South America

The Indigenous People of Latin America

Viva Intern  |  6 August 2018

Learn more about the different indigenous cultures in Latin America

What better way to pay homage to our planet’s indigenous cultures than by spending time with a native community during your Latin America tour? The continent is home to an estimated 50 million people who identify as indigenous, comprising over 800 different indigenous groups and speaking hundreds of different languages.

Aimed at raising awareness of the international indigenous plight and recognising the distinct accomplishments and contributions ancient groups have made to our modern world, the International Day of Indigenous People encourages people to partake in culturally-appropriate activities wherever they may be, spreading the UN’s message of indigenous respect and appreciation.

There’s no doubt that the world – and Latin America in particular needs an International Day of Indigenous People – and there’s no better way to show support and contribute to the cause than by spending time with an indigenous group, wherever you be in the continent.

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Not sure where to go or what to do?

Have a look at the kind of cultural experiences on offer:

Peru

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Almost a quarter of Peru’s population has indigenous ethnicity, comprising groups such as the Aymara, Quechua, Aguaruna and Achuar. The most famous of all, the Aymara, inhabit the country’s southern highlands and, specifically, the area around Puno and Lake Titicaca. It is right here, on the magnificent Lake Titicaca, that you can meet one of the smallest and most distinctive indigenous group of all: the Uru. Inhabiting over 70 totora reed islands in the heart of the world’s highest navigable lake, floating between Peru and Bolivia, the Uru (of the famed Uros Islands) have been living on their fantastical islands since pre-Inca times, trading with the mainland Aymara group for centuries and, eventually, losing their indigenous language in favour of theirs. Incredibly traditional yet friendly and welcoming, the people of the Uros islands have managed an ideal scoop: maintain their traditional lifestyle whilst opening up to tourism. Lake Titicaca is one of the favoured stop overs on all our tours of Peru as it offers a wonderful array of indigenous cultural experiences. Visit the floating Uros Islands, meet Taquilenos on the resplendent Taquile island and enjoy an unforgettable stay with Amantani islanders. For discerning travellers looking for immersive cultural experiences, Peru and its astonishing Lake Titicaca just can’t be beat.

In the Sacred Valley of the Incas, in the region of Machu Picchu, we organize trekking programmes via Mountain Lodges of Peru, a wonderful organization with a fervent socially-conscientious programme that works in conjunction with the Huacahuasi communities, empowering local indigenous groups and helping them actively invest in development initiatives from which all future generations will benefit. From pottery and weaving demonstrations to cooking classes, village and museum visits, the MLP trekking tours are multi-faceted and immensely rewarding.

Chile 

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Over 11% of Chile’s population hails from indigenous background with the most prominent, oldest and outspoken being the Mapuche of southern Patagonia. Living on their ancestral land for more than 2,000 years, the Mapuche have been fighting an ever-present threat of invasion: from the times of the earlies Spanish conquistadores to the present day, as the ever-growing threat of land-grabs (in both Chile and Argentina) force them to struggle to maintain their traditions and lifestyles. Mapuche is actually an umbrella term and includes several distinct ethnic groups which have a common language. With a rich cultural tradition in alternative medicines, textile weaving, wood carving, metal work and exquisite silver jewellery making (all practices which predate the colonizers) the Mapuche have been vocal in their demands for land returns and cultural preservation in both Chile and Argentina, making these current major political issues in both countries.

Mapuche cultural experiences in Chile are concentrated near the volcano-framed southern town of Pucon, where Mapuche villages dot the countryside and where you can tour and learn more about this fascinating indigenous culture. Visit traditional homes, peruse their astonishing hand-made wares and share a meal in a local restaurant. Revered as the active capital of southern Chile, Pucon is famous for rafting, hiking, mountain biking, volcano climbing and hot spring soaking (our personal fave) although for many, Mapuche cultural experiences rate as the most delightful and insightful surprise. See our Wild Patagonia tour itinerary to see how we seamlessly combine a visit to Pucon into a sensational tour throughout the region.

Ecuador

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The stunning Napo Wildlife Centre Amazon Lodge  in Ecuador is a luxury eco-lodge that offers unparalleled Amazon experiences in the ancestral land of the Añangu Kichwa indigenous group, one of 14 indigenous peoples living in the country, combining to make up just 7% of the total population. In the heart of this UNESCO-listed biosphere you can visit a local indigenous village, learning all about their traditional way of life and how they live and indeed thrive in this mesmerizing yet challenging environment. The Napo Wildlife Centre was a local community tourism initiative commenced in 1998 with the specific aim to protect indigenous traditions and showcase them to visiting foreigners. Internationally recognised for their relentless efforts to preserve the indigenous identity of their local community and their unique biodiverse jungle, the community-based program also offers traditional ceremonies and unique culinary experiences.

Guatemala 

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With almost half the population bearing indigenous roots and an insane concentration of ancient Mayan legacies, Guatemala can certainly be considered one ginormous indigenous cultural destination. You couldn’t skip a cultural experience in this titillating country even if you tried. And who would want to?! One of the most enticing cultural destinations in all of Latin America, Guatemala showcases its indigenous history in splendid form. The birthplace of the mighty Mayan Empire, the country is home to no less than 1,500 Mayan archaeological sites, including Tikal, the largest ever discovered. Most are concentrated in the northern jungles of the country. Indigenous villages abound, especially near ruin sites and around the splendid Lake Atitlan, a wonder of nature that’s lesser known yet absolutely unmissable, as is a visit to the high-altitude traditional Mayan city of Chichicastenango, famous the world over for its mind-boggling open-air market that’s held twice a week. Attracting sellers from nearby (and quite far) villages, all dressed int heir traditional garb and selling their hand-made wares, the market is an absolute feast for the senses. Considered Guatemala’s epitome Mayan city, Chichicastenango boasts an indigenous population of over 98% and is an unrivalled cultural hub. See our Central America Adventure itinerary which packs an incredible cultural and nature-filled punch through three countries in three, adventure-filled weeks.

Considering the International day of the World’s Indigenous People falls on a Thursday this year – which also happens to be market day in Chichicastenango– celebrating with a visit rates as the most epic way to celebrate the world’s most precious, traditional cultures.

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