With a geography that encompasses desert, highland and jungle, Peru is relentlessly touted as a land of contrasts. This also applies to the lives of its people: the country is a mix of rich and poor, modern and ancient, agricultural and urban, indigenous and white. Day-to-day existence can be difficult – but it can also be profoundly rich. For centuries, this has been the story of life in Peru.

Population

Peru is essentially a bicultural society: there is the indigenous part and the European-influenced part. The largest cohort consists of Peruvians who speak Spanish and adhere to criollo tradition, the cultural legacy of the Peru-born Spaniards who administered the colony. This group is a racial mix of those who are white (15% of the population) and those who are mestizo, people of mixed indigenous and European heritage (another 37%). The country’s positions of leadership and affluence are generally occupied by individuals from this group, especially those who are white and fair-skinned.

About 45% of Peru’s population is pure indígena (people of indigenous descent), making it one of three countries in Latin America to have such high indigenous representation. A disproportionate share of indígenas inhabit rural areas in the Andes and work in agriculture.

Afro-Peruvians, Asians and other immigrant groups are also represented, but cumulatively make up only 3% of the population.

A whopping 78% of Peruvians live in cities. This represents a significant shift from the 1960s, when more than half the population inhabited the countryside. Urban migration has put a strain on municipal infrastructure, particularly in the capital, and issues of effective sanitation and electrification remain challenges – especially for the informal squatter settlements known as pueblos jovenes (young towns).

Lifestyle

Though the recent economic boom has been good to the country, there is still a yawning disparity between rich and poor. The minimum monthly wage stands at US$238. According to the World Bank, around 24% of the population lives below the poverty line. Though the official national unemployment rate is only 7.6%, underemployment is rampant, especially in Lima and other cities.

In rural areas, the poor survive largely from subsistence agriculture, living in traditional adobe or tin houses that often lack electricity and indoor plumbing. In cities, the extreme poor live in shantytowns, while the lower and middle classes live in concrete, apartment-style housing or small stand-alone homes. More affluent urban homes consist of large stand-alone houses, often bordered by high walls.

Across the board, homes are generally shared by more than one generation.

Social Graces

Peruvians are polite, indeed formal, in their interactions. Handshakes are appropriate in business settings, but among good friends an abrazo (back-slapping hug) is in order. Women will often greet each other with a kiss, as will men and women. Indigenous people don’t kiss and their handshakes, when offered, tend to have a light touch.

Locals are used to less personal space than some Western travelers may be accustomed to: expect close seating on buses.

Religion

Though there is freedom of religion, Peru remains largely Roman Catholic. More than 81% of the population identifies as such (though only 15% of them attend services on a weekly basis). The Church enjoys support from the state: it has a largely tax-exempt status and Catholicism is the official religion of the military. Moreover, all of the Church’s bishops, and up to an eighth of its overall clergy, receive monthly government stipends. This has generated outcries from some evangelical groups that do not receive the same generous treatment. Even so, evangelicals and other Protestants are a growing force, representing up to 13% of the nation’s population.

Women in Peru

Women can vote and own property, but the situation remains challenging in a country that is informally ruled by machismo. Particularly in rural areas, female literacy is far behind that of male counterparts (77% among women versus 93% among men, with lower rates among the indigenous). In 2017, women's wages averaged 35% lower than their male counterparts,' according to Statistica. That said, the overall situation has improved. A number of laws barring domestic violence and sexual assault have been passed, and women now make up 28% of the country’s professional class (senior officials, managers and legislators) and almost a third of the congress.

Spectator Sports

Fútbol (soccer) is the most sanctified spectator sport. Peru's participation in the 2018 World Cup was a titanic event for the country, which did respectably well with two losses and a 2-0 win against Australia. The country hadn’t qualified for the World Cup since 1982 – though it did take home the Copa América trophy in 2004.

The season runs from late March to November. There are many teams, the best are from Lima, with the traditional clásico the match between Alianza Lima and the Universitario de Deportes (La U).

Bullfighting is also well attended, particularly in Lima, where it is most popular. The traditional season runs from October to early December, when Lima’s Plaza de Acho attracts international matadors.