A rapid look at the map of the Sacred Valley will make you notice that many places have a similar name, which can be somewhat confusing for non-Quechua speakers. Now I’m sure you regret not paying more attention to your Quechua language classes in secondary school; and when boarding the ‘colectivo’ to “Quillabamba“, you don’t want to end up in “Cochabamba” or “Parabailarlabamba” or some such place.
What is the Quechua language?
Quechua was the language of the Incas and is still spoken nowadays in 7 countries by between 8 and 10 million people. Fun fact: in Quechua, the language is not called Quechua but Runasimi (“people’s language”).
Because there was no writing system in the Inca empire, the spelling of Quechua words was first established by the Spanish missionaries in colonial times, following rules that were the most familiar to Spanish speakers. Since 1975 though, the government of Peru has adopted a new orthography for Quechua, more respectful of the original sounds.
This is why you can find different spellings for the same names, like Inca = Inka, Huayna Picchu = Wayna Picchu, Salkantay = Salqantay, tambo = tampu, etc.
Over time, and due to migrations, the Quechua language has evolved differently in different regions. In Peru alone, the language spoken in the Sacred Valley is different to the one around Ayacucho. More different still is the one that is spoken in Ecuador: both groups cannot understand each other. In fact, even their name is spelt differently: the people in Ecuador are called Kichwa.
Read more: our stay near a Kichwa community in the heart of Ecuador
Quechua language guide for place names
This little guide will help you understand your map better!
- Pata: a hill, or a height in general; but not a mountain, that is “Picchu“
- Waka: a sacred place
- Wasi (or Huasi): a house, therefore the name of too many hotels and guest houses, eg. as “Inkawasi“
- Llaqta (or Llacta): a settlement in Central Andes; it’s the name given to Machu Picchu’s main site
- Bamba: alternative spelling for ‘pampa’, meaning ‘plain’; found in countless names like Urubamba or Oxapampa
- Tambo (or Tampu): a sort of inn for civil servants of the Inca empire; as in ‘Ollantaytambo‘ or ‘Tambomachay‘
- Inti: the sun, an important element of the Andean cosmology; in many names like “Intipunku” = sun gate
- Killa (or Quilla): the moon, often used in hotels’ names, like Killa House in Cusco (I wouldn’t risk sleeping there)
Now you’re ready! Have a look at the sites of the Sacred Valley around Cusco, Peru
Some Quechua words became international
Now, did you know that all the following English words come from Quechua?
Puma, poncho, gaucho, guano, guanaco, llama, alpaca, condor, quinoa, jerky…
(The header image is the flag of the city of Cusco. It was probably not the flag of the Incas, as the Incas probably didn’t know the concept of flag. Ha!)