Cebu is not quite a shopping destination on par with Singapore or Dubai, but there's still lots of places to shop, and if you know where to look and what to get, there are some great bargains to be had for visitors from overseas.
Shopping can be divided into two categories, shopping at the markets and the sari-sari stores - which is what the Bisdaks do - and shopping at the malls - which is what the sosyal and wanna-be sosyal people do.
Some guides and guidebooks will tell you that Colon Street, the oldest street in the Philippines, is Cebu's shopping mecca where most Cebuano shopping activity takes place. This is not true anymore; only the poorest denizens of Cebu continue to shop in Colon (it does a lot of trade, though, because the majority of the population is poor). You might want to check Colon Street out for the sights and sounds, however.
While you, as a visitor to these isles, may at first not be tempted to make too many purchases at a public market, it can be a fun experience to meander around, particularly if you're from a developed country. And, if you decide to settle in Cebu, perhaps one day you'll realize that supermarkets are robbing you blind, and start doing your household shopping at the market too.
Every neighborhood has its market, often a small affair with just a handful of stalls. While these may be interesting - and useful, if you live in Cebu - the place to go to is Carbon, the mother of all markets. Produce is often sold by the farmers themselves, who've travelled there straight after harvesting. They'll spread their wares on a sidewalk, and spend their time in Cebu there - napping if necessary - until everything is sold. While just about everything is available in Carbon and the vicinity, the heart of Carbon involves the buying and selling of fruit and vegetables.
Part of Carbon is occupied by an increasing number of ukay-ukay stores. These sell used clothing imported from overseas. Bales and bales of used clothing comes in every month and, being cheap, is where a lot of Cebuanos get their fashion. This is why you will see the poorest Bisdak wearing a tee-shirt from Hard Rock Cafe Amsterdam, for instance. A lot of the clothing comes from Korea and Japan, but some of it is from Western countries. Now, technically, importing used clothing "damages the dignity of the Filipino" and is prohibited. But as with with everything else - cars, rice, drugs - if there is a will, there is a way, and lots of used clothing gets through. One point that is never raised is, where do the suppliers get this stuff? Could it have been donated, perhaps, by the kind folks of the industrialized world for the benefit of the lesser fortunate folks in third world countries, and then sold for a profit? Hey, I'm just thinking out loud...
In addition to vegetables, fruits, and used clothing, you can also get fish and meat at the wet market in Carbon, as well as every imaginable item likely to be interesting and affordable for poorer Cebuanos.
Did you know that the place called Liliput in Gulliver's Tales is actually another name for the Philippines? Everything in the Philippines is tiny, and this is true for the vegetables. Tomatos are so small that six will easily fit in your hand. The onions are even smaller than the tomatos. Cloves of garlic - why, you'll need a magnifying glass to peel them. This is also true for factory produced items. Since the masses in the Philippines are desperately poor and have very little purchasing power, and their savings rate is minimal, corporations have adapted by downsizing their products. Food and cosmetics - such as baby oil, baby powder, deodorant - come in teeny weeny sizes, containing probably less than an American consumer would use at one time. The Filipino tendency to buy small has led to the development of a unique packaging unit, called the sachet. A sachet is a tiny piece of plastic which contains enough content - shampoo, conditioner, lotion, even shoe cream - for just one or two uses. A sachet of Vaseline Amino Collagen Shampoo costs just 8 pesos, for instance.
Just a few blocks from Carbon is the dried fish mecca of Tabuan. Dried fish, called bulad or buwad is consumed in massive amounts by poorer Cebuanos - it's probably the main source of non-vegetable protein for many - and Tabuan is the wholesale market where you can get every imaginable kind of dried fish for rock bottom prices. Shopkeepers and distributors from the provinces drag cases and cases of buwad to the South Bus Terminal. If you want the best quality fresh fish at low prices, meanwhile, you'll want to head to Pasil, the fish market, also near Carbon.
In addition to shopping at the market, be sure to learn how to use the sari-sari stores.
There are two big malls and lots of little malls. The two big ones are Ayala Center and SM City, without which life wouldn't be the same in Cebu, especially if you've flown in from an industrialized country. The Ayala Center, especially, changed lifestyles for well-off Cebuanos when it opened on November 15, 1994 and has been the place to meet and mall ever since.
The little malls aren't really worth a visit; most are just too small. But if you're a compulsive maller, there's the JY Square in Lahug, Mango Square and Robinsons near Fuente, the aging Gaisano Country Mall in Banilad, the Elizabeth Mall (aka eMall) on the South Road, and the Marina Mall in Mactan.
Ayala, the nicer and more sosyal (classy) of the two big malls, is located in the Cebu Business Park. Apart from countless shops, it has an Activities Center - a stage where kids often perform little song and dance numbers, which is not to be confused with the Ayala Entertainment Center. The Ayala Entertainment Center, which opened in 2002, is packed with restaurants and party places, and immediately became the place to hang out and party.
Back to the shopping. Cebu is a good place to buy quality apparel at relatively low prices. There is none better than Loalde, a Cebuano brand with a factory is in Mandaue that has attained such a degree of sophistication and cool that many Cebuanos refuse to believe that it is in fact locally owned and produced. Loalde has outlets at both Ayala and SM, and offers elegant fashion items for both men and women.
In Ayala, you'll find a Timex shop, near the entrance to the Metro supermarket. Timex watches are made in Cebu - in the Mactan Economic Processing Zone - so the directly owned outlet in Ayala is a great place to get a Timex watch.
While at the mall, be sure to drop by a Thirsty? stall. The brainchild of Cebuano entrepreneur Bunny Pages (Cebuanos have weird nicknames; Bunny is a straight male with three strapping sons), Thirsty? attendants conjure up fantastic-tasting juices and shakes using fresh fruits and vegetables while you wait - which is not long. You can even get a sugarless diet shake.


So what to take home for your family and friends? Here are is a list of common and uncommon pasalubong ideas.
Cebu is famous for its hand-crafted guitars. Most workshops which make the guitars are based in Opon, Mactan. Is a guitar too bulky for your suitcase? They make tiny ones too. The shops that sell guitars usually also sell shell decorations handcrafted in Cebu, but these are, if anything, even harder to transport than guitars.
Another product Cebu is famous for is its mangos. While Cebuanos eat their mangos either unripe, with salted shrimp, or fresh, mangos are dried and packaged expressly for visitors from overseas. Dried mangos are available in supermarkets, at the airport, and anywhere else tourists are likely to visit.
It is not a well-known fact, but Cebu happens to be the peanut capital of the world. What better pasalubong than some home-made, organic peanut butter from Cebu? Annie's Peanut Butter, sold at most supermarkets, contains nothing but Cebuano peanuts, salt, and sugar. It tastes fabulous; I consume tons of the stuff. A small jar will set you back about 70 pesos.
You may, of course, want to play it safe, and drop by at one of the many Islands Souvenirs stores, which sell T-shirts in bright, tropical colors, as well as hats, keyholders, and the usual assortment of knick-knacks. Incidentally, Islands Souvenirs are, like Loalde, owned by Cebuano businessman Jay Aldeguar, and their products are at least made right here in Cebu.
A Hong Kong firm sells innovative finger food that goes down well with locals and tourists alike. Aji Ichiban - they gave the brand a Japanese name, for some reason - stores have a selection of hundreds of goodies such as tiny bits of dried squid, Chinese-style flavored orange peel, or peanuts with chocolate.
If you have Filipino friends back home, they'll be sure to appreciate buwad (salted fish), chicharon (pork skin cracklings), or a statuette of the Santo Nio. A small one will be just a few inches tall and cost very little but highly prized by the recipient. Santo Nios are sold by dozens and dozens of vendors outside the Santo Nio church.
Shopping for groceries at the supermarket is covered separately under the Life in Cebu section.
Colon Street, Downtown Cebu
Carbon Market, Cebu City
Carbon Market, Cebu
Upscale Boutique in Cebu
Guitars for sale in Cebu City
souvenir shop at Ayala Center Cebu

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