One thing that always impresses visitors to the Altiplano in Bolvia and Peru, is the rich and complex culture which the locals proudly preserve. What is fascinating is that this culture seems to maintain itself apart from the rest of the countries in which it s based. This is especially noticeable in Peru, in and around the city of Cusco. It feels very much as if one is in a separate country, when one compares it to Lima, for example.
This is even more marked when one considers there are two regional languages in the area, both widely in use and thriving. These two languages are Quechua and Aymara, of which Aymara is said to be the older. Quechua was the official language of the Inca empire which they promulgated for the purposes of unification and ease of government for the ruling class, as there was in fact a patchwork of local languages that would have otherwise made the task impossible.
So, while Spanish is the more widely spoken language, Quechua and Aymara are also considered national languages and Quechua in particular is widely spoken around Cusco.
Another feature that makes the place especially memorable is the very distinctive local traditional dress, composed of wide-brimmed hats, brightly coloured woolen garments and some great-looking ponchos. For citizens of cold countries back in Europe, this is a great opportunity to load up with high quality knitwear in the classic Andean style. It’s also a means of supporting the local economy, which is very much dependent on tourism and the sale of such goods. You might also want to get your photo taken with some of the local ladies in traditional garb with their friendly pet llama or alpaca!
Peru is also famous for its excellent gastronomy, perhaps the finest on the whole continent. In Cusco you can find a wide variety of international restaurants as well as plenty of traditional local dishes. Ceviche is a famous Peruvian delicacy which is available everywhere and consists of specially prepared uncooked sea food and is absolutely delicious. It’s surprising just how filling these small dishes actually are and how incredibly well they combine with Pisco Sour, a delicious and very famous Peruvian cocktail. A taste sensation!
However, in Cusco you might want to take another option, since it is located so far from the sea. That inevitably has an adverse effect on quality and price, although you can still find very good quality ceviche there. But the other option, if you are feeling brave enough is the Andean delicacy of Cuy, yes that’s right, roast guinea pig! I’m afraid I couldn’t bring myself to order it, as just one look at the poor things sprawled out across the plate was enough to put me off, but they say it tastes very good, not unlike chicken. Isn’t that what they say about all unfamiliar meats?
Another fascinating aspect of Andean culture is that relating to medicinal herbs and plants, or which depending on your point of view could be viewed as psychedelic drugs. Referring to them in that way could be taken as an insult, but it’s the simplest way to explain what they are all about in a very few words! But all joking aside, powerful plants such as ayahuasca and san pedro form part of a rich tradition stretching back millennia, and which today attract thousands of curious foreigners, keen for a taste of the mental/physycal purification and insight which use of these plants can reportedly bring.
In fact, around the centre of Cusco you’ll see numerous small centres offering the services of a ‘shaman’ and guided ceremonies and retreats where one can experience what these plants have to offer.