Welcome to the land of the Incas!
History and Politics – There were several prominent Andean civilizations in Ancient Peru; Mochica, and Chimu in the north, Tiahuanaco, Wari and Paracas in the south, and most notably the Inca civilization, whose Empire (‘Tawantinsuyo’ – ‘Four Regions Sun Empire’) was conquered by the Spanish conquerors in 1533.
Peruvian independence was declared in 1821, and remaining Spanish forces were finally defeated in 1824.
The land of gold and of the sun-worshipping Incas, Peru, was once the home of the largest empire in the Americas and in the sixteenth-century was Europe’s major source of treasure. Since then, the riches of the Incas have fuelled the world’s imagination, although much of the country’s appeal lies in the sheer beauty of its landscapes, the abundance of wildlife and the strong, colorful character of the people.
Ancient ruins only hint at the first chapter of the story. Although the bloody Spanish Conquest shattered the traditional Inca world in the 1500s, the legacy of ancient cultures is still very much alive. Roughly half of Peru’s 23 million people are of pure Indian origin, often living in remote mountain villages. They still speak the Quechua or Aymara tongue of their ancestors and many of their beliefs and customs are a mixture of traditional Andean ways and the culture brought by the Spanish conquistadors. Peru remains one of the world’s great travel destinations.
PEOPLE AND CULTURE
Art prior to Spanish colonization concentrated almost entirely upon the production of fine pottery, metalwork, stonecraft and textiles. The Spanish subsequently introduced their version of urban planning, with cities laid out in a checkerboard fashion, and constructed mansions, churches and monasteries, which mimicked Spanish renaissance or early Spanish baroque. Over time, these European styles increasingly showed signs of a native Indian influence, leading to a style known as mestizo (mixture). The best examples of mestizo architecture can be found in the churches around Puno and Arequipa. Painting, too, mimicked European influences but as local artists grew more confident, a new and distinctive Cusco style developed, in which artists turned their attention away from the visible world and concentrated instead on fairytale and fable. The influence of these works on artist Paul Gauguin, who spent his childhood in Lima, is noticeable.
Peruvian music is almost entirely folk music, while its literature encompasses everything from independence-inspired polemic to the anarchic individualism of its many poets and the boyhood reveries of the internationally renowned author Mario Vargas Llosa.
The main religion is Roman Catholicism, though the Indians, while outwardly Catholic, often blend Catholicism with traditional beliefs. Spanish is the main language. In the highlands, most Indians are bilingual, but speak Quechua as their mother tongue. There are about 70 other languages, and in remote parts of the Amazon, Spanish is rarely spoken. English is understood in major hotels and tourist areas.
Typical Peruvian dishes are tasty and vary regionally. Seafood is, understandably, best in the coast region, while the Inca delicacy – roast guinea pig – can be sampled in the highlands. Other dishes include: Lomo saltado (chopped steak fried with onions); cebiche de corvina (white sea bass marinated in lemon, chilli and onions, often served cold with a boiled potato or yam); and sopa a la criolla (a lightly spiced noodle soup with beef, egg, milk and vegetables).
GEOGRAPHY AND ENVIRONMENT
Peru is located in western South America and shares borders with Chile (to the south), Bolivia (southeast), Brazil (northeast), Colombia (north) and Ecuador (northwest). It has three major regions: a narrow coastal belt, the wide Andean mountains and the Amazon Basin. The coastal strip is predominantly desert, but contains Peru’s major cities and its best highway; the Carretera Panamericana. The Andes comprise two principal ranges – Cordillera Occidental and Oriental – and includes Mt. Huascarán (6770m/22,200ft), Peru’s highest mountain. To the east is the Amazon Basin, a region of tropical lowland, which is drained by the Maranon and Ucayali rivers.
Bird and marine life is abundant along Peru’s desert coast, with colonies of sea lion, the Humboldt penguin, Chilean flamingo and Peruvian pelican. Common highland birds include the Andean condor, Puna Ibis and a variety of hummingbirds. The highlands are also home to cameloids such as the llama, alpaca, guanaco and vicuña, while the eastern slopes of the Andes are the habitats of jaguars, specled bears and tapirs. Peru’s flora contains a number unique plants, including patches of Polylepis woodland found at extreme heights. The vast wealth of wildlife is protected in a system of national parks and reserves with almost 30 areas covering nearly 7% of the country.
Peru’s climate can be divided into two seasons – wet and dry – though this varies depending on the geographical region. The coast and western Andean slopes are generally dry, with the summer falling between December and April; during the rest of the year, the garúa (coastal fog) moves in and the sun is rarely seen. In the Andes, the dry season is from May to September, while the wet season takes up the remainder of the year. On the eastern slopes of the Andes, the drier months are similar to the highlands, though the wet season (January to April) is more pronounced.
Copper, silver, gold, petroleum, timber, iron ore, coal, phosphate, potash, hydropower, natural gas and fish
Earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, landslides and mild volcanic activity
Government type: Constitutional Republic
Capital: Lima (c.10 million people)
Administrative divisions: 24 regions and 1 constitutional province* (provincia constitucional); Amazonas, Ancash, Apurimac, Arequipa, Ayacucho, Cajamarca, Callao*, Cusco, Huancavelica, Huanuco, Ica, Junin, La Libertad, Lambayeque, Lima, Loreto, Madre de Dios, Moquegua, Pasco, Piura, Puno, San Martin, Tacna, Tumbes, Ucayali.
Peru’s geography is reflected in its economy – an arid coastal region, the Andes inland, and tropical lands bordering Colombia and Brazil. Copious mineral resources are found in the mountainous areas and Peru’s coastal waters provide superb fishing grounds.
However, overdependence on minerals and metals means that the economy fluctuates according to world prices and also the lack of infrastructure in the country does not encourage foreign trade and investment.