The Modern-Day Maya and Quechua People: Their Daily Life and Traditions

Quechua indigenous women in traditional clothing sitting on an ancient Inca wall in Chinchero, Cusco Province

The indigenous people of Latin America – the Quechua in Peru and the Maya in Guatemala – carry out the century-old traditions to which once belonged to their ancestors. Colonized by the Spanish, the tribes have often been forced to live on the fringe of society, and many have perished from warfare, disease and poverty. The genocide alone during the Guatemalan Civil War alone took 200,000 lives – most of them Maya.

Even today, the indigenous communities continue to face economic inequality. Still, the tribes persevere and carry on their languages and traditions, which is why living and working alongside the indigenous people can be an unforgettable experience.

In the Andes, the term Quechua describes a number of heterogeneous groups with a shared heritage and a lineage that precedes the Inca Empire. Similarly, in Guatemala, the modern-day Maya comprise many indigenous communities grouped under one umbrella. Today, visitors have a unique opportunity to live in communities that have been rebuilt, witness traditions that have been present for centuries, and hear languages that have been preserved.


Many indigenous people in Peru speak only Quechua – although some speak Spanish as well. There are many varieties of Quechua, which is also called runa simi, or "the language of the people," and comes from proto-Quechua, which was spoken some 2,000 years ago. Because of years of living in isolation, some Quechua languages have become mutually unintelligible with others – that is, speakers from different regions cannot understand each other. The same is true for the Mayan languages – more than 70 varieties of the language are spoken by five million people. Most modern-day Maya speak Spanish.

Quechua village, Peru


In indigenous villages, houses are usually built of adobe or stone, and with roofs thatched with straw or ichu grass. Because it gets quite cold in the highlands, these types of structures are best to keep in the warmth. It is common for multiple family members to sleep in the same room.


Color is important for the indigenous people of Peru and Guatemala. It is a part of their identity, and different colors mean different things in different communities. Most of the textiles are handcrafted, woven by hand using a method that predates Columbus, and the bright colors are recognized all over the world. The wool of sheep, llamas and alpacas are dyed in bright hues. The Quechua men wear bright ponchos and the women petticoats to shield themselves from the cold of the Andean highlands.

San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala: Mayan women preparing food


The typical Quechua meal includes potatoes. Jerky -- the dried meat we know – actually comes from the Quechua. Cooking is often done in a pit called pachamanca. Yucca (cassava) is another staple food, as is corn and fava beans. A typical Maya meal consists of squash, corn and bean, and may also include yucca or plantains.


In Peru, much of the indigenous community work consists of farming – with crops varying from potatoes and quinoa to asparagus and coffee. More than 80% of farmers in the Peruvian Andes grow potatoes. In Guatemala, indigenous farmers grow maize, beans and squash.

Chichicastenango, Flower Market and Church Santo Tomás, Guatemala


Indigenous people hold on to traditions and celebrations of their ancestors through music and dance that are passed on from generation to generation. In Peru, one of the most noteworthy events is the Inti Raymi, the sun festival celebrating winter solstice that dates back to the Inca Empire. Elaborate costumes, group dance performances and processions are part of this annual celebration. In Guatemala, indigenous culture is celebrated during Rabin Ajaw, "Daughter of the King," a pageant of sorts that focuses on spiritual, cultural and historical knowledge. Of course, each indigenous village has its own history, mythology and traditions – ones you may be lucky enough to witness.

Did you know?

  • There are eight million Quechua speakers in central Andes, 3.2 million of them in Peru.

  • The words "llama," "puma," "jerky" and "quinoa" are Quechuan. So is "soroche" – the word that describes altitude sickness.

  • Miguel Ángel Asturias, Guatemala’s poet and novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1967, wrote a lot about the Maya heritage and criticized the nation’s military dictatorship.

  • There are more than 3,000 types of potatoes grown in Peru.

  • The mathematical concept of zero was invented by the Maya.

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