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The Symbols That Identify Peru

Article from EL DORADO - International Magazine of Peru No.4
From Peru - July-September 1996

Which are the symbols commonly associated with Peru by foreigners? Which are the symbols we Peruvians identify with? This list is neither complete nor official. It is just a selection - thus arbitrary - of the main images related to work practices, history, customs and beliefs of Peruvians. Each reader will make their own selection.

The National Anthem

Once the Protectorate was established after the country's independence, General Jose de San Martin initiated a contest to establish the national anthem as a symbol of sovereignty. The winning piece was written by Jose Bernardo Alcedo (music) and Jose de la Torre Ugarte (lit.). Alcedo and Ugarte's anthem, considered one of the most beautiful in the world, was sung for the first time in the Principal Theater of Lima on the night of September 24, 1821, by Rosa Merino de Arenas, and was adopted as Peru's National Anthem on April 15, 1822.

Click here to play the
Peruvian National Anthem

The Flag

Peru flagCreated in 1820, it is said that the colors of the Peruvian flag, red and white, occurred to General San Maritn during the liberation campaign, when watching a flight of "parihuanas", a variety of flamingo with red wings and white breast, after awaking from a siesta in the desert of Paracas. The flag comprises a rectangular of linen divided by two diagonals into four fields, white at the top and bottom and red on the sides. Since this pattern presented some inconvenience, in March 1822 it was decided to take the form of three horizontal stripes, the top and bottom ones red and the middle white. However, since this new flag could be confused with the Spanish one, in May the same year the stripes were changed to vertical ones, the two outside ones being red and the center one white.


National Coat of Arms

Peru Coat of ArmsA Congressional law passed by Simon Bolivar in 1825 consecrated the Coat of Arms of Peru. This comprises three fields: sky blue to upper right, with a vicuña looking inwards; white to the upper left with a cinchona tree and red in the horizontal lower field, with a golden cornucopia spilling out gold coins. These symbols represent the natural wealth of Peru. On the top, like a crest, is a civic crown of oak seen from the side. On both sides the Coat of Arms has a flag and a standard.

The Andes

The AndesThe Peruvian Andes occupy the central part of the Andean region of South America. Divided into the northern Andes and southern Andes they are geographically indicated by the highlands - or sierra - inhabited by man in the high valleys from 2,500 to 3,000 meters above sea level. With more than 1000 mountains over 5,000 meters above sea level, and dozens over 6,000 meters above sea level, this colossal geographical formation is the most important articulate hub of Peruvian culture. The multiple weather varieties range from freezing at the summits to damp and suffocatingly hot in the valleys. The first food gathering societies in these mountains are ten thousand years old, from which developed civilizations such as Chavin, Tiahuanaco and, later on, the Inca Empire.


The Terraces

These are one of the great manifestations on Incaic engineering. The Incas divided the slopes of the hills they climbed into enormous steps from top to bottom. These terraces, separated by pirkas or stone walls, were filled with fertile earth for planting crops and rain water was used to irrigate them. These gigantic steps that combine function with beauty also prevented landslides due to rains.

The Inca Empire

The Inca EmpireA powerful civilization that finally extended in the XVI Century from Cusco, its capital, to the ancient kingdom of Quito and a great part of what is today Chile and Bolivia. Legend has it that the Empire was founded by the mythical pair of Inca Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, descendants from the supreme god Inti, or Sun. The Incas formed a military and theocratical state based on the large mobilization of tax paying peoples and the control of agricultural surplus. In order to administer both factors, they employed complex recording systems called quipus. The word quipu means "knot" in Quechua and refers to a mnemotechnical system of a series of cords of different lengths and colors, with knots representing units on a decimal base. The interpreter of these knots was called the quipucamayoc, a sort of state inspection and control functionary, who read them. Rivalling the advanced system of administration were the Incas' agriculture systems, ceramics, gold and silver work, and they also left monumental architecure and surprisingly developed hydraulic works.


The Condor

The condorSacred bird of the Incas, the Vultur gryphus can live 50 years, stands 1.30 meters tall with a wing span of more than three meters. Able to fly almost without moving its wing, the great bird flies from its nest in the heights of the Andes (5,000 meter a.s.l.) down to the beaches where it feeds on dead sea lions. An Ancestral carrion bird, it has no song and the male only emits squawks with his tongue when courting the female. They are monogamous, with black plumage with white splashes at the end of its extremites and a white collar. The head and neck have no feathers. The male has a great crest and numerous skin folds which give him a majestic appearance, although not very friendly. Hunting the condor is forbidden but in certain traditional Andean festivals he is tied to the back of a bull, representing the conflict between conquered and conqueror.

Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail

The Inca TrailAfter having remained hidden from the world for more thant four centuries, the architectural complex of Machu Picchu - "old mountain" in Quechua - was discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. Situated 112 kilometers from Cusco on the edge of the Urubamba canyon, at 2,350 meters above sea level, it covers an area of 32,590 kms². It is said that the Incas built it as a religious sanctuary made up of houses, places of worship, hydraulic systems and terraces. The Inca Trail is one way of reaching the fortress, just as the ancient people of the Empire arrived on foot, by stone paths, steps and tunnels that cross the Urubamba river and extend for more than 40 kilometers.


The Coca Leaf

On October 12, 1492, when Columbus landed on the Isle of Guanahani, the Indians offered handfuls of dried leaves. It is thought these may have been coca leaves. What is true is that coca had already been a traditional crop for 6,500 years. The sacred plant of the Incas, this leaf has an important place in Andean culture, in which the essence is believed to evoke wisdom and knowledge. It is used in multiple ways medicinally, as well as being a palliative for fatigue and hunger. Nowadays the use of it in the illicit narcotic trade has had a very negative influence on the image of a plant which has significant symbolic and cultural worth.


South American Camel Family

South American Camel FamilyThe llama, alpaca, vicuña and the guanaco are mammals of the Auchenia family. They were used by ancient Peruvians as beasts of burden, and also to provide wool and meat. Moreover, they were sacrificed as offerings in religious rites. The vicuña - a very timid animal that lives on the high, lonely parts of the mountain ranges - offers the finest and most exquisite fiber in the world, very much in demand in international markets. Until a decade ago this animal was on the endangered list, but in 1990 herds were counted at a total of 65,000 thanks to conservation projects aimed at sustainable exploitation of these animals with the direct and constant participation of native communities.


Cotton and Textiles

CottonCotton has been the constant companion of Peruvian man since time immemorial. From its fibres the first dresses were made and the first mantels and pre-Inca funerary bales woven - in particular in Paracas - and have astonished the world. In northern Peru cotton Gossypium barbadense grows in colors, a rustic plant that produces a long and elastic fibre in brown, reddish, lilac and yellow tones. Cotton is also attributed with medicinal uses against "shucaque" and evil eye, and herpes type A of the lips. There are 177 genetic derivations still not commercially developed. The most popular varieties are Tangüis and Pima, a Peruvian contribution that the international textile industry demands incessantly.


The Lady of Ampato

Lady of AmpatoCalled affectionately "Juanita" and then renamed the Lady of Ampato, this mummy of a young Inca girl about 14 years old, was found in 1995 in a perfectly preserved condition at 6,130 meters a.s.l., on the top of the snow peak, Ampato, in the Department of Arequipa by archaeologists from the Catholic University of Arequipa. It is believed that about 500 years ago she was sacrificed to the Opus, mountains that the Incas considered as protective gods of the cities. Recently exhibited in Washington D.C. by the National Geographic Society, studies are able to show more specifically the characteristics and customs of ancient people in the Inca Empire.


Nasca Lines

Nasca linesDr. Paul Kosok of Long Island University, New York, made them well known in 1939 after flying over the Nasca zone and seeing immense drawings of animals and anthropomorphic figures. These mysterious signs are also associated with the name of Maria Reiche, a German mathematician who has studied them closely for more than 40 years. According to her theory, they form a gigantic agricultural and religious calendar. The principal figures are from the Nasca culture (200 BC to year 500). The best known are the Spider, the Monkey and the Humming bird, but the largest are the Lizard (180 meters), the "Guanay" (280 meters) and the Pelican (285 meters). Among these figures the most enigmatic is that known as the Extraterrestrial.


Gold and Silver

Precious metals had a socio-religious significance in ancient Peru. They were used as cult objects and as ornaments indicating the rank of chiefs and priests. The most ancient evidence of precious stone craftsmanship dates back to 1500 BC, according to some sheets of gold found in Waywaka (Andahuaylas). But it was during the Inca Empire that the gold and silver work reached its highest point. Used in a natural state, just like silver and other minerals, gold was found in the sand of rivers and open face mines. Peru is the seventh largest mining country in the world and the first gold producer in Latin America. In the last five years gold production has tripled and continues to grow.


The Lord of Sipán

A tomb found in 1987 in Huaca Rajada (Lambayaque) by Water Alva and other archaeologists of the Brunning Museum, was then considered to be the most important archaeological discovery in the last 25 years. The funerary grave, on a platform connected to two monumental pyramids, contained a fantastic sarcophagus ornamented in gold, silver and copper, symbolizing the personage's religious and military standing. Some 1700 years old, it testifies to the high degree of artistic quality of the Moche civilization (Centuries I and IV) that formed regional domains even after the arrival of the conquistadors. Also, they were the first to make irrigation systems on a large scale and invented most pre-Hispanic metallurgical techniques.

Chan Chan

Chan ChanLocated in La Libertad (Trujillo), Chan-Chan or "Sun-Sun" was the capital of the vast Chimu Empire. The largest mud city in the world, declared by UNESCO to be a Cultural Heritage of Humanity, was built in the XII and XIII Centuries. It covers 20 sq. kilometers of land with dispersed remains of palaces, living areas, cemeteries, gardens and platforms for religious ceremonies, surrounded by walls up to 13 meters high. The adobe walls are adorned by high relief cuts of exquisite geometrical designs and animals. The clay in Chan-Chan contains unique artistic features and the evidence of a complex language, associated with the liturgy and customs of the dominant castes.


Totora Seahorses

Totora is a slender, spiky vegetable reed that grows in boglike wetlands, and when harvested the stalks must be left to dry for a month, until they are ready to be used as raw material for making unique balsa rafts called "totora seahorses", the ocean going craft of fishermen since pre-Inca times. The totora reeds grow in the district of Huanchaco in Trujillo, North of Lima, and it is the best place to see them and to practice fishing on this thousand-year-old boat.

The Sea of Grau

The Peruvian sea, with 300 kilometers of tropical beaches and a coast some 2,300 kilometers long, going about 200 miles out to sea, sustains the third largest fishing industry in the world and has the greatest biological diversity on the planet. It is host to more than thirty species of mammals, 700 species of fish and 17 million muttons of biomass. Through the waters of the Sea of Grau, named in honor of the hero in the Pacific War, runs the cold, plankton rich Humboldt current that generates a prolific chain of fish, mollusks, crustaceans and guano birds. The latter was Peru's greatest wealth in the last century, since the birds formed mountains of natural manure which was hightly prized. Among the majority of species are sardines, horse mackerel, and hake, used mainly for making fish oil and fish meal, for which Peru holds first place in the world.


Francisco Pizarro

Francisco PizarroThe Conquistador of the Incas was born in Trujillo de Extremadura, Spain, in 1478. In Panama, he formed a company with Diego de Almagro and Hernando de Luque to explore the lands to the South, where it was said there existed a kingdom of gold called Peru. History has reported well the scene of the Gallo Island where only 13 men remained while the others abandoned the company and returned to Panama, discouraged. In 1532, after founding the first Spanish city in South America, he took Inca Atahualpa prisoner. The Inca was in the middle of a civil war against his brother, Huascar, bringing the end of the Empire and the beginning of the long procession of cultural transformations. In 1541 in Lima Pizarro died assasinated by the Almagristas, in Government House.


The Marinera

MarineraIt was Abelardo Gamarra, "The Rascal", who baptized as Marinera this mestizo dance of reminiscences originating from Spanish and black ancestors and even the natives. It is a dance of courtship and of love where the man insists on compliance despite his partner's coquettish elusiveness. Elegant and complex, it is one of the rare dances where the woman marks the rhythm and leads her partner. Instruments associated with it are the Spanish guitar, the Creole box and the African jawbone.


CebicheAccording to extended hypotheses, this word comes from the ancient Moche language, although there also exists a similar name and dish in Arab cuisine. The dish was born of the necessity to conserve meat and fish by marinating it. Although ancient Peruvian people did not know the lemon, they did know of other acid fruits such as the "churuba", the "camu-camu" and the passion fruit, whose acidic juice permitted adequate conservation. Later, when generalized in popular menus on the coast, new components were added such as red onions, hot peppers and garlic and lettuce until with Andean migrations it ended up as a dish incorporating boiled sweet potatoes and corn on the cob.

According the INC (Peruvian National Institute of Culture) the word Cebiche that refers to the typical Peruvian dish based on fish cooked with lemon Seviche, most be written and referred to as Seviche, they based this change in the origin of the name, in that sense  this April 17, 2004 (based on an official law) issued on that date the dish most be called and spelled this way Seviche.


The Huayno and the Quena

A musical item of pre-Hispanic origin, its name derived form the Quechua word "wayna" meaning young. It is said that it is the oldest dance for young couples in Peru. It varies insofar as rhythm and melody are concerned, according to region, there being pieces of deep romaticism or sadness, to celebrations of collective joy. The Huayno is accompanied mainly by the quena, the Peruvan musical instrument, par excellence, which is made of mud, cane or wood, although it has also been found in silver, gold and bone in pre-Hispanic archeological remains. Profoundly sentimental, its length does not exceed 30 cms, and it is mainly pentatonic.

Peruvian Paso Horses

Peruvian Paso HorsesThe walk of the Peruvian paso horse is unique yet perhaps it provides the most comfortable way to ride. Unlike trotting horses that interchange the legs on both sides of the body, the legs of the Peruvan paso amble, that is, sway from side to side, using the hooves on one side and then the other, with singular grace. It is fortunately a work animal that is born with this unusual gait. The one riding it is called a "chalan", and tradition calls for the rider to sport a straw hat with a wide brim and a white poncho, preferably of linen. Under the horse' saddle, a San Pedro fleece covering is used, a centuries old gem of local craft.


Andean Crops

Of the ten cereals found in the world, four are native to Peru: quinoa, kiwicha, corn and cañihua, all of them invaluable sources of nutrition. Kiwicha and Quinoa have been considered by NASA as the ideal food for astronauts. The Andean region's varied geography permitted ancient Peruvians to cultivate and develop an incredible variety of species and even to study them deeply. The tubercle known as "mashua" for example, is said to have aphrodisiac properties, and many turn to a certain corn as the equivalent of the world famous Korean ginseng.


PotatoesOne of the most valuable legacies of ancient Peruvians to humanity is the potato, a tubercle of excellent food properties that has saved millions of human beings from hunger and malnutrition, and of which there exist hundreds of genetic varieties in Peru. The Incas had religious respect for it and its was a basic staple in their diet. It must have been Sir Francis Drake who took the first seeds back to Europe, after landing on the Peruvian coast.



PiscoPisco, miracle of the fertile Peruvian desert and a concoction of both Indian and Spanish society, is a grape alcohol in which the culture of the vine, the quality of the land, the climate and the casks in which it lies play a part. It is stored in half buried, large, conical clay receptacles. The name in Quechua means "bird" and alludes to an ancient coastal civilization - the Piscos - devoted to the production of these vessels. Made from the distillation of warm must, the production of Pisco is a Peruvian tradition dating back to the introduction of the vine in the middle of the XVI Century. With Pisco, one makes Pisco Sour, a Peruvian cocktail which has won a name for itself in the best bars in the world. To make it one uses egg white, sugar, pisco, lemon juice, syrup, Angostura bitter, crushed ice and ground cinnamon.



This green or white vegetable with straight and edible stalks though a non-traditional crop vegetable, has been most successful on the international market. In Peru there are crops year round, thanks to competitive advantages offered by the geography and climate of the coastal valleys of Lima, La Libertad and Inca which have become the auspicious areas of cultivation.



This is a species that has multiple varirations of shape, size, color and spiciness in Peru. There are red, purple, yellow and green ones, some as long and pointed as carrots, or as small and round as a cherry. Someone who does not know about it and eats aji for the first time usually describes its effect as having a handful of glowing embers placed in one's mouth. Rocotto is perhaps the more aromatic and tasty, while frequently being even hotter than mentioned. Ground and dried, aji can be used also as a full bodied pepper.


BiodeversityWith 84 of the 104 known life zones on the planet, Peru ranks among the first in the world in biodiversity. It is the first in birds, with 1,701 species, second in primates with 34 species, third in mammals with 361, fifth in reptiles with 297 and fifth in amphibians with 251. The Manu National Park and the Tambopata-Candamo National Reserve on the southern Amazon, are a paradise of megadiversity. In just one tree "shihuahuaco" (Asterix) of Madre de Dios, entomologists found 5,000 specimens of insects, 80% of them new to science. A first Peruvian genetic catalogue of 3,000 plants has classified 90 of ornamental value, 100 useful for making tools, 110 for dyes and tints, 35 for drinks, 36 for essential oils and waxes, 334 for use as organic insecticides, 401 for timber yielding, 524 as edibles and 213 for medicinal use.



BirdsWith 1,701 species, Peru is the country with the most bird species in the world. The Tambopata Reserve and the Manu National Park in Madre de Dios are the privileged places in our jungle insofar as ecological heritage and aviafauna are concerned. In each of them there have been registered more than 500 species of birds and their forests there are many more, still unclassified. Exalted by some ornithologists as the national bird of Peru, the Gallito de las Rocas, Rupicola Peruviana, native of the jungle and on the endangered list, is one of the most delightful species. Orange and intense blue in color, the males carry out their mating rites in bands, dancing in front of the females, which have brown plumage, until they choose their mate.

The Amazon River

Amazon RiverFrancisco de Orellana discovered it in 1542, although some affirm that it was Juan Vicente Yañez Pinzon, commander of one of Columbus' caravels, "La Niña", who navigated it for the first time in 1500. The river has 1,000 trubutaries and its basin - the largest in the world - rises in Cuzco and covers the territory of several South American countries, up to seven million square metres (two-thirds the size of Europe). With a wandering and twisting course, the Amazon has a median force of 150,000 m³/per second - the largest on the planet - and annually launches some 6.6 billion m³ of water into the Atlantic Ocean. But, even more, the Amazon is the source of life for the most varied and linguistic cultures in the world.



OrchidsDue to its unusual geography, Peru is one of the countries in the world with the largest variety of orchids. Although only 1,800 are classified, some 3,000 are said to grow on the Eastern Andean slopes, in particular in the High Amazon. They make up 10% of all the species in the world. The most important varieties in international markets are the butterfly, wasp, spider, shoe, ballerina, queen, swan and the classic orchid. Exports of orchids have become increasingly significant as foreign currency earners.


Cultural Diversity

Few countries can boast a larger cultural diversity than Peru, a melting pot of races, languages, and cultures that have adapted to an extremely diverse and complex environment. A well-known theory holds Peruvian millenial civilization finds its roots in ancient Amazon cultures whose peoples migrated from Eastern Andean valleys to the High Andes and then to the Pacific coastal plains. Spanish, Quechua, Aymara and more that 40 Amazon languages are spoken in modern Peru, a country where "bloods mix" and is characterized by a delicate geographical, spatial and natural resource balance. Precise organization, creativity, and a strong Indian presence with powerful values and traditional beliefs are all part of a largely (70%) urban society that is cosmopolitan, culturally integrated and modern.


Shamans and Ayahuasca

Shamans and AyahuascaFolk medicine, one of Peru's oldest cultural traditions, is practiced by shamans or healers whose powers of foresight and ancestral knowledge make them interpreters of their culture's religions. "Fright" or "ham" resulting from another man's hate is the most common disease cured by shamans. Sensory knowledge of the world does not suffice in Andean culture. Ingestion of substances like "Sampedro", a cactus extract, or "Ayahuasca", distilled from an Amazonian vine, builds a bridge to the past and helps reconstruct painful experiences addressed by healers.

Popular Religiousness

Popular ReligiousnessMore churches were built in Peru during Colonial times than anywhere else in Latin America. To put a final seal on the defeat of Indian gods and idolatry, the temples were built over pre-Columbian sanctuaries and accompanied by an aggressive policy to establish Catholic rituals like Corpus Christi, celebrated on the same day as the Init Raymi or Festival of the Sun. Alien to the church's orthodoxy, indigenous cults and rituals originating in Indian religious syncretism hide functions of the Andean vision of the world under a Catholic cloak. In their facades and altars, colonial churches exhibit innumerable icons whose saint's faces and clothes are of undoubted Indian origin. African devotion for its part gave rise to the Lord of Miracles, an image painted by an Angolan black on a wall that survived the catastrophic 1650 earthquake in Lima. Since 1687, the image parades the streets of Lima every October. Another five saints were born in XVII century Peru, among them Santa Rosa de Lima and San Martin de Porres who are also venerated in the Philippines and Africa.