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With many untouched rural Andean communities and remote Amazonian tribes living as their ancestors did hundreds – maybe even thousands – of years ago, Peru’s diverse culture makes it one of the most interesting destinations in South America for an immersive cultural experience. Here’s how to get involved.
Homestays have long been a staple of immersive tourism in Peru. Staying with a local family gives you a rare insight into the fascinating daily lives of everyday Peruvians, as well as the opportunity to give back directly to the area’s economy. In the Andes, most families live as their ancestors from the Inca civilization did hundreds of years ago, living a simple but happy life surrounded by snow-capped peaks, grazing llamas and small adobe homes. A typical day at an Andean homestay will include learning to weave, helping to cook the pachamanca (meal cooked under hot stones in a hole in the ground) and herding the family’s llamas. Ayni Peru, Crooked Trails and Intrepid Travel are just some of the companies that can help you organize this.
A hub of activity, trains are a great meeting place for travelers and offer an unexpected window into local culture. Most of the trains advertised to travelers in Peru, however, are exclusively for tourists (it’s unlikely, for example, that you’ll find any locals on the Machu Picchu Vistadome and Belmond Andean Explorer trains). If you’re up for swapping luxury for a little bit of adventure, jump aboard ‘El Tren Macho’. This six-hour journey between Huancayo and Huancavelica will give you plenty of time to sample the train vendors’ food, chat with local families and take in some of the region’s most beautiful mountain scenery.
Medicinal plants have been used in Peru’s Amazonian and Andean regions for centuries. For the people here, taking plant-based medicines to cure ailments such as arthritis, stress or stomach pain is as common as popping down to your local pharmacy for some paracetamol. Until recently, visiting a healing shaman was reserved for residents and the odd adventurous traveler, but today you’ll find a handful of reputable companies organizing week-long ayahuasca, San Pedro and other hallucinogenic retreats from Cusco and Iquitos.
Any traveler knows that one of the best ways to really get to know a place is through its food. Recognized as a foodie capital of the world, Peru has undoubtedly one of the most exciting culinary scenes in South America. If you want to delve a little deeper into the country’s unique ingredients and bold flavors, take a cooking class in one of Peru’s top three food hubs: Lima, Cusco or Arequipa. Most companies will combine a two- to three-hour hands-on cooking class with a guided tour of one of the city’s best markets.
Speaking of local markets, have you ever done your weekly food shop at one? It’s one thing visiting a market on a guided tour, but actually buying produce and interacting with the vendors is a great way to get involved in everyday Peruvian life. At Cusco’s popular San Pedro and San Blas markets, for example, you can easily spend a morning picking your way through exotic fruits, multicolored quinoa, Andean cheeses and thousands of potato and corn varieties. Take a bag, some money, and get caught up in the flurry.
Peru is renowned for its beautiful textiles. In fact, it’s unlikely that you’ll return home without a colorful woven blanket, sweater or gloves. While most visitors buy these souvenirs at popular textiles markets in Písac or Cusco (which are also well worth the trip), a great way to delve deeper into this unique Andean culture (as well as buy Peru’s best quality textiles) is to visit an artisan community or workshop. High up in the Andean hills that surround Cusco, there are entire communities, especially in Choquecancha, Huancayo and Upis, that dedicate their lives to the ancient backstrap loom weaving tradition. Threads of Peru, a company dedicated exclusively to connecting travelers with local artisans, can help you organize a visit.
Volunteering is one of the best ways to not only immerse yourself in a community, but to also give back to the country that you’re visiting. Whether you’re looking to teach English, help preserve the environment, work on a farm or help build structures, Peru has plenty of volunteering opportunities. Close to the Amazon and the Andes, most volunteering projects in Peru are organized from Cusco.
While it is possible to get around Peru with limited Spanish, there’s no doubt that speaking the language is one of the most immersive tools for experiencing a country. It not only allows you to communicate easier, but it also gives you the confidence to get off the beaten track, travel independently and make a more meaningful connection with the people you meet. Both Cusco and Lima offer one- to six-month intensive Spanish-language programs, where they aim, through fun cultural events and fast-paced lessons, to have you speaking like a Peruvian in no time.