From the Mountains to the Sea
Located in western South America, Peru has a deep cultural history -- beginning with one of the oldest civilizations, the Norte Chico, who have settlements dating back to as early as 3200 BC, to the Nazca, famous for their lines which can only be truly appreciated from an aerial view, to the Inca Empire, who created one of Peru's most notable sites: Machu Picchu.
Today, Peru's multiethnic population is comprised of individuals of indigenous, European, African and Asian descent, which results in a diverse and vibrant cultural experience for travelers. It also offers some of the world's most gorgeous natural habitats -- from jungles to mountains to beaches -- so you can cover it all during one visit to this breathtaking country.
To learn more about Peru, we asked instructor Teresa Ramon Joffre to share her perspective on her native country; read on to learn more about cultural similarities and difference, tips and recommendations, and more.
What is the primary language spoken in Peru, and how important is it that a traveler be familiar with it before they visit?
The primary language of Peru is Spanish. I think it is very important to speak at least some words to get by.
Of course, Peru is a very popular destination so people in the tourism industry speak very good English. However, it is great if you can learn some Spanish in advance to get by and make the experience more enjoyable.
What are some of the differences in communication style between Peru and the US?
These are just my perceptions, of course, but here are some differences in how Peruvians interact with each other:
- Personal space - I think in the US the personal space bubble is bigger.
- Greetings - In Peru, most people greet with one kiss on the cheek. Of course, that is gradually changing, especially in a business environment.
- Informality - Some public transportation in Peru is pretty informal, or, to say it nicely, too laid back. Local buses are a whole new experience for tourists!
- Punctuality - Some people arrive a bit late; it used to be that most people did, so this is gradually changing.
What are some similarities between Peruvian and US cultures?
- Friendliness - I think people in both cultures are pretty friendly and kind. Sincere smiles open doors.
- Eating - We like to eat. We like to go to parties and have friends. Many people like coffee.
Ultimately, I believe that we are all the same. Some are luckier than others, some have had a better environment, better living conditions than others. But we all want the same things: To be happy, healthy, and safe.
What should a traveler keep in mind when they're interacting with Peruvians?
- Be friendly and smile.
- It's good to be trusting but cautious.
- Be generous and respectful.
- Dress in simple clothes.
- No big cameras or expensive jewelry/glasses. In other words, no frills.
Just remember the golden rule of travel: When in Rome ... (of course, only when it is about doing good things!).
What are some common practices around eating food or sharing meals?
Service in restaurants is very different. The waiter doesn't bring the bill until you ask for it. Also, attitudes toward tipping are changing -- it used to be that it wasn't customary, but now it's generally expected that you'll tip 10%.
Lunch is usually a big meal with two or sometimes three courses (appetizer, main course, dessert) and dinner can be a bit lighter.
Also, people have dinner a bit later than the in the US. Say 8 or 9 p.m. Of course, it all varies but places are usually open until late.
What is one dish in Peruvian cuisine that everyone must try?
It all depends on your personal choices, allergies, etc. Also, sometimes eating something raw can cause stomach problems or more serious issues.
I would say try the local fruits and vegetables. Make sure they are clean or buy and clean them yourself. Potatoes and corn are wonderful in Peru and also many of the new superfoods that now are famous in the Western world have been around in Peru for a while (maca, camu camu, quinoa, kiwicha, cat’s claw, etc.).
Peru has also been recognized as one of the world's leading culinary destination, try the food and you will see why!
What are some common misconceptions about Peru?
- Not everybody dances salsa.
- We don’t know what tacos are 🙂
- Each country in Latin America is different. It is like a family. Every person has some things in common but everyone has their own personality.
When you first traveled to the US, what surprised you the most about the culture or traditions? Why?
What surprised me is how big the country is and how reliant people are on cars.
Also, the food portions seem gigantic to me, even the coffee. Back home, people used to have coffee in a small porcelain cup at a cafe. I don't know if they still do it that way now.
What should no traveler to Peru miss?
Again, it will sound cliche, but Machu Picchu is a must and the main reason thousands of people come.
The city of Cusco is amazing. The jungle is breathtaking. The majestic and never ending deserts with their dunes. There are so many magical places that it is hard to say where!
It is very diverse and has it all: Coastal cities with deserts (the Pacific Ocean), highlands and snow peaks (the Andes mountains,) and rainforest and jungle (the Amazon river). It has 30 out of the 32 climates in the world.
Peru is one of the most beautiful countries I have been in my life.