Experiences

Shopping

Shopping in Latin America is incredible, offering such unbelievable value for money that it ranks up there with gastronomy, otherworldly landscapes and ancient civilisations as the continent’s top attractions!

One of the joys of any epic journey is to collect mementos along the way. Tangible takeaways from our exotic adventures to adorn our homes or share with our loved ones as gifts. These memorabilia also have the power to instantly transport us back to a cherished moment, evoking the sights, smells and tastes of foreign lands we have traversed. 

Shopping is a favourite pastime, particularly in Asia, and set about with such vigour and passion that it could almost be considered a professional sport. On home ground with a finely tuned list of connections and contacts, we know the up and coming designers and emerging artists, the perfect seamstress to work her magic, and the best pastry shop when looking for a simple, delicious treat to share at home. Navigating a foreign land is a different ballpark and we can fall into tourist traps and end up paying over the odds for items which may ultimately end up just collecting dust at the back of our wardrobes. With our insider tours and tips, we can help ensure that the keepsakes you return home with are as special as your trip itself…and be assured that your money will go directly to the local artisans.

Bespoke shopping experiences
In many cities of Latin America, we can arrange private, fully customised shopping tours with local fashionistas, stylists or socialites who can take the guesswork out of your shopping experience. Be your interest in art, home décor, ceramics or fine leather, on the arm of an expert guide, you can enter hidden boutiques and artists’ workshops that are out of bounds to the average traveller. Hunt down beautiful and unique pieces, safe in the knowledge that you are paying the best possible prices - a day with an expert guide can pay for itself several times over. You also get to experience the city and local culture through the eyes of a kindred spirit.
 
 
Outside of the cities, in many rural areas, are small villages which are home to artisans whose highly-crafted skills have been passed down through generations. It is best to purchase regional pottery, textiles and/or leather goods away from the large markets, and directly from the artist’s workshop. We can arrange visits to many of these workshops, from women’s cooperatives specialising in textiles to custom-made Panama hats, whereby the fairest trade and finest quality can be assured.
Carrying your items home
Luggage allowances, particularly on domestic flights can threaten to derail the prolific buyer’s dreams. We suggest travelling as light as possible to save space for the keepsakes you will collect along the way. International courier services such as DHL, FedEx and UPS can sometimes be costly but these can be arranged at most shops. Some countries will also have their own local alternative freight services with more reasonable international shipping charges, such as Estafeta in Mexico. For bulkier items, many of the high-end stores will have their own relationships with freight brokers for shipping items overseas, and prices are sometimes surprisingly reasonable. Please be sure to check and adhere to your return country’s entry allowances for alcohol and tobacco, as well as whether there are any restrictions on bringing in food items including animal and plant products, particularly for countries such as Australia where regulations are stringent.
 
 
What to buy
Latin America is a vast and varied terrain with each country renowned for different produce. That said, whilst they vary from region to region, certain areas are united in their production of world-class vibrant textiles, colourful ceramics, silverworks, precious gems and alpaca clothing. Below is a compilation of some of the finest goods to carry home and where best to buy them.

Homeware and furnitureRecent years have seen some exciting local designers emerge within Latin America, often with very affordable pieces. Both mid-century and fresh, contemporary designs from across the region are beginning to hold their own on the international stage. Many designers are influenced by current global trends whilst upholding pre-colonial aesthetics and ancient craftsmanship. In Gustavo Quintana and Estefanía de Ros's Guatemala City-based studio ‘Agnes’, the Living Stone collection is an exploration of the contrast between past and present, and the result of two years spent researching pre-Columbian techniques.

In Brazil, Morito Ebine's stylish chairs, made entirely from Brazilian wood, down to the hardwood pins used in place of screws, are a beautiful talking piece for any room. Across the entire region, we are seeing some really exciting and innovative ideas based on bygone skill sets, and leading the pack are Mexico and Brazil, where we can recommend the best stores for carefully curated collections that feature the best in homegrown talent. Buenos Aires also offers some attractive shopping options, and heading out of the city to the Pampas and some of the rural villages of Argentina's cattle lands, such as San Antonio de Areco, are excellent and unexpected homeware sources.

Alpaca and vicuña clothingPerhaps the most iconic creatures of South America are its camelids - domesticated llamas and alpacas, and their wild cousins, the guanacos and vicuñas. All camelids produce fibre of varying quality, the most popular of which is the fibre from the alpaca which has long been a staple of local attire. Revered for its warmth and softness, the fibre actually produces a great all-weather, hypoallergenic fabric. Popular throughout the Andean States of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, it is Cusco in Peru which holds the crown, or in this case, the chullo hat. For guaranteed authenticity, we can point you in the right direction to high-end retailers who only source sustainably farmed wool to ensure that your ponchos, sweaters, shawls or gloves are bona fide.

For those looking for something extra special, the vicuña, the smallest and rarest of all camelids, has the finest fibre of any animal in the world. Clothing from this highly coveted fibre was once reserved for Inca royalty only. Raw vicuña can fetch up to six times the price of cashmere but for the ultimate in luxury, this ‘cloth of gold’ is unrivalled. We recommend shops which shear vicuñas sustainably, with a portion of sales proceeds going to help conserve the species and the indigenous communities that harvest the wool and protect these beautiful animals.

Textiles and tapestriesThe rich tapestry of Latin American history and culture is no better depicted than in the physical tapestries of the region. From pre-Columbian times, intricate weavings and needlework have been prevalent on the continent. The most impressive surviving examples from this early period come from the Andean Indian cultures of ancient Peru. These skills have been passed down through many generations. The simplicity of the looms is a testament to the skilled manual labour of the weavers, predominantly women.

Whilst many of the gorgeous, colourful textiles of the region are now mass-produced in factories, nothing beats the intricacy of a traditionally hand-woven garment. Some of our favourite examples of textiles to look out for are: the huipil, the traditional embroidered blouses of the Maya women in Mexico and Central America; the geometric Molas which form the clothing of the Kuna women from Panama; and the aguayo carrying cloths used throughout the Andes region, most notably in Peru and Bolivia, where local Aymara and Quechua women use these woven cloths to carry their babies on their backs.

Silver, gold and semi-precious stonesGold and silver have played an integral role in South American society throughout pre-Columbian, colonial and modern periods. Examples of ornaments, temple decorations and personal jewellery created from these precious metals can be found throughout the ancient empires of the region, including the Aztecs and Incas. It was with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, for whom the riches of Latin America served as a treasure trove, that large-scale extraction of these great deposits of minerals through the operation of mines came into play. Silver, in particular, remains a prized local resource and Latin America is one of the best places in the world to buy beautifully styled pieces of high-quality silver, especially those paired with the beautiful gems of the region.

For the greatest abundance of world-class gemstones in Latin America, Brazil takes the sparkling tiara. Minas Gerais, which means ‘general mines’ in English, is Brazil’s fourth largest state and the second most populous. Known for its wealth of minerals and its mining activities, it is the country’s storehouse of mineral riches. Gold was discovered in 1698 but the richest gold sources were exhausted during the 18th century gold rush. Nevertheless, the state is revered to this day for its semi-precious gemstones such as aquamarine, amethyst, tourmaline and topaz. It is also an important source of industrial diamonds and large quartz crystals.

Meanwhile, Colombia is the largest producer of emeralds in the world, attracting traders from across the globe, and as competition drives costs down, it is the most affordable country in which to buy some of the purest stones. The Andes Mountains of Chile are one of the world’s major sources of the deep-blue lapis lazuli.

LeatherArgentina is well-known for the quality of its leather and leather goods, with many skilled artisans based in Buenos Aires, the hub of leather manufacturing in the country. The buttery cow leather is the result of raising cattle on vast open plains and allowing them to roam freely, feeding off the fertile land as opposed to being grain fed. Another type of signature leather that is unique to Argentina is called ‘carpincho’, which comes from one of the largest living rodents alive, the capybara, whose skin makes for very distinctive stippled leather with unique markings.
 
 
There are so many shops in Buenos Aires selling leather goods but the quality may vary and the workmanship may not all be top-notch. Let us point you in the right direction towards the finest leather gems that also offer good value for money. From clothes and handbags to luggage, shoes, jewellery, ornaments, furniture and even dog collars, the choices are endless. For more traditional leather items, take home a gaucho-inspired garb or an Argentine polo belt that is handcrafted to perfection.

CeramicsThroughout the history of Latin America, as with most of the world, pottery has formed an intrinsic part of society. The clay mouldings of ancient empires display, at times, weird and wonderful history, as anybody who has witnessed the erotic pottery collection of Lima’s Larco Museum can attest to! The centuries-old art form of Latin America still thrives today and the beautiful jars, vases and trinkets of the region can add a dazzling injection of colour to any home. Modern-day pieces are renowned for the detailed process by which they are made and the application of hand-painted geometric or ancestral symbols. Regional variations make for attractive and interesting mementos, and beautiful pottery items come from Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.

AntiquitiesFor truly one-off mementos with a story to tell, pre-loved vintage items or antiques often make for the best conversation pieces, particularly coming from a continent so rich in history. From Art Deco lamps to mid-century sideboards or antique Maya silver, the various antique shops, fairs and flea markets of the region are the best spots to browse for hours, delving into the local fashions through the ages, and finding the diamonds in the rough. In Rio, on Saturday mornings, a large flea and antiques market, the Feira de Antiguidades, sets up near Praça XV in Rio’s Centro, and it is a great spot for picking up Art Deco pieces.

In Buenos Aires, San Telmo is revered for its antique stores and the Sunday ‘feira’ is worth a visit. The flea market extends for a mile from the original antiques site almost down to Plaza de Mayo. In Mexico City, Coyoacán, once the neighbourhood of Frida Kahlo, is a fantastic spot for retro finds, from fashion to furniture, particularly at the Bazar Santa Catarina, situated in the garden of the same name.

A few of our top shopping experiences
Northern Sierra, EcuadorEcuador is actually one of the best places for shopping in South America, offering an extensive range of textiles, ceramics, alpaca clothing and even chocolates. They are also the inventors of the iconic Panama hat or paja toquilla. Our favourite area for browsing has to be in the northern Sierra – the Andean stretch north of Quito. Not only is this area home to the famous Otavalo Market, but scattered nearby are a range of artisanal towns, each with its own forte, such as Cotacachi, where the speciality is leather.
 
 
Buenos Aires, ArgentinaWhilst the northern Andean or Maya regions may be more famed for their artisanal goods, where ties to the indigenous culture remain stronger, the ‘Paris of South America’ should definitely not be overlooked. Buenos Aires offers some of the best independent boutiques, markets and antiquity stores on the continent. Unsurprisingly, it is revered for being the best leather shopping destination in the world, and its leather craftsmanship is second to none. It also happens to be home to our favourite bookshop on Earth, El Ateneo Grand Splendid, South America’s most opulent bookstore housed in a beautifully preserved antique theatre. Whilst in town, be sure to pick up some ‘alfajores’, which are soft and delicate sandwich cookies filled with the delightfully creamy dulce de leche and often coated in chocolate. We can arrange shopping extravaganzas with a specialist trend hunter, who is in touch with the freshest emerging fashion designers, to handpick the best appointment-only showrooms and designer gems to help you get the most from your shopping experience. 
 

Chiapas, MexicoThe lesser-visited state of Chiapas in Mexico is home not only to some of the most impressive Maya sites, such as Palenque, but is also a hidden gem when it comes to shopping. The stunning town of San Cristóbal de las Casas hosts markets which are not to be missed, selling traditional blankets, jaguar wood carvings and woven baskets to adorn your home. The area most famed for its weaving, and for expertly crafted, woven textiles, is the hill town of San Andrés which should be your first stop. The artisans here are renowned for producing the finest work when it comes to backstrap weaving and brocading. That said, each of the mountain villages scattered around Chiapas has its own weaving styles and patterns, from the refined line patterns of Chamula to the simple floral designs of Huistan. We can arrange for you to tour the area to appreciate the differing techniques and designs, and you will have your choice of favourite intricate pieces to take home with you. There is also a weekly Sunday market in San Juan Chamula, where weavers are known to congregate, which is worth a visit. 
 
 

Support Fairtrade products
There are over 1.5 million farmers and workers spread across more than 70 countries participating in Fairtrade, and there are thousands of Fairtrade products including wool, leather, flowers and even silver and gold. Each purchase of a Fairtrade product, which can be identified by the FAIRTRADE Mark, can make a real difference. It is not only about fair prices for everyone but also about decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for the farmers and workers in the developing world. We highly encourage everyone to support these products as our simple shopping choices can have a positive impact on the quality of life of the farmers and workers, and allow them to lead a more comfortable and dignified life, which everyone deserves.

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