Embracing Peru: Dispatch 4 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

March 18th, 2009 by Richard Kurin

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is fourth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Paso horses demonstrate their unique style. Photo: Richard Kurin

Paso horses demonstrate their unique style. Photo: Richard Kurin

Dateline: Lima, Peru


We left the beautiful Monasterio—a former 16th century monastery converted into a hotel—and Cuzco, and flew back through the Andes on a wonderful clear day.
Back in Lima the group toured the city, including the downtown—a designated UNESCO world heritage site that became deserted in the late 1980s due to the influx of refugees who fled their homes in the countryside due to the terrorism of the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru. These refugees swelled Lima’s population to somewhere between 8-10 million, many of whom built shanty-towns atop the Pacific coastal sand dunes that surround the city. Interestingly, those houses rest upon terraces, just like they do in the Andes. Instead of precisely cut and engineered stone of the Inca, these folks fill plastic shopping bags with sand and build embankments that allow them to form level space on the massive sand dunes.

Still, the central town square with its historic church, founded by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, is beautiful, with baroque structures, towers, and Moorish influenced wooden balconies.

Marinera norteña dancing. Photo: Richard Kurin

Marinera norteña dancing. Photo: Richard Kurin

We found more of this Spanish colonial heritage in the Mamacona hacienda on the outskirts of the city. The family raises paso walking horses—a 400 year-old Peruvian colonial breed, and riders gave us a demonstration of the technique—each foot of the horse hits the ground at a different time sequentially.

We were treated to a delicious meal and folk dances in the marinera norteña folk style among others. These indicated Spanish Andalusian roots, but also Andean and African influences. Some were slow and elegant, others energetic and even bawdy—and members of the Smithsonian group joined in.

It was then off to the Larco museum, the private museum of an avid collector and scholar of ancient Peruvian civilizations, Rafael Larco Herrera. Larco had numerous interactions with the Smithsonian over several decades. The museum collection was truly mind-boggling in volume, quality and scope. Those of our group who had gone to see Chan Chan instead of Machu Pichhu really appreciated the fine pottery and ornamentation of the Moche, Chimu and other civilizations. For me, the Huari textiles, illustrating almost an abstract, cubist form were most impressive. Then there is the pre-historic erotic pottery—a very rare collection that leaves nothing to the imagination—but speaks to the importance of fertility, as well as spiritual procreation and the cautionary treatment of the dead.

The retalbo Danielle commissioned for me. Photo: Richard Kurin

The retalbo Danielle commissioned for me. Photo: Peggy Burnet

We said goodbye to Ramiro and to Danielle. Danielle showed off a retabloshe’d commissioned from a folk artist, done up in the day-of-the-dead style with skeletonized humans. It has me, as Smithsonian scholar amidst a collection of Peruvian masks. It’s fantastic and again shows how traditional art adapts to contemporary circumstances.

In a quick airport conversation I learned that Ramiro had worked with Thor Heyerdahl decades ago, and although he didn’t accept the latter’s theory of the settlement of Easter Island from Peru, he nonetheless respected the man and his work. As we leave for Rapa Nui—the native name for the island, Smithsonian anthropologist Adrienne Kaeppler, agreeing with Romero and almost all scholarly experts, gives a short lecture on how the Polynesians settled this famous dot of land in the Pacific.

This post is fourth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

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