Peru is a country defined by its rich, vibrant history and fascinating culture. Whether it’s your first time visiting or you’re looking for new ways to experience the country, brushing up on Peruvian culture and traditions will help you make the most of your vacation.
Before you pack your bags, here’s our insightful introduction to the culture, traditions, and beliefs that influence how Peruvians live their lives.
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Evidence of human presence in Peru (such as hunting tools) dates all the way back to 13,000 BC (or approximately 15,000 years ago). In the decades that followed, the settlers began to farm more intensively and grow crops such as cotton, potatoes, and corn. They also domesticated animals such as alpacas, guinea pigs, and llamas and used them for fur and meat.
As settlements started growing in the Andean mountains and along the coast, so did archaeological civilizations such as the Cupisnique (1,000 BC to 200 BC), Chavin (1,500 BC to 300 BC), and Wari (600 AD and 1,100 AD).
In the 15th century, the Inca became one of the most powerful civilizations in the Peruvian region and established the biggest pre-Columbian empire in South America. Along with building archaeological wonders such as Machu Picchu, they established a strategically located capital (Cusco) that is still one of the most beautiful and economically significant cities in Peru.
In the year 1532, Spanish soldiers led by Francisco Pizarro conquered Peru, making the end of the Inca Empire. In 1821, José de San Martín proclaimed Peru’s independence, though parts of the country remained under the ruling of the Spanish crown. In 1826, under the guidance of Simón Bolívar, the last Spanish troops surrendered.
Religion and Beliefs
The ancient Inca were known to be polytheists – worshiping several different gods. Among the most important ones were Inti (the sun god), Mama Quilla (the moon goddess), and Illapa (god of thunder).
Throughout Peru’s modern history, Roman Catholicism has played a substantial role. Today – although there is freedom of religious choice in Peru – most Peruvians (74.6%) follow the Christian religion introduced by the Spanish. Of those, 60% identify as Catholic and 11.1% identify as Evangelical. Of the remaining population, 3% identify with other religions, 4% identify with no religion, and 21.1% are unspecified.
The official national language of Peru is Spanish. Quechua and Aymara are the second and third most commonly spoken languages, so they both have official status.
All of these languages are a reflection of how historical events have shaped Peruvian society. Indigenous tongues are still being spoken in many parts of the country, but because Spanish is the most common language in Peru, learning a few simple Spanish phrases will likely come in handy when traveling the country, especially in smaller towns and villages.
Traditional Peruvian clothing has been used for centuries as means to communicate status, celebrate important events, and show unity. While each region in Peru has its own identity, the customs that are deeply rooted in its people and the stunning mixture of colors expressed through their clothing continue to stand out.
Let’s look at a few vibrant examples of traditional Peruvian clothing:
- Poncho – an outer garment that comes in an astonishing variety of designs, colors, and motifs.
- Lliclla – a type of cape that covers the shoulders and back. It is commonly worn by women to carry their children on their backs, though it can also be used for carrying cargo/heavier loads.
- Jobona – a traditional woolen jacket decorated with colorful button patterns and worn by women (under the Lliclla).
- Pollera – a wide skirt decorated with a beautiful, colorful band (puyto). The bands of polleras are traditionally hand embroidered and indicate the woman’s origin and social status. On special occasions, women may wear several polleras on top of one another.
- Monteras – a hat usually combined with a woven strap to hold it under the chin and worn by women. The colors and decorations of the hat vary per region and even village.
- Chullo – a colorful, knitted hat with ear flaps and tassels. The hat is one of the most representative clothing pieces of Peru and is typically hand-made using llama, vicuña, or alpaca wool. Chullos are traditionally worn by men.
Most Peruvian clothing items are made of wool, an excellent choice when trying to regulate your body temperature in the unpredictable Andean weather. If you’re headed to the jungle, here are some ideas on what to wear in the Amazon Rainforest to ensure a comfortable adventure.
Peru has an incredibly rich culture, traditions, and history, so it comes as no surprise that Peruvian festivals are among the most vibrant and colorful in South America.
There are thousands of festivals happening across the country every year, and attending one of these celebrations can be a great addition to your Peru trip itinerary. Here are some of the most popular annual festivals in Peru:
- Fiesta de la Candelaria – a festival celebrated in the city of Puno that boasts culture, dance, and music representative of Peru’s indigenous and colonial traditions.
- Pachamama – celebrations dedicated to Mother Earth. People give tribute to Pachamama Raymi to express gratitude for the bounty of crops that support their communities.
- Inti Raymi – a traditional Inca event filled with rituals and ceremonies to celebrate the sun and the life it provides. It takes place in June at the Sacsayhuaman site near Cusco and lasts for 9 days.
Another exciting event worth visiting is the carnival. In the week leading up to Lent (usually in February), the entire country celebrates Peruvian Carnival by bringing together Andean and Catholic traditions, delicious food, and plenty of fun activities such as water balloon fights.
Traditional Peruvian Food
Although Peru’s cuisine has only recently made its way onto the international culinary scene, the nation has a wealthy culinary heritage.
Peruvian cuisine is filled with dishes and flavors you won’t find anywhere else thanks to its agricultural diversity, fresh produce, and unique fusion of cultural influences. Peru’s capital, Lima, is a culinary hotspot and home to a number of world-renowned restaurants that serve traditional Peruvian food prepared with indigenous ingredients along with innovative Peruvian fusion cuisine dishes.
Here are some classic Peruvian dishes you need to try when visiting the country:
- Ceviche – made with fresh fish and marinated in lime juice. Ceviche is served with sweet potatoes and corn and is also one of Peru’s signature dishes.
- Papa a la Huancaína – sliced potatoes doused with a delicious sauce of lime juice, Aji Amarillo (Peruvian chili pepper), cream cheese, garlic, and milk. The dish is decorated with a hard-boiled egg and olives and is often served as an appetizer.
- Papa Rellena – a potato croquette filled with ground beef, tomatoes, garlic, onions, and capsicum. It is traditionally served with Salsa Criolla (sauce made of lime juice, oil, red onion, Aji Amarillos, and parsley).
- Cuy – not for the faint-hearted, Cuy is a guinea pig dish that has been a local delicacy for thousands of years. It can be roasted or fried and is served with a side of potatoes and salad. While it is readily available, most Peruvians eat Cuy only on special occasions and during celebrations.
- Picarones – a sweet treat that can be found on almost every street corner across Peru. These fried dough rings are crispy on the outside and fluffy on the outside and are served with a honey sauce.
The Music of Peru
Music traditions run deep in Peruvian culture. Throughout history, Peru’s broad musical landscape has developed a beautiful mix of Andean, African, and European influences.
Some of the more commonly used instruments in Peruvian music include antara (traditional Andean panpipe), pinkillo (flute), cajón (box-shaped percussion instrument), and charango (a small stringed instrument that resembles a guitar).
Huayno is among the most popular traditional Andean music and dance genres in Peru. Originating high in the Andean mountains, huayno has been formed by indigenous Quechua and Aymara people. Huayno is best characterized by high-pitched vocals, instruments such as flutes, and traditional dance.
Today, Cumbia is one of the most beloved music styles in Peru. This dance-oriented music originated in Colombia but is hugely popular throughout the entire continent, inspiring a number of sub-genres such as cumbia piurana and cumbia sanjuanera.
Other favored genres you’ll likely hear in Peru include American 80’s rock, chicha (Andean tropical music), salsa, and reggaeton.
Famous People of Peru
Over the years, Peruvians of all walks of life have been able to shape the country’s culture and even influence the world through literature, innovation, entertainment, and so much more.
Perhaps the best-known Peruvian is Mario Vargas Llosa. Llosa is a writer, politician, and journalist that has written across a wide array of literary genres, including literary criticism and journalism. In 2010, he was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature for his “trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.”
Another well-known Peruvian is Mario Testino – a fashion and portrait photographer whose work has appeared in some of the world’s most popular magazines including Vogue, Vanity Fair, and V Magazine. He has collaborated with a number of famous people such as Princess Diana, Kate Moss, Giselle Bundchen, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, among others.
Sofia Mulanovich is a Peruvian-born surfer and environmental activist. She grew up in Punta Hermosa – one of Peru’s top surfing spots – and is best known for being a 3-time World Surfing Champion and the first Peruvian to win a World League Championship Tour event. In 2007, Sofia was featured in the Surfing Hall of Fame in Huntington Beach, California.
Most Famous Touristic Places
In a country as vast and diverse as Peru, it’s hard to pick just a few highlights. There are, however, certain activities and experiences that need to be on any adventurer’s bucket list.
Let’s take a look at some of the most favored sites in Peru:
- Machu Picchu – built with incredible precision and attention to detail, this ancient Inca citadel lives up to its hype as a stunning and unforgettable archaeological site.
- The Inca Trail – with a guide, travelers can hike the path of the Incas and reach Machu Picchu via the awe-inspiring Sun Gate (a spectacular viewpoint over the whole of Machu Picchu).
- The Sacred Valley – the Sacred Valley is both the gateway to Machu Picchu and home to some incredible sites such as Ollantaytambo, the Pisac ruins, and the Maras Salt Mines.
- The Peruvian Amazon – visiting the rainforest in Peru is a spectacular experience. You can sleep in a jungle lodge, try unique fruit, observe incredible avian wildlife, and even see some monkeys.
- Huacachina – found in the Ica desert, this is Peru’s only oasis. You can plunge down the sand dunes upon a sandboard or, for a more adrenaline-rich experience, ride in a dune buggy.
Ready to visit Peru?
From sky-high Inca ruins to the lush-green jungle, Peru has plenty to offer.
How about a Peru tour to discover the country’s incredible cultural legacies, biodiversity, and gastronomy? If you’d like us to help you with your itinerary, feel free to send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.