Local Do's and Taboos
Customs of the Country
Peru is one of South America's most hospitable nations. Even in the overburdened metropolis of Lima people are happy to give directions, chat, and ask a question you'll hear a lot in Peru, De dnde viene usted? (Where are you from?). Peruvians are quite knowledgeable and proud of the history of their country. Don't be surprised if your best source of information isn't your tour guide but your taxi driver or hotel desk clerk. That said, always consider what the person offering information might have to gain from directing you to a given hotel or tour agency, and try to ask a few people for information before settling on any one option.
In the cities women who know each other often greet each other with a single kiss on the cheek, whereas men shake hands. Men and women often kiss on the cheek, even when being introduced for the first time. Kissing, however, is not a custom among the conservative indigenous population.
To feel more comfortable, take a cue from what the locals are wearing. Except in beach towns, men typically don't wear shorts and women don't wear short skirts. Bathing suits are fine on beaches, but cover up before you head back into town. Everyone dresses nicely to enter churches. Peruvian women wearing sleeveless tops often cover their shoulders before entering a place of worship.
Out on the Town
Residents of Lima and other large cities dress up for a night on the town, but that doesn't necessarily mean a jacket and tie. Just as in Buenos Aires or Rio de Janiero, you should dress comfortably, but with a bit of style. In smaller towns, things are much more casual. You still shouldn't wear shorts, however. The posh clubs in Lima's Miraflores district may not let you enter without proper footwear, so leave the sandals at home.
Spanish is Peru's national language, but many indigenous languages also enjoy official status. Many Peruvians claim Quechua, the language of the Inca, as their first language, but most also speak Spanish. Other indigenous languages include the Tiahuanaco language of Aymar, which is spoken around Lake Titicaca, and several languages in the rain forest. English is now routinely taught in schools, and many older people have taken classes in English. In Lima and other places with many foreign visitors, it's rare to come across someone without a rudimentary knowledge of the language.
A word on spelling: Because the Inca had no writing system, Quechua developed as an oral language. With European colonization, words and place-names were transcribed to conform to Spanish pronunciations. Eventually, the whole language was transcribed, and in many cases words lost their correct pronunciations. During the past 30 years, however, national pride and a new sensitivity to the country's indigenous roots have led Peruvians to try to recover consistent, linguistically correct transcriptions of Quechua words. As you travel you may come across different spellings and pronunciations of the same name. An example is the city known as Cusco, Cuzco, and sometimes even Qosqo. Even the word Inca is frequently rendered as the less-Spanish-looking Inka.
A bit of terminology, too: The word Indio (Indian) is considered pejorative in Peru and Latin America. (We use the word only to describe an Indian restaurant.) To avoid offense, stick with indgena (indigenous) to describe Peru's Inca-descended peoples. Likewise, the words nativo (native) and trib (tribe) rub people here the wrong way and are best left to old Tarzan movies.
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