Perched sovereignly at 11,000 feet above sea level in the Peruvian mountains, Cuzco
evokes the architecture of Europe
and the tough ambiance of South America
. There's haphazard street art that references Pacha Mama, the Inca shout-out to Mother Earth. There are gilded churches that make their homes on top of ancient stone foundations. There's also a lot of shopping. And if you're the kind of person who likes shiny jewelry, mosaic mirrors and knit scarves, you'll be attracted by the markets, too. Before plunking down a sole or two, however, it helps to fill your head with the overwhelming knowledge of bargains, bartering and the cultural basics. So we've put together this intrepid guide for any making the trip.
Everyone wants to emerge from Peru
draped in the softness of alpaca fur
, and for good reason. The fuzzy stuff that grows on these guys is among the rarest textiles in the entire world. When you reach the stalls, though, don't fall for any old luxurious fur. While the merchant might swear to the authenticity of a scarf, sweater, or pair of socks, very few items you'll find in a market actually are 100% alpaca. With tighter and more densely woven textiles, there's a good chance you're dealing with an alpaca mix. And those items that claim to be "100% bebe?" Not actually woven from (or by) baby alpacas. "Bebe" refers to the first sheer of the animal, or the seasonally virgin hairs from the area around the neck of the animal, thought to be one of the softest spots. Products made from these materials are still stellar, but it helps to know what you're getting
when you approach the bargaining table.
Nothing dazzles in a Peruvian market quite like the shimmering displays of gold, silver and copper
, and all three are fantastic gifts to bring back from Cuzco. With the God of Exchange Rates smiling down on you, you can get amazing deals on rings, necklaces and other pieces of jewelry, particularly of the silver persuasion, to bring home and dazzle your buddies. When looking through silver jewelry, keep an eye out for a #925 stamp. That little number stands for the percentage of silver, 92.5%, and is actually the calling card of sterling silver, which is pure silver mixed a few alloying metals. This stamp could be the difference between 100 soles or 50, but if you're still not convinced your score is worth the price, the old flame-under-the-ring trick can solve your dilemma.