Perched sovereignly at 11,000 feet above sea level in the Peruvian mountains, Cuzco evokes the architecture of Europe and the tough ambiance of South America. There’s haphazard street art that references Pacha Mama, the Inca shout-out to Mother Earth. There are gilded churches that make their homes on top of ancient stone foundations. There’s also a lot of shopping. And if you’re the kind of person who likes shiny jewelry, mosaic mirrors and knit scarves, you’ll be attracted by the markets, too. Before plunking down a sole or two, however, it helps to fill your head with the overwhelming knowledge of bargains, bartering and the cultural basics. So we’ve put together this intrepid guide for any making the trip.
Everyone wants to emerge from Peru draped in the softness of alpaca fur, and for good reason. The fuzzy stuff that grows on these guys is among the rarest textiles in the entire world. When you reach the stalls, though, don’t fall for any old luxurious fur. While the merchant might swear to the authenticity of a scarf, sweater, or pair of socks, very few items you’ll find in a market actually are 100% alpaca. With tighter and more densely woven textiles, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with an alpaca mix. And those items that claim to be “100% bebe?” Not actually woven from (or by) baby alpacas. “Bebe” refers to the first sheer of the animal, or the seasonally virgin hairs from the area around the neck of the animal, thought to be one of the softest spots. Products made from these materials are still stellar, but it helps to know what you’re getting when you approach the bargaining table.
Nothing dazzles in a Peruvian market quite like the shimmering displays of gold, silver and copper, and all three are fantastic gifts to bring back from Cuzco. With the God of Exchange Rates smiling down on you, you can get amazing deals on rings, necklaces and other pieces of jewelry, particularly of the silver persuasion, to bring home and dazzle your buddies. When looking through silver jewelry, keep an eye out for a #925 stamp. That little number stands for the percentage of silver, 92.5%, and is actually the calling card of sterling silver, which is pure silver mixed a few alloying metals. This stamp could be the difference between 100 soles or 50, but if you’re still not convinced your score is worth the price, the old flame-under-the-ring trick can solve your dilemma.Of course, even with all of those dazzling jewels, you may be tempted to just grab a shot glass for your growing collection, and a llama glass would look epic against a row of shimmering Vegas-themed counterparts, but there are a few items you can’t leave Cuzco without looking for. If you’re stuck for ideas, start with carved items, like home goods made from gourds, or even pan flutes. If you fancy yourself a fashionista you can find bright, edgy textiles in Incan patterns etched onto high top sneakers and tote bags. You’re also sure to come across a few stands where artists are patiently drawing on sheets of canvas and pinning them to the walls of their modest kiosks. Besides being gorgeous, these gifts are a great way to give back to the locals, and they can be bought rolled up for easy transport.
Part of the fun of shopping in other countries is the barter and Peru is no exception. But keep in mind the type of good you’re up against before you ask the merchant to take half-off. Handmade items (think: anything carved, woven or painted) take time and care to make, and if you think the seller would rather take a massive hit than let a sale walk away, you’ll be flying home without a souvenir. Start just a few soles away from what you’re willing to pay and meet the merchant half-way. Oh, and while you’re bartering and perusing, be careful not to walk out of one kiosk, where you’ve built a relationship with the staff, and into another. With similar wares and squished spaces, you might find yourself paying for an item at a completely different price than the one you already agreed on.
Finally, take time to sit and take it all in – and take it easy. Altitude sickness is no joke. It can take you from happy to pukey in just minutes. Combat illness, at least temporarily, by taking a break from rampant consumerism with the milky looking tea made from coca leaves. It’s a staple in Cuzco and a great treat to replenish your energy after a day at the shops. You can purchase the leaves to bring home, but check with your local air authorities before marching into customs with a full baggie of coca leaves.