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Remembering Peru: Souvenir Ideas

There is a popular expression promoting minimalism that goes, “Collect memories, not things.” I wholeheartedly agree with this statement—the minimalist mindset is one that strives to find meaning and value in relationships and experiences rather than material items. When sorting through my things or purchasing new ones, I like to keep this mindset, even when souvenir shopping.

However, that is not to say that I never actually buy anything—quite the contrary! I just think that it is really important to consider WHY I want to purchase a souvenir, just like any other item. I would much rather have a few meaningful pieces than a bunch of junk that I only somewhat enjoy.

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The first time I came to Peru I made that mistake. Although I was only here for a mission trip, I went CRAZY at the Indian Market, the main tourist trap in Lima. My line of thinking was somewhat like this:

“I know that I love clothes, so I should definitely get something cool and unique, so that I can tell people all about this trip when they ask where I got the clothes from. Peru is famous for ponchos. I had a poncho once, in third grade. I loved it. I’m sure that ponchos will be trendy again soon, so when they come back in style, I will be ahead of the curve AND be able to say that I got it in Peru, where everybody actually wears ponchos. I should also get an alpaca sweater, because that’s THE item to have. Oh! These pants are cool, too. How much? Okay. Shoot, I forgot to bargain for those. Hey, those shoes are cool! Not that well-made, but totally different! That’s the kind of item that my friends expect me to bring back, so—”

Seriously. I did end up buying all of those pieces, and I regret those purchases. My time constraints and lack of sense allowed me buy things that I’ve MAYBE worn once or twice. Each. I hated the items to the point where I either sold or donated them all, except for the sweater. It is the only piece in my closet that although it doesn’t quite fit and is difficult to wear, I still feel joy when I see it. I love the colors and the pattern of it, so I might get it tailored or make a pillow out of it.

But I digress. The point is that I bought a bunch of junk that mostly sparked feelings of guilt and dismay whenever I laid eyes on them. They did not bring happy memories of that trip; rather, they resurfaced some anxiety and general uneasiness associated with it.

But I assure you that souvenir shopping can actually be a positive thing. I generally have qualms about the lucrative tourist business, but since my time here I have collected some tips and suggestions for happy souvenir purchases.

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  • FIND SOMETHING USEFUL

This is one of the most important aspects of buying a souvenir, at least for me. Many of my favorite souvenirs have been purchased out of necessity. For instance, the first week that I was here, I knew that I needed a small purse big enough to hold my passport, phone, and keys. One night while my husband was working in Barranco, one of the tourist districts, I went out to try locating one. I stumbled upon a few booths of Peruvians selling their handmade artisanal crafts. One man had beautiful stamped leather goods. I found the perfect small pouch, bargained a great price, and took it home. It was extremely cheap, yet it was beautiful and useful. I used polish on it regularly, and now I have a great piece that also serves a function for me when I return to the States. Other useful items could be clothing, journals, dishes, or bags.

  • FIND SOMETHING THAT TELLS A STORY

Many of these categories overlap, and it’s great if they do. My small leather pouch not only carries the story of the artist who made it, but the stories of using it for nearly six months while studying abroad. I find that the best stories typically come from fair trade purchases. When the program ended, my parents came to visit, and my husband and I were helping them find souvenirs. They knew that they wanted a large blanket for their couch, so we set out to find one. We went to the tourist markets, but we began our search at the lesser-known ones. There we encountered a woman knitting, surrounded by an entire stall of hand-woven blankets. I began talking with her and immediately recognized her Andean accent—Spanish was not her first language. She told me that she had just come to Lima three months ago from her native home of Cusco. She was just starting her business of selling traditionally woven alpaca blankets. She had learned the techniques as a young woman, and was simply trying to make a living for her and her family by selling them. Now whenever I see that blanket, I will never forget that woman, her sweetness, and her story. By purchasing that blanket, my parents are helping a tradition survive.

  • FIND SOMETHING TRULY BEAUTIFUL

Occasionally you will find something that doesn’t quite tell a story, and it’s not exactly useful, yet you think that is something remarkable, such as a wall hanging. While all of my souvenirs from this trip tell a story and/or serve some sort of function, I love them all because they are quite pleasing to the eye and fall exactly within my personal taste. For instance, when I was with my parents in Cusco, we visited an alpaca farm. I had been looking for a real baby alpaca blanket in a specific design that I absolutely loved. When the tour was over, I found exactly what I had been looking for, in colors that I really truly enjoyed. Now whenever I use that blanket, I’m not only reminded of the place and the people, but I marvel at its impeccable design. For me, an item like this is a total win, because it tells a story while being useful, fair trade, and beautiful.

  • KNOW THE INS AND OUTS OF THE TOURIST TRADE

As a fellow traveler, I implore you to make educated purchases. The tourist trade in Peru (and many other places in the world) can get extremely shady. When you go to the infamous Indian Market, the vast majority of vendors will proudly proclaim that their goods are “One hundred percent pure baby alpaca,” in English, no less. Yet the curious thing is that less than ten percent of all alpaca products are baby alpaca. Many vendors will try to sell synthetic or blended items to unsuspecting tourists, many times at real prices, but usually for a deeply discounted price. I will never forget during the program trip to Cusco when we visited an alpaca farm selling sweaters that started at one hundred dollars. A few students purchased some, and later the other students were making fun of them behind their backs. These ones loudly proclaimed that “So-and-so spent hundreds of dollars on their sweater when I got a baby alpaca sweater at the market for TEN DOLLARS!” I quietly laughed and shook my head in dismay—not only had the market-buyers been fooled, but they were the same ones who, all semester, had been advocating workers’ rights in Peru. It was a sick twist of irony that still burns sharply in my mind with a bitter taste. Remember, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. And even if it is true, consider the probable labor conditions of the worker who made that item. If it is so cheap, they were probably paid next to nothing. Is a poorly-made ten dollar sweater worth that?

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Okay, so now that we have explored HOW to shop for souvenirs, I will offer some advice regarding WHAT to buy and WHERE to find it. Remember, not everything has to come from a tourist trap!

  • THE REGULAR MARKETS

With a lot of patience, I have found some really cool items at the regular ol’ markets, where Peruvians actually shop. Things are really cheap (and oftentimes cheaply made), but if you look hard enough, you can find some uniquely Peruvian pieces, from clothes to toys to decorations. On a previous trip, I found a silicone zippered pouch that was in the exact shape and coloring of a banana for three dollars. Although I have not quite figured out a use for it, I still think that it’s absolutely fabulous. Another great find was a pair of leggings that I got while I was visiting a town called Huacho. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but the girl working the booth was extremely sweet and was fascinated by my hair color. I stumbled upon a pair of leggings with a fantastic print that, upon closer inspection, were actually very well-made. I’ve worn them quite a bit since then, and I love them. While the markets can be really cool, make sure to carefully inspect the items you’re purchasing for quality. Although I’ve found a couple of really great items, I have had my fair share of things that have fallen apart just weeks after bringing them home.

  • THE TOURIST MARKETS

A lot of similar advice applies to the tourist markets. Make sure to test everything for quality, and keep looking around. Especially in the tourist markets, many vendors sell the same items from booth to booth, so if you want something unique, you will have to search. If you are after a specific material, such as alpaca or silver, read articles beforehand to help you distinguish real items from the fakes. As a rule of thumb, vendors dressed in traditional clothing tend to be selling you the real deal. Those who are glued to their cellphones and are dressed in Western clothing are typically selling whatever they happened to order. It could be real, and it could be fake. Usually if you talk to the vendor (in Spanish) you can determine if they are being honest or not. Some cool items that I’ve purchased at various tourist markets are blankets, sweaters, espresso cups, leather goods, jewelry, and various types of pottery. You can find some really great items at the tourist markets, and not everyone wants to cheat you. The key to tourist markets is to have a bit of foresight prior to going.

  • PERUVIAN STORES

This is another fun place to shop, because the items are things that actual Peruvians use. Many of the tourist items only exist for foreign wallets. I took my mom to a home goods store at the local mall, and she bought a memory game that has South American animals on the pieces. It’s really cool because it’s still a unique piece, but it’s well-made and not touristy. During my time here I also bought some workwear pieces at a women’s clothing store. While they aren’t obviously Peruvian, they are not quite like items from the States. They fit like a dream, and will be of great use once I graduate next spring.

  • TOURIST STORES

This is a source for souvenirs that many people forget about. In cities like Lima and Cusco, you can find freestanding stores (not markets) that cater to tourists. While you will pay a heavier price for the items, they are usually fair trade and genuine. My dad and I bought baby alpaca sweaters at Sol Alpaca, and we absolutely love them. They are extremely well-made and fit well. Many of the market sweaters, besides sometimes being fake, are very boxy and unflattering. Although we paid a lot for our sweaters, they are true pieces of art that will last for decades to come. Another fantastic item that I purchased at a tourist shop was a handmade journal. I found it at a coffee shop in the Sacred Valley that wouldn’t accept Visa unless I paid a minimum. Although that was a uniquely Gringo problem, the journal is actually really beautiful with high-quality paper. I have already used it a bit, and I cannot wait to use it more when I return to the States.

  • THE SUPERMARKET

Yes, believe it or not, you can actually find some really cool souvenirs at Peru’s equivalent of Walmart. The possibilities are endless at these stores. If you want to try cooking Peruvian food at home, I suggest purchasing certain ingredients prior to departure. Some foods like dried Ají Amarillo and bottles of  Pisco are practically impossible to locate Stateside, so you can purchase them before leaving. For those of you who appreciate foreign beauty products, the supermarket is your best bet. While I haven’t found any “Peruvian” beauty brands, many stores sell brands exclusive to South America or items from familiar brands that aren’t sold in the States. I found an eyeshadow trio that is actually great quality from a brand that cannot be found in the U.S. I know that Maybelline sells makeup exclusive to the Latin American market, and brands like Nivea and Pond’s have a more extensive range here. Other cool souvenirs are various home items, such as mugs and decor.

So there you have it! Although souvenir shopping can be stressful, remember that with a bit of planning and knowledge, you can purchase some GREAT items that you will love. However, no matter what you buy or don’t buy, remember that you didn’t come to Peru to collect random things. You came to Peru for the experience of a lifetime.

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