Cultural Guidelines – South America (Ecuador & Peru)
When we travel, it’s easy to unintentionally leave a negative impression- by snapping a picture quickly while the subject is not looking; by dressing scantily, offending local sensitivities; by brushing aside the feelings of local people with the high-handed superiority of a rich Westerner.
These things are easy to do — in the click of a shutter, or flash of a dollar bill.
We can’t blend in perfectly when we travel — our mere presence as observers always alters local events at least a little bit. That said, you will get the most representative view of South America if you cause as little disturbance to the local people as possible. Plus, if you try to fit in and show respect for local culture and attitudes, you can leave many positive feelings behind.
Cultural sensitivity is really a state of mind, not a checklist of acceptable behaviors, but we’ve provided a few general tips here that should help you get the most out of your experience in South America.
Greetings & Language
Spanish is the official language in both countries with some regional variations further from the cities. As with most places, attempting to speak Spanish will be more appreciated than assuming everyone automatically speaks English. In most hotels and in some restaurants the staff will speak English though it may be limited, so try to learn some of the very basics to get by. Your guides will always be bi-lingual.
Etiquette in Peru
(An excerpt from Frommer’s) (*Note- the same principals can be applied to Ecuador)
Avoiding Offense — In Peru, you should be tactful when discussing local politics, though open discussion of the corruption of past presidents Fujimori and García and terrorism in Peru is perfectly acceptable and unlikely to engender heated debate. Discussion of drugs (and coca-plant cultivation) and religion should be handled with great tact. Visitors should understand that chewing coca leaves (or drinking coca tea) is not drug use but a longstanding cultural tradition in the Andes.
In a country in which nearly half the population is Amerindian, expressing respect for native peoples is important. Try to refer to them not as indios, which is a derogatory term, but as indígenas. Many Peruvians refer to foreigners as gringos (or gringas) or the generic “mister,” pronounced “mee-ster.” Neither is intended or should be received as an insult.
On the streets of Cusco and other towns across Peru, shoeshine boys and little girls selling cigarettes or postcards can be very persistent and persuasive. Others just ask directly for money (using the euphemism propinita, or little tip). The best way to give money to those who are obviously in need of it is to reward them for their work. I get my scruffy shoes shined on a daily basis in Peru, and I buy postcards I probably don’t need. If you don’t wish to be hassled, a polite but firm “No, gracias” is usually sufficient, but it’s important to treat even these street kids with respect.
Gestures — Peruvians are more formal in social relations than most North Americans and Europeans. Peruvians shake hands frequently and tirelessly, and although kissing on the cheek is a common greeting for acquaintances; it is not practiced among strangers (as it is in Spain, for example). Amerindian populations are more conservative and even shy. They don’t kiss to greet one another, nor do they shake hands as frequently as other Peruvians; if they do, it is a light brush of the hand rather than a firm grip. Many Indians from small villages are reluctant to look a stranger in the eye.
Using your index finger to motion a person to approach you, as practiced in the United States and other places, is considered rude. A more polite way to beckon someone is to place the palm down and gently sweep your fingers toward you.
Shopping — Bargaining is considered acceptable in markets and with taxi drivers, and even hotels, but only up to a point — don’t overdo it.
Photography — With their vibrant dress and expressive faces and festivals, Peruvians across the country make wonderful subjects for photographs. In some heavily touristed areas, such as the Sunday market in Pisac outside of Cusco, locals have learned to offer photo ops for a price at every turn. Some foreigners hand out money and candy indiscriminately, while others grapple with the unseemliness of paying for every photo. Asking for a tip in return for being the subject of a photograph is common in many parts of Peru; in fact, some locals patrol the streets with llamas and kids in tow to pose for photographs as their main source of income. Often it’s more comfortable to photograph people you have made an effort to talk to, rather than responding to those who explicitly beg to be your subject. I usually give a small tip (50 centavos to S/1) if it appears that my camera has been an intrusion or nuisance, or especially if I’ve snapped several shots.