manabi province has many of the remaining master weavers who make these by hand over several days or months out of toquilla palm straw that has been split as thin as thread. The finer the fibers, the more flexible the hat, and prices can range from US $10 up to several thousand dollars. The fineness of the weave can be determined by holding the hat up to the sun – the less light that shows through, the better (and more expensive) the hat. True panama hats are bleached a light ivory color using sulphur fumes. If you can’t make it to the out-of-the-way Montecristi, Cuenca, the capital of Azuay province, is another town which is well known for its panama halls, with several factories such as the Homero Ortega P. & Hijos factory (Gil Ramirez Davalos 3-86, Cuenca) a large producer.
Ecuador’s volcanoes have created hot springs with reputed healing properties. Banos is a small city in the Oriente, at the foot of the active Tungurahua where Las Piscinas de la Virgen (Montalvo city center, Banos) has thermal pools of different temperatures and waterfall views. Alternatively, those based in Quito could try an overnight excursion to Papallacta Termas (Km 65 via Baeza, Quito), a spa hotel with 12 landscaped mineral springs of varying temperatures, stunning mountain views, and full treatment packages. The longevity of Vilcabamba’s locals has been attributed to the clean mountain air, the anti-oxidant loaded foods and mineral-rich waters and many spas and resorts have sprung up in the area to offer visitors the same benefits. Madre Tierra (San Pedro de Vilcabamba, Vilcabamba 288) is an arty hotel, restaurant and spa that is set in a garden with mountain views and mineral pools.