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Head north along the Panamerican Highway and you’ll come across Calderón, a town famous for taking bread dough figurines (traditionally placed on graves during Day of the Dead remembrances on Nov. 2) to new artistic heights.
Calderón is, first and foremost, a working town. Along the main street, you’ll find bakeries, hardware stores, clothing stores and a public bathroom (pay a small fee to the attendant to enter).
The town is most famous, though, for stores where brightly colored figures called masapán are made and sold. Sculpted out of bread dough (not marzipan, although their Spanish name sounds similar), the figures are finished with glue, paint, and layers of varnish. They may not be edible, but they’re scrumptiously decorated; some even have elaborate details like miniature ruffles.
Along Calderón’s main street, you’ll be able to find masapán animals ranging from llamas to whales. Indigenous figures and Christmas are the more popular motifs, but you can find masapán for all occasions, such as Halloween, weddings, and baptisms.
The masapán sculptures come in a range of sizes – from big enough to hang on a wall to small enough to fit in a walnut. While many are intended to be ornaments, you can also buy magnets, earrings, and cocktail sticks.
When making a purchase, be sure to consider the fragility of each item. A hummingbird poised in flight might be beautiful but is more likely to lose a wing in your suitcase than, say, a plump penguin. When it comes to nativity scenes, those enclosed in a hard nut are more likely to last than ones in a bread shell.
You can buy the smallest masapán, made into pins, for 25 cents. Prices increase from there, depending on the size and detail of each creation. If you intend to buy a lot of pieces, ask for a bulk discount. Store owners are usually open to bargaining.
Artisans are also often willing to demonstrate how the figures are made when visitors stop by their workshops. (Ask at a store counter and, if someone is available, you’ll likely be led to a work space in back.) A skilled worker can make up to 300 small pieces a day.
Although there is a artisan’s union that produces masapán, it was closed on Saturday afternoon. Locals told us it is only open from Monday to Friday in the mornings.
The town has a small church, Parroquia San José de Calderón, which was also closed on Saturday, and a daily vegetable market. The best day to buy produce is on Sunday.
To get to Calderón: head north out of Quito on the Pan-American Highway. The journey by car takes between 15 to 20 minutes.
The easiest way to get there by bus is to first go to La Ofelia (the last stop on the Metrobus line). Signs for Calderón are clearly marked in La Ofelia, which is a large hub for buses headed north. The trip takes about a half an hour (depending on traffic) and costs 5 cents if you have transfered from the Metrobus. The bus will take you down Calderón’s main street. Get off at the stop with the vegetable market.
The buses head in a huge loop to Calderón and back to Quito, so get on one marked La Ofelia to return. The trip back costs 25 cents.
Other neighborhoods in Quito: Northern Quito – the “New Town”, Near Quito, Mitad del Mundo, La Floresta, Centro Histórico, Plaza Foch, Pululahua Volcanic Crater, La Mariscal, San Marcos and Cumbayá.
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