Peru is the third largest country in South America after Brazil and Argentina. It has a population of around 30 million inhabitants. Over a third of the population lives in the capital, Lima. It has one of the highest indigenous populations in the world. For this reason Quechua continues to be an important language despite Spanish predominating.
Peru has a very rich history. The first people to arrive came from the north about 20,000 years ago. Caral, which is located close to the coast to the north of Lima, is the oldest known city in Peru (over 5,000 years old). This was the first Andean civilization and together with Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China and Central America is one of the centres forming the origins of modern day culture
The first Peruvian civilization that expanded beyond its own Region was Chavin. This Culture became established 3,000 years ago in the northern highlands of Peru. Its capital was Chavin de Huantar en the Department of Ancash. Its area of influence extended from Lambayeque to Palpa (Ica) along the coast and from Cajamarca to Ayacucho for the highlands. It is well known for its architecture and stone carvings.
Shortly afterwards the Paracas culture established itself on the southern coasts of Peru. The Paracas are famous for their weavings, skull trepanations and their burials where the dead person was left in a sitting position and had many cloths wound round and round the body to form a large bundle. From about 100 A.D. the Nazca Civilization controlled much of the southern coast where the Paracas had previously been dominant. The Nazca culture is famous for the lines etched into the desert and for their underground canal systems. At the same time the Moche culture flourished in the north. This culture is famous for its life like ceramic images and for their irrigation canals.
The Wari Civilization controlled a large Empire throughout much of modern day Peru from around 600 A.D. until 1,100 A.D. They developed important agricultural systems (they were the first to construct agricultural terraces on a massive scale) and created effective systems of government.
At the same time as the Incas were beginning to establish themselves in Cusco there was another important civilization in the north – the Chimu. It is best known for constructing the largest mud brick city in the world – Chan Chan, close to the city of Trujillo.
You can read about the Inca Empire in the text on Cusco. Following the Spanish Conquest between 1532 and 1533 there was a long period during which Peru was governed from Spain. During the first few years the native population was decimated by European diseases – over half of the population died. There were other important changes such as the growth in importance of mining and a reduction in the quality of agricultural methods. New animals and crops were introduced (cows, pigs and sheep in place of llamas and alpacas; wheat, barley and rice in place of quinoa, kiwicha and tarwi etc.)
During the 18th century many indigenous movements became established throughout South America which sought independence from Spain. One of the leaders was General José de San Martin. It was he who eventually proclaimed Peruvian independence in 1821 and under him the first Congress was established. Since then Peru has alternated between phases of dictatorship and democracy. Currently Peru is a democracy with a strong and stable economy.
Peru is a very diverse country in terms of landscapes, climate, culture and flora and fauna. Much of this is owing to its geography. There are 4 well defined natural regions – the sea, the coast, the mountains and the jungle – all running from north to south. These Regions can be sub divided. For example the well-known Peruvian environmentalist, Antonio Brack Egg has identified eleven eco regions in Peru. These are:
1.- The cold seas formed by the Peruvian or Humboldt Current
2.- The tropical seas
3.- The Pacific desert
4.- Dry equatorial woods
5.- The tropical forests of the pacific
6.- The Highlands
7.- The Puna
8.- The High Mountains
9.- The upper jungle slopes
10.- The jungle plains
11.- The palm plains in the jungle close to Bolivia
Despite being close to the equator Peru has a variety of climates due to factors such as:
- The presence of different currents in the sea – the Humboldt Current which brings cold waters from the south is particularly important. During some years the temperature of the sea rises slightly and this cause major changes in the climate usually leading to both natural and economic disasters. This is called “El Niño”
- The Andean mountain chain. Very little rain falls to the west of the mountains so that large parts of the coast are desert. Conversely huge amounts of rain fall to the east where the amazon jungle is formed.
Along the coast there are marked summer and winter seasons. Summer lasts from December to March or April. In the highlands there is no summer and winter as such, rather a wet and a dry season. The wet season in the highlands corresponds to summer on the coast. In the jungle temperatures are high year round accept for short cold snaps which last a few days and can occur at any time of the year.
In terms of biodiversity Peru is one of the richest in the world. Peru is one of the major centres of genetic resources, with around 182 domesticated plants and 5 domesticated animals (alpaca, llama, guinea pig, dog and duck). It is also one of the places where agriculture and livestock farming were developed independently. It is estimated that there are 25,000 species of plants in Peru (10% of the worldwide total), of which 30% are endemic. There are 462 species of mammal, 1,815 species of birds, 395 reptiles, 408 amphibians, over 2,000 species of fish and more than 4,000 types of butterfly.
The Andean Culture as practiced in Peru remains important today. Many customs and traditions are kept alive in communities, particularly in the highlands and in the jungle. Many communities retain their traditional social systems which value reciprocity at family, community and state level. Music such as Huaynos and Huaylas continue to be heard throughout the Andes. Andean crops such as quinoa and kiwicha continue to be cultivated and are highly valued. Many ceremonies dedicated to deities (Apus) such as the highest peaks and to Mother Earth are practiced and traditional medicines are used throughout much of the highlands and jungle.
With so much history and such diversity it is not a surprise that Peru has much to offer the visitor. Some examples are:
- The amazon jungle which can most easily be visited in Madre de Dios in the south and Iquitos in the north
- Lake Titicaca – the highest navigable lake in the world – located in the Region of Puno
- Cusco for its history, culture and, of course, Machu Picchu
- The Colca canyon close to Arequipa, which is one of the deepest on Earth.
- The Nazca Lines
- The Andean Culture, Andean wildlife and landscapes in the Sondondo and Chicha Soras valleys
- The Bay of Paracas for its marine wildlife
- Huaraz in Ancash for its spectacular scenery and highest peaks in the Andes.
- Cajamarca in the northern highlands for its livestock farming and to visit the room where Atahualpa was held prisoner by the Spanish Conquerors before being executed. Also worth visiting are the Inca Baths (hot springs) and the Community run cooperative at Porcon.
- The northern coast for its beaches (such as Mancora), to visit remains of the Moche and Chimu cultures and to enjoy the wonderful climate.
Write to us if you have any questions relating to the history, culture or destinations in Peru that interest you.