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
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…
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.
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.
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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.