5 Things to Know About Peruvian Culture

10 Min. Read
Two Peruvian women and two children adorned with Peruvian hand-crafted clothing and knit blankets pose for a photo.
The bright and colorful dress of Peruvian culture. | Photo: Justin Bailie

A trip to Peru can often feel like you’ve entered many distinct worlds within one country. You can surf the Pacific during the day and dine at some of the best restaurants of your life in the evening. Hop on a short flight and the next day you can be swimming with pink river dolphins in the Amazon River and later climbing snow-capped Andean peaks to view ancient Incan architecture and explore Machu Picchu. Peru offers a beautiful mix of many cultures including Inca, Spanish colonialism and indigenous Amazonian – and the result is a country that is overall colorful, friendly and very connected to nature. 

A Traveler’s Guide to Peru’s Culture & Traditions

Children hide in front of bags of Peruvian grains for sale.
Children hide in front of bags of Peruvian grains for sale. | Photo: Justin Bailie

Guinea pigs, chewed-on chicha and baffling Inca Kola

Get off your plane in Lima and start eating! Lima is home to not just some of the country’s best ceviche, but also world-celebrated fusion food, mixing traditional dishes from across the country with international spices and cooking techniques. Dishes from the Amazon incorporate river fish and lots of tropical fruits, whereas Andean cuisine is based on potatoes, maize, quinoa and the meat of alpaca and guinea pigs (cuy). Highland dishes are usually served with yucca, a starchy root vegetable. Some ancient cooking methods are still used such as pachamanca, where a hole is dug into the ground and the food is placed and then cooked by covering it with hot stones. The biggest meal of the day is often a leisurely lunch, beginning around one in the afternoon. Get yourself settled in, as it can go on for a couple of hours.

As for drinks, Inca Kola is Peru’s beverage of choice. It’s, shall we say… an acquired taste. The taste is almost overwhelming of an intense fake bubblegum flavor that somehow does not match up to its almost radioactive-looking yellow hue. If you don’t like it, at least try to keep your opinion to yourself, as this drink is almost a point of national pride. Chicha is also a Peruvian staple. It’s made from fermenting purple corn (although quinoa, yucca or other local materials can be substituted). Most commercial chicha is made in clay vats similar to how malted barley beer would be made. But the more rural you go, locals might still craft their chicha old school, where the women chew the corn beforehand so that enzymes in their saliva can help the starch breakdown into maltose.  It’s definitely a difficult image to get out of your head when ingesting chicha for the first time. 

Peru has many unique drinks. | Photo: Justin Bailie
Peru has many unique drinks. | Photo: Justin Bailie

For an alcoholic drink, pisco sour is as traditional as it comes here. But be careful – while it tastes like a well-made lemonade and can look delicate and frou-frou with some pretty egg white foam, the alcohol content in these can sneak up on you quickly. Proceed with extra caution if you are drinking at altitude (especially if you visit Cusco at 11,200 feet). 

A Peruvian woman weaving a traditional cloth
Weaving the complex patterns from alpaca wool. | Photo: James Kaiser

Artistry and functionality are at the forefront of Peruvian handcrafts 

Art in Peru has been an important part of its culture for thousands of years dating back to pre-Inca times. Modern handcrafts are often a crossover of functionality and talented artistry. Ceramics need to be durable, but are often decorated in ways that pay homage to ancient Moche and Nazca designs. Textiles from cotton, llama, alpaca and sheep wool need to be sturdy enough to handle harsh environments but beautiful enough to wear with pride. Weaving is not just limited to clothing, either, as local residents of the floating islands of Titicaca Lake weave reeds to build entire houses. Weaves have distinctive colors and patterns which help to distinguish particular villages. 

Peruvian typical dress outside of the major cities is colorful and ornate. In some parts, women wear layers of bright skirts (or one skirt with cotton petticoats underneath) with a wide embroidered belt. In the Andes, ponchos are a necessity to cut the cold and the wind, and wool or straw hats are also commonly used.

If you want to purchase items for yourself as a souvenir, it’s important to know that the markets sell all different qualities and you usually get the quality you pay for. Alpaca products can be as insulating as cashmere, lightweight, hypoallergenic and don’t itch. While many less expensive products are advertised as being made from luxuriously soft baby alpaca (the fleece of the first shearing of alpaca), chances are they could be blends of alpaca wool or even acrylic and synthetic fibers. Shop around and start to feel the difference for yourself – when you find genuine baby alpaca products, you will know. It’s also tempting to get some of the first tapestries that you come across, as the colors are captivating, but look around until you can start to notice the details in the quality of weaving. When you find a high quality product, be prepared to pay the artisan justly for the extraordinary amount of time and talent that goes into their work.

Coca leaves on a growing coca plant
Coca leaves are common in parts of Peru. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Coca leaves are NOT cocaine

Peru, after Colombia, is the world’s second-largest producer of coca. Yes, with a lot of processing and additives, cocaine can eventually be produced from coca leaves, but that is not how they are traditionally used in the Andes. The simple coca leaf has been chewed and brewed for tea traditionally for centuries among indigenous people and is considered sacred. Many locals offer the leaves to the Pachamama (Mother Earth) before putting three initial leaves in their mouth. These three leaves symbolize important Inca icons: the condor, the puma, and the serpent.  Mummies and even statues scattered around South America have been found with small bulges on their right cheeks, representing how common the use of coca leaves was historically. Indigenous Andeans still make offerings of coca leaves to the mountain spirits to seek their blessings before starting on any travels. 

The traditional method of chewing coca leaf, called acullico, is done by stuffing a saliva-soaked bunch of coca leaves in the side of the mouth mixed with an alkaline substance (lime, calcite, ash) that helps to break the leaf and its substances down. The coca leaf in its natural form is harmless, can be less stimulating for most people than coffee, and can come in very handy when traveling in Peru. Feeling nauseous?  Coca. Altitude sickness? Coca. Need a pick-me-up?  Coca.  Want to numb physical aches after a hike?  Coca. Hungry but dinner isn’t for another four hours?  Coca.  

Whether you want to try chewing it in leaf form, drinking it as a tea, or even sucking on one of the coca candies found all over the markets, know that in doing so you are taking part in a very safe tradition that is as old as the Incan Empire. During Incan times, coca was used by foot messengers that had to run 18-30 miles daily though the mountains to deliver important messages – they basically used it as a natural Red Bull and aspirin. 

Hundreds of years of cultural mixing in Peru has made for incredible music

One stroll through any local market and it’s easy to see the importance of music in Peruvian culture. Peruvian music is a sometimes soothing, sometimes funky blend of pre-Columbian influences of wind instruments like flutes and a panpipe made of eleven graduated reed tubes known as a zampona, African-style drums, and Spanish stringed instruments like the charango, harp and violin.  Music from the coast is very different from Andean music – it’s called Criollo music and incorporates more African rhythms. 

In Inca times, the word “taki” was used to refer simultaneously to both song and dance, as it was understood that music and dance could not be separated. The most popular criollo dance is Peruvian marinera, a traditional courtship dance considered a “Cultural Heritage of the Nation” since 1986. It is performed using handkerchiefs as props and accompanied by a cajon drum and guitar. Andean people alone have at least 300 different dances, their most common being the huayno in which the dancer stomps their feet vigorously. According to beloved Peruvian writer José María Arguedas, there “is no more legitimate expression of Indian and mestizo Peru than the huayno”.

Woman wearing Peruvian blanket stands in front of a building in Cusco, Peru
Visiting the scenic buildings of Cusco during a layover stop from Machu Picchu | Photo: James Kaiser

Language and communication

Spanish is the official language of Peru, but the country has more than 80 indigenous languages and dialects. Over 26% of the population speaks a first language other than Spanish. During the pre-Hispanic period, the Incas spread Quechua across the highlands and along the coast (although some groups near Lake Titicaca spoke Aymara at the time of the Spanish conquest). So many people still speak Quechua and Aymara that they are both recognized as official languages in addition to Spanish. On a trip to Machu Picchu, for example, the Quechua language is the most widely spoken among locals and workers such as cooks, porters, and even tour guides. Even though it is commonly used in the Sacred Valley, Quechua is listed on UNESCO’s list of endangered languages, because it is mostly a spoken language rather than written.

As for non-verbal communication, Peruvians overall will stand much closer than many people from the US will be used to. There is also a fair amount of touching while talking, which could start with a firm handshake or a quick hug or kiss on the cheek or placing a hand on your arm or shoulder while talking. It is also not uncommon to see male friends walk arm in arm and the same goes for women with female friends. 

One tricky thing for more straightforward foreigners to wrap their heads around is that some Peruvians will do or say anything to try to avoid making others feel uncomfortable. This can show up as evading confrontations at all costs – people will often be diplomatic and say what they think you want to hear, not what they are really thinking. 

A train in Peru rolls through a misty mountain town.
Trains and buses generally follow the “ahora inglesia” time schedule in Peru. | Photo by Justin Bailie

As for time, there is “Peruvian time” and “hora inglesa” (English time). Build in an extra-time window whenever you think you have concrete plans, because someone will most likely show up late. Just roll with it: this is considered normal here and not necessarily overtly rude or disrespectful. If you’re invited to a party or out for dinner, being up to 30 minutes late is the norm. But if somebody specifies hora inglesa it means that there is an expectation for punctuality. Thankfully for tourists, bus, train, and plane schedules follow the hora inglesa.

And while many travelers would think that adios is how you say goodbye in Spanish, it’s chau that is actually widely used in Peru.  While it’s not incorrect to use adios, it is used more often for the “big goodbyes”.  Peruvians know that once you experience the rich and welcoming culture of their country, there’s no way a goodbye is forever. You’ll be back. It’s just chau for now. 

Cathy Brown

Cathy lives on a self-sustainable farm in the Andes of Patagonia with her three kids. She's an editor at Matador Network, writes for Fodor's and Lonely Planet, and works closely with the Adventure Travel Trade Association. She's an avid gardener, surfer, and loves to hike.

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