Though they wear the same traditional costume, speak the same language (Quechua) and share many cultural traditions, strictly speaking it’s not correct to refer to the Tarabuceños as an ethnic group: the name was simply given by the colonial authorities to all the indigenous communities living around Tarabuco. When the Spanish first arrived, the region had only recently been conquered by the Incas and marked the very limit of their domain. To secure the frontier and defend against raids by the indomitable Chiriguano tribes to the east, the Incas settled the area with different ethnic groups brought from elsewhere in the empire. All these indigenous communities speak Quechua, the lingua franca of the Inca empire, and at some point after the Spanish conquest they also adopted the distinctive costumes that give a semblance of unity today, but they have no collective name for themselves nor any tradition of collective political organization that suggests a common origin.
These distinctive traditional costumes make the Tarabuceños difficult to miss: the men wear leather hats, known as monteros and shaped like the steel helmets worn by the Spanish conquistadors, along with woollen ponchos woven with bright, horizontal stripes of red, yellow, orange and green on a brown background, and three-quarter-length white trousers. In addition, they often use finely woven accessories like chumpi belts and chuspa coca-bags. Though generally more muted in colour, the traditional costumes worn by the women, particularly the woollen shawls known as llijlas or aqsus, are also decorated with beautiful and complex designs, and the ceremonial hats and headdresses they wear on special occasions match the monteros of the men in their unusual shape and design: black pillboxes with a flap covering the neck decorated with sequins and bright woollen pom-poms, or boat-shaped sombreros embroidered with silver thread. More even than their costumes, however, it is Tarabuceño weavings that draw travellers to Tarabuco, and selling them has become a major source of income for the Tarabuceños, who otherwise depend on agriculture for their livelihoods and live in great poverty.