Peru: Culture, Society and Religion

Peru: Culture, Society and Religion

Along with other Southern American countries, Peru is one of the nation’s best known for its strong indigenous and traditional culture. A trip to Peru is a once in a lifetime experience.

If you travel to Peru to learn the language and be immersed in the culture, simply living in Peru and observing is one of the easiest ways of getting to grips with the intricacies of life in Peru. You’ll get the chance to encounter many of the following elements.

Learn about the languages spoken in Peru. You will also notice that Peruvian music plays an essential role in the daily life of the people, e.g. when celebrating the festivals, as well as the colourful and typical Peruvian clothes. When living with a Peruvian host family, you will learn more about the Peruvian norms and habits and talking to the people who’ll hear about religion in Peru.

Especially for those that will volunteer in Peru, the section about Education in Peru is interesting as well as the make-up of the (complex) Peruvian society.

Languages in Peru

Although Spanish is the language most spoken across Peru, Aymara and Quechua - two indigenous languages that stem from ancient Andean cultures - plus 24 other native languages, are officially recognised here. Indigenous languages were outlawed under the Spanish, but governments have been working to help to revive this crucial aspect of Peruvian culture in the last few decades.

An important Peruvian fact is that around 18% of Peruvians speak Quechua, although the vast majority is bilingual and speak Spanish too. However, Quechua is a predominately oral language that the Inca Empire used (and only written using their complex quipu knot system ) – which explains why it is still spoken across vast tracts of South America. You’ll most likely hear it being spoken by older Peruvians in and around Cusco, as well as in rural Andean communities in the south of the country. One of the largest concentrations of Quechua speakers is in Ayacucho and the surrounding region, making these places a great place to visit if you’re interested in learning more.

Peruvian music

Peruvian music has its roots in the diverse cultures of the people who have come to inhabit Peru. Pre-Colombian music was played on traditional wooden instruments, similar to panpipes and flutes and thought to originate from the Andes.

However, the influence of the Spanish conquistadores radically changed the sound of Peruvian music, mainly through the introduction of the guitar, which later spawned the invention of the charango, a stringed instrument that’s a member of the lute family and was initially made from an Armadillo shell. It soon became a staple in Andean music and is still a popular instrument used throughout South America today.

Africans brought another interesting musical influence; the 95,000 slaves brought to Peru between the early 1500s and 1880s by the Spanish. The cajón, a box-shaped percussion instrument, was invented by the slaves, and while its origins are unclear – debate remains as to whether it is a descendent of similar instruments found in western and central Africa – it continues to play an essential role in music, increasingly used in more modern musical styles and now play throughout the world.

The best way to experience this aspect of Peruvian culture is at one of the country’s many festivals, often held to mark religious events. Processions of dancers accompanied by musicians allow the chance to observe both traditional attire and enjoy local live music. To catch one, read our guide to Peru’s most unmissable celebrations.

Education in Peru
Flora y Fauna Peru
Peruvian music instruments

Peruvian norms and habits

Like any country, Peru has its own cultural habits and eccentricities, and the best way to avoid looking too much like a tourist when you first arrive is to acquaint yourself with some of the most important. As in most South American countries, a single kiss on the left cheek is the standard greeting between women and men and women; between two men, a handshake is a go-to approach. Addressing people you don’t know well, or have just met as “señor” (male) or “señora” (female) is a good way of showing politeness – something appreciated by most Peruvians.

Peru is also a very conservative and religious country, with over three-quarters of the population identifying themselves as Catholic. This is a relic of Spanish colonization and their extreme attempts at evangelizing the local population; in cities like for instance Ayacucho, there are dozens or more churches.

However, what is so fascinating about Peru and other South American societies is how they continued to worship many of their former gods – despite the best attempts of the Spanish to shut down what they regarded as pagan belief systems. Festivals such as Inti Raymi , held annually in Cusco, is based entirely upon Inca beliefs and ceremonies, while others such as the Virgen de Carmen , celebrated in Paucartambo four hours away from Cusco, combine elements of Catholicism and Andean religions into a fantastic display of colourful Peruvian clothing, Andean music and Catholic saints: a truly unique spectacle.

Peruvian society: the make-up of

Peru is organized into three distinct social classes. The upper class is a minority and principally found in Lima – comprising approximately 3% of the total population. The middle class consists of workers and professionals that depend on a salary and job. They form about 40% of the people and have suffered most under the successive crises of recent years.

The lower class consists of workers and campesinos (rural farmers). Many of them were forced to emigrate to the bigger cities – mainly to Lima. Here they live, in what is known as “pueblos jovenes” – or shantytowns – looking for work. Those who have stayed in their home communities place more importance on maintaining their traditional culture and beliefs.

Peruvian education and challenges

A hot topic for recent governments has been educational reform. This has been approached with the aim of introducing education that fulfils the real, practical needs of young people and the country, and enrolment in schools has steadily increased over the past few decades.

Now, the literacy rate of the general population is 92%, and around 90% of young people are enrolled in schools – although this latter figure masks lower attendance, caused by adolescents who work rather than attend school but yet are still marked as on-roll.

Barriers to education are broad – even much more during the corona pandemic - and include the problems students face from remote villages in actually physically attending schools, as many are located too far from their homes. There are also many issues surrounding bilingual education (most schools don’t offer instruction in native languages). Both of these pose significant problems for poorer, rural members of the population.

Religion in Peru
Streets of Lima Peru
Typical peruvian textiles

Religion in Peru

The religion of Peru is an inheritance of the Spanish conquest. For this reason, Peru is a mainly Catholic country (more than 75% of the population). Since the 16th century, along with Catholicism, expressions of the native religion, based on the cult of the Sun, the Pachamama (Mother Earth) and elements of nature, have also been present. Those who study religion still can't agree on how to treat two very different religions in the process of fusion or of parallel beliefs.

Moreover, recently many diverse churches have appeared. Thus, we can see that the Peruvian population is still very religious and that the percentage of atheists and declared agnostics is very low.

For example, Peru has Protestant churches that are the fruit of the work of North American and European missionaries. There also are Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Adventists, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Hare Krishnas. Other active groups are the Israelis of the New Pact (which always participate in political elections too) and the Movement of the New Era. Religious activity in Peru is essential, and for many people, one of the "centres of energy" in the world is the city of Cusco.

Television, Radio, Newspapers and Magazines in Peru

Like in all countries of the world, communication plays a decisive role in Peru, in cultural and political life. Along with serious and fact-oriented communication, other forms of media have arisen in recent decades, such as "easy reading" which are of questionable quality and creditability – they are also the cheapest and most accessible to those in the lowest economic bracket. This, apart from the influence of social media.

Peru's oldest newspapers date from the 19th century, like "El Comercio", which continues in circulation. Other newspapers widely read include: "La República", "Expreso", "El Correo", "El Peruano", "La Nación", "Liberación", ... Other weekly and biweekly magazines are welcome for their versatility and variety – and cover politics, economics, tourism, education, and fashion. For example, "Caretas", "Gente", "Actualidad Económica", "Agronoticias", "Moneda", "Somos".

Peruvian television is also very diverse. There are few free channels, but these are also the most widely watched by the people – one of these is RTP, Channel 7, administered by the state. The Ministry of Education has arranged a system of evaluation and control of television programming that has made changes and, in some cases, shut down specific programs.

"The radio is closest to the people" is the motto that all Peruvian radio stations repeat in their programs. In Peru, many people listen to the radio – at home, at work, and on the buses. The radio stations most people listen to include a wide variety in their programs: news, art, gossip, music and interviews. There are two radio stations that dispute the top spot at a national level: RPP (Radio Programas del Perú) y CPN (Cadena Peruana de Noticias).

Typical Peruvian Clothes

One of the most noticeable statements of Peruvian culture is made through its clothing. Although most inhabitants of the capital city, Lima, wear European dress, once you head into the other regions, it's not long before you come across more traditional attire with strong roots in indigenous craftsmanship.

In the Peruvian high Andes, you'll notice that each village has its own style of dress, most noticeable in the brightly dyed and woven llicllas (capes), montera (traditional hats) and polleras (wide skirts), the latter of which is sometimes worn ten at a time on special occasions! Furthermore, you'll notice how much care and attention goes into handcrafting these beautiful outfits (you might even see women hard at work on looms), and you can even buy them in the country's various markets.

Although traditional male clothing styles in Peru have been more eroded by the introduction of European culture and dress, many Andean men still wear intricately patterned ponchos and chullos (knitted hats with ear flaps). These items are carefully crafted from alpaca wool to ward off the chill of living in the Andes Mountains.