Imagination Abounds in 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 ancient art of icons. Every woven sun or snake, and each pair of ceramic oxen had meaning – all packed with imagination.

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 produced some of the finest works ever crafted in the ancient Americas. 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 excited explorers seeking to fulfill their bucket list dreams. They pass through here going to and 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 perfect!

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 invited us 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 figure 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.

I guess you have to use your imagination. So what’s your theory?

Terri & James

Purple Tapestry

Photo Credits: 4. quinet 5.  Peter van der Sluijs 6. Pethrus 7. Jae


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

21 thoughts

  1. I’m always fascinated by traditional motifs and patterns. Sometimes we can’t fully understand the philosophy behind those lines, curves and colors, but using our imagination would certainly help us appreciate them. And probably, we’ll come up with more questions than before, which will lead us to learning more.

    1. I love your philosophy, Bama. And I agree! I figure that anything that leads us to learning more is to be embraced. I think that’s why travel has such an appeal because it forces us out of our comfort zones and exposes us to new experiences, attitudes, and ideas. That’s why trying to interpret petroglyphs and Andean symbols is so fun! ~Terri

  2. Terri and James – Oh, outdoor marketplaces, my favorites. I remember this one, but 40 years ago, it wasn’t so full of color. That brilliant lilac-purple in the last photo is amazing. I’m so glad you brought their stories out in this piece – it makes life so vibrant and real. Thanks – Susan

    1. Susan, it’s so cool that you’ve been to the exact same spot. I’m always excited when I hear that – or see a photo taken from the same vantage point I used. It’s just another cool connection. We were also pleasantly surprised by the riot of color – particularly in the tapestries. It definitely took a lot of imagination.

      Oh, and I’m really enjoying Vowels, Vodka and Voices. I’m rewarding myself with a chapter when I finish a chore at home. Wow are those chores getting completed quickly! 🙂 ~Terri

      1. Terri – I’ve always loved the way Andean women put colors together in their clothes. It was a great memory to see them in your photos. Now, go dirty up some dishes so you can read a new chapter 😉 – Susan

  3. Love this! My partners mother grew up in the Andes. This is neat to read! Have you watched the Netflix Street Food episode in Peru?? Similar images here so I think you’d enjoy it.

    1. Many thanks, Dan. What a fascinating place to grow up. I haven’t seen the Netflix Street Food episode yet. I’ll check it out. When we were there, the street food emphasized cuy (roasted guinea pig) which was kind of hard to look at since I used to have them as pets. 🙂 ~Terri

  4. Such breathtaking colors! The textile motifs and artisans’ faces brought to mind my semester in Quito, Ecuador–also in the Andes, also home to Quechua Indians. I’m glad some of the old ways (the backstrap loom, for example) have survived, but couldn’t help notice the modern clip in the mother’s hair (fourth photo)!

    1. Hi Nancy, Thanks so much for stopping by! Like you, we thoroughly enjoyed the vibrant colors of all the textiles when we visited Peru. We haven’t been to Quito yet, but we’d love to go. I love that you discovered the modern clip – it’s always fun to spot the traditional garb with the modern touch. 🙂 All the best, Terri

  5. I love looking at all the brilliant colors, but would have a hard time pulling them off myself. I don’t wear anything which screams “look at me”. I love the portability of the loom, but it doesn’t look very comfortable. Now, the walking sticks are something! I don’t have any better theories than what you came up with.

    1. Laura, I’ve never seen anything like those walking sticks, before or since, and like you, I can’t imagine where the idea came from. It’s interesting about all those bright colors, because I wonder what the origin is. Most indigenous craft colors are based in nature, so where the ideas for these bright ones originated is a question. Either way, they’re fun to look at. ~James

  6. I felt as though you transported me right back to Peru. Never have I seen such vibrant shades of textiles and clothing. As to the corn beer, I can’t say it was my cup of ale. However seeing fields of purple and yellow corn cobs drying in the sun is one of my treasured memories of our time there. As to the canes with the horns no idea actually but I’ll go with the walk like a mountain goat theme.


    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Sue. We were first introduced to those gorgeous Peruvian textiles over 30 years ago when our best friend adopted her daughter from Peru. To commemorate the occasion, she brought her friends beautiful textiles so that we would all have pieces of her daughter’s heritage on display in our homes. So when we finally went to Peru and saw them for ourselves, it was incredibly moving. We were there during their spring so we missed the corn drying in the sun. I bet it was stunning. ~Terri

What do you think? We'd love to know!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s