Walking into the Museo Viviente Otavalango in Otavalo, I heard voices.
We had not been greeted and there was no one there. But the voices of workers who once toiled in what was the San Pedro textile factory were loud and clear. The past emanated from the corners of the silent rooms. Footsteps of artisans hurrying to work made the old wooden floors creak once again, echoing my own.
My friend and I found the Museo by accident. Quite literally. We had been looking for it, but the “ten minute walk” promised by the tourist office in town had turned into 30 and it was nowhere in sight. On Google maps, the museo is on “Unnamed Street.” Big help. We found a friendly local woman who offered to lead us. Then we bumped into a man and young boy who pointed us in the opposite direction.
Finally, we found it. Another couple was just getting into a taxi when we arrived, leaving us the only visitors on the property.
What a property. The 200-year-old shell of the former textile factory still stands. Only one of the three large buildings is still empty. Woven between them are tiny homes of some of those who have vowed to preserve the ancient culture of the Quechua.
We were soon met by José René Zambrano Cachimuel, the president of The Otavalango Living Museum. As a young man, René worked in the same the buildings now housing the museum. It is because of René, and his determined wife Luzmila, that the dilapidated factory has been preserved, and the museum created.
Years after working there, curiosity took him back to the factory where he found it in ruins. There was very little left, and most of the furniture and antique looms had been stolen. René began the several years’ process of rallying support for an indigenous center. He ever coerced his wife into writing the president of Ecuador to ask for his support. That letter led to the president soliciting a bank to loan funds to the project.
In 2011, a company of twenty Quechuas, also known as Kichwas for their language, from Otavalo became the first indigenous owners of La Fabrica San Pedro. Together they fed the dream promoted by René and Luzmila, joining to find and preserve artifacts and ancient stories.
The Otavalango Living Museum is an interactive classroom, showcasing traditional games, dances, and ancestral tales. Groups schedule meetings in the renovated classroom and teachers offer regular classes in the Kichwa language.
My friend, Carol, and I were a captive audience. We marveled at the talents of seamstresses who create elaborate costumes. René explained the traditional Otavalan clothing that began with two versions before the Spaniards arrived and two more after they occupied the land.
We learned about ceremonial weddings during which the couple remains on their knees. They are blessed by herbs and antique artifacts, and the event ends with the woman braiding the man’s long, black hair.
There are masks and traditional costumes used for celebrations blessing the sun, moon and earth. René playfully dons one mask and takes a few steps, leaving us all laughing.
We hover over the display of Kichwa burials. We are enthralled with the tiny casket surrounded by toys. It’s part of the Incan culture passed down that encourages those left behind to populate the burial ground of loved ones with the things they will need in the next life.
René does his best to make the displays come alive. There is another man in the weaving room, who begins spinning yarn as we enter. It isn’t enough for our tour guide who drops to the ground to operate a back strap weaving loom.
Our private tour ends and our senses are full. We are so thankful we chose the museum as our last stop in Otavalo. René’s passion is infectious; he found converts in both of us.
Museo Viviente Otavalango is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s important to call ahead at (593)062.903.879, especially if you come with a group, to ensure an English-speaking guide. Advance notice also gives René an opportunity to gather members of the community to set up live demonstrations.
Admission is just $5. The official address is Vía Antigua a Quiroga #1230. But just ask for the Antigua Fábrica San Pedro. The Museo Viviente Otavalo hasn’t quite stuck – yet.