POPULATION: 24.5 million

LANGUAGE: Spanish; Quechua

RELIGION: Roman Catholicism, intertwined with native beliefs


Once the seat of the expansive Inca Empire, Peru is a dramatic mix of old and new. After the conquest of the Incas, Peru's capital, Lima, became the center of Spain's colonial power structure in the Americas. The combination of a strong Spanish influence with a rich indigenous (native) heritage has shaped Peru's traditions, politics, and culture.

Peru's political history in the twentieth century has been characterized by swings from democracy to military dictatorship. Most recently, a leftist military government, the result of a military coup (takeover) in 1976, instituted an economic program that promoted agricultural cooperatives, expropriated foreign companies, and decreed worker participation in modern industry. A return to democracy in 1980 lasted until 1992 when a democratically elected president, Alberto Fujimori, ruled as a dictator. Fujimori successfully battled two of Peru's greatest ills—inflation and terrorism. After reopening Congress, he was reelected with popular support in 1995.


Three times the size of California, Peru has an extremely varied geography ranging from tropical rain forest to arid desert. With Ecuador and Bolivia, it is one of the three Andean countries on the Pacific coast of South America. Peru can be conveniently divided into three basic geographical areas—the Andes mountains (sierra), desert, and Amazon rain forest. The tropical rain forest covers 67 percent of Peru's land-mass but is rapidly being destroyed by logging companies.

Peru's population of over 24 million people can be subdivided into four groups: white, 15 percent; mestizo or mixed Amerindian and white heritage, 37 percent; indigenous South American Indian (Quechua and Aymara, for example), 45 percent; and black and Asian, 3 percent. The Quechua and Aymara constitute the two main South American Indian tribes. Peru's culture is becoming increasingly mestijado; that is, a mix of Western and traditional customs.


The two official languages of Peru are Spanish and Quechua. Quechua is the language of the Incas. Still widely spoken throughout the Andes, it was made an official language by the military government that controlled the country from 1968 to 1975. The dominant language in urban areas, however, is Spanish. The primary difference between the Spanish spoken in Spain and in Peru is the accent.

In Peru, as in other Hispanic countries, names comprise three parts: the given name, the father's surname, and the mother's maiden name. For example: Pedro (given name) Suárez (father's name) Durán (mother's name).


Many of the beliefs and practices that comprise Peruvian folklore are associated with the native faith and customs that prevailed before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors. For example, the Incas believed that they descended from the Sun God, Inti, and that the reigning Inca was an offspring of the Sun. Though they did not practice human sacrifice, many were headhunters. The Incas believed that the possession of another's head increased the owner's spiritual strength. While headhunting no longer exists, a blending of Amerindian and European beliefs often persists in festivals and other observances.


Peruvians are fervent Catholics. Catholics comprise 90 percent of the population. No Peruvian town, no matter how small or remote, is without a church. Religious practices carefully intertwine modern and traditional beliefs. The Peruvian version of Catholicism, for example, has incorporated some of the traditional gods and spirits by referring to them as saints or lords. When the Spanish converted the Amerindians to Christianity, they moved many of the Christian holidays to coincide with existing traditional festivals. In so doing, many traditional festivals continue to be practiced, with minor modifications, within the Christian framework.


One of the most colorful festivals is the month-long celebration of the Lord of the Earthquakes in October. Peru is subject to constant tremors and earthquakes, and in the past many of its cities have been severely damaged by them. In October, a weekly procession through the streets of Lima features a painting of Christ that has survived successive quakes, trailed by throngs of followers dressed in purple robes. Strict Catholics dress in purple on these days, whether they are able to attend the procession or not.

A secular holiday that is of great importance to Peruvians is their Independence Day, July 28. This occasion is celebrated with much festivity—dancing, eating, and drinking. On this day, all homes are required by law to fly the Peruvian flag.

As late as 1966, there were more than 150 national holidays including Sundays.


Baptism of infants, first communion, and confirmation of children in church are common. Perhaps half of all couples live together without regularizing their unions with a license or a church ceremony. A birthday may not necessarily be celebrated; the person's namesake saint's day is likely to be observed instead. A novena (nine consecutive days of special prayers) for the dead is usually held in the home of the deceased, with friends invited on the final night. Often a second novena is held later.


It is poor manners to arrive on time if invited to a dinner or a party. Tardiness of an hour or more is expected. If hosts expect the guests to arrive more promptly, they will ask them to observe hora inglesa (English time). When being introduced to a woman at a social occasion, the proper greeting is a kiss on the cheek. Men, when introduced to each other, shake hands.

At an informal gathering, when a group of friends are drinking together, it is a sign of friendship to share the same glass. When a large bottle of beer or pisco (a Peruvian alcoholic beverage) is opened, the bottle and glass are passed around in a circle. One is expected to serve oneself a small serving, drink it quickly, then pass both the bottle and glass to the next person. To ask for a separate glass would give offense.

The "okay" sign (touching your finger to your thumb) is considered a rude gesture in Peru.


Approximately one-third of the entire Peruvian population lives in the capital city, Lima. Over half live in urban squatter settlements (occupied without lease or rent). These are known as pueblos jóvenes (young towns). Migration to Lima from the Andean region fuels the development of pueblos jóvenes. Uninhabited land is selected and invaded by a group of settlers overnight. The initial housing is usually made out of light reed matting. More-permanent structures are built gradually, bit by bit, as the family can afford to buy bricks and mortar. In addition to poor housing, residents of the pueblos jóvenes suffer from a lack of basic services. While the majority now have electricity in their houses, water is scarce. Unsanitary conditions create serious health hazards.

The residents of the modern suburbs of Lima have living standards comparable to those found in the United States. Suburban houses range from high-rise apartments to grand colonial houses. In periods of drought, however, even these sectors have their water and electricity rationed by the municipality.


In countries without a welfare system or social security system, the family bonds together not only as a social unit, but as an economic one as well. The basic household unit includes parents, children, and, in many cases, grandparents or aunts and uncles. In middle-class households, it may also include a live-in servant or nanny to look after young children. Financial difficulties mean that children live at home until they get married as young adults.

Compadrazgo (godparenthood) is an important tie between friends and forges bonds of obligation between two families. Godparents are expected not only to contribute a modest amount of financial support for the godchild, but to provide emotional support and guidance to the family. These interfamily social arrangements expand a family's support network.

Machismo, an attitude of male superiority and sexism, is widespread ( marianismo , an attitude of female passivity and coyness, is the counterpart of machismo). However, Peruvian women participate actively in important family decisions. Women play an active role both in family and community life. They also make significant contributions to family income.


In Andean areas, women wear colorful woven skirts with many layers of petticoats underneath. Solid-colored llama wool sweaters offer protection against the cold Andean night air. Hats are used throughout Peru. Each region has its own style of hat, and it is possible to tell which region an Amerindian is from by his or her hat. Men wear simple trousers and Western-style button-down shirts, and sandals.

As the process of urbanization in Peru has advanced, so has the process of Westernization. Most Peruvians don Western clothes for both everyday and special occasions. Young Peruvians in urban areas prefer jeans, American tennis shoes, and Western-style skirts instead of the traditional alpaca and llama wool clothes worn in the Andean regions. One useful traditional custom that is often retained is the use of a shawl across the shoulders to carry small children.

12 • FOOD.

Peru has one of the most developed cuisines of Latin America. Many dishes are a delicate combination of South American Indian, Spanish, and African ingredients and cooking traditions. Seafood is the dominant ingredient on the coast, yucca and plantains in the jungle, and potatoes in the Andes.

The national dish of Peru is ceviche, a spicy dish of onions and seafood. In ceviche, the fish is cooked not by applying heat but by soaking it for a few hours in lime juice. The acid in the lime juice has the effect of breaking down the protein, thus "cooking" the fish. Sliced onion, hot peppers, and chopped coriander are then added.

Corn-on-the-cob cut into small sections called choclo are commonly served as a garnish or addition to different kinds of dishes in Peru. A recipe for ceviche follows.

The high cost of living has led many mothers living in low-income neighborhoods to organize and form communal kitchens. These groups, now recognized by the government, receive subsidized food and cook for one hundred or so people for a small fee.




  • 1 pound fresh fillet of red snapper, bass, or bay scallops (Have fish sliced into fil-lets about ¼-inch thick, and the skin and bones removed.) Juice of 3 lemons
  • Juice of 3 limes
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, chopped (wear rubber gloves)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Pinch of white pepper 2
  • Tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 sweet potato
  • 1 ear of corn
  • ½ head of lettuce
  • 1 red onion, sliced thin


  1. Cut fish slices on the diagonal into ¾-inch diamond shapes. (If using scallops, cut them in half if they are larger than about ¾-inch in diameter.)
  2. Place the fish into a large, sealable plactic bag or a bowl (Do not use metal).
  3. Mix lime juice, lemon juice, garlic, jalapeno pepper, salt, pepper, and cilantro. Pour over fish. Seal bag or cover bowl and refrigerate at least one hour.
  4. Place the sweet potato in a saucepan and cover with water and heat until water boils. Lower heat and simmer until the sweet potato about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and cool, but do not peel until the ceviche will be served.
  5. Place the ear of corn into a saucepan and cover with water. Heat until the water boils. Lower heat and simmer until the corn is cooked (about 8 to 10 minutes). Drain and cool to room temperature. Cut cob into 1-inch slices.
  6. To serve, arrange lettuce leaves on a nonmetal serving platter. Arrange fish on the center of the platter. Slice sweet potato into ½-inch slices. Arrange the slices, alternating with the corn cob slices, in a circle around the fish. Garnish with rings of red onion.

Adapted from Recipes from Around the World. Howard County, Md.: Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network, 1993, p. 10.


Peruvian children wear solid gray uniforms to school. Classes are held in two sessions—morning and afternoon—and students attend one or the other. The literacy rate (ability to read and write) in Peru is relatively high, reaching 92 percent for males and 79 percent for females.

The relatively small number of universities in Peru means that it can be difficult to gain admission. Only 3 percent of the population is able to attend university.


The different ethnic groups that have migrated to Peru have left a rich musical heritage. Both musica criolla of Spanish influence and Andean folk music are popular. A traditional music, recently becoming popular with young Peruvians, is Afro-Peruvian music. This rhythmic music has its roots in the protest songs of the black population of Peru. In the 1980s and 1990s, Afro-Peruvian music has witnessed a strong revival and is now popular in the bars and dance halls of Lima.

Musical shows for tourists feature the Alcatraz, a traditional Afro-Peruvian fire dance. Alcatraz dancers tuck a piece of paper into their back pockets or around their waist, leaving a short tail hanging out. A second dancer follows behind with a lit candle trying to set the tail on fire. The first dancer must move his or her hips vigorously to prevent the paper tail from catching fire.

Peru also has a strong literary tradition. One of the most revered contemporary writers in Peru is the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. Vargas Llosa is known worldwide both for his writings and for his bid for the presidency in 1990. His comic autobiographical narrative, Aunt Julia and the Script Writer, was made into a Hollywood movie starring Keanu Reeves in the 1990s. Other outstanding writers include novelist José María Arguedas and Ciro Alegría, dramatists Salvador Bandy and Gregór Díaz, and poets Cesar Vallejo, Cecilia Bustamante, and Cesar Moro.


Formal paid employment is difficult to find in Peru. Most families are forced to seek varied and innovative means to generate an income, struggling to earn a living by whatever means possible. Approximately 80 percent of the population are either subsistence farmers (growing little more than their own food) or operate their own tiny enterprise. Both women and children make important contributions to family income, either from small-scale cottage industries in their homes, or as traders outside the home.

Outside urban areas, Peruvians are largely subsistence farmers. The dry Andean terrain makes agriculture a challenge. Steep slopes are farmed by a process of terracing, in which multileveled steps are created to provide flat areas for planting. Potatoes and corn, which adapt well to high altitudes, are the primary crops.


As in most other Latin American cultures, soccer is the dominant sport in Peru. The love of soccer is one of the few cultural traits that transcends both ethnic and socioeconomic boundaries. Even in densely populated urban shantytowns, large pieces of land are often set aside for soccer fields. Middle-class children set up goals and play in the streets.

Lima's two soccer teams, Alianza Lima and Universitaria, have an intense rivalry that has kept Limeños (residents of Lima) fascinated for years. This rivalry has a particular poignancy. In 1987 the plane carrying the members of Alianza Lima crashed when landing in Lima, leaving no survivors.


Popular culture in Peru is varied. In the evenings, young people flock to both Western-style bars and discos, or to peñas where traditional Peruvian folk music is played. In Lima, an old colonial suburb of the city called Barranco has become the focus of trendy and artsy activities. Music halls, theaters, book shops, and art galleries attract crowds of middle-class youth.

Also popular in Peru are televised soap operas. Produced largely in Venezuela or Mexico, these evening shows attract a wide following. Soap operas are also produced in magazine format. Fotonovelas, as they are called, present soap operas with a series of photos and captions.


See the article on the "Quechua" in this chapter.


Peru has one of the worst human rights records in the world. The Peruvian government has been battling the Maoist (communist) Shining Path guerrillas since the early 1980s. In its battle to eliminate this violent terrorist group, the military has kidnapped and killed many suspected Shining Path sympathizers. Trade union officials, university professors, and students have all been targeted by the government. The military has been successful in weakening the Shining Path movement, but human rights abuses remain a serious problem.


Fiesta! Peru. Danbury, Conn.: Grolier Educational, 1997.

Fisher, John Robert. Peru. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Clio Press, 1989.

Hudson, Rex A. Peru in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1987.

Jermyn, Leslie. Peru. Milwaukee, Wisc.: Gareth Stevens, 1998.

Kalman, Bobbie. Peru: The People and Culture. New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 1994.

King, David C. Peru: Lost Cities, Found Hopes. New York: Benchmark Books, 1998.

Lewington, Anna. Rainforest Amerindians. Austin, Tex.: Raintree Steck-Vaughan Publishers, 1993.

Lewington, Anna. What Do We Know about the Amazonian Indians? New York: P. Bedrick Books, 1993.

Parker, Edward. Peru. Austin, Tex.: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1997.

Recipes from Around the World. Howard County, Md.: Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network, 1993.


Interknowledge Corp. Peru. [Online] Available , 1998.

Ruiz-Garcia, Pedro. The Latino Connection. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Peru. [Online] Available , 1998.

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