quecha women of peru
Never leave home without safety pins in your hat! That is just one of the tips that Emily Mitterhuemer has picked up from local women on her Intrepid Peru adventure…
“The people of the Andes still, for the most part, live in their traditional way. You don’t have to go far out of the city to find yourself among women in colourful skirts and hats herding sheep, pigs and cows. They still speak Quechua, the traditional language that can be traced as far back as the pre-Inca periods and has no relation to Spanish.
When the Spanish arrived in the middle ages, the indigenous Quechua tribes were slaughtered or driven high up into the mountains and deep into the jungle. There is a common misconception that these people were the Incas, but the Inca was only the king and the people were, and still are, correctly named the Quechua.
These indigenous people are also considered to be the poor Peruvians, with some isolated tribes still operating on a barter system. At the end of the 1990’s anthropologists discovered a tribe of Quechua that still lived totally cut-off from the rest of the country. They still believed the Incas were in power and had no knowledge of the invasion of the Spanish some 500 years earlier!
When our Intrepid group headed off on the Lares trek, which starts and ends in the Sacred Valley, our guide encouraged us to bring small gifts for the local indigenous children such as bread, fruit, hair ties, marbles and pencils. Fruit and bread are a luxury for these people as they generally live on a diet of potatoes and corn which they farm in the mountains. We hadn’t ventured far before we were approached by a group of youngsters. They were wrapped in colourful woven scarves with traditional hats to protect them from the rain. The temperature was not far above zero but despite this they had open sandals on their feet and some were barefoot. They had grubby faces and snotty noses and most were shy and thankful for the small treats we had brought them. Many of them were destined to stay in the mountains and it was not unusual to see children as young as five watching over the animals as they graze in higher pasture.
Close to the highest pass we encountered two youngsters looking over a heard of llamas. We were at about 4300 meters and it started to hail. The older girl was around six and she had with her a barefoot younger sister, who could not have been more than three years old. I have never been particularly maternal but these little ones stirred something in me. Their lives are hard and the conditions they live in are extremely harsh. They really make you realize just how lucky you are.
The dress of the older women is not only very beautiful and colourful, making them easy to spot in the fields, but it also communicates meaning. Like many traditional cultures, you can tell from their dress whether they are married or single. A wide stripe on a skirt indicates they are married and a narrow stripe indicates they are single.
The women in the sacred Valley area wear hats that are shaped like an up-turned bowl. They are intricately decorated and most have a number of safety pins hanging from them. If a woman has a large number of safety pins on her hat, she is looking for a husband and those with few are already married.
In the 1980’s and 90’s Peru had several militia groups that were vying for power. They were known to have brutalized and raped a large number of Quechua women and for this reason married women still keep a few safety pins in their hats to defend against attacks.
We encountered many of these local women along the way. Most were selling hand- knitted scarves and hats made from alpaca wool and they even set up their stalls outside our tents. These are the places that you miss if you don’t have a local guide so thank you to Intrepid for giving us such a truly local experience.”
* photo by Emily Mitterhuemer