The ancient city of Cusco has been a market center since long before the Incas made it their imperial capital. For countless centuries, merchants and craftspeople have made their way to this high-altitude enclave with their finest wares, the crossroads of a continent—and today, the world.
Cusco’s relatively recent ascent to international jet-setter status, with a UNESCO World Heritage Site on half the world’s bucket nearby, marvelous Machu Picchu, has only enhanced its status as one of the world’s best places to shop. Peruvian handicrafts are notably diverse, ranging from fine alpaca-wool sweaters and beautiful hand-crafted instruments, to cheap mass-produced toys and jewelry (ProTip: If you suspect it’s a shoddy Asian import, you’re probably correct), and everything in between.
Crafts to keep an eye out for include beautiful embroidered and hand-woven textiles, silver jewelry (look for the #925 stamp), beautiful watercolor paintings, woodwork, intricately (and often erotically) carved gourds, ceramics, handbags, shawls, scarves, hats and much more. Traditional textiles made into modern purse and shoe styles are an unusual offering usually displayed only in Cusco proper, or Lima, that you won’t find at more traditional markets.
Note that the alpaca hats, sweaters, scarves and gloves that are available at markets cost a fraction of what similar items do in Cusco’s upscale shops for a reason: Because their alpaca fibers are mixed with cheaper sheep wool or synthetics. If quality matters, go into a reputable boutique and prepare to pay the difference. If not, alpaca blends are still extremely soft and cozy.
Remember that vendors generally ask a higher price from foreign tourists, and haggling a bit is both expected and accepted. If you buy something, you can usually take a photo of the vendor free of charge, otherwise expect to tip US$1. The farther you get from the main tourist areas, the cheaper things get, so try to get out to one of the more traditional markets outside Cusco, in the Sacred Valley.
There are several markets in and around Cusco just waiting to be explored.
The Artisan Market, at the corner of Avenida del Sol and Tullumayo, has a solid selection of handicrafts and souvenirs. While vendors selling generally shoddy items patrol Plaza de Armas daily, there’s a huge handicrafts market right on the square on the first of the month with a wider variety of offerings. El Molino, on the outskirts of town (take a taxi) sells cheap, modern clothing, basic necessities, pirated DVDs and much more. In Aguas Calientes, a more-or-less permanent market sells everything from fine alpaca handicrafts to Machu Picchu shot glasses.
Even if your accommodations offer no option for cooking, it’s well worth stopping by one of Cusco’s kaleidoscopic food markets to see hundreds of varieties of potatoes, corn, fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, baked goods and rather mysterious natural medicines. Of course, several stands have inexpensive prepared food that’s as fresh as it comes, so indulge.
The largest is San Pedro Market, close to Plaza San Francisco, and is an experience not to be missed. San Blas Market, on the corner of Tanda Pata and Lucrecalle, and Wanchaq Market, on Calle Huascar, are smaller, but might be more convenient to your hotel if you’re just shopping for dinner. San Blas also has a good selection of art; the surrounding neighborhood is well known for its home studios that open to the public at irregular hours.
For better deals and more atmospheric surroundings, be sure to visit one of the Sacred Valley’s markets. Enormous Pisac Market, just half an hour from Cusco, is a popular choice, and convenient to Sacsaywaman and the Pisac Ruins. The main event is on Sunday, with smaller markets on Tuesday and Thursday, running 8am to 5pm. Consider planning your Sacsaywaman excursion accordingly, as tour buses usually make the stop.
Chinchera Market, about 30 km (19 miles) from Cusco, is considered one of the most traditionally indigenous markets in the region. Like Pisac, the biggest market is held on Sunday, with smaller markets on Tuesday and Thursday. All manner of handicrafts and food items are on offer, some of them very high quality. A great trip.
The towns of Juliaca (about 5 hours from Cusco) and Puno (6 hours from Cusco) both have weekend markets with excellent prices. San Sebastian and Quiquijana (on the way to Sicuani) also have Sunday markets. Public buses connect both towns to Cusco, but less adventurous souls can organize tours through a variety of operators.