“Perdoname,” I said, interrupting a shopkeeper organizing miniature versions of Machu Picchu. “Tiene La Ultima Cena con el cuy.” He didn’t, so, I exited what must’ve been the twentieth store I asked, sighing, “Oh well. On to the 21st.”
I did finally hunt down the Cusqueñan version of the Last Supper painting my mother requested and now has framed in her living room, but it wasn’t without my fair share of begging, asking, demanding, searching and, of course, haggling.
In the markets that dot most of Peru’s touristic hubs, haggling is as much a part of the shops as the woven blankets, painted pottery and crafted jewelry that line the shelves of the stores. While negotiating a price isn’t part of most shopping experiences in the States, it is a huge part of the economy in Peru. The price tags sticking to items sold in stores and on the streets are ridiculously, sky-high, reserved for ignorant turistas.
Rather than getting stressed out or insulted over it, approach haggling like a game. Meander in and out of the shops that enclose the Plaza de Armas in Cusco or the Inca Markets in Lima. See what is available, what catches your eye and what the prices are like. Make a mental note of those prices, then continue window shopping. Once you have a good idea of what you’d like to buy, head to the gift shop that has the best prices and the most selection. It’s easier to haggle if you buy several souvenirs instead of one-off items.
When you’re ready to check out, instead of asking “¿cuanto cuesta?” (how much does this cost?), ask “¿cuanto para me?” (how much for me?). This lets the salesperson know off the bat that you aren’t buying unless they are cutting you a deal. Once you get a price for all your booty, reduce it by 10 to 15 percent. If your total tops out at S/.117 (~USD$42), offer S/.100 (~USD$35) instead. Keep in mind that paying with cash will give you more bargaining power than paying with a credit card.
What to Buy
Paintings: Canvases of highlands women working the fields or saints glittering in gold are plentiful. Consider framing the pieces later – rolling the canvas sans frame makes for easier transport home.
Pottery: Clay and metal pots, cups, bowls and plates painted with pre-Columbian, Inca and idiosyncratic designs are among the most popular finds. Just be sure you aren’t taking home real artifacts as it’s illegal and a trip to jail will definitely put a kink in your travel plans.
Woodwork: These small to large statues, usually of llamas, pumas and condors, are carved by hand. Small wooded flutes and drums make great gifts for kids.
Silver: One of the reasons the Spanish conquered Peru half a millennium ago was for the precious metals found deep inside the Andes. Take home a piece of that history with a pair of earrings or a necklace. Also available are large platters, goblets and other silverware. Bear in mind, most of this is not of the highest quality, so don’t pay a fortune for it.
Weavings: Ranging in size from small zippered pouches to massive rugs, weavings are an important part of Peruvian culture. Ancient Peruvians used these embroideries for folklore and storytelling and in some communities today, that tradition is still alive and well. While some are crafted by hand, most found in the Inca Markets are machine-made.
Llama, Alpaca and Vicuña Wool: Fabric makers weave together all sorts of items from the wool of these adorable animals. Though you can get a lower price in the markets, you are taking a bit of a risk as to the authenticity of more expensive wool like baby alpaca or vicuña. For peace of mind, buy at an authorized dealer.
Liquor: Pisco is the official liquor of Peru. Consider picking up a pisco mixology book so you can impress your friends with your Peruvian bar tending skills. Pre-made pisco sour packets are also available for purchase. Note: LATAN Airlines permits up to five liters of alcohol with alcohol content between 24% and 70% per person as checked luggage if it’s packaged in a sealable bottle or flask.
Where to Shop
From stores selling typical trinkets like key chains and shot glasses, to artisan boutiques specializing in alpaca scarves imported from the highlands, Peru’s capital boasts a huge selection of shops with something for just about everyone.
Stroll down Avenida Larco for llama and alpaca wool sweaters, gloves, scarfs and the like. Careful where you buy from though, as many shops advertise that they sell wool sourced from baby llama or it’s more expensive cousins, vicuña and alpaca, when in reality their items are nothing more than a wool blend.
If you want to be sure you are getting the real deal when it comes to wool, go to Larcomar, a shopping mall built into the side of a cliff. Seek out Sol Alpaca and Kuna for genuine products, You’ll pay more, but you’ll be guaranteed you’re getting the material listed on the tag. Follow Larco until it dead-ends into the Malecón. Descend the stairs and be prepared to be wowed at the architectural splendor, as well as an array of stores from nearly every corner of the globe.
Avenida Larco is also home to a handful of handicraft stores. While there is less selection and price competition than the larger Inca Markets, there are also fewer crowds. Most of these stores sell everything from post cards to pottery, though it is on a smaller scale.
Speaking of the los Mercados Inkas – inside each these mini-malls on Avenida Petit Thouars (just south of Avenida Arequipa) are dozens of smaller one-stop-souvenir-shops. Make your rounds, seeing what knickknacks you, your coworkers, the kids and your great Aunt Mildred would be interested in; then start making your bids. Keep in mind, these shopkeepers are there to sell, sell, sell, so they will accept any reasonable offer.
Just south of the Inca Markets are a slew of smaller shops, including a fair share of antigüedades. Inside these antique shops, you can find statement jewelry from the swinging 20s, contemporary art from the mod-era and centuries-old furniture made of solid mahogany. The store owners usually know a bit about the antiques, so chat with them and you’ll not only take home a piece of Peru’s past, but also a story to go with it.
Swaths of souvenir shops line the streets of Cusco. Those nearest to the Plaza will inevitably be the most expensive, so don’t be afraid to meander up and down the narrow streets that zigzag through the former Inca capital.
Much of the merchandise is similar to what you will find in Lima — woven rugs, elaborate paintings, silver jewelry — but down Calle Plateros, you can find loads of hiking gear from all of the major brands (think Columbia, The North Face and Patagonia). While the vendedores will insist that the goods are genuine, keep a skeptical eye. The majority of the prices and the craftsmanship (or lack thereof) leads me to think otherwise. That said, the fleece sweaters, rain gear, hiking boots, camping equipment and the like, come in handy for those needing extra layers for their Inca Trail treks or for frugal travelers who don’t want to drop several hundred dollars on a name brand jacket.
One must-see market in Cusco is the Mercado Central de San Pedro. Aside from getting to taste some pretty cool Peruvian foods you won’t likely find at home, you can also find some nifty keepsakes. Since the overhead costs are lower than in the shops surrounding the Plaza, you will also find better deals here.
- Guard all of your belongings. While the markets, shops and malls are generally safe, pickpockets can have a heyday there. Keep your eyes on your valuables at all times.
- Separate your cash, so shopkeepers don’t see you pull out a wad of it when you go to make a purchase. This will help you in negotiating a lower price.
- Don’t buy anything made from endangered plants or animals. The same goes for live animals and artifacts. All of these activities are illegal.
- Be careful about taking home certain plants, produce, meat and dairy. Most nations prohibit bringing these products across the border.
- Have fun with it!