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Peru Overview

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Peru, land of the legendary Incas, has retained much of its mythical feel. The cultural capital of Cuzco provides a glimpse into the country’s proud history, as the center of the Sacred Valley and the explorer’s base for the lost city of Machu Picchu. The Quechua and Aymara, descendants of the Incas, weave threads of their culture with Spanish influences to create a rich Peruvian culture of art, architecture and music. A Peruvian traveler has the opportunity to see watch the sun set on the Pacific, climb the highest peak in the snow-capped Andes, and catch a glimpse of the pink river dolphin in the Amazon River.

Ancient History

The region now known as Peru has a mythical history. Human habitation is documented as early as the eighth millennium B.C. Organized village patterns developed, and several distinct Peruvian cultures began to emerge by 1500 B.C. The Chavin and Sechin are the best known of these early civilizations; they left behind advanced stone carvings of religious iconography, usually involving the jaguar.

As these cultures declined, a second wave of distinctive civilizations rose in their place. The Paracas and the Saliner left behind sophisticated weavings and kiln-fired ceramics as their legacy. From the Paracas culture emerged the mysterious Nazca.

The Nazca people were the architects of the incredible Nazca lines. The lines are a series of drawings across over 50 miles of the southern Peruvian desert, called geoglyphs. These drawings include the famous monkey, spider, bird, and waving human figure, as well as several other smaller lines and drawings. The drawings are huge, large enough that they can only be made out vaguely from viewing towers. They are best deciphered from the air, which is where the mystery arises. The Nazca people could never have seen their own drawings from the air, and so the question arises as to the architects’ motivations. The waving figure is particularly mysterious; who was it created to wave at? A Peruvian tour should include the Nazca lines, so travelers may form their own opinions.

As the Nazca and other coinciding civilizations began to disappear, the mighty Inca rose in Peru. Incan civilization began as a small “municipality” in the Cuzco valley in the mid 1400s. Cuzco remained the military and political center of the Incas as it began to expand. In less than a century, the Incan Empire stretched from Colombia all the way down to northwest Argentina. The seat of the Incan emperor, Cuzco became the richest city in the Americas. It was built in the shape of a jaguar, and travelers to Peru can still walk the outline for themselves.

The Incas were successful in their expansion, obviously because of great military skill and planning, but also because they incorporated the best aspects of each culture they conquered into their own. Peaceful assimilations were common; emissaries would be sent to outside rulers, who would acquiesce and send their children to Cuzco to be educated.

Francisco Pizarro landed on the Pacific shores of the Ecuadorian region in 1532, when his arrival coincided with the end of a destabilizing civil war between two Incan rulers. He and his retinue assassinated Atahualpa (see Ecuador article) and easily took the northern region of the empire. Pizarro continued south to Cuzco and sacked the city. The Incas continued to fight fiercely for several years; the lost city of Machu Picchu was one of their last strongholds. The Spanish rule had already begun.

The Incas disappeared as their cities were destroyed, and smallpox and other European diseases swept through the region, but they left behind their sublime stonework and architecture. The jaguar of Cuzco still rears its head, and Machu Picchu rises through the mists with the sun.

Recent History

Peru remained a Spanish colony through the next few centuries. Even as wars of independence rocked the rest of South America, Peru was a royalist stronghold. It was the last country to gain its independence, in 1821.

The fledgling country rocked between military rule and political infighting. Peru engaged in war with Chile in the War of the Pacific from 1879-83, in which they were defeated. Military coups, political turmoil, and radical reforms characterized the country for the next several decades. A period of stability settled under the presidency of Alberto Fujimori, but he was forced to resign in 2000 under accusations of human rights violations and corruption.

Current politics

The current president of Peru is Alejandro Toledo. Peru’s government is a presidential representative democratic republic, and has a multi-party system. The president designates the Prime Minister and other members of the Council of Ministers. Peru employs the classic three branches of Executive, Legislative, and Judicial.

Peru’s foreign relations are characterized by border disputes with neighboring countries Ecuador and Chile. However, it was a founding member of the Andean Community of Nations. Peru is an elected member of the U.N Security Council for 2006-2007.

Drive from Ollantaytambo to Cusco
Drive from Ollantaytambo to Cusco (Ann Umlauf)

A Dramatic Landscape

Peru is a large country, and encompasses an array of dramatic landscapes. A Peruvian tour may include high mountains, sandy beaches, and sweltering jungle. The long coast of Peru is studded with cliffs and hills, and there are some beautiful beaches on the northern end for travelers interested in surfing and sunbathing. The southern coast recedes into a desert, with stunning sand dunes in parts. Adventurous travelers won’t want to miss the Colca Canyon, which is also found in southern Peru, near the beautiful white city of Arequipa.

Peru is probably most well known for its Andean region. This impressive mountain system bisects the country from north to south. There are two parallel ranges, the Cordillera Occidental and the Cordillera Oriental. The Andes are at their widest on the Altiplano and at their highest on the peak of Huascaran, which reaches to a dizzying 22,500 ft. Travelers to Peru looking for a mountaineering experience are well-accommodated here. A large portion of Peru’s population is settled in the valleys and basins of the Andes.

The southern basin of the Andes along the Bolivian border cradles Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world. Active and dormant volcanoes are also found in this region.

The Amazon jungle occupies the eastern edge of Peru, with the mighty river’s headwaters located in the town of Iquitos. The northern part of the jungle is known as the selva alta, while the southern regions, with their river terraces and rolling plains, are called the selva baja. The Peruvian rainforest is dense and remote, accessible in areas only by river.

Environmental Issues

Peru’s rainforest is incredibly important to provide habitat to countless species, some of them found nowhere else in the world, as a powerhouse for soaking up carbon dioxide in the air, and as living space for remote Amazon tribes. Past leadership regimes of the country have focused heavily on resource extraction, meaning that this precious region is under threat from logging, oil exploration, farming, chemical spraying against coca production, and mining. There are several independent organizations at work to change unsustainable and dangerous practices, but the Peruvian government has yet to make a serious effort of their own.

Although Peru is a signatory in the Convention in the International Trade of Endangered Species, the country is still experiencing problems in the illegal trade of these vulnerable animals. According to the Convention, there are 10 critically endangered species, 28 endangered, and 99 vulnerable species in Peru.

Some notable Peruvian organizations at work on these and other environmental issues, which may be able to provide more information, are the Peruvian Association for the Conservation of Nature, AymaraNet, Quechua Network, and the Peruvian Amazon Indian Network. Travelers to Peru can take action by being aware of existing environmental problems and tailoring their explorations to be as eco-sensitive as possible.

A World of Wildlife

Peru has one of the greatest biodiversities in the world, due to the presence of such dramatic geographical features as the coast, Andes, and Amazon River.

There are 53 protected areas in the country, the most stunning of which is Manu. Although it is somewhat difficult to access (only by air or river), it is the most biologically diverse area in the Peruvian Amazon and well worth a visit. The Reserve is home to 13 species of monkeys, 1,000 bird species, 200 different mammals, and an incredible array of butterflies.

Some animals the lucky traveler may see in the rainforest are howler, spider, and wooly monkeys, sloths, and armadillos. Exotic mammals such as tapirs and peccaries (a pig-like animal) as well as more familiar ones like the river otter can also be found along the Amazon. Travelers count themselves lucky not to see the jaguars, pumas, and ocelots that roam the rainforest, or the caimans and great snakes. Visitors are lucky too if an Amazonian pink river dolphin is spotted.

Big cats also roam the Andes, as well as a species of bear. A Peruvian vacation will without fail provide glimpses of Peru’s signature alpacas and llamas, which are famous for their soft wool. Visitors to the Colca Canyon as well as the Andes should keep one eye on the sky for the majestic Andean condor.

Peru’s coast is frequented by several dolphin pods, sharks, and sperm whales.


Peru’s weather varies with its landscape. The rainy season throughout the country occurs from January to March. Sun seekers should know that although it is somewhat humid, the coast is very warm at this time; a perpetual mist characterizes the beaches for the rest of the year.

The highlands of Peru, areas such as Cuzco and Lake Titicaca experience milder temperatures during the rainy season, although there are generally impressive cloudbursts in the afternoon. The high tourism season occurs from June to August, even though these can be the coldest temperatures. Travelers should remember that some of these areas are very high, and nights drop to below freezing.

The Amazon is always humid (it’s a rainforest!), although the rains recede a little from May to October. It rarely rains enough, even during the wet season, to ruin a trip. This region is also always hot, although temperatures can drop enough to require an extra layer at night.

Peruvian traditional weavers
Peruvian traditional weavers (Teresa Van Haalen)

Peruvian Culture

Peruvian culture is a beautiful mix of Hispanic and native traditions. The Quechua and the Aymara are the two main native cultures of Peru, both of whom speak their native languages. These Inca descendants have successfully preserved and developed their proud cultures despite the creeping in of globalization. In fact, the old Inca seat of Cuzco is still perceived as the cultural capital of the country by many.

Peruvian typical dress is beautiful. In some regions, the women wear layers of bright skirts called polleras. Some wear black skirts with a wide embroidered belt, or cotton petticoats underneath with elaborate designs. Peruvian ponchos are a necessity in the highlands, where the cold can be harsh; the ponchos of Cajamarca and Puno are long and dramatic, where as those of Cuzco are shorter. Woolen or straw hats are also common.

A Peruvian tour should include some exposure to the country’s art, both modern and ancient. The pre-Spanish artifacts are striking examples of artistic expression, from jewelry and weavings to stone and metal carvings. Mestizo and indigenous painting styles developed during the colonial period and have evolved into a complex artistic culture.

Some of Peru’s architecture is breathtaking; the colonial city of Arequipa is the perfect example. White cathedrals and facades rise out of the cobblestone streets, and there are architectural treasures dotting the winding avenues, from old monasteries and mansions to cottages.

In the realm of ancient architecture, the lost city of Machu Picchu is unparalleled in its engineering and location. The stone temples and salons rise directly out of the mountain’s peak, that falls away on all sides to the rivers below. The terraced gardens reveal the agricultural advances of the Incas, and the astrological markers show incredible precision and knowledge of celestial events. The lost city is one of the world’s great wonders.

Peruvian music is distinctive, and a Peruvian tour will likely feature several tastes of it. It is a blend of the pre-Colombian influences of wind instruments and drums with delicate Spanish stringed instruments.

A World Famous Cuisine

Peruvian cuisine is quickly becoming world-famous. Traditional Peruvian staples such as maiz, potatoes, and rice have been combined with Spanish, Basque, and Asian food to evolve into a sophisticated genre. A cruise to Peru will most certainly feature some culinary luxuries.

Incredible ceviches and other fish dishes can be found along the coast. These dishes are usually combined with milk, chili pepper, or potatoes for a Peruvian distinction.

Tamales and humitas are common in other areas, as are a variety of potato-based dishes, usually served with soup. Delicious soups or stews accompany almost every Peruvian meal.

Adventurous travelers may want to try cuy, or roast guinea pig. Travelers in the Andes may also want to taste alpaca meat; these highland dishes are usually served with yucca, a tasty root vegetable common to the area.

Lima is home to cutting-edge culinary advances in fusion food, evolving traditional dishes, and international foods. Travelers should take advantage of one of the city’s many fantastic restaurants before moving on.

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Llamas in Machu Picchu



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