January 23, 2023
Peru is one of the most popular places to visit in South America. Its eclectic geography – of rainforests and mountains, of beaches and highlands, of big cities and rural ruins – makes it an attractive destination for travelers far and wide. Behind its natural beauty lies thousands of years of fascinating history, chock full of culture. Home to the oldest civilization in the Americas, the Caral, Peru has long developed social practices that have been passed down through generations and societies. Leaving a trail of captivating artifacts and tools, learning about the incredible history of this country is an invaluable experience.
To the south of the Amazon and the urban setting of Lima, Arequipa and Colca Valley have a distinct culture unique to the Altiplano and the foothills of the Andes. Many cultures, like the Collaguas and the Cabanas, had an indelible impact on craftwork, agriculture, and lifestyle. Terraced farming, for example, utilized by the Inca in later centuries, was first practiced by the indigenous populations. More intriguing still, the value applied to metals, ceramics, textiles, and other crafts were molded by these early societies.
Throughout southern Peru, from Arequipa to the Colca Valley, and even to the surface of Lake Titicaca, the undeniable influence of pre-Incan people was manifested in the handiworks created and the worth placed on the remarkable relics we find today. Peru is known for its vibrant textiles, which include cotton, wool, and other materials. The practice of weaving is inextricably linked to the country and the products it has produced. With such a profound effect through the centuries, Arequipa and the Colca Valley are the perfect place to discover the world of textiles.
Let’s look at the role textiles have played in Peru, their influence on other crafts and how they were developed alongside them, and where you can experience authentic Peruvian dress and culture in Arequipa and the surrounding Colca Valley.
The country of Peru lends itself to the formation of societies, through its climate, landscape, and continental location. Communities started forming thousands of years ago, and along with them cultural practices like weaving. Evidence of human presence in the Cave of Guitarrero dates back roughly 10,000 years, and within that cave, plant fibers dating back nearly 8,000 years suggest some form of plant-based craftwork. Actual cotton fabrics, developed from the plant’s seed, are evidenced at 2500 BCE in the Chicama Valley, along the coast near present-day Trujillo. As the mingling of cultures increased over time, the materials were swapped between cultures, and soon wool from alpaca and sheep was introduced to the weaving process.
Textile art is prolific in Peru and is one of its oldest forms of craft. It predates other products, metals, and clays, and had an equally significant impact on its societies. Ritualistic in nature, the textiles produced could denote alliances and wars, be used as currency for trade, feature in rituals like dances and burials, and even dowries for marriages.
When Incan culture dominated the region, textiles were held in equal esteem to all other materials. Tunic-style over garments were worn by most, and the fabric style determined the social class of the person. The Ahuasca of the common man and woman was a crudely woven piece of cotton or alpaca fur, while upper classes used finer fabric called cumbi for their ahuascas. Unkhus, capes, and headdresses were also used by men during the Inca era. Women wore similar garments, held together in the back with pins.
The Colca Valley and southern Peru combined Incan practices with those of its earlier peoples. Textiles, more so than ceramics and leather, led their craftwork. The proliferation of llamas, vicuña, and alpaca encouraged wool work and different materials, and dyes from native vegetation, insects and sea life meant plants and animals even determined the different colors of fabrics.
Pottery maintained a role throughout early history as well, though its impact was much different than the textiles of southern Peru. To the north, the Moche produced some of the oldest, which feature portrait vessels and erotic ceramics, and these were used for a variety of purposes. Ritualistically, these crafts were found at burial sites. Functionally, they have been used as pots, storage-ware, and cookware up to the modern era. While not as old as its counterparts to the north, Arequipa and the region surrounding Colca Canyon and the Colca Valley also contributed to pre-Incan ceramics
In the earliest pieces, plants were used in the most basic creation of textiles. Using the cotton seed was a vital development as it was a dyeable material. Furthermore, its fibers were longer than other plant tissues, so it could be manipulated more easily and created more durable products. While cotton pieces may not be the most present in Peruvian culture, nor as popular in and around the Colca Valley, it led to the application of looms and tools that promoted and produced more pieces.
The introduction of wool increased the ability to color and dye; the staying power of pigmentation to wool, as well as its durability, made it an extremely popular material in the region. Today, regional Arequipa allegedly accounts for 99 percent of alpaca fiber sales. Many of the artisans creating the historic garb still speak traditional Quechua – one of the languages of pre-Spanish Peru.
Along with the colorful weaving, embroidery has a significant role in the customs of the textiles. The “maquinasca” (or, the sewing machine) process is used to customize the wool, adding artwork depicting flowers, animals, and other noteworthy shapes. For dyeing, artisans use natural resources ranging from vegetation to insects and even sea creatures like mollusks. The procedure for working reds and red hues into pieces relies on cochineal, a parasite of the cactus. The aphid-like insects are dried and then ground into a powder, which can then be introduced to the fabric through boiling water.
Other colors can be created as well, such as orange from lime salt or yanali, green from ch’illca leaves and Mutuy, blue from tara pods and collpa, and yellow from q’olle flowers. These vibrant and aesthetic creations are what make the textiles so iconic to Peru and the Colca Valley region.
The processes involved in making these colors are difficult and thorough and give an added value to the clothing and fabrics. The vibrance of the colors and the patterns are almost unbelievable; the geometric shapes used by pre-Columbian people have developed over time into one-of-a-kind processes indicative of each culture’s distinctive story. Only master weavers and traditional craftspeople are capable of producing the material in these ways.
Not all crafts and textiles are the same, and this is mostly because of the resources found at the source of the pieces. The wide altitude spectrum of Colca Valley and its location within the Andes means access to camelids and wool is typical. It also plays a role in what creatures and art pieces make it onto the fabrics. An Andean condor, native and omnipresent in the area, would be a common feature of the textiles, whereas a trout or other fish may be used in areas near Lake Titicaca or the coast.
As the country’s second most populous city and directionally centered in southern Peru, Arequipa has historically been a cultural crossroads. Both Colca Valley and Arequipa were heavily influenced by the Inca, though in more recent centuries, Arequipa has taken on slight effects from outside influences. Modern companies have brick and mortar stores to promote and export some of the intricate and orthodox practices of Quechua-speaking cultures. Silver and ceramics are traded here because of this.
Tourism is huge in southern Peru, and within the country, Colca Canyon is the third-most popular destination to visit. With this tourism comes the ability to promote the processes and craftspeople who maintain the traditions of their cultures, and when it comes to textiles, embroidered dress is ubiquitous with the people and their identity.
There is a strong ecological connection, with animals and the environment depicted on various articles of clothing. From skirts and coats to hats and gloves, there are so many customized woven pieces accessorized by the culture. This is indicative of the spiritual nature of the Colca and in tune with their oral traditions. The stunning visuals of their clothing are symbolic representations of the society and its harmonious place in the world.
Each craftsperson has their own distinct aspect of the process; though the methods are similar, the artwork and designs are unique to each person. The cultural impact of the creator’s history is an important – perhaps the most important – part of the embroidery. While it is possible for the garment maker or embroiderer to place customized pieces of more elegant material, like gold silk or more industrial fabrics, into a garment or item, the unique reality of ancestral life is the compelling aspect of Colca embroidery.
As previously stated, Arequipa is responsible for 99 percent of alpaca fiber sales. Large companies have moved in to help facilitate its export, such as Incalpaca or Sol Alpaca, and they have shops in and around the White City to peruse and buy from. They work with local communities and focus on sustainable practices to ensure the sanctity of the traditional processes.
Michell and Mundo Alpaca offer an in-depth experience for shoppers, who can enjoy an immersive study into learning about alpaca wool and the process of creating it, buying from a reputable source at its boutique, and even see alpacas for themselves at the on-location farm. Known for the high-quality product, there are plenty of options to purchase what you need, be it from the stores in the northern part of the city, or the outlet factory to the south of Arequipa.
Baby Alpaca Boutique is known for its commitment to sustainable practices, which include using only free-roaming alpacas on pesticide-free land. The long-lasting nature of the product makes it a great option for gifts as it is durable, warm, and unique.
Kuna has multiple high-quality boutiques in the city and focuses on the preservation of the local Andean communities. The items are fashionable and chic, utilizing the colorful traditions of the local culture while also designing lines that are functionally elegant.
Local artisans will also set up shops around Arequipa and in Colca Canyon. For visitors to the surrounding Colca Valley, you can visit stalls where craftspeople are selling items, from belts and other accessories to authentic unkhus and headwear. Bartering for goods and services may enrich the cultural exchange and it will provide an inimitable experience.
For a brick and mortar stop in the Colca Valley, the Galeria Artes del Colca is a small store in Chivay with a selection of affordable and beautiful artwork. You can find an eclectic mix of jewelry, embroidery, and other accessories that won’t be found anywhere else.
A true cultural experience begins before embarking on the journey, and we at Andean Experience want to provide our stellar service every step of the way. Our dedicated team will plan an unforgettable trip throughout Arequipa and Peru, so you can enjoy the most authentic experience. Based out of CIRQA, the UNESCO-protected former monastery, we have long-lasting relationships with local artisans around the White City and build personalized tours for all our guests.
Our excursions allow you to tour Arequipa with ease and wonder, combining tradition and leisure as you explore Peru. The Colca Canyon is a great place to see the amazing Andean condor while checking out personalized handcrafted textiles over the course of a few days. And for an ambitious expedition, we can take you on a scenic discovery of the volcanoes and Altiplano of southern Peru, focusing on the various regional artifacts and how they represent their cultures. Whatever you wish to see in Peru, we are ready to make it a seamless retreat with unmatched personalized service.
Arequipa and the surrounding Colca Valley have centuries of incredible history and culture. From tailor-made trips to see how textiles are dyed to visiting an alpaca farm, we can’t wait to share the secrets and traditions of southern Peru with you. Like our own stories, we are inextricably linked to the practices and lifestyles of those before us, and this helps us assist you in discovering just how special Peru is. We can accommodate every aspect of your trip to maximize your comfort and appreciation – so come visit us and live Peruvian culture.