Peruvian Spanish is, for the most part, straightforward and fairly free of the quirks and national slang that force visitors to page through their dictionaries in desperation. But if you know Spanish, some of the terms you will hear people saying are chibolo for muchacho (boy); churro and papasito for guapo (good-looking); jato instead of casa (house); chapar (literally "to grab or get"), slangier than but with the same meaning as besar (to kiss); ¡que paja está! (it's great); mi pata to connote a dude or chick from your posse; and papi (or papito) and mami (or mamita), affectionate terms for "mother" and "father" that are also used as endearments between relatives and lovers (which can get a little confusing to the untrained outsider). The inherited Amerindian respect for nature is evident; words such as Pachamama (Mother Earth) tend to make it into conversation remarkably frequently.

Spanish is but one official language of Peru, though. Quechua (the language of the Inca Empire) was recently given official status and is still widely spoken, especially in the highlands, and there's a movement afoot to include Aymara as a national language. (Aymara is spoken principally in the southern highlands area around Lake Titicaca.) A couple dozen other native tongues are still spoken. A predominantly oral language (the Incas had no written texts), Quechua is full of glottal and magical, curious sounds. As it is written today, it is mystifyingly vowel-heavy and apostrophe-laden, full of q's, k's, and y's; try to wrap your tongue around munayniykimanta (excuse me) or hayk' atan kubrawanki llamaykikunanmanta (how much is it to hire a llama?). Very few people seem to agree on spellings of Quechua. Colorful phrases often mix and match Spanish and Amerindian languages: Hacer la tutumeme is the same as ir a dormir, or "to go to sleep."

In addition to these primary languages, there are dozens of Indian tongues and dialects in the Amazon region, many of which are in danger of extinction.

Quecha & Quecha-Derived Terms

Quechua ("Ketch-u-wa") was the language of the Inca Empire, and it remains widely spoken in Peru and throughout Andean nations 5 centuries after the Spaniards did so much to impose their own culture, language, and religion upon the region. It is the most widely spoken Amerindian language. Called Runasimi (literally, "language of the people") by Quechua speakers, the language is spoken by more than 10 million people in the highlands of South America. As much as one-third of Peru's 28 million people speak Quechua. Quechua speakers call themselves Runa -- simply translated, "the people."

Quechua is an agglutinative language, meaning that words are constructed from a root word and combined with a large number of suffixes and infixes, which are added to words to change meaning and add subtlety. Linguists consider Quechua unusually poetic and expressive. Quechua is not a monolithic language, though. More than two dozen dialects are currently spoken in Peru. The one of greatest reach, not surprisingly, is the one still spoken in Cusco. Though continually threatened by Spanish, Quechua remains a vital language in the Andes.

In recent decades, however, many Andean migrants to urban areas have tried to distance themselves from their Amerindian roots, fearful that they would be marginalized by the Spanish-speaking majority in cities -- many of whom regard Quechua and other native languages as the domain of the poor and uneducated. (Parents often refuse to speak Quechua with their children.) In some ways the presidency of Alejandro Toledo, himself of Amerindian descent, has led to a new valuation of Quechua (and Aymara). Toledo said he hoped to spur new interest and pride in native culture in schools and among all Peruvians, and he made a point of having the Quechua language spoken at his 2001 inaugural ceremonies at Machu Picchu. (Even Toledo's Belgian-born wife addressed the crowd in Quechua.)

Quechua has made its influence felt on Peruvian Spanish, of course, which has hundreds of Quechua words, ranging from names of plants and animals (papa, potato; cuy, guinea pig) to food (choclo, corn on the cob; pachamanca, a type of earth oven) and clothing (chompa, sweater; chullu, knitted cap). Quechua has also made its way into English. Words commonly used in English that are derived from Quechua include coca, condor, guano, gaucho, lima (as in the bean), llama, and puma.

Altiplano -- Plateau/high plains

Apu -- Sacred summit/mountain spirit

Campesino -- Rural worker/peasant

Chacra -- Plot of land

Cocha -- Lake

Huayno -- Andean musical style

Inca -- Inca ruler/emperor

Inti -- Sun

Intiwatana -- "Hitching post of the sun" (stone pillar at Inca ceremonial sites)

Mestizo -- Person of mixed European and Amerindian lineage

Pachamama -- Mother Earth

Pucara -- Fortress

Runasimi -- Quechua language

Soroche -- Altitude sickness (hypoxia)

Tambo -- In-transit checkpoint on Inca highway

Tawantinsuyu -- Inca Empire

Tumi -- Andean knife

Viracocha -- Inca deity (creator god)

Try a Little Quecha

Yes Riki Ree-kee

No Mana Mah-nah

Madam Mama Mah-mah

Sir Tayta Tahy-tah

Thank you Añay Ah-nyahy

Watch Your Language

The term cholo is often used to describe Peruvians of color and obvious Amerindian descent, usually those who have migrated from the highlands to the city. It is frequently employed as a derogatory and racist term by the Limeño population of European descent, but former President Alejandro Toledo claimed the term for himself and all mestizos (those of mixed race) of Peru, to demonstrate pride in their common culture and to take the sting out of the term. Afro-Peruvians are more commonly called morenos(as) or negros(as). Using any of these terms can potentially be a complicated and charged matter for foreigners, especially those who have little experience in the country or fluency in the language. It’s best for gringos (foreigners; almost always not a derogatory term) simply to steer clear of such linguistic territory. It’s better to refrain from making distinctions among races and colors than to risk offending someone.

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