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…


This article was written in 2019 for the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

(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!)

Did you know these English words came from Quechua?
Do you plan on visiting the Sacred Valley of the Incas?
Feel free to ask any question in the comments!

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Anthony fell in love with the world, and more particularly with South America. He wants to offer inspirational guides to the curious backpacker, travel stories to the online generation, and incentives for a more responsible and greener way-of-travel for everyone.

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  1. I wasn’t aware of how many English names come from Quechua. How interesting. Not so surprised at llama and alpaca, some of my best buddies in the animal kingdom. Fair play for learning the local tongue.

    1. Hey John, thanks for popping by!
      Aren’t llamas sweet? They always remind me of the good old Winamp of my teens. Well, one spat at me once, that was funny to watch. Fair play, I was being very annoying.
      Please call again!

  2. Loved your post! I’m currently learning Quechua and realizing how much of this language there is in Ecuadorian Spanish. For example “ñaño” and “chuchaki”.

    Btw, of the words you listed that made it into English, one is not from Quechua. Avocado comes from the Mexican language, Nahuatl.

    1. Thank you for correcting us, Marcelo! I realise where our mistake came from: if “aguacate” (and therefore “avocado”) comes from Nahuatl, the word “palta” (used e.g. in Chile & Argentina) comes from Quechua.
      I guess you’re learning the Kichwa variation of the language? We heard quite a lot of it during our stay near Zumbahua. You’re in for an interesting journey, good luck with it!

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