The Central Highlands Feature


Quechua of the Andes

The Quechua are the original mountain highlands dwellers. Their traditions and beliefs have survived Inca domination, Spanish conquests, and the beginning influences of modern technology. Throughout the region, locals speak Quechua before Spanish and wear traditional costumes woven on backstrap looms. Many Quechua make their living by farming maize and coca in the valleys or potatoes and quinoa in the higher altitudes, while other families herd llamas and alpacas on the cold, windy puna.

Walk through the narrow, cobbled streets of any village and you'll spot Quechua men by the large, patterned, fringed ponchos draped over their shoulders, their heads topped by matching tasseled cloths beneath big, cone-shape, felt hats. Knee-length pants are held up with a wide, woven belt that often has a local motif—such as the famous mountain train. Despite the cold, men usually wear rubber sandals, often fashioned from old tires.

Quechua women's attire is equally bright, with modern knit sweaters and a flouncing, patterned skirt over several petticoats (added for both warmth and puff). Instead of a poncho, women wear an aguayo, a length of saronglike fabric that can be tied into a sling for carrying a baby or market goods, or wrapped around their shoulders for warmth. Hats for the women differ from village to village; some wear black-felt caps with neon fringe and elaborate patterns of sequins and beads, whereas others wear a plain brown-felt derby. Women also wear rubber sandals for walking and working in the fields, but often go barefoot at home.

The Morochuco are a unique group of formerly nomadic Quechua who live near Ayacucho on the Pampas de Cangallo. They have light skin and blue eyes, and, unlike other Quechua, many Morochuco men wear beards. Cattle breeding and horse training are the main occupations. Renowned for their fearlessness and strength, the Morochuco fought for Peru's independence on horseback with Simón Bolívar, and local lore has it that they are the descendants of the army of Diego de Almagro, a Spanish hero killed by Pizzaro.

The Morochuco are first-rate horseback riders—women and children included—who use their swiftness and agility to round up bulls on the highland pampas. Women ride in long skirts and petticoats, whereas men don thick wool tights and dark ponchos. Both men and women wear chullos, a wool hat with earflaps, beneath a felt hat tied under the chin with a red sash.

Look for gatherings of stone or adobe-brick homes with thatched roofs as you travel through the mountains. These typical Quechua homes are basic inside and out. Food is cooked either in an adobe oven next to the dwelling or over an open fire inside. Mud platforms with llama wool or sheepskin blankets make do for beds; occasionally a family will have the luxury of a wooden bed frame and grass mattress. All members of the family work in the fields as soon as they are able. Members of the ayllu (extended family) are expected to contribute to major projects like harvesting the fields or building a new home.

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