Mementos that deftly walk the line between wacky and wonderful.

Courtesy of Asian Snake Wine Courtesy of Asian Snake Wine
| Credit: Courtesy of Asian Snake Wine

"What were they thinking?"

That’s what Paco Underhill, author of the books Why We Buy and Call of the Mall, says he wondered when friends presented him with a souvenir gift from Chile: a paperweight rendered from the hoof of a Clydesdale horse. "I can’t imagine having bought that for myself," he says.

But then, travelers like to buy interesting things on vacations. Sometimes they’re unique, and sometimes they’re bizarre or downright tacky. Still, the right gift—for either yourself or a friend—can go beyond being a thoughtful gesture. It can also be an insight into what people of another culture love and treasure.

Souvenir buying, of course, is a big part of traveling: a survey by the Travel Industry Association found that almost 63 percent of travelers said that a vacation just isn’t complete without some shopping—and that 20 percent spend $500 or more on a given trip.

A lot of those purchases are clothing, it turns out, or gifts for people back home, and Underhill says that the latter play a big role in the souvenir-buying mind-set. "When we’re shopping for someone else, it gives us the liberty to buy things that we might not buy for ourselves," he says, shedding some light on that horse hoof.

For most of us, quality trumps quantity when it comes to those mementos we bring home: something that recalls the destination with flair. Street markets, museum shops, and independent stores that are off the tourist grid are typically the best bets for good finds. "As Americans we are surrounded with the ubiquity of sameness," says Underhill. "Here, there's a Gap on every corner, so when we see something truly different, it’s almost startling."

And there’s plenty that’s, well, startling out there, from Vietnamese wines bottled with whole, real cobras, or sweaters from New Zealand fashioned from the wool of yard pests. But in many cases, when you get past the initial "that’s a what?" you have a wonderful piece, and a story to match. (One qualifier: remember that some exotic-food souvenirs run the risk of ending up as a gift to Customs agents. For a refresher course on legal souvenirs, check out the Know Before You Go page on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Web site.)

But not every traveler is looking for the rare and exotic. "People pick out a thing basically because it just calls to them," says Angie Hurt, a spokesperson for The World's Largest Gift Shop, in Las Vegas, where one of the most popular items is a stuffed animal called Polly, the Insulting Parrot. Hurt’s favorite customer was "a Saudi princess who had about 30 Secret Service agents and a helicopter circling the store and purchased $30,000 worth of souvenirs in 15 minutes," with a heavy emphasis on shot glasses and shooters. "It was the most amazing shopping I have ever seen," Hurt says. "That woman is my hero."