As is well know throughout most of the world, South America is predominantly and in a lot of cases, fervently, catholic.  And this holds true in Peru as well; Catholicism is the religion of choice in this country.  But lots of people, some experts, some just Peruvian citizens, talk a lot about the beautiful mixing of Incan cosmology and Spanish Catholic beliefs that has taken, and continues to take place in Peru.  And while it’s true that there are elements of Andean quechua religion that I’ve glimpsed and that still exist in Peruvian Catholicism, that’s just it.  They are only elements.  The whole idea of a ‘mixture’ is kind of a myth.  It’s more like the two worldviews simply run concurrently next to each other, never fully mixing but always aware of the other’s presence.  This plays out both psychologically and physically in Peru.  Every Peruvian I have met and had a chance to speak to, takes and enormous amount of pride in the historical past of not only Cusco, but Peru as well.  The Incas are a source of dignity and honor and I don’t think any Peruvian would ever pass up the chance to boast about their rich history to anyone they meet.  But religiously, in the mainstream, anyway, there is little talk of Incan cosmology, unless it’s in the sense of what they used to believe- in other words, what no one believes now.  Catholicism is dominant, and though many citizens of Cusco still know a lot about and ‘respect’ Incan cosmology, it’s mostly reserved for tourist shows or artisan markets where they ‘recall the glorious past of the Incas’.  Also, physically it’s easy to see the separation between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ in terms of religion.  So many inhabitants of the rural parts of Peru, like the outskirts of Cusco, hold on to Incan tradition and ritual, including offerings to Pachamama, or mother earth, and worship of the Apus or gods that at once are and inhabit mountains.  But none of this is present in the cities or in the Cathedrals where catholic masses take place.  Granted, there are a few Andean/Incan symbols to be found in the intricately embroidered robes of the statues of saints, or in the paintings of angels and representations of the Virgin Mary or the Holy Trinity, but nothing is said of Pachamama, and there are no Apus in these ceremonies.  They are all purely Catholic.

It’s interesting to see- the fierce pride that Cusqueñans seem to have in regards to the Incas and their complex and advanced culture, but then to watch them hold so tightly to traditions that we imposed forcefully and at times violently on those very same people.  I can’t quite figure it out.

Caitlin Petersen is studying abroad in Cusco, Peru, with ProWorld.