The colorful culture of the Quechua-speaking peoples seems mysterious to many travelers, an exotic element of Peru’s Andean population, always visible in bright woolen textiles, yet separate, inscrutable. Some enterprising folks will furnish photo ops at top tourist destinations, whole families in traditional dress—including a stylish bowler hat for the ladies—and perhaps an adorable llama for flavor. That will be $1, senora, and would you like to buy a souvenir.
There is much more, however, to Quechua culture, and adventurous souls are more than welcome to explore its strength and beauty on your visit to Peru, or anywhere in the Andes.
There are around 12 million Quechua-speaking people, with very different dialects, cultures, and histories, scattered throughout Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and most importantly, Peru. Though many of their ancestors, historically fought against the Inca Empire, today they fly the Tawantin Suyu, the ancient Inca flag, which even casual travelers will notice fluttering above Cuzco, the old Inca capital.
While the Quechua people have been ruthlessly persecuted by the Hispanic majority—as recently as Peru’s Fujimori presidency (1990-2000) some 70,000 Quechuas were killed and 200,000 women forcibly sterilized—their social and political influence is growing. In 1968 protesters reclaimed some land stolen during the European Conquest, and in 1969 Quechua was adopted as Peru’s second language. More recently, in 2006, Congresswomen Hilaria Supa Huaman and Maria Sumire, representing Cuzco, swore their oath of office in Quechua, a first for the nation.
While most Quechua peoples are somewhat integrated into modern society, it’s still possible to visit traditional communities, where the old form of government—which celebrate communal work and property, very different from European ideals—are still in use.
The easiest way to get a taste of Quechua lifestyle is a Sacred Valley tour from Cuzco taking place in Pisac, famed for its traditional markets on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday; and Ollantaytambo, a remarkably well-preserved example of Inca civil engineering, with intact canchas (city blocks) and spectacular ruins well worth exploring.
Those eager to stay further off the tourist trail could visit Amaru, with homestays and a weaving collective; Huilloc, famed for its textiles and proximity to the Inca Trail; Chinchero, birthplace of the rainbow with a Sunday market and several families offering homestays to foreigners, Pitumarca, with another weaving cooperative you can visit; and many more. The best time to visit is during fiestas, most of which nominally celebrate Catholic virgins and saints, but retain the old traditions once reserved for Inca deities such as Pachamama, the Earth goddess.
Quechua—and Aymara—speaking communities near other popular tourist attractions, such as Lake Titicaca and Colca Canyon, also offer homestays and other options for learning more about indigenous Peru. Travelers who are serious about immersing themselves in this ancient culture can take Quechua classes in and around Cuzco, or hire guides who specialize in traditional cooking, herbal medicine, agricultural techniques, and more.
Any astute tourist with an eye for the human condition will learn quite a lot about the Quechua-speaking peoples on even a short, touristy trip into the Andes. Your trip to Cuzco, Arequipa, or anywhere around the Sacred Valley will offer opportunities aplenty to interact with locals, even if only at markets. But if you’re interested in learning more, look around online for information about spending time in smaller, more traditional communities, which some might find immensely more enriching than even the requisite trek to Machu Picchu, really the least of the Quechua culture’s truly amazing accomplishments.