4 Shopping Meccas of Ecuador and Peru

By Melissa Ruttanai

Shopping is often an integral component of any travel itinerary. You’ve malls, kiosks, and street fairs where locals showcase everything from handcrafted silverworks to traditionally stitched clothes and one-of-a-kind woodcarvings. In our first five months in South America, Neil and I were able to visit four of the most famous shopping meccas of Ecuador and Peru.

Northern Ecuador’s Otavalo Saturday Market
Ecuador marketLauded as South America’s biggest market, the Saturday Market in Otavalo, Ecuador is more like a melange of three markets: textiles, fruit, and live animals. During the week, vendors sell their wares on a smaller scale (and often with competitive prices) that includes hats, scarves, and jumpers. But as the weekend reaches full swing, the usually tame fruit, animal, and textile markets swell into each other, blurring the borders between each other so that shopaholics can stroll between the three without much effort. Furthest from Otavalo’s central plaza, the animal market, located just past the soccer stadium, is an open lot of mewing calfs, bagged guinea pigs, playful kittens, and giant hogs lounging in an open field or beside their owner’s pickup trucks. Early risers may catch a glimpse of street-crossing ducks as they clog traffic, much to the amusement of gringo onlookers.

Cuenca’s Weekend Market in Southern Ecuador
Peruvian Fruit JuiceBursting at the seams with produce and indigenous locals, the Feria in Cuenca is located west of the historic center, a short bus ride from the city’s Old Church. It seems like everything here is a dollar: toilet paper, local honey, grains, rice, and juices. As you walk into the complex, fruit vendors praise the freshness of their wares as two-month old puppies yip for attention. Fish mongers stack tilapia, trout, and catfish in high mounds and as locals cluster for the best cuts, young apprentices sweep and spray the walkway to the stalls. Wrinkly faced grandmas sell whole roast pigs with skin so crisp they flake off into luscious chicharron chips. As a seafood lover, I had to admire the beautiful baskets of purple river crab sold just off the main avenue. Each little crustacean had its lavender-black claws tied up with a cream-string bow. I only wish I had time to have a crab boil in my hostel.

San Blas Artesian Market of Cusco
Buying art in CuscoArtists and artsy admirers will fall in love with the San Blas district of Cusco. Not only is the city renowned for its Incan past but it currently (and rightfully) boasts a bohemian culture that produces works across media including oils, brass, gold, bronze, and weaving. Uphill from the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, San Blas is lined with little workshops, most family owned and handmade to souvenir-perfection. While many pieces are religious and encompass the Virgin and Child as well as the Nativity, the artwork in general pays homage to the life of the campesinos, or country people. Two shops that must not be missed are the Merida Art Gallery and Mendivil Family Wokshop. Both are located at the top of the steep hill, a nice reward after the ascent. If you have time, stop by the Coca Shop where the sacred coca leaf is transformed into decadent treats like brownies, bon bons, and tea.

Larco Mar In Lima, Peru
With upscale shopping and unparalleled views of the sea, Larco Mar is Lima’s Disneyland for commercial consumerism. In an open-air environment, the seaward breeze moves in and the Larco Mar dominates the seaside like a beacon calling in serious shoppers. All the usual suspects are here. Jewelers, name brand apparel makers, and even an iStore jockey for your Peruvian Soles. International movies are played in the cinema and a food court satisfies fast food cravings. High end restaurants cater to businesspersons and their retinue, while at the fountain middle-class skateboarders practice their curbside kicks. The scene is a cross section of wealth and fashion which even boasts a proper humidor bar where you can enjoy a Cuban cigar and a glass of your favorite distilled liquor. At night, grab a smoothie and stroll along the cliffside walkway to watch the lights of Lima reflect over the Pacific Ocean.
Souvenirs aside, shopping or window browsing is another way to see the true culture of a country. In Otavalo, Neil and I saw the commercial success of many indigenous peoples. In Lima, we saw the ultra-modern success of present-day Peruvians. Neither mall nor market is better than the other. They are different windows into modern day Andean culture. Where the former showcases reverence for the past and its traditions, the latter hints at the overall commercial success of its countries and the wealth of its people.

Couchsurfing in Cusco

Exclusive for Vagobond by Jo Self
Living in Cusco I find myself constantly reminded of what a small world it is. Sitting on a bus waiting to leave Cusco for the weekend, I was pleased to hear the conversation behind turn to CouchSurfing.
Couchsurfing in CuscoTalking up the merits of the CS experience, Marco was telling the young, French traveler to his left about all the great people he’s met and how much he enjoys the experience. As an active member of CouchSurfing over the last four years, and a regular attendee to the weekly meetings here in Cusco, I was thrilled to find that the groups in Peru are thriving.
CouchSurfing, for those who are unfamiliar, is an online organization that is set up as a hospitality exchange. The network provides travelers the opportunity to act as hosts, by showing others around the city, meeting for a coffee or actually housing travelers free of charge in their home.
However, this isn’t just a free room for the night. Most members take the project quite seriously and see it as a chance for true cultural exchange.
A friend of mine in Mexico told me about the project back in 2007 and I immediately became a member. There is no cost to join, unless you feel the desire to contribute. Every member is expected to fill out their profile thoroughly and each profile is then enhanced with references from friends as well as those travelers with whom one has surfed or hosted.
Upon arrival to Lima at the end of March, my first course of action was to see if there was a local meet-up happening while I was there, and with luck, there was.
I met Morgan, a fellow ex-pat living in Lima at Café Maquina for the weekly Friday language exchange. A fairly informal gathering of locals and CouchSurfers alike mingled and chatted, sharing their languages and cultures.
Here in Cusco there are two different weekly meetings, one on Wednesdays at Indigo, which is mostly just a social gathering, and then a weekly language exchange that meets on Fridays, which was recently started and is still looking for a permanent home. In Arequipa, there are frequent get-togethers to go out dancing or to enjoy a coffee or beer together, but at the moment, no regular weekly meetings are scheduled.
In addition to the meetings, members frequently use the online group forums to find travel partners, information on local events and tips for getting around the city. I’ve met some amazing people through the service.
While still living in the US, I hosted easily 8-10 people a month in my home and while the median age of CS members is 28, I hosted folks from 17-72 and am still in contact with more than half of them. The good news is, whenever and wherever I travel, I know I have a place to stay and a friendly face to welcome me – a small world indeed.
For more information on each of the groups in Peru, just do a search under the ‘Community’ tab and explore the options. If you’re staying in hotels during your trip but are still keen to mix some cultural exchange into your Peru travel experience, either talk to your operator about cultural tours or get in touch with the local CouchSurfing group.

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