For Bargains with a Difference: Try Christmas Shopping Overseas

Whether you’re living overseas or just traveling there for a holiday season vacation, the world is full of opportunities to escape that tired old Christmas routine.

By International Living
Bargain Christmas Shopping Overseas
Photograph: Photo credit: International Living

And what better way to mark the change that with some retail therapy? From hand-crafted baubles to exotic gifts for loved ones, going overseas for seasonal stuff with a difference makes sense. That’s what International Living's editors do. Here,  their favorite holiday-time picks—the places they go themselves to buy great gifts, or just soak up the season’s spirit:

Beach Bumming in Brazil
If you’re in Fortaleza, northeast Brazil, for the holidays, you’ll find a Christmas-shopping treasure trove right on the beach, Praia Meireles. The market called Feirinha do Náutico is expansive, with hundreds of booths set up along the waterfront. Vendors sell their wares here, ranging from paintings to clothing…and wood carvings to fine textiles.

Whether your Christmas list calls for a finely-made hammock or a high-relief wood carving of the Last Supper for under $35, you’re likely to find it at Feirinha do Náutico.

But if you want to get off the beaten track, try Feirinha de Artesanato, located in the central market in Fortaleza’s historic center. Situated in a giant four-story building, the central market has many of the same items you’ll find at the waterfront market…but you’ll pay a bit less. I bought a five-pound bag of fresh-roasted cashews here (a six-month supply) for just $5.50. —Lee Harrison (International Living’s Latin America editor).

Scandinavian Style—with Goats
My favorite tree trimmings are a trio of Swedish Julboks—straw Yule-Goats. Predating Christian traditions, these goats were once made by Viking women from the last harvest sheaves. Few people realize their pagan origins, but they’ve survived to become a popular local Christmas decoration.

The Swedish town of Gävle even has a goat-burning ritual among its festivities. Don’t worry, it’s not a real goat—a giant straw Julbok gets consigned to the flames.

Copenhagen in Denmark and Malmö in Sweden offer a double shopping whammy. By train, bus or car across the Oresund Bridge, traveling time between the two cities is under an hour. So you can easily shop for hand-knits, sheepskin rugs, specialty foods and stylish decorations in two countries.

In Copenhagen, the place to go is Tivoli Gardens—especially after sunset. (At this time of year, Nordic darkness arrives around 3 pm.)  Thousands of lights transform it into a winter wonderland of dazzling colors from mid-November onward. Along with a Christmas market, there’s a fairground, Pixieville for the kiddies and plenty of gløgg (mulled red wine with raisins, cinnamon and aquavit-soaked cloves) for adults. Handle it with respect if you plan skating on Tivoli’s frozen lake.—Steenie Harvey (International Living’s European editor).

Ecuador’s Highland Art
If painted scenes of Christmas festivals appeal to you, there’s no better place to shop than Ecuador, where indigenous artists have perfected this art form.

For centuries, artisans in the farming community of Tigua—high in the Andes south of Quito—decorated drums and masks. In the early 1970s they began painting on flat sheepskins stretched over a wooden frame. These paintings are now widely collected and prized for their detail and vibrant colors.

Most depict festival scenes, including of Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) and Tres Reyes (Three Kings). They celebrate the colorful costumes, masks, and local handcrafted instruments. You’ll often find llamas and condors, the legendary bird of the Andes, painted into the scene. Other favorite subjects are Cotopaxi, the sacred, snow-covered volcano, and the rugged slopes surrounding Lake Quilatoa.

Though quality and price vary widely, you’ll find Tigua paintings in tourist shops and markets throughout Ecuador. But the highest-quality creations are found in Tigua itself—or more accurately Tigua Chimbacucho, 34 miles west of Latacunga, capital of the Cotopaxi province. At the artists’ cooperative there, you can expect to pay about $30 for a mid-sized painting by one of the better-known, well-established artists.—Suzan Haskins (International Living’s Latin America editor)

First Published December 19, 2011

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