Best ways to experience Ancient Incas culture
Experience Inca culture on our tours to Peru.
Head to the Peruvian Andes on a South American tour and you’re probably expecting to experience oodles of ancient Inca traditions. You probably think mysterious ceremonies, deep spiritual practices and flamboyant ancient festivals are held on a near-daily basis in a region of the continent renowned for being the very heart of the mighty Inca Empire.
Yet truth be told, experiencing ancient Inca traditions on a South America tour is a lot more subtle than that. Sure, there are a few traditional festivals held each year and ‘big named’ attractions touted for being remnants of the ancient Inca civilization but, in reality, ancient Inca culture is infused in the everyday life of people in the high Andes and you’ll see it if you only know where to look. You’ll experiences ancient traditions when you see how locals dress, how they wear their hair, what they eat and how they eat it. In the way they weave their fabrics, paint their pottery and make roadside homages to their gods. Head to Peru on a South America tour and you’ll find ancient Inca traditions everywhere.
Nearly five centuries after one of the world’s most formidable ancient cultures was almost completely wiped out by invaders, the struggle to maintain ancient traditions alive is an arduous and ongoing one but if you look beyond the few big festivals and processions, you’ll find an ancient culture that absolutely thrives with life.
What to know before you go: why were Inca culture & traditions not well maintained?
Learn more about the Inca civilization on Viva's tours.
As was the case with every indigenous culture overpowered by a stronger invading, the once-illustrious Incas – the ones who survived the invading onslaught – were subdued almost immediately, their customs suppressed, their traditions outlawed, in some cases, for hundreds of years. Now, if you imagine an indigenous culture who kept very precise written documents behind, picking up where one left off – even after 400 years – shouldn’t be that difficult, but hardly any indigenous ancient culture had that kind of written records, especially in the Americas. The Incas, for their part, passed down their traditions orally, from one generation to the next. By the time indigenous restrictions were lifted and they were finally recognised for their invaluable importance on the land they occupied, an insane amount of knowledge of their traditions had simply vanished. It had just died off with their ancestors.
Interestingly enough, whilst there may not be any full-blooded Incas left in South America today, the ancient Andean race still flourishes. This is due primarily to the fact that rather than outright exterminating the indigenous population, the Spaniards put them to work in their newly founded gold and silver mines instead, charging them taxes but, essentially, allowing them to live and continue their lineage. Today, the descendants of the Incas are all the Quechua-speaking people (mostly farmers) of the central Andes. In Peru, Inca descendants make up almost half of the country’s population.
What are some ancient Inca traditions and which ones can you experience today?
Discover tasty food, learn some of the Incas mother language, and visit traditional festivals on our trips to Peru.
There may be a lot we don’t know about the ancient Inca culture but there’s certainly a lot that we do know. We know they had a complex social hierarchy with an economy based on agriculture and a military prowess that allowed them endless conquests in every direction. They had a highly aristocratic bureaucracy, were harsh when dishing out punishments to their subjects and idolised gods of natural elements, like the sun, the moon, the rain, and, most famously, Mother Earth.
We know the Incas made animal and human sacrifices to their gods, especially in times of severe drought. They often chose children and, sometimes, even buried them alive. The Incas practiced ritualised cannibalism and were keen on purposefully malforming newborns’ heads (by wrapping them tightly), idolising the form of a misshaped skull. At prominent funerals, the recently departed would be buried – usually in a sitting position – surrounded by a wealth of their earthly possessions, the Incas firmly believing in an afterlife where they would be of use.
Now, in case your imagination is running amok here, we’ll set the record straight and you can breathe a sigh of relief: there’ll be no human sacrifice during your South America tour, don’t you worry! Aside from the gory and the unstomachable though, the Incas did hold elaborate and very colourful festivals for specific times of year and some of these have been revived in recent years.
The Quechua Language
If you don’t speak a smattering of Spanish you may not even notice that, deep in the Andes, locals usually only speak Quechua, the traditional language of the ancient Incas. You may well realise soon enough though: learn a few Spanish words and try to converse with locals and you’ll probably be met with blank stares and a wave of the hand. “That’s not our lingo” they say, so try hand gestures instead or pick up a few Quechua words from your guide. Over four million Peruvians speak Quechua and, in the remotest regions, they speak nothing else. This is, by far, the most prolific and potent Inca tradition to still thrive today. Interestingly enough, you may like to know that a few words of Quechua have even been adopted abroad – words such as quinoa, guano, coca, llama, vicuna and puma are all Quechuan terms.
You may be forgiven for thinking locals wear their gorgeously vibrant traditional dress to impress tourist but, fact is, traditional Andean dress will probably be your first real connection to ancient Inca traditions. Colourful textiles, much like colourful pottery, is a remnant of the Inca culture, complex weaving patterns and authentic textiles, dyes and yarn-making now enjoying a great resurgence. So authentic is the textile tradition of the ancient Incas, that UNESCO declared it an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2005, helping local associations to sustain and revive the centuries-old tradition. Head to Peru on your South America travels and you’ll find yourself drenched in swaths of exceptionally colourful fabrics, made into quilts, jackets, ponchos, hats, bags and everything else imaginable. These make for some of the most reassured souvenirs of all. Visit the Traditional Textile Centre in Cusco on your tour of South America and feast your eyes on some amazing hand-woven treasures.
Ancient Pottery, Arts & Crafts
Alongside textile, colourful pottery, arts and crafts also showcase centuries-old Inca traditions and although you’ll find plenty of fabulous works on sale in markets and high-end boutiques all over Peru, you may want to dig a little deeper here. When in Lima, head to the stunning Archaeology and Anthropology Museum where you can cast your eyes on original ceremonial pottery – not only of the Incas but of other ancient Peruvian cultures like the Moche, the Paracas and Nazca.
As a lover of old traditions, I always cherish spending time with dear friends I made tour guiding in Peru. What I love most about the ancient Inca culture here is the subtlety that pops up on a daily basis when I’m there, that actually contradict the ‘all is lost’ credo. Local friends who can’t take a single sip of a drink or bite of a meal without first whispering a few words to Pachamama and sprinkling some drink (or food) on the floor – a dedication to Mother Earth, first and foremost, before starting a meal. These are the cultural subtleties that stay with me, long after I leave and this is the kind of Inca cultural influence you can still experience in Peru today.
Inti Raymi, Cusco, Peru
If you’re after a BIG injection of ancient Inca tradition then make sure you’re in Peru in late June, when Cusco reverberates with ‘the’ cultural celebration of the year. This most famous Inca Festival takes place in three sites in and around Cusco on June 24, with the culmination of the revered Festival of the Sun playing out on the ancient ruins of Sacsayhuaman just outside the city centre. Festivities comprise an incredible Inca re-enactment involving nearly 800 local actors in full Inca regalia. The only way this differs from the original Inca festival, as we know it, is that today there’s no procession of exhumed mummies and no child or animal sacrifices. In this particular case, we’re rather pleased the modern Inti Raymi doesn’t stick that close to the original script. In Inca times, Inti Raymi was the biggest festival of the year and it’s exciting to know this part of the tradition continues to this day.
Excited to experience ancient Inca traditions in Peru? We don’t blame you! Local cultures and people are among the most endearing aspects of a tour of South America – check out our full collection of South America Tours, tell us what you dream of experiencing and we’ll make it happen.
At Viva Expeditions, that’s what we do best.