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.

Peru’s Chavin de Huantar – Epic Archeological Adventure

Guest Post by Greg de Villiers

Ancash lies quietly to the north of Lima, ignored by too many people who hop past to the golden northern beaches, the central jungle, or Cusco and Machu Picchu. But they are all missing one of the great jewels in the Peruvian landscape.

Ancash Peru, Hiking in PeruAncash is bordered by long sandy beaches but then quickly gives way to the mountain ranges which dominate it – the Cordillera Negra and the Cordillera Blanca, which contains the Huascaran National Park and the famous peak of the same name, at around 6000m it is the highest in Peru and 6th on the continent.

The landscape of Ancash is truly breathtaking, with wide open expanses, lorded over by massive, permanently white tipped peaks. Throughout the range there are some 300 glaciers – although all have been affected to some degree by a warming of the climate – and strikingly crystalline blue lakes – quite likely the origin of the provinces name – anqash in Quehcua means blue.

Tucked between all this majesty in a small valley, itself situated at a humble 3177m above sea level, at the confluence of two regionally important rivers, the Huacheksa and Mosna, is an ancient city built by a civilization that thrived nearly 3000 years ago.

The Chavin culture is one of the best known and influential pre-Incan cultures, at its peak from 900 – 200 BC, with its sophisticated art, metallurgy and textile work influencing many later cultures in Peru, and perhaps even as far abroad as the Olmec culture which shares certain artistic tendencies. It is theorized that the Chavin was not a great military power, but rather that the people of the large stretch of land (roughly between modern Piura in the north and Paracas to the south) under their sphere of influence were culturally colonized – i.e. they chose to follow the Chavin philosophy and religion.

The heart of this culture, is Chavin de Huantar, the remarkably well preserved archeological site in the Huascaran National Park. The main temple and surrounding buildings stand between the two rivers, a position carefully chosen for its supposed mystical energy. (Although the convenient positioning on a major riverine trade and transport connection between the coast and the high mountains was likely a key additional factor.)

The whole site should have been inundated and destroyed, but the builders rerouted one of the rivers and created a complex system of underground water channels, some of which are believed to have been used as acoustic tools which, with water flowing through them during the rainy season would, due to vents above ground, roar like a jaguar – likely the principal deity of the Chavin religion / cult.

The most renowned relics of the Chavin culture are the cabesas clavas or Tenon heads, large stone heads placed in the walls thought the temple complex. Some rows of these stone heads represent the transformation of human to feline (jaguar – and thus divine), a process brought to life by the Chavin shamans, most likely through the use of the psychotropic cactus, SanPedro which grows in the region.

The other relic of great importance and beauty is the Lanzon, a 4.5m obelisk depicting the main deity, located in the labyrinthine heart of the main temple. It is there where I found myself face to face with this ancient monolith; I have no clear picture of it, only swirls and patterns incised precisely into granite. These swirls, the taste of that entire moment, seem branded into my memory. Perhaps due to some mythical energy or more simply, highly sharpened senses as my body desperately tried to convince me that it was a bad idea to be standing underground, in a maze, in a 3000 year old building, in stale light and murkier air.

A visit to Chavin to Huantar gives you chance to come in contact with something unthinkably ancient, created by human beings completely different from (or perhaps remarkably similar to – depending on your perspective) anything we know today. And all within one of the most spectacular setting Peru has to offer.

Getting there:

The most common access to Chavin de Huantar is a three hour ride in a public bus from Huaraz, the capital city of the region. The route between Huaraz and Lima is well serviced by a number of companies and takes about eight hours. If at all possible, a rental car (preferably a 4×4, but this is not essential) is the very best option as the roads of Ancash are one of the best driving experiences in the country. If you are short on time you could book a guided tour with a specialist in Peru adventure trips.

%d bloggers like this: