Indigenous Culture In Northern Peru

With around 33 million people, Peru is the fourth most populous nation in South America. Around 45 percent of the citizenry is indigenous, the second highest percentage in the western hemisphere, after Bolivia. The rest of the population is primarily divided between those of mestizo - or mixed - ancestry (37%), or those of European origin (15%). There are also small African and Asian ethnic groups.

The result, then, is a very high cultural diversity with 14 linguistic families, and 44 distinct ethnic groups … of which 42 are found in the Amazon.

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The most numerous indigenous population, however, is to be found in the Andes mountains, amongst the Quechua-speaking people who trace their origins to the Inca - and other peoples who lived in the Andes at the time of the Spanish Conquest.

Quechua is the native tongue of more than three million Peruvians, mostly in the central and northern Andes. It should be noted though, that Quechua is in fact a family of languages, with four recognized dialects. So natives of Huaraz, for example, will struggle to understand Quechua-speakers from Cusco or Cajamarca.

There are also around half a million people in the Lake Titicaca region and along the Bolivian border who speak Aymara, another ancient Andean language.

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Dozens of different Amerindian groups call Peru’s Amazon Basin home, including the Aguarana, Machigenga, Shipibo, Urarina and Yagua.

In fact, Peru boasts the third highest number of indigenous groups, after Brazil and Papua New Guinea; and the highest number of ‘uncontacted’ indigenous communities in the world.

In addition to their own languages, many of these rainforest dwellers also have distinct traditions and customs from the pre-Columbian and Iberian inspired cultures of highland and coastal Peru.

Some of these jungle groups number no more than a couple of hundred people. And they have varying degrees of contact with the outside world. Some are fairly well integrated into the urban societies of jungle cities like Iquitos and Pucallpa; others continue their nomadic ways, and have little or no contact with the world beyond their range.

On a PeruNorth trip to an Amazon lodge or cruise, you are likely to witness the former, rather than the latter, for obvious logistical reasons. We visit riverside villages, where the language is usually Spanish and the dress is ostensibly Western, and yet many ancient traditions and beliefs lie close to the surface.

While, for the adventurous, we offer a 12-day Matses Indigenous Amazon Trek, where you will have the opportunity to witness the unique lifestyle of the Matses first-hand, well away from urban influences.