Art / Peru / Travel

Art: The Secret Language of the Andes

Market Stall FI

On a chilly morning in early spring she sat steadfastly, basking in the warm Andean sun. Savoring the moment, she wrapped herself in a brilliant blue tapestry, just as her ancestors before her … although they probably didn’t have the ball cap.

Surrounded by the symbols of her culture, she awaited the first customer of the day.

There were no printed words on any of her merchandise, yet each item spoke volumes in the secret language of the Andes – the art of icons. Every woven sun or snake, and each pair of ceramic oxen had meaning.

Orange Tapestry

“In ancient Andean societies, where the written word did not exist, iconography was the primary form of communication…It took the place of writing. They used painting, drawing, carving, and especially weaving as graphic ways of communication.”  –Daniela Cabrerizo

The Incas may not have had a written language, but they knew how to communicate … if you knew the secret language of their icons.


In Ollantaytambo, Peru, this market sits at the base of impressive Inca ruins and caters primarily to the tourist trade. Additional shops and Fair Trade organizations are also scattered throughout town. Excited explorers seeking to fulfill their bucket list dreams pass through here on their way to or from Machu Picchu. It’s the perfect place to expand your knowledge of Peruvian icons; if you’re not careful you’ll lighten your wallet and beef up your backpack.

Talking Textiles
From tunics to chullos (knitted hats), textiles imbued with mysterious patterns are all the rage in Peru. In fact, the first chullo that a child receives is traditionally knitted by her father. How nice!

Quechua Mother and Child

Traditional weavings are created from wool shorn from sheep, alpaca, and llamas – with alpaca wool being the preferred fiber due to its softness and warmth. Then talented artists wash, spin, and dye the fleece to create yarn – all by hand.


The textiles are woven using a “backstrap loom” consisting of two sticks across which the warp is stretched. The first stick is attached to the weaver with a strap around her back. The second stick is attached to a fixed object. This configuration enables the weaver to adjust the tension by leaning forward or backward. And the best thing – it’s portable!

1024px-Traditionnal_peruvian_weaving_-_Cuzco_-_Peru (1)

“Andean weaving includes a rich tradition of iconography. The designs and motifs used in Quechua textiles are passed down from generation to generation, repeated over and over again, and are based on the daily lives of the Quechua weavers. They are inspired by agriculture, flora and fauna of the region, astrological phenomenon, human forms, bodies of water, and geometric designs.”  —Awamaki Cooperative


Load of Bulls
Seeing a table full of ceramic bulls certainly made us scratch our heads. When we inquired about them in our imperfect Spanish, the lady just kept pointing to a nearby rooftop. And sure enough, at the peak sat two oxen side by side, adorned with a beer bottle, flag, cross, chalice … and streamers.

Oxen on Roof

The oxen are placed on the roof for good luck, fertility, and prosperity. The corn-based beer ties the occupants to their ancestors, and the chalice serves to sanctify the house. I guess the streamers are just for fun!

Walking Sticks

Fierce Creatures
The pièce de résistance in the market had to be the walking sticks. Capped with fierce expressions, stunning dentition, and curling horns, they invite you not to touch! When we asked the ancient merchant about their meaning, we were greeted with a toothless grin, shoulder shrug, and twinkling eyes that said, “That’s for me to know and you to find out!”

Walking Sticks 3

We came up with all kinds of theories about their iconology:

  • They’re fierce to scare away the evil spirits on the trail to Machu Picchu.
  • The horns are there to make you as graceful and sure-footed as a mountain goat.
  • The walking stick will give you the powers of a “Temporary Shaman” to protect you on the trail.

So what’s your theory?


If you enjoyed this post, you might also like others in our Peru Series:

Mysterious Machu Picchu: City of Chosen Women or Royal Palace?
The Train, Terrain, and Rain at Machu Picchu
Ollantaytambo: A Living City of the Inca
Before You Launch From Lima: 5 Faves
Cusco: Navel of the Inca World
Lima’s Major Domo
Lima’s Luscious Balconies: A Tale of Jealousy

Purple Tapestry

Photo Credits:
4. By quinet via Wikimedia Commons
5. By Peter van der Sluijs via Wikimedia Commons
6. By Pethrus via Wikimedia Commons
7. By Jae via Wikimedia Commons

34 thoughts on “Art: The Secret Language of the Andes

  1. Beautiful folk art! I love them! I love the color , the brightness, and the patterns, which represent the people’s creativity and love of art. I don’t have any theory but just love them! Thanks for sharing!

  2. The textiles are wonderful in Peru and I believe that only someone who has tried to work with such fine yarns and who has experienced the labour intensive nature of the production of their items would really, really appreciate them! These are dying arts in many segments of the world. Thankfully, not in Peru.

    • You are so right Brenda. I chatted with a woman in the market who was using a backstrap loom and she explained that she learned as a child. Her mother would help her memorize the patterns for creating different animals. It’s wonderful to see the tradition kept alive. ~Terri

  3. So much beauty in the Andes! I visited Peru (Lima, Ollanta, Cusco, Aguas Calientes, etc…) last year and was blown away by the colors, shapes, textures, and symbolism, and made sure to bring what I could back with me. I will treasure those things always. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Loni, I agree that there is much beauty to be had in the Andes. And it sounds like you hit all my favorite spots. I loved your post “Lima: Art + Design” – congrats on the well-deserved FP. Did you make it to the Larco Museum? ~Terri

    • Thank you Bernie. We have often found that cultures in extreme environments – mountains, deserts, etc. have a deep affection for colorful items. When we lived in the desert in Khartoum, Sudan, the baskets and fabrics were vibrantly colored. So glad you stopped by. All the best, Terri

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