Silhouettes of Peru’s living culture.
Photo by Fidel Carrillo/La Ceguera
Responsible travel is not just about preserving the environment and supporting local communities, it’s also about experiencing a new culture, sharing and learning something new. Our team at Peru For Less believes that Peru’s rich culture is one of the absolute highlights of traveling to this country. Some cultural aspects are plainly evident, while picking up on other practices requires a careful eye and ear for detail. We’ve broken down some of Peru’s cultural traditions and provided some helpful tips to prepare you for your vacation.
A traveler’s guide to Peruvian culture
On a trip to Peru you’ll likely come across the word Quechua. The Quechua are described as the direct descendants of the Incas, but in the present-day, they comprise several indigenous groups scattered throughout South America. The Quechua culture is still very prevalent in the music, dance, dress, food and language of the Andean region in Peru.
The vibrant textiles sold in artisan shops in Peru have become a staple souvenir among travelers and play an important economic and cultural role in many Andean communities. Women generally wear skirts and petticoats, while men typically wear multicolored ponchos. To make these textiles, the wool of llamas, alpacas and sheep is spun, dyed, and woven into beautiful blankets and clothing. These textiles display intricate patterns and designs that communicate symbols and myths that are locally important.
Andean culture is also reflected in the local cuisine. The appearance of cuy, or guinea pig, on a restaurant menu may come as a shock to unprepared travelers. Guinea pigs are not considered pets in Peru, but rather a delicious food delicacy. Eating cuy is a tradition from Inca times, when the rodent was typically eaten by royalty. Today guinea pig can be ordered grilled, roasted or deep fried, served whole or chopped into smaller pieces, and the dish is still reserved for special occasions.
A confronting presentation of cuy.
Photo from Off The Spork website
The spiritual beliefs of modern Peruvians, especially those of whom are raised in traditional Andean communities, have deep roots in Inca mythology. One example is the continuing reverence shown to high mountain peaks, which are considered sacred and believed to be the dwelling places of powerful spirits called apus. Today people make offerings to the apus by gathering food, drink, coca leaves, and other plants as a symbol of gratitude for all that the spirits provide.
Cusco, the former Inca capital, has twelve sacred apus – one of which is Machu Picchu. Many travelers come to Peru to see these impressive Inca ruins but it’s important to remember that for locals, these are more than just ruins, they are sacred, historical places. Being environmentally friendly is not just common sense, it’s also a way to demonstrate cultural awareness and sensitivity.
Operating on “Peruvian time”
When it comes to social events, it may be helpful to know that many people from Peru operate on “Peruvian time.” In other words, the cultural norm is to arrive late. If you make plans to meet your new Peruvian friends for dinner at 7:30 p.m., chances are they will show up closer to 8 p.m. One important exception to Peruvian time is for official business or travel matters, such as a flights, bus departures, or tour schedules, and it’s best to show up on time.
The real cultural experience begins when you encounter a language barrier. Spanish is the official language of Peru, and the local people you encounter will most likely speak little or no English. Before your trip it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with some Spanish phrases and carry a travel-size dictionary on your trip. Raising your voice while repeating your question to a Spanish speaking audience won’t help the situation. Patience and a little non-verbal communication – hand gestures, facial expressions and writing down the names of destinations – can usually do the trick and most people are happy to try to help you out.
In general, Peru is a conservative country and as a traveler it’s best to dress the part. What you consider a cute little outfit might be culturally offensive and risqué to some people in Peru, especially in churches. When in doubt, cover more skin to avoid drawing attention.
In Cusco you will see local women wearing bright local textiles against spectacular scenes right out of National Geographic and you’ll likely want to take a picture to capture the moment. Be respectful and make sure you ask before taking pictures of people, especially if you sense they’re uncomfortable with your attention.
There’s something to learn with every new, strange or exciting cultural encounter. Educate yourself about the local ways in Peru and then soak up the experience: You’ll return home with more than just pictures!