Peru Overview

History

The first inhabitants of Peru were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in caves in Peru's coastal regions. The oldest site, Pikimachay cave, dates from 12,000 BC. Crops such as cotton, beans, squash and pepper chillis were planted around 4000 BC; later, advanced cultures such as the Chavín introduced weaving, agriculture and religion to the country. Around 300 BC, the Chavín inexplicably disappeared, but over the centuries several other cultures - including the Salinar, Nazca, Paracas Necropolis and Wari (Huari) - became locally important. By the early 15th century, the Inca empire had control of much of the area, even extending its influence into Colombia and Chile.

Between 1526-28, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro explored Peru's coastal regions and, drawn by the riches of the Inca empire, returned to Spain to raise money and recruit men for another expedition to the country. Return he did, marching into Cajamarca, in northern Peru, before capturing, ransoming and executing the Inca emperor Atahualpa in 1533. Pizarro subsequently founded the city of Lima in 1535 but was assassinated six years later. The rebellion of the last Inca leader, Manco Inca, ended ingloriously with his beheading in 1572.

The next 200 years proved peaceful, with Lima becoming the major political, social and commercial center of the Andean nations. However, the exploitation of Indians by their colonial masters led to an uprising in 1780 under the self-styled Inca Tupac Amaru II. The rebellion was short lived and most of the leaders were rounded up and executed. Peru continued to remain loyal to Spain until 1824 when the country was liberated by two outsiders: the Venezuelan Simón Bolívar and the Argentinean José de San Martín. In 1866, Peru won a brief war with Spain but was humiliated by Chile in the War of the Pacific (1879-83), which resulted in the loss of lucrative nitrate fields in the northern Atacama Desert. Peru also went to war with Ecuador over a border dispute in 1941. The 1942 treaty of Rio de Janeiro ceded the area north of the Río Marañón to Peru but the decision was fiercely contested by Ecuador. Border skirmishes have continually flared up, usually around January, the month when the treaty was signed. The squabbling has died down in recent years, as both countries work to impress potential foreign investors (who tend to be scared off by territorial skirmishes), and a treaty is in the works that should finally bring an end to this dispute.

Cuban-inspired guerrilla uprisings in 1965 led by the National Liberation Army were unsuccessful, but a series of nationwide strikes coupled with a violent insurgency by the Maoist Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrillas caused political instability in the 1980s. However, the 1990 presidential election of Alberto Fujimori and the capture in 1992 of inspirational Sendero Luminoso leaders has brought a sustained period of peace. Peru has once again become a favorite destination among adventure travelers from around the world.

Culture

It's the multiple layers of great civilizations that make Peru so fascinating. Cobblestone streets preserve the era of the Conquistadors, the ruins of the lost city of Machu Pichu remind travelers of the once mighty Inca Empire, and the mysterious Nazca lines elude all explanation. On top of this the Peruvian Andes are arguably the most spectacular mountains on the continent and home to millions of highland Indians who still speak the ancient language of Quechua and maintain a traditional way of life. Then to the East and thousands of feet below, the lush Amazon Basin covers half of Peru and is one of the world's top 10 biodiversity hotspots - these are areas of super high species diversity that are under threat of being extinguished.

Lying along the Pacific Coast, Peru shares borders with Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador. 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 Carratera Panamericana. The Andes comprise two principal ranges - Cordillera Occidental and Oriental - and includes Huascarán (6768m/22,199ft), Peru's highest mountain. To the east is the Amazon Basin, a region of tropical lowlands, which is drained by the Maranon and Ucayali rivers.

Cusco: The once great Inca Capital of Cusco still teems with Andean pride and has become a travelers' mecca of sorts. Narrow streets lined by Inca walls stretch out from the main plaza and indigenous farmers and craftsmen rush by carrying their wares to market. Traditional and international foods are found everywhere and shopkeepers always offer a welcoming smile.

Religion, Language and Food

The predominant religion is Roman Catholic, but there is a scattering of other Christian faiths. Indigenous Peruvians, however, have blended Catholicism and their traditional beliefs. An example is the near synonymous association of Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) and the Virgin Mary.

Spanish is the main language throughout Peru, although most highland Indians are bilingual, with Quechua being their preferred language and Spanish their second tongue. When bargaining in rural markets, a Quechua word or two will not only endear you to the vendors, but usually get you an extra orange or more juice! Several small lowland groups speak their own languages. English is understood in the best hotels and in airline offices and travel agencies, but it's of little use elsewhere.

Peruvian food consists mainly of soups and stews, corn pancakes, rice, eggs and vegetables. Seafood is excellent, even in the highlands. Local specialties include ceviche, seafood prepared in lemon juice; lechón, suckling pig; and cuy, whole roasted guinea pig-however, some delicacies may only be for the most adventurous stomachs!