Upon returning from her latest excursion to the Peruvian Andes, veteran WT trip leader Andrea Heckman, Ph.D. couldn’t stop gushing about the extraordinary textile craftsmanship that she consistently encounters on her travels through Peru. Since she literally wrote the book on it — Woven Stories: Andean Textiles and Rituals, published in 2003 — we had to ask if she could give us some insider tips on shopping for (or just admiring) this beautiful craft tradition. Oh, did she ever.

For centuries, the Inca greatly valued textiles for warmth, social status, institutionalized gifts, and symbolic expressions of their beliefs. Today, El Centro de Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco (the Cusco Center for Traditional Textiles) is leading an exciting revitalization of Inca weaving techniques on a variety of traditional and modern products! In addition to producing customary textiles such as lliclla (woman’s shoulder cloth), chuspas (coca bags), chullos (men’s hats with ear flaps) and unkunas (cloth for ritual use), many artisans also cater to Western buyers with table runners, pillow covers, handbags, cosmetic bags, and even cell phone pouches.

Stop by The Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, located on Avenida Sol next to the Coricancha, to see the finely woven, natural-dyed assortment of traditional cloth and visit with weavers from a number of surrounding communities. The center was founded in 1996 by Chinchero resident Nilda Callnaupa, a Quechua woman who works directly with local communities and travels internationally to promote this high quality indigenous weaving. The center includes an educational exhibition, where you can learn about working with a drop spindle, the origins of natural dyes, the survival and evolution of weaving technologies over centuries, and the cultural context and importance of weaving to descendants of the Inca.

You might also visit expert weaver Timoteo Carita, who works next to the La Campania Church on the main plaza. Enter through the door on the right-hand side, where artisans display their works, and you should see Timoteo right at the entryway. His exquisite textiles represent eight villages from the Pitumarka Valley, two hours’ drive south of Cusco.

Directly across from Cusco Cathedral on the Plaza de Armas, Josefina Olivera’s shop is a veritable treasure trove. Josefina herself is quite a vibrant character and has passed years of weaving experience and traditional lore on to her two sons, who also work in the shop. Together they sell a phenomenal range of textiles from the regions around Cusco and would be happy to tell you about all of them! For added fun, they all enjoy some good old fashioned haggling.

Take a moment to stop at Awanacancha, halfway down the main road from Cusco and Pisaq. For those of you not planning to hike high into the mountains to visit small villages, this is an excellent way to get up close and personal with llamas and alpacas, see dye being manufactured, and get a closer look at spinning and weaving practices—all before winding up in an expensive but exceptionally high-quality showroom. If you’re staying in Cusco, don’t worry! They also have a small shop on the Plaza de Armas, next to Procuradores Street.

Proceeds from the Awamaki shop in Ollantaytambo support dye workshops, weaving programs, and marketing efforts in communities of the nearby Patacancha Valley. They offer beautiful variations on traditional shapes styled for Western markets, and most pieces are of very high quality.

In Cusco, your best bet for a great deal on authentic mementos of your travels may be the Central Artisan Market down Avenida Sol, near the Puno train station. The patient shopper can find good prices on articles ranging in quality, but keep an eye out for synthetic yarns and machine-made textiles—if a fabric is shiny, it’s probably not 100% alpaca. I’ve even seen scarves from China, so shop con cuidado (with care). If the salesperson says it is lana de oveja (sheep wool) or lana de alpaca, it is made the fiber of that animal. If, however, they just say lana, that means synthetic fibers.

For some variation on the traditional styles found in Cusco, get out of the city to the Sunday markets in Chinchero and Pisaq. Many vendors offer many of the same goods you see in shops and markets in Cusco, but from many other regions of Peru.

Shop wisely: don’t be afraid to strike a bargain, and train and trust your eye and aesthetic instinct. Believe me, you’ll come home with a chest full of treasures that will still leave you wanting more.

Andrea Heckman, WT Trip Leader, Hiker’s Journey to Machu Picchu

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