Souvenir buying guide – Backpacking Edition

Various souvenirs in Peru, South America

Buying souvenirs in South America is great. They are cheap, they look great and usually of decent quality.
Thus, when you come around the first major shop or souvenir market, you are probably inclined to buy a bunch of them, but wait, here you will learn why.

Why not to buy souvenirs on the first occasion

Souvenir buying guide - backpacking edition south america
There is one simple reason, the souvenirs are basically all the same across Peru, Bolivia and some parts of Argentina. At first I was amazed and a bit confused. Later on, in my travels I got the answer from a French NGO “worker”. She worked previously in Africa and told me how the souvenir industry works. Basically, the produce all the souvenirs in the country with the lowest wages in the area. From that country the ship to all major cities around and provide their products. Thus, you can buy almost the same souvenirs in Arequipa, Cusco, Sucre and Salta. There are usually slight variations, but after visiting two or three markets/shops in different areas you will spot those. Also check out the Lonely Planet or other Tourist guides if a local market offers unique items. In my experience carpets and other woven products are usually locally produced. Also the witch-craft markets are limited to certain areas, in case you want to buy dried animal corpses (PIC). But be careful when taking pictures like those shown here, they usually don’t like that as far as I remember…

Souvenir buying guide - backpacking edition south america

Get the best prices

Although the prices are quite cheap (at least for US/European standards) there can be major price differences for the same product at the same market. Take your time and ask prices for certain products you are interested in. Usually every product is available in most stores or at several traders at a market. I noticed major price differences every time. Also try haggling, in my experience it worked best buying several items and once with a discount. Here are some tips for bargaining and haggling. And don’t forget nearly nothing is unique there, thus you can always walk away and try again in another area.

Cat playing with souvenirs

Some great examples of what you can get

Alpaca scarves. I don’t use scarves, but most people do. So I got a bunch of them. They are of great quality. Make great presents and you can easily put them anywhere in your backpack. They are also great to protect some of your more fragile items.

The famous Inca vs. Spaniard chess. These chessboards with their little figurines are great. They look amazing, are usually built to be portable (fold em and put the figurines inside). And even non-chess players think they look great or at least cute. I got a few of those too.

inca_vs_spanish_chess_board_souvenir_south_america_1

Inva vs Spanish - Chess Board from Peru, South America

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Further Information on where you can find great markets for souvenirs

The following books all contain special information for specific countries. The list great markets and shops for every major city and village. They are organized and written especially for backpacking and traveling. Thus, you can easily read them while you sit on the plane, bus, train, etc.

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5 Fundamental Safety Tips for Backpacking in South America and Beyond

Here are some basic rules I followed – most of the time – during my eleven (3 + 3 + 5) months traveling and living in various South American countries (Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile). These rules are guidelines and are not set in stone. I have deviated from the quite a few times, especially the one about not traveling alone. But one thing is for sure, don’t get too cocky. I got only scammed once in my eleven months and guess what it was in 10th or 11th in South America, when my Spanish was at its best and was pretty confident that this would just be another border crossing like the twenty or something I had before wrong… the land border between Ecuador and Perú wasn’t just another border…

Don’t paint a bullseye on your back

What do I mean by that? Don’t make yourself a(n easy) target. Don’t flash your mp3player, credit card, camera, etc. around in certain areas. Better don’t take them with you, if you don’t need them. I met people who went out in Arequipa (Peru) for drinks with their credit cards, you can only pay in cash there anyway. There were hard metal lockers in the Hostel.
I personally have the theory that a lot of stuff that “got stolen” was actually lost in a drunken stupor by many people.

You are not at home, don’t leave your wallet/cell phone on the table

This seems so obvious, but it happened quite often to wide range of different people. When I stayed in Tena (Ecuador) it was quite “amusing” how many friends of mine – who stayed their for years or were even born there – got their cell phones stolen repeatedly. Usually they put it on a table or the bar and suddenly their stuff is gone. Maybe I am paranoid control freak, but even in secure countries like Austria and Germany, when I put my wallet on the table I put my fucking hand on it or at least my Mark I eyeballs.

If you go into an unknown area be alert, awake and sober or bring someone along

People see if you are alert or just an easy target stumbling down the road. Usually every city has some pretty safe places for going out and living connected with safe and less safe means of transportation. If you plan into venturing into an abandoned train yard, it is probably better to be sober and look around, because people could live there. The same goes for going out, usually most backpackers go out in groups anyway and look out for themselves.

Don’t travel alone on long rides, border crossings and in dangerous areas

Most people would advise you that you shouldn’t do anything alone in South America anyways, except going for a piss. Well, even that can be quite complicated if you have a large backpack on your back and a small one in your hand in a fucking small toilet stall in the middle of nowhere. But back on the track. If you are going on a long bus ride, like twelve or more hours it is better to find someone to help you out just in case, usually you won’t be alone a such a long bus ride anyway. Changing seats isn’t that much of a deal and if it is, it is usually a quite safe place anyway. (Usually the more organized and control freaky people are, the more safe the place is.) I strongly advise anyone to group up in border crossings, because these are usually hectic, irritating as fuck (even after my 20 crossings or something) and annoying. Usually, you have to leave your transport several times and the transport itself are usually group taxis, make sure that at least one other person in this taxi is a “gringo/a” (“dude/gal who isn’t from South America”).

Don’t get too cocky

Yeah, this one is for me. I was my third time in South America and it was my longest trip so far, my Spanish was pretty decent at that time and I had ventured around in Ecuador for about 4 months. I was on my way from Ecuador to Perú and I thought “well, just another border crossing what could go wrong, I have seen it all”… wrong I hadn’t. The land border between Ecuador and Perú is a fucking mess. The actual border line goes right through a fucking city, which was pretty irritating to me, because usually the crossing is in no-mans-land. If I had done my homework or brought some backup – there were plenty of other backpackers at the border station to team up with – I guess I could have saved me quite some trouble.
Afterwards a friend of mine, who has a Masters in Math, told me that was the only border he got ripped off too with a fake calculator when he wanted to change some money… that only made me feel slightly better.

Further Information

Every country is a bit different, I would highly recommend you to get some further information about traveling in South America in general or even better for each specific country you will visit. I recommend the following books for your backpack. They are very well organized and catered to the backpacker, while you sit on the plane, bus, train, etc. you can read about the city you are going next.

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Video: Ruinas de Quilmes

I sorted out some of the best photos and places from my South America backpacking trips and stumbled over a photo set of the “ruinas de quilmes”. A place definitely worth a visit, even the tride through the desert was really amazing. Even though I am Austrian I usually don’t have the urgent need to walk or climb on every bigger rock, but in Quilmes I really enjoyed it. Afterwards I realized that my small backpack was – of course – filled with books ;) I just needed the camera and some water :)

For further information on the Ruins of Quilmes and or Argentina check the Lonely Planet Argentina (Travel Guide).

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Video: Exploring Arequipa – The safe and unsafe places

This is a video slideshow with some of the photos I took in Arequipa (Peru), while working as a bar “manager” and the Point Youth Hostel. These pictures are from several trips (exploring) and cover safe and unsafe places. I hope you like the impressions.

A great source of information about Arequipa and Peru is the Lonely Planet – Peru.

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Video: The Sun from Austria to South America

I sorted the sun photos I took in Europe and South America on my backpacking trips in Germany, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Austria and Spain.

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