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Shopping in Peru

There are so many quality choices when it comes to shopping in Peru that it can be somewhat overwhelming. From hand-woven tapestries, beautiful crafted silver jewelry, knitted sweaters, scarves, gloves and clothing boutiques—it is a challenge to choose: traditional folk art or modern contemporary painting? Antiqued tapestries or newly woven weavings? Ceramics or CDs?

Alpaca products-from sweaters and ponchos to slippers and scarves-are one of the best buys in Peru, and you will find them everywhere. Alpacas, who are descendants of camels and cousins to llamas, evolved thousands of years ago developing a fine hair with remarkable softness, fineness, length, warmth, and strength. Baby Alpaca is the softest and most luxurious. Wealthy Incas used alpaca to clothe themselves, though it is said that only the royals were allowed to use Baby Alpaca: non-royals who were found donning the cashmere-like product were penalized, to even death on some occasions.

While there are many high-end stores where you can get gorgeous alpaca sweaters at a hefty price (think $150 and up), fakes are abundant too. A high number of stores and often market stalls (especially in Cusco) advertise real baby alpaca or real 100 percent pure alpaca products for $40-50. In all likelihood, these are fakes, even if the store owner says it's real and gives you a long story about who made it. Don't get duped. Real alpaca is beautifully made; the texture is super soft and feels like cashmere. If it's too silky though, it's probably been spun with polyester and if the texture is too rough, it's been spun with sheep's wool. These still make fine products, but they just aren't what you thought you were paying for. The label also makes a difference; a real alpaca sweater will have the label of the person or company who made it. Most often, true alpaca items are found in mid-to high end stores in Cusco and Lima. Don’t wait to buy them at the airport: they are way over priced.

Since you are in the land of the Incas, you will find reproductions of exquisite pre-Colombian art work everywhere. Relatively cheap and beautiful, most artists and galleries have suitable packaging so that you can take your newly acquired artwork home without damaging it. As per textiles go, several stores sell new and antiqued tapestries in a range of colors. Many indigenous people used-and still use-these beautiful tapestries to carry their babies or their groceries. You will find them around the Plaza de Armas in Cusco and in Lima at the Avenida la Paz Market in Miraflores. Many are antiqued, so they might smell a little musty or have small stains, but they make marvelous wall hangings, especially if you frame them.

The closer you go in Peru towards the silver mines of Bolivia, the more you will begin to see Platerias, or stores selling silver. Earrings, rings, necklaces, bracelets, jacket pins, hair pins, silverware, serving plates, candle stick holders and frames can all be found. Many are one-of-a-kind and most are handmade. In Lima, head to the market on Avenida La Paz in Miraflores. The platerias in Cusco tend to be cheaper; there are several around the Plaza de Armas area and you'll also find small, independent jewelry boutiques in San Blas, which will reward you with some exciting finds. Wherever you shop, make sure what you're buying is true plata (silver). Since silver is a soft metal in its purest form when mined, it’s too soft to be used for jewelry and other items; instead, it's mixed with other metals to make it more durable. Only .925 is pure sterling silver, meaning that .075 is an additive; usually copper is added to make a pure 1000 parts silver. So anything around .925 is a good bet.

The following tips will help you in your search for quality Peruvian products, regardless of which town you are in:

  • September to May is considered low season and many shop owners are likely to cut you a deal
  • As in most of South America, it's tradition and culture to bargain in Peru. Don't feel bad or feel like you should give more because they small indigenous shop owners: bargaining is expected.
  • If you can pay in cash, do. You are likely to get a bigger discount on the items you are purchasing, as fees associated with credit-card payments are high. This includes even upmarket stores where credit cards are common, and readily accepted.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Peru: Bargaining, Centro Comercial Constitucion, Shopping in Iquitos and Is It the Real Thing?.

01 Jun 2012

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