Style & Culture

An Intimate, Joyful Look at Daily Life in the Peruvian Andes

In a new book, photographer Gabriel Barreto captures the lives of those who call the Andes home. 
An Intimate Joyful Look at Daily Life in the Peruvian Andes
Gabriel Barreto Bentín

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The Peruvian Andes can feel familiar—we've all seen the iconic shots of a mist-shrouded Machu Picchu, or women in colorful traditional dress wandering Cusco's cobblestoned alleyways, llamas trailing behind.

But Lima, Peru-raised photographer Gabriel Barreto says those images hardly represent daily life in the region. He should know, having spent a 2016 trip through the Andes shooting carbon copies of those scenes, only to return home and realize he hadn't actually captured what it felt like to be there.

“I had a bunch of landscapes and a couple more photos of people with very typical clothing, walking with llamas on hilltops,” says Barreto. “They were very romantic and beautiful pictures, don't get me wrong, but they were not at all showing what I had seen or what I had experienced during my time there.” What had left a greater impression on him, he says, were the Andinos he met: warm, welcoming, and, frankly, a lot less ‘traditional’ than his images suggested. 

“Looking back at those photos really made me ask myself, ‘How am I portraying this [lifestyle] and how can I portray it better, in a more real and dignifying way?’” says Barreto. “That’s the question that started this project.” 

Over 2017 and 2018, Barreto traveled the region anew, from small villages in Pisac to single-family settlements in the Vilcanota mountain range, staying in local homes and connecting to the Andean communities he wanted to photograph. Often, he spent several weeks with a family before taking their portraits. He wanted to get to know his subjects; he learned what they cared about, what their aspirations were. 

Barreto had, like many others in the capital of Lima and beyond, been conditioned to think that Peruvians in the Andes still lived the way they had long ago. “In terms of history of Peru, [my schooling was] really lacking a contemporary view of what was actually happening now or in the last 20 or 50 years in the country.” It's a stereotype that has led to (and enabled) discrimination against Andinos for decades. It was also something Barreto felt photography could be a tool to change. 

The result of his efforts can be found in his new book, Andinos: Encounters in Cusco, Peru (March 2022, Rizzoli), made in collaboration with Peruvian anthropologist Francesco D’Angelo, which includes intimate portraits alongside some quintessential landscape shots to paint a more complete picture of life in the highlands. Barreto's subjects are shown in their everyday clothes—whatever they happened to be wearing around town when he pulled out his portrait backdrop—and at neighborhood gatherings. The resulting images are contrasted with polished destination images, giving context to why visitors romanticize the destination in the first place. Perhaps most importantly, though, the book lets Andinos show who they are, on their own terms, and the final result is much richer for it. 

Below, Barreto shares the stories behind a selection of photos from Andinos.

Lucia in Choquecanca, in the Lares region of Peru

Gabriel Barreto Bentín

Vinicunca, also known as the “Rainbow Mountain” in Cusco, has become Instagram famous.

Gabriel Barreto Bentín

“This is Lucia in Choquecancha, which is about six or seven hours away from the city of Cusco. It's the most remote village I went to, where they had no running water, no phone service, no electricity. We ended up in an evangelical church, and after mass they have this moment where everybody sits around and shares the food that they each brought: potatoes, mote [husked corn kernels]. Lucia was the only one who didn't want to be photographed, because she said she wasn't dressed properly. You don't see it in this photo, but in a full photo in the book you [see] she's wearing Converse shoes with super typical clothing, and then on top she's wearing a polar vest. For her, she was utilizing too many different things that didn't look traditional enough. She finally agreed to take a photo and after 20 seconds, I took [one] photo, and that's the photo you have there—her walking off set. I was in love with how charming she was.” 

The town of Cuyo Grande in Pisac

Gabriel Barreto Bentín

Sisters Jacqueline and Reina in Cuyo Grande

Gabriel Barreto Bentín

“This is Jacqueline and Reina, in Cuyo Grande in Pisac—the image on the left is the town they are from. Pisac is a more modern town in the Sacred Valley, but Cuyo Grande is about two hours away. You have this sense of community; it's a communidad campesina, where they share their crops. Jacqueline and Reina would follow us around everywhere, when they weren't in school, and they would help us translate from Spanish to Quechua, as a lot of the older women in communities we visited only spoke Quechua.” 

Teofilio in Choquecancha, Lares

Gabriel Barreto Bentín

Along the trek to Ausangate, Cusco

Gabriel Barreto Bentín

"Teofilio is not exactly a priest, but he was the one conducting the mass [at the remote village in Choquecancha]. We asked him if is was okay to take some pictures of everybody, because this was our last time [at the church] and we really want to remember everybody that we had spent time with. We started photographing, and about 10 people agreed to participate. 

When we put up the white background they were like, Oh, Gabrielito nos va a tomar nuestros fotos!, [Oh, Gabriel is going to take our photos!] and they were excited about being photographed. Most of these people had never had their portrait taken. They have pictures from their phones, and they have foreigners come and take pictures and try to hide the fact that they're taking a picture [of them]. It's different when you take a portrait of someone." 

Wheat growing in Maras, Cusco

Gabriel Barreto Bentín

Adrian, a musician in Maras, Cusco

Gabriel Barreto Bentín

“This was Adrian. We were in a community in Maras, and one of the days we were there, they did a fair for the mountain of Tiobamba. We were walking around and trying to look for the people that we had actually had relationships with, because we didn't want to just grab random people—it was really about the relationship building. He was one of the guys in the community who worked a typical agricultural job. When it was time for the fair, he had this perfect suit, tucked away, and he took it out [for the occasion]. He and several others from communities across Maras put on this wonderful performance. I felt like I was in an orchestra in New York. They had such a relationship with these instruments; they are very expensive, and there was a sentiment of attachment.”

Roxana in Maras, Cusco

Gabriel Barreto Bentín

A home on the trek to Ausangate, Cusco

Gabriel Barreto Bentín

“Roxana is one of my favorites. She's this perfect example of modernity and contemporary living in the Andes. We ran into Roxana, who was the neighbor's daughter [of the house we were staying in in town]. We had only seen her once before, walking around, but she was in charge of the [family's] agriculture, and we'd seen her dressed in different clothes. When we saw her in the fair, she looked fabulous. She was living her best life, wearing animal print. The rest of the people [at the fair] were dressed in traditional clothing, because most people in the Andes take out their traditional clothing for these types of occasions, and for religious moments. But Roxana was just completely herself, and I loved seeing that.” 

On the trek toward the mountain of Ausangate

Gabriel Barreto Bentín

Emerson in Cuper Bajo, Chincero

Gabriel Barreto Bentín

“This is Emerson in Cuper Bajo, Chinchero, two hours from the city of Cusco. I just love how Emerson was just casually dressed for a day in the town. That print dress shirt is in no way a traditional dress of the Andes. Emerson was home visiting his mother—he doesn't actually live where we met him, as he's already moved out—and we stayed for hours talking with him. He was a big fan of New York City. It was really cool to meet someone in such a personal way that had been raised in an agricultural community like this and had left a couple years ago to live in the city [of Cusco]. 

He spoke about how lucky he was to grow up in this incredibly rich culture and, how after studying tourism and hospitality in Cusco, he is determined to help bridge the gap between the community he grew up in and people around the world. We talked for hours about the best way to truly introduce someone to Andean culture without falling into the same cliches. Emerson is helping his mother and eldest brother, Irene and Milton, rent cabins in Lake Piuray, which he thinks will help do that.” 

Maryori in Cuyo Grande, Pisac

Gabriel Barreto Bentín

Kinsa Cocha lake in Pisac

Gabriel Barreto Bentín

“That's Maryori in Cuyo Grande. One day, she was deciding if she would do her English homework or go take care of her mother's cuys (guinea pigs)—they raised 400 cuys in her home, so she would have to go and feed them, check on them. She had this confused face of, What should I do? Should I do my homework or feed my cuys? That moment was just too perfect, I think it's captured in her expression, that decision-making moment of, I'm trying to decide what to do with my life but, sure, take a portrait.”

Machu Picchu, Cusco

Gabriel Barreto Bentín

Evelyn and her daughter in Choquepata, Oropesa

Gabriel Barreto Bentín

“This is Evelyn. She's the cover of the book. This photo was taken at her niece's birthday party, but I think it's nicer to talk about when I went back [to see her] a couple of months ago. I visited some of these communities and gave the book to some of the people that I had photographed. Evelyn was super confused, like, What are you doing here? It had been three years and a pandemic since I last saw her. 

We had some beer, some Andean cheese with her family, and then in the middle of the conversation I took out the book. [She had] the face of excitement and pure euphoria—she was astonished by the fact that she was on the cover of a book. She said something really beautiful, which I'm never going to forget, because for me the book is about demystifying and trying to understand on a deeper level what [Andean] culture is about. She said, “You have no idea how much it's going to mean for me and for my daughter to be able to look at this book and pass through the pages, and to see [ourselves] represented in such a warm and dignifying way.” [She said it] was going to impact how her daughter saw herself. 

I had this debate internally [about including Machu Picchu in the book] because the photo of Machu Picchu is the definition of the romanticization of the Andes. But while I think it's important for me to decontextualize the people and who they are from where they are, you can't deny how every single person that lives in the region has been impacted by the boom in tourism across Machu Picchu. I think it would have been a lie to talk about the Andes and the region of Cusco, and not show where a lot of these changes, in a way, come from.”