Latin America is home to over 45 million indigenous peoples. So if you’re heading south of the border on your next trip, opportunities to immerse yourself in indigenous cultures, from visiting Chichen Itza to see the Mayan ruins to traveling to the Andes to experience the Quechua ethnic traditions, are endless.
In the spirit of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re taking a closer look at the rich culture, timeless traditions and the best times to visit one of the largest and oldest indigenous groups in Peru (where the indigenous population is over 45%) and Brazil. Check it out!
In the age of smartphones and motorized suitcases, it’s hard to imagine living a life subsiding on hunting, fishing and migrant agriculture. But for many, this way of life isn’t just a means to survival — it’s both an act of conscious preservation of their intangible, ancestral heritage; and a calculated resistance to outside influences, threats, and endangerment. For thousands of years, nestled in the Peruvian Selva Central, where the Andean foothills blend into the Amazonian rainforest, lies one of the largest of indigenous groups in South America today — the Asháninka. Stretching from Brazil all the way through the easternmost parts of Peru, the Asháninka are heavily intertwined with their rainforest homeland and uphold a profound connection and deep-rooted respect with their natural surroundings.
Historically, the Asháninka are known as courageous people, notorious for their fierce independence and war-like skills, enabling them to ward off intruders for centuries. From 16th century European settlers attempting to overtake their natural resources to 19th-century rubber tappers that enslaved and killed much of their population, nearly putting them into extinction, the Asháninka have successfully established and reestablished their settlements repeatedly, proving their bravery and resilience to the outside world. After years of going unharmed by the hustle and bustle of modern society, this tribal community has once again become victim to destruction, requiring them to tap back into their ancestral fearlessness to ward off illegal loggers that have decimated much of the Asháninka’s forest home.
Missing dorm-life, perchance? Then you should definitely take up living like the Asháninka. Just imagine — you could be living in a home with 79-99 other family and tribe members, making every day a party! Togetherness and community are at the heart of the Asháninka lifestyle. Tribe members live in a cluster of communal huts, known as a maloca, and all economic activities (chores, hunting, farming, fishing… you get the idea) are also divided equally amongst the members of each maloca.
When you think of the word self-sufficient, the people of this Amazonian tribe should be one of the first images that come to mind. Asháninka men spend much of their time hunting. The forest is brimming with tapir (long-nosed, jungle pig), boar and monkey, and so these are also staples within their daily diets. While the men are out hunting for game (or fishing), the women spend much of their time on their swidden gardens. Yam, cassava, peppers, pumpkins, peanuts, bananas and pineapples are just a few of the crops that are harvested. Put it all together and cook it over an open flame, and bon appetit, you have yourself an Asháninka meal. And for dessert? Children climb up to the boughs of the trees to collect honey, fresh from the beehives, and mabe (a popular Amazonian forest fruit).
Fun fact: The Asháninka believe that children can inherit the characteristics the animals eaten during pregnancy. As a cautionary measure, expectant mothers refrain from eating turtle meat, for fear their child will be slow-moving.
You’ve probably heard of mood rings, yes? Well, unlike the unpredictable ornaments that seem to rarely be able to identify our moods accurately, the Asháninka don’t leave it to chance; they apply an all-natural face-paint daily, known as urucum, in designs that reflect their moods. The vibrant red and black pigments that adorn their faces look even more dramatic in contrast, against their traditional kushma, or simple, brown garments made of cotton that is spun, dyed and woven by hand. For special occasions, men (and sometimes women… read ahead) wear hats made of bamboo and colorful feathers and women string together handmade beads to create intricate necklaces for the festivities.
So what connects geographically separated Asháninka communities (between Brazil and Peru)? Groups are united by a few major things: a shared set of customs, beliefs, language… and a beauty contest.
Step aside Miss America, there’s a new kind of beauty pageant in town. Hundreds of indigenous Asháninka from all over Peru and Brazil, pour into the festival grounds each year, for the tribe’s largest and most prestigious event of the year: the annual beauty contest. Although deemed a beauty contest, this is definitely not just a competition based on looks. Each woman is tested on multiple skills and abilities, with categories ranging from cooking to Peruvian geography, to archery and of course — hair upkeep. That’s right… the emblem of beauty in Asháninka culture is hair; the longer and healthier it is, the more beautiful and skilled the woman is considered to be. The costumes are also an essential part of the competition, as contestants spend many months preparing colorful, handmade beaded jewelry and bright red natural face paint to adorn themselves with, with a dull, simple tunic as their garb to contrast the vibrancy. So what are these women practicing, primping, preparing and battling relentlessly for? The grand prize — a feathered, straw hat, handmade and fit for a queen (beauty queen, that is).
If a beauty contest isn’t up your entertainment alley, don’t fret. Although the contest takes the crown (or feathered, straw hat) the festival itself has a vast amount of other festivities and competitions that are sure to please any crowd. Holding true to their ancestral roots, everything from the feasts to the rituals are done in the same traditional fashion as the tribe has been doing for centuries. Whether you’re looking to feast your eyes on some incredible folk dancing and live music, or you’re just looking to eat some delicious traditionally prepared food and actually feast, this festival celebrating the founding of the Asháninka, has it all.
What are you waiting for? Go ahead and head out on your indigenous adventure today! Oh, and don’t forget to tell us about it in the comments below!