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Peru: Culture, Society and Traditions

Society and Culture

Peru, like most Andean nations, has a strong traditional culture that continues to pervade its many cities, towns and tiny, mountain villages. This is a product of the country’s extensive diversity of people, cultures and ethnicities, all of whom have contributed to Peru’s vibrant traditions, many of which date back thousands of years.

Along with other Southern American countries, Peru is one of the nations best known for its strong indigenous and traditional culture. A trip to Peru is one of the easiest ways of getting to grips with the intricacies of life in this country, where you’ll get the chance to encounter many of the following elements.

Clothing and indigenous culture in Peru

Typical Peruvian ClothesTypical 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 that has strong roots in indigenous craftsmanship.

In the Peruvian High Andes, you’ll notice that each and every village has its own style of dress, most noticeable in the brightly-dyed and woven lliclla (capes), montera (traditional hats) and polleras (wide skirts), the latter of which are sometimes worn ten at a time on special occasions! 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 styles of male clothing 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). All of these items are carefully crafted from alpaca wool to ward off the chill that comes with living in the Andes Mountains.

Indigenous 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 in the last few decades, governments have been working to help to revive this crucial aspect of Peruvian culture.

An important Peruvian fact is that around 18% of Peruvians speak Quechua , although the vast majority are bilingual and speak Spanish too. However, Quechua is a predominately oral language that was used by the Inca Empire (and only written using their complex quipu knot systems ) – 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

Cajon PeruanoCajón Peruano

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 in style 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, particularly 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 originally made from an Armadillo shell. It soon became a staple in Andean music and is still a popular instrument used throughout South America today.

Another interesting musical influence was brought by Africans, 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 important 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 and where 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.

Peruvian cultural 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 the 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 some cities such as Ayacucho, there are dozens or more of 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.

The make-up of Peruvian society

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 the workers and professionals that depend on a salary and job – and which form about 60% of the population and have suffered most under the successive crises of recent years.

The lower class is formed of workers and campesinos (rural farmers). Many of these workers were forced to emigrate to cities to live in what are known as “pueblos jovenes” – or shanty towns – looking for work. Those who have stayed in their home communities are those that place more importance on maintaining their traditional culture and beliefs.

Peruvian education and challenges

Peruvian School KidsPeruvian School Kids

A hot topic for recent governments has been educational reform. This has been approached with the aim of introducing education that fulfills 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 educate are broad and include the problems faced by students from remote villages in actually physically attending schools - many of which are located hours away from their homes, and the 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.