The essential guide to gift-giving in South America

Support and empower local communities through responsible gift-giving on a trip to Peru.
Two Quechua women sitting together in their brightly colored traditional clothing and hats.
Photo by Stu and Em/ Stem Productions Blog

Despite a long period of economic growth, non-urban Peru faces the problems common to developing countries, including some areas marked by notable poverty. According to the World Bank, Peru has a rural poverty rate of 18% (2012), though some sources estimate it is as high as 50%.

Given these facts, when travelers begin to prepare for a vacation in Peru, many feel motivated to help the people and communities they will encounter on their trip, and often ask, “What gifts can I bring?” The answer is not simple, and it raises a host of complex issues that underlay responsible gift-giving.

Responsible gift-giving basics

The basic rule of thumb for responsible gift-giving is to refrain from giving money or handouts directly to people, whether children or adults. In high tourism areas, even the most well-intentioned gift or cash donation can create a situation of dependence where locals come to rely on foreign visitors as sources of gifts.

The reality is that small gifts rarely result in any long-term improvement in people’s lives. If you want to take advantage of your trip to support local communities in Peru, the best strategy is to plan ahead and, working with a non-profit or locally-based organization, to identify exactly how you can offer assistance in a mutually-beneficial manner. The key is to give in a way that is sustainable and that has the broader effect of empowering local communities for the long-run.

Visiting local communities & programs

The gift-giving question often arises when travelers arrange a home-stay or book a tour or trek that will involve interactions with local communities. Naturally, most of us want to provide some token of gratitude in exchange for the hospitality of a family or a community that receives us. In cases like this, ask your travel agency, tour operator, or guide to tell you exactly what gifts or items will be most useful to the community.

Do some research on the community-based tours or programs in which you will be participating – it should be the community itself (not a foreigner or outside organization) that is determining its own needs and the extent of your participation in its projects. If the community has artisan traditions and textiles – the money goes straight back to the artist and your purchase will become a one-of-a-kind souvenir.

Awamaki, responsible travel, Peru For LessPhoto by Awamaki/website

Giving goods

In some cases, travelers do not directly participate in a community-based tourism project, but would still like to give something back. The same principles apply. Research and find a community-based organization or program that will accept contributions of money or supplies. Giving doesn’t have to be material – it can also involve ideas and talents. If you will be visiting a school, orphanage, or hospital, for instance, think about how you can contribute your specific skills or resources to a tangible project that they’ve developed.

School supplies are a universally useful gift throughout Peru. Pencils, pens, crayons, stickers, and notepads are all popular. Again, rather than giving to individuals at random, it is best to give to a school, organization, or teacher who can organize distribution based on need. Additionally, all cities and fair-sized towns in Peru have family-owned stores where you can buy these items locally and at cheaper costs than back home. This brings two added bonuses: you can keep your commitment to packing light and you’ll also be supporting the local economy. Some items are best purchased once you’re in the country – for example, fresh fruits to bring to a host family in a remote region or new Spanish-language (or bilingual) books and educational materials.

It may not always be possible, but try to establish a relationship with the children, community, or organization that you will be giving to. Giving gifts as tokens of friendship or close association always has more value than trinkets given out of a sense of obligation.

Gift giving don’ts

  • Don’t give candy, cash, or handouts
  • Don’t give trinkets unless they have some special significance to you (you made them or they are souvenirs that mark where you’re from).
  • Don’t give books or other reading materials not in the native language.
  • Don’t give clothing – unless specifically requested, and never send secondhand underpants.

(These are just guidelines. If in doubt, consult with your tour guide to get a deeper sense of the local situation and to decide whether or not to give.)

Responsible gift-giving does not have to begin and end with your vacation. There are myriad long-term projects that you can get involved with – in housing, education, health care, conservation, and many others – that can make an huge impact on the things that really matter in people’s daily lives and that will give people the capacity to shape their own futures.

In general, it pays to know that human interaction, compassion, understanding, and shared knowledge are far more valuable than your gifts.  It’s about connection, and putting faces to places. It’s about mutual respect. Often, the best gift you can give is being there and making the effort to learn from one another.

So before you give a gift, enter these places with the honest, ambitious belief that maybe your desire to make a connection can make a difference. And you come away realizing that, just like any other travel experience, the experience changes you, too.