Introduction to Peru Culture
Few countries can boast a culture and history as vast and rich as that of Peru. From its past as part of the ancient Incan empire (and the resulting mysterious ruins at Machu Picchu) to its history of violence and dictatorship and its modern culture filled with diversity, celebration, and faith, Peru is one of the most fascinating countries in South America. So, fix yourself a Pisco Sour and a whole roasted guinea pig, and sink your teeth into Peru culture.
Ancient Peru was the home of the Incan Empire, which lasted from the early 13th century until the time Spain conquered the last Inca stronghold in 1572. Peru declared its independence from Spain in 1821, but was not officially free until 1824. Peru fought a war with Spain in the mid 1860s and another war with Chile from 1879-1883. This bloody history was followed by 20 years of dictatorship, a coup, and a war between local rebel groups and the government. Modern day Peru culture is much more peaceful and elections are conducted by popular vote, though political tensions still run high.
Religion, Language & Etiquette
The predominant religion in Peru is Roman Catholic. Some other religions exist as well (generally other forms of Christianity) and many Peruvians blend Christianity with their own traditions. For instance, the way Peruvians view the Virgin Mary and Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) are almost indistinguishable. The official language in Peru is Spanish, but people in the highlands frequently speak both Quechua (as their first language) and Spanish (as their second). Here’s a fun fact: speaking a few words of Quechua in rural markets will often get you an extra piece of fruit.
The ability to control one’s emotions is highly valued within Peruvian culture, and the rules of etiquette follow this basic value. It’s customary to show respect for elders in the community and to practice self-control and discipline. Youth in Peru culture frequently opposes this belief through actions like public displays of affection, which are strongly discouraged in adult society. It is considered very rude to discuss politics, given the country’s recent struggles with political coups and unrest. It’s best to avoid this topic altogether.
Relationship To Other Countries
Peru has a cooperative relationship with its neighbors, thanks especially to the Pacific Alliance (Mexico, Chile, Colombia, and Peru), which facilitates trade between the four countries. However, Chile and Peru just ended a two-year dispute over land (it was ultimately decided that Chile needed to cede), and started a new dispute over a triangle of desert in northeast Chile.
Peru is a member of the United Nations, The World Trade Organization, the IMF, and the World Bank. It has close ties to Argentina (publically supporting their dispute with the UK over the Falkland Islands) and has a trade agreement with the United States (Peru’s second largest trading partner).
Food and Drink
Because Peru has such diverse climates, there is a lot of variety in the food. Typically, Peruvian food centers largely around hearty soups and stews. Corn is a staple in most meals, and rice, eggs, and vegetables are incorporated frequently. Along the coastal region, seafood is popular. Potatoes are popular throughout Peru culture, and meat is served with most meals (usually chicken or pork).
Some Peruvian specials include cuy (roasted guinea pig), ceviche (seafood cooked in lemon juice), and cau-cau (cow stomach served with potatoes). Pisco is the national drink of Peru, and Pisco Sours are a popular way to welcome guests to the country.
Peru culture also offers fantastic desserts. Arroz con Leche (rice cooked with condensed milk) and Picarones (yam donuts served with a sweet sauce) are cultural staples.
Festivals and Attractions
By far the most famous attraction in Peru is Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is a world heritage site containing some of the ruins of the Incan Empire. The site was abandoned in the 16th century and is comprised of buildings, terraces, and walls made of stone bricks without mortar. Impressive.
Machu Picchu sits atop a high peak surrounded on three sides by the Urubamba River. This location would be perfect for a military stronghold, a ceremony location, or a retreat destination for elite members of the community however, the Incas didn’t have a written language, so there is no documentation of the site’s original purpose; its function remains a mystery to historians.
Throughout the month of February, Peruvians celebrate Carnaval. This month long festival takes place throughout South America. In Peru, people have big water fights in the streets and wear bright colors. Another tradition is to dance around a Yunsa tree (a ceremonial tree filled with gifts). Couples take turns chopping down the tree until it falls and releases the gifts to the watching crowd.
Generational Differences & Where The Country Is Going
Peru is at the beginning of an architectural rebirth of sorts. Historically, Peru has been the home of two unique architectural styles: Pre-Hispanic (before Spain conquered Peru, such as the ruins at Machu Picchu) and Colonial architecture (like Catholic churches), which usually featured a central plaza surrounded by all the most important buildings in the community. However, this is shifting and the country is experiencing an increase in Modernist architecture.
This shift in architecture has brought with it an expansion of urban spaces and an influx of people migrating to Lima to live in shanty towns (pueblos jovenes).
BuildAbroad is currently hosting volunteer opportunities in Cusco, Peru. Cuscu is a vibrant and busy city featuring museums, outdoor activities, and performing arts, but perhaps the biggest draw for tourists is its close proximity to Machu Picchu. Volunteers with BuildAbroad stay with local families and spend the first four hours of the day building schools and other community projects. The rest of the time, they are free to experience all the beauty and culture that Peru has to offer.
Peru has a lot to offer those who decide to go off the beaten path to take in its culture and history. From the markets to the sweeping vistas of the mountains and the ruins in Machu Picchu, there is really something for everyone. If you’re considering a trip to Peru, then take some time to explore BuildAbroad’s volunteer opportunities in the country. You can discover the “old world” of Peru, while building schools and community projects for the next generation of Peruvians.