Since the popularization of Machu Picchu, Peru’s livelihood and fate has been forever linked to tourism. Millions come each year from all over the world to catch a glimpse of the wonder that is Machu Picchu, and they all, for the most part, have to pass through Cusco. Some stay just long enough to adjust to the altitude and head off onto the Inca Trail, and some settle in for weeks or months to spend time in the City. Whichever type you are, you will likely, at some point, encounter street vendors.
Peru ranks 84th among all countries in Human Development Index, a measure of the quality of life that accounts for more than economic figures. Those economic figures suggest something similar, though, with a GDP per capita of only 6,045 US Dollars. Roughly half of Peruvians live below the evasive “poverty line”, and 20% of Peruvians are considered “extremely poor”. Most of these are rural people, who live in indigenous areas far away from cities, but the appeal of the city is strong, and many leave the village to seek out better opportunities. When they don’t find them, some turn to street vending, a low-barrier-to-entry business opportunity with a constant stream of new customers.
Street vendors come in all shapes and sizes. From small children to older men, the most common you will see are women selling massages; young men with large books of paintings; young children with alpaca keychains, and individuals trying to sell package tours. There are also more obscure ones, like shoe shiners, or tattoo salesmen, or drug dealers.
It’s understandable that you might get frustrated after saying no for the fifth time in 30 minutes, but try to stay patient and remember that these individuals are trying to make a living. Street vendors don’t know how many times you were offered something before. They are just trying to survive; to overcome the statistics mentioned above, and they are doing the best they can. The same forces that lead to such an absurd amount of taxis in one city also create the street vendors, and understanding this will help you enjoy your experience better.
So how should you treat street vendors? The answer is simple: treat them like people because that’s what they are. They don’t realize how bothersome they might be. They have trouble with the “right moment” and are ruthlessly aggressive. But being polite goes a long way. Here are some tips:
- A simple “No, gracias” is always a polite way to turn down unwanted goods or services.
- Non-verbal cues, such as walking fast, wearing headphones, avoiding eye contact, etc., are all better choices than waving someone away with your hand.
- Talking to a street vendor signals to other vendors that you might be “open” for business, so be careful when engaging with someone.
- Don’t go to big stores for things you can get on the street, like ponchos or umbrellas.
- Negotiating is fun and a sign of respect
- And lastly, if you like something, buy it! Don’t feel weird because they are on the street. It can feel almost like you’re doing something wrong, but it helps, really.