Besides the striking variety in Peruvian landscapes, the culture of Peru drives travelers to explore Lima, Cusco,Arequipa and beyond. And one of the most obvious influences of Peru culture since pre-Colombian times has been religion. To ignore religion is to miss a whole part of what makes Peru the country it is today.
Though quite tolerant in modern times, Peru society has been dominated by the Catholic Church (when Pope Francis arrives in Lima January 18th, it's a citywide Holiday in Lima!). The centuries-old influences from the San Francisco Church's Catacombs in Lima to the Santa Catalina Monastery in Arequipa show the pervasiveness of the church since the 1500s,
Nearly 81% of Peruvians still call themselves Catholic. In fact it's one of the most Catholic countries in the world, but that's not the whole story of religion's influence in Peru.
Religion in Peru before Catholic Dominance
When the conquistadors of Spain arrived to Peru, the religious beliefs of the Incas ruled. Worship of the Sun God, veneration of the earth (the Pachamama), and creation myths of humans from Lake Titicaca pervaded.
Inca temples and holy sites are found throughout Cusco and many other areas. And many incredibly preserved artifacts representing the Inca gods are found in museums in Cusco, Arequipa, and Lima (our favorite Museo Larco is a must visit).
But when the Spanish crushed the Incas and Catholicism spread, many beliefs stayed and often merged with the Catholic faith. There are still many present day followers near Cusco, Ayacucho, and Puno (Southern Highlands) of Inca religious beliefs.. Sacrifices and ceremonies to the Pachamama are frequent near Cusco to pay respect to the earth (ceremonies are frequent for tourists on Cusco adventure tours).
Of course, by focusing on the famous Incas, this bypasses the over one millennium of organized beliefs of the Lima Culture, Chimu Culture, and Moche Culture. These religious sites dot the coastal areas of Peru and have a fascinating different belief system (including human sacrifice) all of their own.
Beyond Catholics - Religion in Modern Peru
While many Peruvians claim Catholicism by default without so much as setting foot in a church most years, a very active Evangelical population has emerged in the last decades. Passing through Lima districts (Surco, San Borja, La Molina, etc) one sees a host of Evangelical churches.
Now making up about 13% of the Peru population, the number of 'Christians' has boomed. Whether this has to do with the feeling of dissolution many feel with the Peru Catholic church's close ties with power and the government, Peru Evangelicals tend to be more devout and conservative and they're omnipresent through the country (especially in less touristy areas).
Surprisingly the LDS Church in Peru has a huge presence and claim nearly 550,000 followers. The La Molina Temple opened over 30 years ago & another Temple in Los Olivos was just announced, making Lima one of the few cities with two LDS temples..
Outside of Lima, the number of Peru LDS adherents continues to grow as well. Trujillo, a coastal city north of Lima, has it's own temple that just opened in 2015. Also, the beautiful Highland city Arequipa (near the Colca Canyon) has an LDS Temple that is currently under construction that will be opening in 2018. The LDS Church's page at ldschurchtemples.com is a fascinating look at where this church is growing in Peru and at the world.
The Behemoth - Catholicism in Peru
Though the number of those claiming Catholicism has dropped by 7% since 15 years ago, it's influence remains prominent in the public sphere. Many Peru government ceremonies still begin with a prayer by a priest, streets and schools are named after saints, and parks through Lima feature the Virgin Mary or a patron saint. National holidays dot the calendar as well with obviously Catholic origins (Santa Rosa de Lima - the patron saint of Lima has her own National Holiday August 30).
But the biggest gift of Peru's Catholic history may be the remarkable religious architecture. The Cathedral Basilica of St. John in Lima is the most prominent example, but each town, no matter how small, has it's focal point built around a large church in the center.. The towns of Maca and Yanque, Peru where tourists pass for Colca Canyon tours, are tiny towns with clearly a lot of pride wrapped in the history and religious significance of their principle churches.
While the Peru cultural landscape is still amazing in its adherence to Catholicism, more young people are breaking from it and are becoming more cosmopolitan.. Many young Peruvians still claim adherence to Catholicism but often only out of lip service for how contrarian the term agnosticism or atheism sounds to friends or family.
During your travels these days, you will still want to show respect in and near religious events and in buildings, such as removing your hat or refraining from selfies. However, no significant Catholic religious taboos are pervasive enough to really change your travels., but it is always best to ere on the side of respect when viewing and learning of the fascinating role that religious played and continues to play in shaping the country.