Life in Peru
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.
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).
Though the 21st-century 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$284. Around 22% of the population lives below the poverty line, according to INEI, Peru's national institution for statistics and information. Though the official national unemployment rate is only 6.7%, 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.
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.
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 indigenous communities). 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.
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.
Feature: Viva el Perú... ¡Carajo!
With vastly different peoples inhabiting such an extreme landscape, national identity has always been a slippery concept in Peru. Yet if there’s something that binds its people together, it’s a sturdy sense of defiance.
In the 1950s, Peruvian journalist Jorge Donayre Belaúnde penned a poem to his homeland called ‘Viva el Perú…¡Carajo!’ (Long Live Peru…Damn It!). The verse is an epic, warts-and-all tribute to Peru, depicting life in Andean villages as well as sprawling urban shantytowns. Peruvians, wrote Donayre, aren’t scared off by difficult circumstances – not by cataclysmic earthquakes, difficult geography or the corrupt habits of their politicians. In the face of adversity, there is an intractable sense of assurance.
In the half century since Donayre first wrote those words, that hasn’t changed one bit. Viva el Perú… ¡Carajo!
Sidebar: Gustavo Gutiérrez
It was a Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutiérrez, who first articulated the principles of liberation theology – the theory that links Christian thought to social justice – in 1971. He now teaches in the USA.
Sidebar: Peruvian Fútbol
Everything you ever needed to know about every regional Peruvian fútbol (soccer) team – large and small – is available at www.peru.com/futbol (in Spanish).
In Peru, fusion is a natural part of everyday cooking. Over the last 400 years, Andean stews mingled with Asian stir-fries, and Spanish rice dishes absorbed Amazonian flavors, producing the country’s famed criollo (creole) cooking. More recently, a generation of experimental young innovators has pushed local fare to gastronomic heights. You’ll never go hungry in Peru: from humble spots in Moyobamba to trendy boîtes in Miraflores, this is a country devoted to creatively keeping the human palate entertained.
Embracing Local Cuisine
Peru, once a country where important guests were treated to French meals and Scotch whiskey, is now a place where high-end restaurants spotlight deft interpretations of Andean favorites, including quinoa and cuy (guinea pig). The dining scene has blossomed. And tourism outfits have swept in to incorporate a culinary something as part of every tour. In 2000, the country became the site of the first Cordon Bleu academy in Latin America, and in 2009, Bon Appétit magazine named Lima the ‘next great food city.’ In 2017, three Lima restaurants made the list of the World's Best Restaurants, with Virgilio Martínez earning the Chefs Choice Award. And the honors roll on. Of Peru's 3.1 million annual visitors, 40% do gastronomic tourism. And maybe you should too.
Foodie fever has infected Peruvians at every level, with even the most humble chicharrón (fried pork) vendor hyper-attentive to the vagaries of preparation and presentation. No small part of this is due to mediagenic celebrity chef Gastón Acurio, whose culinary skill and business acumen (he owns dozens of restaurants around the globe) have given him rock-star status.
Staples & Specialties
Given the country’s craggy topography, there's infinite variety in regional cuisines. But at a national level much of the country’s cooking begins and ends with the humble potato – which originally hails from the Andes. (All potatoes can be traced back to a single progenitor from Peru.)
Standout dishes include ocopa (potatoes with a spicy peanut sauce), papa a la huancaína (potato topped with a creamy cheese sauce) and causa (mashed potato terrines stuffed with seafood, vegetables or chicken). Also popular is papa rellena, a mashed potato filled with ground beef and then deep-fried. Potatoes are also found in the chowder-like soups known as chupe and in lomo saltado, the simple beef stir-fries that headline every Peruvian menu.
Other popular items include tamales (corn cakes), which are made in various regional variations – such as humitas (created with fresh corn) and juanes (made from cassava).
The coast is all about seafood – and ceviche, naturally, plays a starring role. A chilled concoction of fish, shrimp or other seafood marinated in lime juice, onions, cilantro and chili peppers, it is typically served with a wedge of boiled corn and sweet potato. The fish is cooked in the citrus juices through a process of oxidation. (Some chefs, however, have begun to cut back on their marinating time, which means that some ceviches are served at a sushi-like consistency.) Another popular seafood cocktail is tiradito, a Japanese-inflected ceviche consisting of thin slices of fish served without onions, sometimes bathed in a creamy hot-pepper sauce.
Cooked fish can be prepared dozens of ways: al ajo (in garlic), frito (fried) or a la chorrillana (cooked in white wine, tomatoes and onions), the latter of which hails from the city of Chorrillos, south of Lima. Soups and stews are also a popular staple, including aguadito (a soupy risotto), picante (a spicy stew) and chupe (bisque) – all of which can feature fish, seafood and other ingredients.
Other items that make a regular appearance on seafood menus are conchitas a la parmesana (scallops baked with cheese), pulpo al olivo (octopus in a smashed olive sauce) and choros a la chalaca (chilled mussels with fresh corn salsa). On the north coast, around Chiclayo, omelets made with manta ray (tortilla de manta raya) are a typical dish.
None of this means that pork, chicken or beef aren’t popular. Aji de gallina (shredded chicken-walnut stew) is a Peruvian classic. In the north, a couple of local dishes bear repeat sampling: arroz con pato a la chiclayana (duck and rice simmered in cilantro, typical of Chiclayo) and seco de cabrito (goat stewed in cilantro, chilis and beer).
Along the coast, where the Asian presence is most significant, you will also find the Peruvian-Chinese restaurants known as chifas. The cuisine is largely Cantonese-influenced: simple dishes low on heavy sauces.
In the chilly highlands, it’s all about soups – which tend to be a generous, gut-warming experience, filled with vegetables, squash, potatoes, locally grown herbs and a variety of meats. Sopa a la criolla (a mild, creamy noodle soup with beef and vegetables) is a regular item on menus, as is caldo de gallina (a nourishing chicken soup with potatoes and herbs). In the area around Arequipa, chupe de camarones (chowder made from river shrimp) is also a mainstay.
The highlands are also known as the source of all things cuy – guinea pig. It is often served roasted or chactado (pressed under hot rocks). It tastes very similar to rabbit and is often served whole. River trout – prepared myriad ways – is also popular.
Arequipa has a particularly dynamic regional cuisine. The area is renowned for its picantes (spicy stews served with chunks of white cheese), rocoto relleno (red chilis stuffed with meat) and solterito (bean salad).
For special occasions and weddings, families will gather to make pachamanca: a mix of marinated meats, vegetables, cheese, chilis and fragrant herbs baked on hot rocks in the ground.
Though not as popular throughout the entire country, Amazon ingredients have begun to make headway in recent years. Several high-end restaurants in Lima have started giving gourmet treatment to jungle mainstays, with wide acclaim. This includes the increased use of river snails and fish (including paiche and doncella), as well as produce such as aguaje (the fruit of the moriche palm), yucca (cassava) and chonta (hearts of palm). Juanes (a bijao leaf stuffed with rice, yucca, chicken and/or pork) is a savory area staple.
Desserts tend to be hypersweet concoctions. Suspiro limeña is the most famous, consisting of manjar blanco (caramel) topped with sweet meringue. Also popular are alfajores (cookie sandwiches with caramel) and crema volteada (flan). Lighter and fruitier is mazamorra morada, a purple-corn pudding of Afro-Peruvian origin that comes with chunks of fruit.
During October, bakeries sell turrón de Doña Pepa, a sticky, molasses-drenched cake eaten in honor of the Lord of Miracles.
The main soft-drink brands are available, but locals have a passion for Inca Kola – which tastes like bubble gum and comes in a spectacular shade of nuclear yellow. Fresh fruit juices are also popular, as are traditional drinks such as chicha morada, a refreshing, nonalcoholic beverage made from purple corn and spices.
Though the country exports coffee to the world, many Peruvians drink it instant: some restaurants dish up packets of Nescafé or an inky coffee reduction that is blended with hot water. In cosmopolitan and touristy areas, cafes serving espresso and cappuccino have proliferated. Tea and mates (herbal teas), such as manzanilla (chamomile), menta (mint) and mate de coca (coca-leaf tea), are also available. Coca-leaf tea will not get you high, but it can soothe stomach ailments and it's believed to help in adjusting to high altitude.
Beer & Wine
The craft-beer trend has come to Peru, with interesting innovations such as quinoa beer. Small-batch brewers have popped up in Huaraz, Cuzco and Lima. The best-known mainstream brands of beer are Pilsen Callao, Brahma, Cristal and Cusqueña, all of which are light lagers. Arequipeña and Trujillana are regional brews served in and around those cities. In the Andes, homemade chicha (fermented corn beer) is very popular. It tastes lightly sweet and is low in alcoholic content. In rural Andes villages, a red flag posted near a door indicates that chicha is available.
Local wines have improved greatly over the years. The best local labels are Tabernero, Tacama, Ocucaje and Vista Alegre. Pisco is also very popular.
Where to Eat & Drink
For the most part, restaurants in Peru are a community affair, and local places will cater to a combination of families, tourists, teenagers and packs of chatty businessmen. At lunchtime, many eateries offer a menú – a set meal consisting of two or three courses. This is generally good value. (Note: if you request the menú, you’ll get the special. If you want the menu, ask for la carta.)
Cevicherías – places where ceviche is sold – are popular along the coast, and most commonly open for lunchtime service, as most places proudly serve fish that is at its freshest. In the countryside, informal local restaurants known as picanterías are a staple. In some cases these operate right out of someone’s home.
Peru has a vibrant street-food culture. The most popular items are anticuchos (beef-heart skewers), ceviche, tamales, boiled quail eggs and choclo con queso (boiled corn with cheese). Also popular, and quite delicious, are picarones (sweet doughnut fritters) usually served with sweet syrup.
For a cheap and tasty meal, check out the many pollerías (spit-roasted chicken joints) found just about everywhere.
Vegetarians & Vegans
In a country where many folks survive on nothing but potatoes, there can be a general befuddlement over why anyone would choose to be vegetarian. This attitude has started to change, however, and some of the bigger cities have restaurants catering exclusively to vegetarians. In recent years, Lima and Cuzco have become progressive centers for vegetarian and sustainable dining, with raw food, organic and vegan options that finally befit their ambitious fine-dining scenes.
In addition, one can always find vegetarian dishes at a regular Peruvian restaurant. Many of the potato salads, such as papas a la huancaína, ocopa and causa are made without meat, as is palta a la jardinera, an avocado stuffed with vegetables. Sopa de verduras (vegetable soup), tortilla (Spanish omelet) and tacu-tacu (beans and rice pan-fried together) are other options. Chifas can also be a good source of vegetarian meals. Before ordering, however, ask if these are platos vegetarianos (vegetarian dishes). The term sin carne (without meat) refers only to red meat or pork, so you could end up with chicken or seafood instead.
Vegans will have a harder time in conventional restaurants. Peruvian cuisine is based on eggs and dairy and infinite combinations thereof. There are grocery stores and a handful of eateries with gluten-free options, mostly in tourist centers.
Feature: Top Eats
Collectively, Lonely Planet’s writers spent months on the road and ate hundreds of meals. Herewith, a list of the places so good they brought tears to our eyes and unbridled joy to our palates:
Arequipa At Zig Zag, the succulent combination meat plate of alpaca, beef and lamb – cooked over hot volcanic rocks – is a carnivore’s delight.
Cajamarca Antifusion restaurant Salas meticulously prepares the full gamut of typical Cajamarquiño dishes according to classic recipes.
Cuzco Elegant Uchu serves stone-grilled alpaca with piquant sauces. You can also order off the menu of Marcelo Batata – twice-baked Andean potatoes are a must!
Huancayo Dip into the creamiest papas a la huancaína (steamed potatoes served with a cheese sauce) in a flower-filled courtyard at Huancahuasi.
Iquitos Set at the mouth of the Río Itaya, Al Frío y al Fuego has excellent nighttime views of Iquitos and scrumptious dishes crafted from Amazon river fish.
Lima The aphrodisiacal ceviche found in Barra Chalaca, Punto Azul and La Mar.
Máncora Hyperfresh yellowfin tuna drawn straight from the Pacific is worth the price at La Sirena d’Juan.
Tarapoto At La Patarashca don’t miss the namesake dish – traditional platters of fresh-grilled Amazon fish or shrimp doused in tomatoes, garlic and cilantro.
Trujillo The bamboo-lined Mar Picante is known for serving behemoth orders of divine ceviche mixto, piled high with shrimp, fish, crab and scallops.
Feature: A Pisco Primer
It is the national beverage: pisco, the omnipresent grape brandy served at events from the insignificant to the momentous. Production dates back to the early days of the Spanish colony in Ica, where it was distilled on private haciendas and then sold to sailors making their way through the port of Pisco. In its early years, pisco was the local firewater: a great way to get ripped – and wake up the following morning feeling as if you had been hammered over the head.
By the early 20th century, the pisco sour (pisco with lime juice and sugar) arrived on the scene, quickly becoming the national drink. In recent decades, as production has become more sophisticated, piscos have become more nuanced and flavorful (without the morning-after effects).
The three principal types of Peruvian pisco are Quebranta, Italia and Acholado. Quebranta (a pure-smelling pisco) and Italia (slightly aromatic) are each named for the varieties of grape from which they are crafted, while Acholadois a blend of varietals that has more of an alcohol top note (best for mixed drinks). There are many small-batch specialty piscos made from grape must (pressed juice with skins), known as mosto verde. These have a fragrant smell and are best sipped straight.
The most common brands include Tres Generaciones, Ocucaje, Ferreyros and La Botija, while Viñas de Oro, Viejo Tonel, Estirpe Peruano, LaBlanco and Gran Cruz are among the finest. Any pisco purchased in a bottle that resembles the head of an Inca will make for an unusual piece of home decor – and not much else.
Feature: Novoandina & the Peruvian New Wave
Today's Peruvian gastronomic renaissance has its roots in the 1980s. The country was in turmoil. The economy was in a free-fall. And newspaper publisher Bernardo Roca Rey was experimenting with Andean ingredients in his kitchen – roasting cuy (guinea pig), using rare strains of potatoes and producing risottos made with quinoa (a dish now known as quinotto). At the same time, Cucho La Rosa, the chef at El Comensal (since closed), was upgrading Peruvian recipes by improving cooking techniques: gentle steaming instead of boiling; searing instead of frying. These early figures detailed their discoveries in newspaper articles and recipe booklets. The cuisine was dubbed novoandina (Peruvian nouvelle cuisine) – but given the challenges of that period, it never quite ignited as a full-blown movement.
By 1994, however, circumstances had changed. The economy was in recovery and the political situation was beginning to improve. When Gastón Acurio (who studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris) opened Astrid y Gastón in Lima, he applied many of the same principles as the novoandina pioneers before him: interpreting Peruvian cooking through the lens of haute cuisine. The restaurant quickly became a place of pilgrimage. Other innovative new-wave chefs have since followed, including Rafael Piqueras and Pedro Miguel Schiaffino. Collectively, they have expanded the definition of novoandina, adding European, Chinese and Japanese ingredients and influences – in the process, transforming Peruvian food into a global cultural phenomenon.
Novoandina is now pushing even further, experimenting with molecular gastronomy, and ancient foods and growing techniques. Chef Virgilio Martínez of Central is developing terraced crops to experiment with growing practices similar to those used by the Incas. Meanwhile, even among everyday diners, the local palette becomes ever bolder.
Sidebar: Most Influential Chefs
- Gastón Acurio at Astrid y Gastón and others
- Virgilio Martínez at Central and MIL
- Mitsuharu Tsumura at Maido
- Francesca Ferreyros at IK
- Pedro Miguel Schiaffino at Malabar and ámaZ
- Rafael Osterling at Rafael and El Mercado
- Marilú Madueño at Huaca Pucllana
Sidebar: The Exotic Kitchens of Peru
First published in 2001, The Exotic Kitchens of Peru by Copeland Marks is not only a comprehensive guide to traditional cooking, but a good source of insight into the history of many dishes.
Sidebar: The Art of Peruvian Cuisine
Sumptuous photographs and recipes are available in Tony Custer and Miguel Etchepare’s hardback two-volume tome The Art of Peruvian Cuisine. Visit www.artperucuisine.com for mouthwatering previews.
Sidebar: Dessert Turrón de Doña Pepa
The dessert turrón de Doña Pepa was first made by a slave woman, in 1800, to honor the Christ of Miracles after she regained the use of her paralyzed arms.
Sidebar: Culinary Website Yanuq
The culinary website Yanuq (www.yanuq.com) has an extensive online database of Peruvian recipes in English and Spanish.
Sidebar: Cuy (Guinea Pig)
Cuy – otherwise known as guinea pig – was an important source of protein for pre-Columbian people all over the Andes. In recent years, Peru has begun testing the export market: the guinea pig is high in protein, but low in fat and cholesterol.
Sidebar: Peru: The Cookbook
If you want an encyclopedic primer on Peruvian cooking, look no further than Gaston Acurio's Peru: The Cookbook, published in 2015.
A pachacuti, according to the Incas, was a cataclysmic event dividing the different ages of history. For the indigenous cultures of 16th-century Peru, the arrival of the Spanish was the most earth-shattering pachacuti imaginable. The conquerors obliterated native history: melting gold objects, immolating religious icons and banning long-held traditions. Not a single Andean culture left behind a written language. Historians are still piecing together Peru’s pre-Columbian history. Thankfully, the physical legacy – from sumptuous textiles and striking ceramics to monumental structures – is bountiful.
Just a couple of hundred kilometers north of Lima is one of the most exciting archaeological sites in Peru. It may not look like much – half a dozen dusty temple mounds, a few sunken amphitheaters and remnants of structures crafted from adobe and stone – but it is. This is the oldest known city in the Americas: Caral.
Situated in the Supe Valley, this early society developed almost simultaneously with the cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt about 5000 years ago, and it predates the earliest civilizations in Mexico by about 1500 years. Little is known about the people that built this impressive 626-hectare urban center. But archaeologists, led by Ruth Shady Solís, the former director of Lima’s Museo Nacional de Antropología, Arqueología e Historia del Perú, have managed to unearth a few precious details.
Caral was a religious center that venerated its holy men and paid tribute to unknown agricultural deities. They cultivated crops such as cotton, squash, beans and chilies, collected fruits and were knowledgeable fishers. Archaeological finds include pieces of textile, necklaces, ceremonial burials and crude, unbaked clay figurines depicting female forms. The first serious digs began in the area in 1996 and much of the complex has yet to be excavated – expect further discoveries.
If Caral is evidence of early urbanization, then Chavín de Huántar, near Huaraz, represents the spread of a unified religious and artistic iconography. In a broad swath of the northern Andes, from roughly 1000 BC to 300 BC, a stylized feline deity began to appear on carvings, friezes, pottery and textiles. As with Caral, there is only patchy information available about the era’s societies, but its importance is without question: in Peru, this moment heralds the true birth of art.
It is still debated whether the temple at Chavín de Huántar represented a capital or merely an important ceremonial site, but what is without doubt is that the setting is extraordinary. With the stunning Cordillera Blanca as a backdrop, the remnants of this elaborate ceremonial complex – built over hundreds of years – include a number of temple structures, as well as a sunken court with stone friezes of jaguars. Here, archaeologists have found pottery from all over the region filled with ofrendas (offerings), including shells from as far away as the Ecuadorean coast, and carved bones (some human) featuring supernatural motifs. The site’s most remarkable feature is a maze of disorienting galleries beneath the temple complex, one of which boasts a nearly 5m-tall rock carving of a fanged anthropomorphic deity known as the Lanzón – just the sort of fierce-looking creature that is bound to turn anyone into a believer.
Paracas & Nazca
The Chavín Horizon, when Chavín civilization emerged, was followed by the development of a number of smaller, regional ethnicities. Along the country’s south coast, from about 700 BC to AD 400, the Paracas culture – situated around modern-day Ica – produced some of the most renowned textiles ever created. The most impressive of these were woven during the period known as the Paracas Necropolis (AD 1 to 400), so named for a massive grave site on the Península de Paracas uncovered by famed Peruvian archaeologist Julio Tello in the 1920s.
The historical data on the culture is thin, but the magnificent textiles recovered from the graves – layers of finely woven fabrics wrapped around mummy bundles – provide important clues about day-to-day life and beliefs. Cloths feature flowers, fish, birds, knives and cats, with some animals represented as two-headed creatures. Also significant are the human figures: warriors carry shrunken trophy heads and supernatural anthropomorphic creatures are equipped with wings, snake tongues and lots of claws. (There are some fantastic examples at the Museo Larco in Lima.) Many of the mummies found at this site had cranial deformations, most of which showed that the head had been intentionally flattened using two boards.
During roughly the same period, the Nazca culture (200 BC to AD 600), to the south, was producing an array of painted pottery, as well as incredible weavings that showcased everyday objects (beans, birds and fish), in addition to supernatural cat- and falcon-men in an array of explosive colors. The Nazca were skilled embroiderers: some weavings feature tiny dangling figurines that must have induced blindness in their creators. (Well-preserved examples can be seen at the Museo Andrés del Castillo in Lima.)
The culture is best known, however, for the Nazca Lines, a series of mysterious geoglyphs carved into a 500-sq-km area in the southern Peruvian desert. Recently, new Japanese research suggests that two different groups made the glyphs. The lines became the center of a worldwide scandal in 2014. Greenpeace activists entered the site on foot without authorization to leave an environmental message (saying 'Time for change, the future is renewable'), which inadvertently damaged the site.
When it comes to ceramics, there is no Andean civilization that compares to the Moche, a culture that inhabited the Peruvian north coast from about AD 100 to AD 800. Though not inherently urban, they built sophisticated ceremonial centers, such as the frieze-laden Huacas del Sol y de la Luna, outside modern-day Trujillo, and the elaborate burial site of Sipán, near Chiclayo. They had a well-maintained network of roads and a system of relay runners who carried messages, probably in the form of symbols carved onto beans.
But it’s their portrait pottery that makes the Moche a standout: lifelike depictions of individuals (scars and all) are so skillfully rendered they seem as if they are about to speak. Artisans often created multiple portraits of a single person over the course of a lifetime. One scholar, in fact, recorded 45 different pieces depicting the same model. Other ceramics showcase macho activities such as hunting, combat and ritual sacrifice. This doesn’t mean, however, that the Moche didn’t know a thing or two about love – they are famous for their downright acrobatic depictions of human sex (on view at Lima’s Museo Larco).
From about AD 600 to 1100, the Andes saw the rise of the first truly expansive kingdom. The Wari were avid empire builders, expanding from their base around Ayacucho to a territory that occupied most of the highlands, in addition to a piece of the northern coast. Expert agriculturalists, they improved production by developing the terrace system and creating complex networks of canals for irrigation.
Like many conquering cultures in the region, the Wari built on what was already there, usurping and adding to extant infrastructure created by smaller regional states. The coastal ceremonial center of Pachacamac, for instance, was originated by the Lima culture, but expanded by the Wari.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t definitive Wari sites to be seen. The remains of what was once a 1500-hectare city is located outside Ayacucho, and there is a Wari ceremonial center in Piquillacta, near Cuzco. Unfortunately, the Wari’s architecture was cruder than that of the Incas and so the buildings have not aged gracefully.
The Wari culture was highly skilled in weaving, producing elegant fabrics with elaborate, stylized designs. The Wari were masters of color, using as many as 150 distinct shades which they incorporated into woven and tie-dyed patterns. Many textiles feature abstract, geometric designs, as well as supernatural figures – most common is a winged deity holding a staff.
In 2013, the first unlooted Wari imperial tomb to be discovered intact was a 1200-year-old royal tomb, north of Lima at El Castillo de Huarmey. In what has been described as the 'Temple of the Dead,' three Wari queens were accompanied by numbers of seated mummies, alabaster drinking cups, decorated ceramic vessels and gold weaving tools. Thirty tons of loose stone fill had been protecting the site from grave robbers. In 2015, another ceremonial site known as Tenahaha in the Cotahuasi Valley was unearthed, revealing hundreds of mummies and artifacts which will eventually illuminate more of the Wari culture.
Chimú & Chachapoyas
Following the demise of the Wari, a number of small nation-states emerged in different corners of the country. They are too numerous to detail here, but there are two that merit discussion because of the art and architecture they left behind.
The first of these is the Chimú culture, once based around present-day Trujillo. Between about AD 1000 and AD 1400, this sophisticated society built the largest known pre-Columbian city in the Americas. Chan Chan is a sprawling, 36-sq-km complex, which once housed an estimated 60,000 people. Though over the centuries this adobe city has been worn down by the elements, parts of the complex’s geometric friezes have been restored, giving a small inkling of what this metropolis must have been like in its heyday. The Chimú were accomplished artisans and metallurgists – producing, among other things, some absolutely outrageous-looking textiles covered top-to-bottom in tassels.
In the interior of the northern highlands is the cloud-forest citadel of Kuélap, built by the Chachapoyas culture in the remote Utcubamba Valley, beginning around AD 800. It is an incredible structure – or, more accurately, series of structures. The site is composed of more than 400 circular dwellings in addition to unusual, gravity-defying pieces of architecture, such as an inverted cone known as El Tintero (The Inkpot). The compound caps a narrow ridge and is surrounded, on all sides, by a 6m- to 12m-high wall, making the city practically impenetrable. This has led at least one historian to theorize that if the Incas had made their last stand against the Spanish here, rather than outside Cuzco, history might have been quite different.
Peru’s greatest engineers were also its greatest empire builders. Because the Incas made direct contact with the Spanish, they also happen to be the pre-Columbian Andean culture that is best documented – not only through Spanish chronicles, but also through narratives produced by descendants of the Incas themselves. (The most famous of these scribes is El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, who lived in the 16th century.)
The Incas were a Quechua civilization descended from alpaca farmers in the southern Andes. Over several generations, from AD 1100 until the arrival of the Spanish in 1532, they steadfastly grew into a highly organized empire that extended over more than 37° latitude from Colombia to Chile. This was an absolutist state with a strong army, where ultimate power resided with the inca (emperor). The political history is fascinating.
The society was bound by a rigid caste system: there were nobles, an artisan and merchant class, and peasants. The latter supplied the workers for the Incas’ many public-works projects. Citizens were expected to pay tribute to the crown in the form of labor – typically three months of the year – enabling the development and maintenance of monuments, canals and roadways. The Incas also kept a highly efficient communications system consisting of a body of chasquis (relay runners), who could make the 1600km trip between Quito and Cuzco in just seven days. (By comparison, it takes the average traveler three to four days to hike the Inca Trail from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu – a mere 43km!) As brutal as the regime was (bloody wars, human sacrifice), the Incas also had a notable social-welfare system, warehousing surplus food for distribution to areas and people in need.
On the cultural front, the Incas had a strong tradition of music, oral literature and textiles. Their fabrics were generally composed of bold, solid colors in an array of abstract, geometric prints. But they are best known for their monumental architecture. The capital of Cuzco, along with a series of constructions at Sacsaywamán, Pisac, Ollantaytambo and the fabled Machu Picchu, are all incredible examples of the imperial style of building. Carved pieces of rock, without mortar, are fitted together so tightly that it is impossible to fit a knife between the stones. Most interestingly, walls are built at an angle and windows in a trapezoidal form, so as to resist seismic activity. The Incas kept the exteriors of their buildings austere, opting to put the decoration on the inside, in the form of rich wall hangings made of precious metal.
Nestled into spectacular natural locales, these structures, even in their ruined state, are an unforgettable sight. Their great majesty was something the Spanish acknowledged, even as they pried them apart to build their own monuments. ‘Now that the Inca rulers have lost their power,’ wrote Spanish chronicler Pedro Cieza de León in the 16th century, ‘all these palaces and gardens, together with their other great works, have fallen, so that only the remains survive. Since they were built of good stone and the masonry is excellent, they will stand as memorials for centuries to come.’ León was right. The Inca civilization did not survive the Spanish pachacuti, but its architecture did – a reminder of the many grand societies we are just beginning to understand.
Feature: Father of Peruvian Archaeology
Much of what we know about some of Peru’s most important pre-Columbian cultures we owe to a single man: Julio C Tello (1880–1947), the acclaimed ‘Father of Peruvian Archaeology.’ A self-described ‘mountain Indian,’ Tello was born in the highland village of Huarochirí, in the mountains east of Lima. He earned a medical degree at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marco Lima and later studied archaeology at Harvard University – no small achievement for a poor, indigenous man in turn-of-the-20th-century Peru.
In the 1920s, he undertook a series of groundbreaking archaeological studies of the Wari centers around Ayacucho and the temple complex at Chavín de Huántar, where an ornate stela – the Tello Obelisk – is named in his honor (it's on view at the Museo Nacional de Chavín). He also discovered hundreds of mummy bundles on the Península de Paracas in 1927 – one of the most important sources of information about this pre-Inca culture. Most significantly, Tello brought scientific rigor to Peru’s burgeoning archaeological efforts. In the 19th century, digs often resulted in more destruction than conservation, and looting was widely accepted. Tello helped get laws passed that offered legal protection to important archaeological sites.
For more on this charismatic figure, pick up a copy of The Life and Writings of Julio C Tello: America’s First Indigenous Archaeologist, published by University of Iowa Press. The publication is the first to gather his key writings.
Feature: Best Archaeological Museums
Feature: Drones & Ruins
When the Nazca Lines were damaged in a Greenpeace climate-change protest, the Peruvian government dispatched drones to survey the damage. They're also being used to protect ancient sites in other ways, such as to document the encroachment of developers and squatters into protected areas. Drones have proved handy in conservation, tracing the effects of El Niño storms on Chan Chan. State-of-the-art technology called octocopters are outfitted with a high-definition swivel camera for precision monitoring – that's a lot of high tech in service to the ancients.
Sidebar: Top Ruins Sites
- Machu Picchu (Sacred Valley)
- Chan Chan (Trujillo)
- Sillustani (Puno)
- Chavín de Huántar (Huaraz)
- Huacas del Sol y de la Luna (Trujillo)
- Kuélap (Chachapoyas)
Sidebar: Encyclopedia of Peruvian Textiles
Tejidos Milenarios del Perú: Ancient Peruvian Textiles is a sumptuously illustrated encyclopedia of Peruvian textiles, from Chavín and the Incas. It's a legacy so rich that the tome spans more than 800 pages and weighs more than 10kg.
Sidebar: The Moche of Ancient Peru
Published by Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, The Moche of Ancient Peru: Media and Messages, by Jeffrey Quilter, is an outstanding introduction to the history, art and architecture of the Moche culture of the north coast.
Sidebar: The Art of Ancient Peru
For an excellent primer to Peru’s pre-Hispanic art, pick up Ferdinand Anton’s The Art of Ancient Peru. The descriptions are concise and accessible and the book comes laden with almost 300 large-scale photographic images.
Sidebar: Archaeology News in Peru
The website www.arqueologia.com.ar gathers useful links (in Spanish) related to archaeology news in Peru. The site contains timelines and some basic photo galleries devoted to different cultural groups.
Sidebar: Inca Empire
At its acme, the Inca empire was larger than imperial Rome and boasted 40,000km of roadways. A network of chasquis (relay runners) kept the kingdom connected, relaying fresh-caught fish from the coast to Cuzco in 24 hours.
While Peru’s social order has been molded by Spanish custom, its soul remains indigenous. According to the country’s census bureau, this crinkled piece of the South American Andes harbors 52 different ethnicities, 13 distinct linguistic families and 1786 indigenous communities. In fact, almost half of Peru’s population of more than 30 million identifies as indigenous. Together, these groups account for a plethora of rituals, artistic traditions and ways of life – a cultural legacy that's as rich as it is long-running.
In the wake of the Spanish conquest, colonial authorities transformed the ways in which people lived in the Andes. Indigenous people who had only ever known an agricultural life were forced to live on reducciones (mission towns) by colonial authorities. These urbanized ‘reductions’ provided the Church with a centralized place for evangelism and allowed the Spanish to control the natives politically and culturally. In these reducciones, indigenous people were often prohibited from speaking their native language or wearing traditional dress.
By the 17th century, after the Spanish had consolidated their power, many indigenous people were dispersed back to the countryside. But rather than work in the self-sustaining collectives (ayllus) that had existed in pre-Columbian times, they were forced into a system of debt peonage. For example: a native family was granted a subsistence plot on a Spanish landowner’s holdings. In exchange, the family provided labor for the patrón (boss). In many cases, these campesinos (farmers) were not allowed to leave the land on which they lived.
This system remained firmly in place into the 20th century.
A 20th-Century Shift
The last 100 years have marked a number of significant steps forward. Since the indigenist social movements of the 1920s, various constitutions and laws have granted legal protection to communal lands (at least on paper, if not always in practice). In 1979, the Peruvian constitution officially recognized the right of people to adhere to their own ‘cultural identities,’ and the right to bilingual education was officially established. (Until then, the public school system had made a systematic effort to eliminate the use of native languages and pressured indigenous people to acculturate to Spanish criollo society.) And, the following year, literacy voting restrictions were finally lifted – allowing indigenous people to fully participate in the political process.
In 2011, President Humala passed a law that required native peoples be consulted on all mining and extraction activities on their territories. Yet, conflict still runs deep. In September, 2014, four indigenous activists were murdered en route to a meeting to discuss illegal logging.
Pressures of Poverty & Environment
Even as indígenas continue to make strides, there are obstacles. Indigenous people make up almost twice as many of the country’s extreme poverty cases as Peruvians of European descent. In addition, access to basic services is problematic. Nearly 60% of indigenous communities do not have access to a health facility, and the country has a high maternal mortality ratio (higher than Iraq or the Gaza Strip). This affects indigenous women disproportionately.
Perhaps the biggest issue facing some ethnicities is the loss of land. Drug trafficking and the exploitation of natural resources in ever more remote areas are putting increased pressure on indigenous communities whose territories are often ill-defined and whose needs are poorly represented by the federal government in Lima. According to Aidesep, a Peruvian indigenous organization representing various rainforest ethnic groups, oil prospecting and extraction is occurring in more than 80% of indigenous territories in the Amazon. In late 2014, the remote Mashco-Piro, a tribe that had never been contacted until recently, raided a mestizo (mixed descent) village for supplies after being displaced from their own lands by logging and drug trafficking. In 2017, Achuar people seized 50 oil wells in their territory to protest the renewal of the Canadian company's contract despite a history of pollution.
Multitude of Cultures
Indigenous cultures are identified by their region or name, such as the Arequipa or Chachapoyas. But with more than a thousand highly localized regional cultures in the Peruvian Andes alone, it is easiest to identify groups by the language they speak. Quechua – the lingua franca of the Incas – is predominant. It is the most commonly spoken native language in the Americas and is heard all over the Andes. In Peru, more than 13% of the national population claims it as a birth language.
Aymara is the second-most spoken indigenous language – with nearly 2% of Peruvians speaking it from birth, primarily in the area around Lake Titicaca. Nearly 1% of Peruvians speak one of another 50 or so smaller, regional dialects. These include the numerous Amazon cultures that inhabit the rainforest.
The descendants of the Incas (along with the myriad peoples the Incas conquered) inhabit much of Peru’s Andean spine, representing the biggest indigenous cohort in the country. The department of Cuzco, however, remains the symbolic center of Quechua life. Traditional Quechua refer to themselves as runakuna and refer to mixed-raced mestizos or indigenous people who adopt Spanish-Peruvian culture as mistikuna. The ritual chewing of coca is regarded as a major point of self-identification among runakuna. However, such distinguishing characteristics are becoming increasingly blurred as more indigenous people adopt at least some criollo customs in order to participate in the greater economy.
Regardless, many people continue to speak the language, chew coca and wear traditional dress. For men, this generally consists of brightly woven ponchos and the ear-flap hats known as chullos. Women’s outfits are more elaborate and flamboyant: a bowler or flat-topped hat accompanies some sort of woven wrap or sweater, and multiple layers of handwoven or shiny skirts. (The layered skirt look is considered very feminine.) Elements of traditional and Western dress are often combined.
Feature: Ollantay: Quechua’s Great Literary Epic
Ollantay tells the story of a pair of star-crossed lovers: Ollanta, a celebrated warrior of humble birth, and Cusi Cuyllur, a captivating Inca princess. Because Ollanta is not a noble, societal mores dictate that he cannot marry his beloved. But he nonetheless draws up the courage to ask Emperor Pachacutec for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The emperor becomes enraged at the audacity of the young lovers, and expels Ollanta from Cuzco and throws his daughter in jail. Battles ensue, a child is born and after much palace intrigue, the lovers are reunited.
Ollantay is a work of classic Quechua – the version of Quechua spoken at the time of the conquest. But because the Incas didn’t leave behind a written language, its origins are quite murky: no one knows who composed it, or when. Its first recorded appearance is in the manuscripts of an 18th-century priest named Antonio Valdés, who worked in the department of Cuzco. Some scholars have surmised that Valdés may have written Ollantay. Others say that it was one of the many epic poems transmitted orally among the Incas, and that Valdés simply recorded it. Others figure Valdés may have tailored an indigenous work to suit Spanish tastes. Regardless, it is a popular theater drama in Peru – and remains one of the great works of art in Quechua.
Though subjugated by the Quechua-speaking Incas in the 15th century, the Aymara have maintained a distinct language group and identity. Traditionally an agricultural society, they were reduced to near-slave status through debt peonage and, later, in the silver mines of Bolivia. Within Peru, they are clustered in the area around Puno and Lake Titicaca.
While identification with indigenous custom is strong, Spanish elements are present in spiritual life. Indígenas have largely adapted Catholic deities to their own beliefs. Like the Quechua, many Aymara practice syncretic religious beliefs that closely link indigenous custom to Catholic thought. In Puno, there is a large festival in honor of La Virgen de la Candelaria every February 2 (Candlemas). The Virgin, however, is closely identified with Pachamama, as well as natural elements such as lightning and fertility.
Cultures of the Amazon
The vast Peruvian Amazon is home to more than 330,000 indigenous people, representing more than five dozen different ethnicities – some are closely related while others couldn’t be more different in terms of tradition and language.
Within this group, the biggest demographic is comprised of the Asháninka people (also known as Campa). Comprising roughly a quarter of the indigenous population in the Peruvian Amazon, they inhabit numerous river valleys east of the central highlands. (Because of this location, the Asháninka suffered mightily during the Internal Conflict, when the Sendero Luminoso – Shining Path – made incursions to the east.)
The second-largest Amazon group is the Aguaruna, who occupy the Marañón, Nieva and Santiago River valleys to the north. The group not only resisted Inca attempts at conquest, they also fended off the Spanish. In fact, they still occupy their preconquest lands, and survive by practicing horticulture, hunting and fishing.
There are countless other smaller ethnic groups, including the Shipibo, Matsiguenka and the small, so-called ‘uncontacted tribes’ that have made headlines in recent years. These groups are extremely vulnerable to land loss and pollution caused by oil and mineral extraction. For the most remote groups, the biggest problem can boil down to simple immunity: in the 1980s, more than half of the Nahua people in the southern Amazon died after contracting diseases from loggers and oil-company agents.
Sidebar: English Words Derived from Quechua
Sidebar: Spanish Translations
In Spanish, indígena (indigenous) is the appropriate term. The word indio – ‘Indian’ in English – can be insulting, especially when used by outsiders. The slang cholo (translating roughly to ‘Indian peasant’) has long been considered derogatory, though some Peruvians use it as a term of empowerment.
Sidebar: Racism in Peru
Racism remains a potent societal force in Peru. Yet a DNA study recently published by National Geographic shows that the inhabitants of Lima have 68% indigenous blood.
Sidebar: Quechua Life in Peru
For a well-written examination of Quechua life in Peru, read Catherine Allen’s The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community. This intriguing ethnography, last updated in 2002, covers everything from belief systems to the rituals of daily life in the southern highlands.
Music & the Arts
The country that has been home to both indigenous and European empires has a wealth of cultural and artistic tradition. Perhaps the most outstanding achievements are in the areas of music (both indigenous and otherwise), painting and literature — the latter of which received plenty of attention in 2010, when Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize.
Like its people, Peru’s music is an intercontinental fusion of elements. Pre-Columbian cultures contributed bamboo flutes, the Spaniards brought stringed instruments and the Africans gave it a backbone of fluid, percussive rhythm. By and large, music tends to be a regional affair: African-influenced landó with its thumbing bass beats is predominant on the coast, high-pitched indigenous huayno, heavy on bamboo wind instruments, is heard in the Andes and criollo waltzes are a must at any dance party on the coast.
Over the last several decades, the huayno has blended with surf guitars and Colombian cumbia (a type of Afro-Caribbean dance music) to produce chicha – a danceable sound closely identified with the Amazon region, growing in popularity even with cool urban youth. (Well-known chicha bands include Los Shapis and Los Mirlos.) Cumbia is also popular. Grupo 5, which hails from Chiclayo, is a favorite in the genre.
On the coast, guitar-inflected música criolla (criollo music) has its roots in both Spain and Africa. The most famous criollo style is the vals peruano (Peruvian waltz), a three-quarter-time waltz that is fast moving and full of complex guitar melodies. The most legendary singers in this genre include singer and composer Chabuca Granda (1920–83), Lucha Reyes (1936–73) and Arturo ‘Zambo’ Cavero (1940–2009). Cavero, in particular, was revered for his gravelly vocals and soulful interpretations. Landó is closely connected to this style of music, but features the added elements of call-and-response. Standout performers in this vein include singers Susana Baca (b 1944) and Eva Ayllón (b 1956).
Peru is making significant contributions to today's alt-rock scene, with fusion bands such as Uchpa, NovaLima, Bareto, the award-winning Lucho Quequezana, and La Sarita integrating Quechua, Afro-Peruvian and other influences. Band La Mente sets a party tone and Bareto remakes Peruvian cumbia classics with great appeal. The contemporary band Barrio Calavera meshes ska, cumbia, chicha, reggae, punk and boleros with Latin American folklore for raucous dance music.
The country’s most famous art movement dates to the 17th and 18th centuries, when the artists of the Cuzco School produced thousands of religious paintings, the vast majority of which remain unattributed. Created by indigenous and mestizo (person of mixed indigenous and Spanish descent) artists, the pieces frequently feature holy figures laced in gold paint and rendered in a style inspired by mannerist and late Gothic art – but bearing traces of an indigenous color palette and iconography. Today, these hang in museums and churches throughout Peru and reproductions are sold in many crafts markets.
One of the most well-known artistic figures of the 19th century is Pancho Fierro (1807–79), the illegitimate son of a priest and a slave, who painted highly evocative watercolors of the everyday figures that occupied Lima’s streets: fishmongers, teachers and Catholic religious figures clothed in lush robes.
In the early 20th century, an indigenist movement led by painter José Sabogal (1888–1956) achieved national prominence. Sabogal often painted indigenous figures and incorporated pre-Columbian design in his work. As director of the National School of Arts in Lima, he influenced a whole generation of painters who looked to Andean tradition for inspiration, including Julia Codesido (1892–1979), Mario Urteaga (1875–1957) and Enrique Camino Brent (1909–60).
Mario Vargas Llosa (b 1936) is Peru’s most famous writer, hailed alongside 20th-century Latin American luminaries such as Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar and Carlos Fuentes. His novels evoke James Joyce in their complexity, meandering through time and shifting perspectives. Vargas Llosa is also a keen social observer, casting a spotlight on the naked corruption of the ruling class and the peculiarities of Peruvian society. His more than two dozen novels are available in translation. The best place to start is La ciudad y los perros (The Time of the Hero; 1962), based on his experience at a Peruvian military academy. (The soldiers at his old academy responded to the novel by burning it.)
Another keen observer includes Alfredo Bryce Echenique (b 1939), who chronicles the ways of the upper class in novels such as El huerto de mi amada (My Beloved’s Garden; 2004), which recounts an affair between a 33-year-old woman and a teenage boy in 1950s Lima. Demonstrating a distinctly Peruvian penchant for dark humor is Julio Ramón Ribeyro (1929–94). Though never a bestselling author, he is critically acclaimed for his insightful works, which focus on the vagaries of lower-middle-class life. His work is available in English in Marginal Voices: Selected Stories (1993). If you are just learning to read Spanish, his clearly and concisely written pieces are an ideal place to start exploring Peruvian literature.
Also significant is Daniel Alarcón (b 1977), a rising Peruvian-American writer whose award-winning short stories have appeared in the New Yorker magazine. His debut novel, Lost City Radio (2007), about a country recovering from civil war, won a PEN award in 2008.
Claudia Salazar Jiménez (b 1976) wrote Blood of the Dawn (2013), a novel available in English about the experience of three women during Peruvian government’s war against the Shining Path guerrilla in the 1980s and '90s.
If Vargas Llosa is the country’s greatest novelist, then César Vallejo (1892–1938) is its greatest poet. In his lifetime, he published only three slim books – Los heraldos negros (The Black Heralds; 1919), Trilce (1922) and Poemas humanos (Human Poems; 1939) – but he has long been regarded as one of the most innovative Latin American poets of the 20th century. Vallejo frequently touched on existential themes and was known for pushing the language to its limits, inventing words when real ones no longer suited him.
Feature: Traditional Crafts
Peru has a long tradition of producing extraordinarily rendered crafts and folk art. Here’s what to look for:
- Textiles You’ll see intricate weavings with elaborate anthropomorphic and geometric designs all over Peru. Some of the finest can be found around Cuzco.
- Pottery The most stunning pieces of pottery are those made in the tradition of the pre-Columbian Moche people of the north coast. But also worthwhile is Chancay-style pottery: rotund figures made from sand-colored clay. Find these at craft markets in Lima.
- Religious Crafts These abound in all regions, but the retablos (3D ornamental dioramas) from Ayacucho are the most spectacular.
Sidebar: Must-Read Fiction
- The War of the End of the World (Mario Vargas Llosa; 1981)
- War by Candlelight (Daniel Alarcón; 2006)
- Chronicle of San Gabriel (Julio Ramón Ribeyro; 2004)
- Roebuck: Tales of an Admirable Adventurer (Luke Waterson; 2015)
Sidebar: Afro-Peruvian Tunes
Of the infinite varieties of music that exist all over Peru, the Afro-Peruvian tunes from the coast are perhaps the most addictive. For an excellent primer, listen to the David Byrne–produced compilation Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru.
Sidebar: César Vallejo's Poetry
César Vallejo is one of the world’s most renowned poets, influencing writers all over the West. Now his complete works – in English and Spanish – are available in a single volume, The Complete Poetry of César Vallejo: A Bilingual Edition, 2009.
Sidebar: Charles Mann's Nonfiction
To understand how the 'discovery' of the Americas changed the world, Charles Mann's nonfiction 1493 (2011) offers an astounding and panoramic perspective; his 1491 (2005) brings to light the state of the continent before it changed forever.
The Natural World
Few countries have topographies as rugged, forbidding and wildly diverse as Peru. It lies in the tropics, south of the equator, straddling three strikingly different geographic zones: the arid Pacific coast, the craggy Andes and a good portion of the Amazon Basin. Regardless of which part you visit, you'll never travel a straight line. Between snaking rivers, plunging canyons and zigzagging mountain roads, navigating Peru’s landscape is about circumventing natural obstacles along a path of excitement and jaw-dropping beauty.
The third-largest country in South America – at 1,285,220 sq km – Peru is five times larger than the UK, almost twice the size of Texas and one-sixth the size of Australia. On the coast, a narrow strip of land, which lies below 1000m in elevation, hugs the country’s 3000km-long shoreline. Consisting primarily of scrubland and desert, it eventually merges, in the south, with Chile’s Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth. The coast includes Lima, the capital, and several major agricultural centers – oases watered by dozens of rivers that cascade down from the Andes. These settlements make for a strange sight: barren desert can give way to bursts of green fields within the course of a few meters. The coast contains some of Peru’s flattest terrain, so it’s no surprise that the country’s best road, the Carretera Panamericana (Pan-American Hwy), borders much of the Pacific from Ecuador to Chile.
The Andes form the spine of the country. Rising steeply from the coast, and growing sharply in height and gradient from north to south, they reach spectacular heights of more than 6000m just 100km inland. Peru’s highest peak, Huascarán (6768m), located northeast of Huaraz, is the world’s highest tropical summit and the sixth-tallest mountain in the Americas. Though the Peruvian Andes resides in the tropics, the mountains are laced with a web of glaciers above elevations of 5000m. Between 3000m and 4000m lie the agricultural highlands, which support more than a third of Peru’s population.
The eastern Andean slopes receive much more rainfall than the dry western slopes and are draped in lush cloud forests as they descend into the lowland rainforest of the Amazon. Here, the undulating landscape rarely rises more than 500m above sea level as various tributary systems feed into the mighty Río Amazonas (Amazon River), the largest river in the world. Weather conditions are hot and humid year-round, with most precipitation falling between December and May.
With its folds, bends and plunging river valleys, Peru is home to countless ecosystems, each with its own unique climate, elevation, vegetation and soil type. As a result, it boasts a spectacular variety of plant and animal life. Colonies of sea lions occupy rocky outcroppings on the coast, while raucous flocks of brightly colored macaws descend on clay licks in the Amazon. In the Andes, rare vicuñas (endangered relatives of the alpaca) trot about in packs as condors take to the wind currents. Peru is one of only a dozen or so countries in the world considered to be ‘megadiverse.’
Feature: Watching Wildlife in Peru
Sea lions, vicuñas, scarlet macaws and monkeys – a lot of travelers come to Peru specifically to observe the extraordinary animal life. A few tips on making the most of your wildlife-watching:
- be willing to travel – the coast has limited fauna and some highland areas have been hunted out; remote is the way to go
- hire a knowledgeable local guide – they know what to look for, when and where
- get up really early – animals tend to be most active at dawn and dusk
- bring a pair of lightweight binoculars – they improve wildlife observation tremendously
- be quiet: animals tend to avoid loud packs of chatty humans, so keep chit-chat to a whisper; in the Amazon, opt for canoes instead of motorboats – you’ll see much more
- have realistic expectations: vegetation can be thick and animals shy – you’re not going to see everything in a single hike
Wildlife enthusiasts come to Peru to see a rainbow of birds, as well as camelids, freshwater dolphins, butterflies, jaguars, anacondas, macaws and spectacled bears – to name but a few.
Feature: For the Dogs: Peruvian Hairless
Visit many of the ancient sites around coastal Peru and you’ll be greeted by a strangely awesome canine sight: hairless dogs – some with small mohawks on the crown of their heads – bounding about the ruins. A pre-Inca breed whose roots in the Andes date back almost 3000 years, the perro biringo or perro calato (naked dog), as it is known, has been depicted in Moche, Chimú and Chancay pottery.
Over the centuries, as cutesy breeds from abroad have been introduced to Peru, the population of Peruvian hairless dogs has declined. But, in recent years, they’ve started to make a comeback, with dedicated Lima breeders working to keep the species alive, and the government employing them as staple attractions at pre-Columbian sites. In 2009 they were even awarded with their own commemorative stamp. The dogs may not be pretty, but they are generally friendly. And they do have one thing going for them: no fur means no fleas.
Peru has more than 1800 bird species – that’s more than the number of species found in North America and Europe together. From the tiniest hummingbirds to the majestic Andean condor, the variety is colorful and seemingly endless; new species are discovered regularly.
Along the Pacific, marine birds of all kinds are most visible, especially in the south, where they can be found clustered along the shore. Here you’ll see exuberant Chilean flamingos, oversized Peruvian pelicans, plump Inca terns sporting white-feather mustaches and bright orange beaks, colonies of brown boobies engaged in elaborate mating dances, cormorants, and endangered Humboldt penguins, which can be spotted waddling around the Islas Ballestas.
In the highlands, the most famous bird of all is the Andean condor. Weighing up to 10kg, with a 3m-plus wingspan, this monarch of the air (a member of the vulture family) once ranged over the entire Andean mountain chain from Venezuela to Tierra del Fuego. Considered the largest flying bird in the world, the condor was put on the endangered species list in the 1970s, due mostly to loss of habitat and pollution. But it was also hunted to the brink of extinction because its body parts were believed to increase male virility and ward off nightmares. Condors usually nest in impossibly high mountain cliffs that prevent predators from snatching their young. Their main food source is carrion and they’re most easily spotted riding thermal air currents in the canyons around Arequipa.
Other prominent high-altitude birds include the Andean gull (don’t call it a seagull!), which is commonly sighted along lakes and rivers as high as 4500m. The mountains are also home to several species of ibis, such as the puna ibis, which inhabits lakeside marshes, as well as roughly a dozen types of cinclodes, a type of ovenbird (their clay nests resemble ovens) endemic to the Andes. Other species include torrent ducks, which nest in small waterside caves, Andean geese, spotted Andean flickers, black-and-yellow Andean siskins and, of course, a panoply of hummingbirds.
Swoop down toward the Amazon and you’ll catch sight of the world’s most iconic tropical birds, including boisterous flocks of parrots and macaws festooned in brightly plumed regalia. You’ll also see clusters of aracaris, toucans, parakeets, toucanets, ibises, regal gray-winged trumpeters, umbrella birds donning gravity-defying feathered hairdos, crimson colored cocks-of-the-rock, soaring hawks and harpy eagles. The list goes on.
Feature: Frequent Flyers
For many bird enthusiasts in Peru, the diminutive hummingbirds are among the most delightful to observe. More than 100 species have been recorded in the country, and their exquisite beauty is matched by their extravagant names. There’s the ‘green-tailed goldenthroat,’ the ‘spangled coquette,’ the ‘fawn-breasted brilliant’ and ‘amethyst-throated sunangel.’ Species such as the redheaded Andean hillstar, living in the puna (high Andean grasslands), have evolved an amazing strategy to survive a cold night. They go into a state of torpor, which is like a nightly hibernation, by lowering their body temperature by up to 30°C, thus drastically slowing their metabolism.
One of the most unusual species of hummingbird is the marvelous spatuletail, found in the Utcubamba Valley in northern Peru. Full-grown adult males are adorned with two extravagant feathery spatules on the tail, which are used during mating displays to attract females.
The Amazon is home to a bounty of mammals. More than two dozen species of monkeys are found here, including howlers, acrobatic spider monkeys and wide-eyed marmosets. With the help of a guide, you may also see sloths, bats, piglike peccaries, anteaters, armadillos and coatis (ring-tailed members of the raccoon family). And if you’re really lucky, you’ll find giant river otters, capybaras (a rodent of unusual size), river dolphins, tapirs and maybe one of half a dozen elusive felines, including the fabled jaguar.
Toward the west, the cloud forests straddling the Amazon and the eastern slopes of the Andean highlands are home to the endangered spectacled bear. South America’s only bear is a black, shaggy mammal that grows up to 1.8m in length, and is known for its white, masklike face markings.
The highlands are home to roving packs of camelids: llamas and alpacas are the most easily spotted since they are domesticated, and used as pack animals or for their wool; vicuñas and guanacos live exclusively in the wild. On highland talus slopes, watch out for the viscacha, which looks like the world’s most cuddly rabbit. Foxes, deer and domesticated cuy (guinea pigs) are also highland dwellers, as is the puma (cougar or mountain lion).
On the coast, huge numbers of sea lions and seals are easily seen on the Islas Ballestas. While whales are very rarely seen offshore, dolphins are commonly seen. In the coastal desert strip, there are few unique species of land animals. One is the near-threatened Sechuran fox, the smallest of the South American foxes (found in northern Peru), which has a black-tipped tail, pale, sand-colored fur, and an omnivorous appetite for small rodents and seed pods.
Reptiles, Amphibians, Insects & Marine Life
The greatest variety of reptiles, amphibians, insects and marine life can be found in the Amazon Basin. Here, you’ll find hundreds of species, including toads, tree frogs and thumbnail-sized poison dart frogs (indigenous peoples once used the frogs’ deadly poison on the points of their blow-pipe darts). Rivers teem with schools of piranhas, paiche and doncella (both are types of freshwater fish), while the air buzzes with the activity of thousands of insects: armies of ants, squadrons of beetles, as well as katydids, stick insects, caterpillars, spiders, praying mantis, transparent moths, and butterflies of all shapes and sizes. A blue morpho butterfly in flight is a remarkable sight: with wingspans of up to 10cm, their iridescent-blue coloring can seem downright hallucinogenic.
Naturally, there are all kinds of reptiles, too, including tortoises, river turtles, lizards, caimans and, of course, that jungle-movie favorite: the anaconda. An aquatic boa snake that can measure more than 10m in length, it will often ambush its prey by the water’s edge, constrict its body around it and then drown it in the river. Caimans, tapirs, deer, turtles and peccaries are all tasty meals for this killer snake; human victims are almost unheard of (unless you’re Jennifer Lopez and Ice Cube in a low-rent Hollywood production). Far more worrisome to the average human is the bushmaster, a deadly, reddish-brown viper that likes to hang out inside rotting logs and among the buttress roots of trees. Thankfully, it’s a retiring creature, and is rarely found on popular trails.
At high elevations in the Andes, especially in the Cordilleras Blanca and Huayhuash, outside Huaraz, there is a cornucopia of distinctive alpine flora and fauna. Plants encountered in this region include native lupins, spiky tussocks of ichu grass, striking queñua (Polylepis) trees with their distinctive curly, red paper-like bark, in addition to unusual bromeliads. Many alpine wildflowers bloom during the trekking season, between May and September.
In the south, you’ll find the distinctive puna ecosystem. These areas have a fairly limited flora of hard grasses, cushion plants, small herbaceous plants, shrubs and dwarf trees. Many plants in this environment have developed small, thick leaves that are less susceptible to frost and radiation. In the north, you can find some páramo (high-altitude Andean grasslands), which have a harsher climate, are less grassy and have an odd mixture of landscapes, including peat bogs, glacier-formed valleys, alpine lakes, wet grasslands, and patches of scrubland and forest.
Feature: Giant Flowers of the Mountains
Reaching the staggering height of more than 10m, with an explosive, flower-encrusted cigar shape that looks to be straight out of a Dr Seuss book, the Puya raimondii certainly takes the award for most unusual flora. The world’s tallest flowering plant is a member of the pineapple family and can take up to a century or more to mature. In full bloom, each plant flaunts up to 8000 white flowers, each resembling a lily. It blooms only once in its lifetime, after which the plant dies. Some of the most famous stands of Puya raimondii can be found in the Peruvian Andes, in the rocky mountains outside Huaraz, near Catac and Punta Winchus.
Feature: Coca Cultivation Past & Present
Cultivation of the coca plant dates back at least 5000 years and its traditional uses have always included the practical and the divine. In pre-Hispanic times, chewing coca was a traditional treatment for everything from a simple toothache to exhaustion. It has also long been used in religious rituals as a sacred offering. When the Spaniards arrived in the 15th century, they attempted to outlaw the ‘heathen’ practice of cultivating this ‘diabolical’ plant. However, with coca-chewing an essential part of life for the colony’s indigenous labor pool (it is a mild appetite suppressant and stimulant – on par with coffee), the Spanish ultimately reversed their policies.
Today, there continues to be a struggle surrounding coca, but it has to do with its derivative product, cocaine (in which a paste derived from coca leaves is treated with kerosene and refined into a powder). In an attempt to stem the flow of this narcotic, the US led eradication programs of coca plants in Peru in the early 2000s. These programs have done little to curb coca’s cultivation (or the cocaine trade), but the herbicides employed have damaged some agricultural lands in indigenous communities. Critics of the US-sponsored programs – including Peruvian cocaleros (coca-growers’ associations) and President Evo Morales of Bolivia – have called for regulation of eradication.
In 2014, President Ollanta Humala announced that Peru would stop its coca-eradication campaign, which had ardent support from the US, while stepping up promoting other crops in coca-heavy regions, such as coffee and cocoa. The Peru Coca Survey reported that the surface area of coca crops increased by 9% in 2016 – an alarming number, but it's actually the lowest increase in the region.
Vegetation of the Cloud & Rainforest
As the eastern Andean slopes descend into the western Amazon uplands, the scenery once again changes. Here, tropical cloud forests – so named because they trap (and help create) clouds that drench the forest in a fine mist – allow delicate forms of plant life to survive. Cloud-forest trees are adapted to steep slopes, rocky soils and a rugged climate. They are characterized by low, gnarled growth, dense small-leafed canopies and moss-covered branches supporting a host of plants such as orchids, ferns and bromeliads. The mist and the dense vegetation give the cloud forest a mysterious, fairy-tale appearance.
In the Amazon rainforest, the density is astonishing: tens of thousands of species of plant can be found living on top of and around each other. There are strangler figs (known as matapalos), palms, ferns, epiphytes, bromeliads, flowering orchids, fungi, mosses and lianas, to name a few. Some rainforest trees – such as the ‘walking palm’ – are supported by strange roots that look like stilts. These are most frequently found where periodic floods occur; the stilt roots are thought to play a role in keeping the tree upright during the inundation.
One thing that often astounds visitors is the sheer immensity of many trees. A good example is the ceiba (also called the ‘kapok’ or cotton silk tree), which has huge flattened trunk supports, known as buttresses, around its base. The trunk of a ceiba can easily measure 3m across and will grow straight up for 50m before the first branches are reached. These spread out into a huge crown with a slightly flattened appearance. The staggering height of many Amazon trees, some reaching a height of 80m-plus, creates a whole ecosystem of life at the canopy level, inhabited by creatures that never descend to the forest floor.
In stark contrast to the Amazon, the coastal desert is generally barren of vegetation, apart from around water sources, which may spring into palm-fringed lagoons. Otherwise, the limited plant life you’ll glimpse will consist of cacti and other succulents, as well as lomas (a blend of grasses and herbaceous species in mist-prone areas). On the far north coast, in the ecological reserves around Tumbes, is a small cluster of mangrove forests, as well as a tropical dry-forest ecosystem, of which there is little in Peru.
Peru’s vast wealth of wildlife is protected by a system of national parks and reserves with 60 areas covering almost 15% of the country. The newest is the Sierra del Divisor Reserve Zone, created in 2006 to protect 1.5 million hectares of rainforest on the Brazilian border. All of these protected areas are administered by the Instituto Nacional de Recursos Nacionales (Inrena; www.inrena.gob.pe), a division of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Unfortunately, resources are lacking to conserve protected areas, which are subject to illegal hunting, fishing, logging and mining. The government simply doesn’t have the funds to hire enough rangers and provide them with the equipment necessary to patrol the parks. That said, a number of international agencies and not-for-profit organizations contribute money, staff and resources to help with conservation and education projects.
Peru faces major challenges in the stewardship of its natural resources, with problems compounded by a lack of law enforcement and its impenetrable geography. Deforestation and erosion are major issues, as is industrial pollution, urban sprawl and the continuing attempted eradication of coca plantations on some Andean slopes. In addition, the Interoceánica Hwy through the heart of the Amazon may imperil thousands of square kilometers of rainforest.
Reduced growth in mining earnings in the 21st century has led the government to install protectionist measures, much to the detriment of the environment. A law enacted in July 2014 weakened environmental protections by removing Peru’s environmental ministry’s jurisdiction over air, soil, and water quality standards.
Deforestation & Water Problems
At the ground level, clear-cutting of the highlands for firewood, of the rainforests for valuable hardwoods, and of both to clear land for agriculture, oil drilling and mining, has led to severe erosion. In the highlands, where deforestation and overgrazing of Andean woodlands and puna grass is severe, soil quality is rapidly deteriorating. In the Amazon rainforest, deforestation has led to erosion and a decline in bellwether species such as frogs. Erosion has also led to decreased water quality in this area, where silt-laden water is unable to support microorganisms at the base of the food chain.
Potable water is an issue for a large number of Peruvians: in urban areas 87% of the population has access to clean water; in rural areas, the percentage drops to 62% of residents. There is also the problem of water pollution caused by mining in the highlands. Sewage contamination along the coast has led to many beaches around some coastal cities being declared unfit for swimming. In the south, pollution and overfishing have led to the continued decline of the Humboldt penguin (its numbers have declined by more than a third since the 1980s).
Air pollution is another grave issue in Peru, especially in Lima, the continent's worst offender. In 2018, Google's pollution tracker tool found pollutants from industry and vehicle emissions at almost double the healthy limit set by the World Health Organization.
In the early 1990s, Peru took steps to formulate a national environmental and natural resource code, but the government (occupied with a bloody guerrilla war in the highlands) lacked the funding and political will to enforce it. In 1995 Peru’s congress created a National Environmental Council (Conam) to manage the country’s national environmental policy. Though there have been some success stories (eg flagrant polluters being fined for poor practices), enforcement remains weak.
Some positive measures are being taken to help protect the country’s environment. Peruvian government and private interests within the tourism industry have come together to develop sustainable travel projects in the Amazon. In 2012, the Peruvian government created three new protected areas in the northern Amazon territory of Loreto, spanning nearly 600,000 hectares. The areas represent a world hot spot of biological and cultural diversity known as the Putumayo Trinational Conservation Corridor, a joint effort at regional-style management by the governments of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.
Peru's first Environment Minister Antonio Brack, who passed away in 2014, took an aggressive stance on deforestation, copying other Amazonian nations in a plea for Western help in conservation, and pledging to curb forest fires and reduce logging rates. Unfortunately, official policy tends to have little relevancy in remote, unmonitored areas.
Illegal mining is a major environmental hazard. In 2014, an economic emergency was declared by the government in 17 indigenous communities along the Río Marañón in the Amazon Basin because oil contamination posed a significant threat to the population. Liquid mercury, used to extract gold, contaminates water sources and kills fish.
Lima has started using a local technology known as Super Tree to combat air pollution. The device (not an actual tree) uses thermodynamic pressure to purify the air; it's the equivalent of having 1200 trees, not a small number in this deforested country. By-products are mud and nonpotable water.
Sidebar: Top Protected Areas
- Cañón del Colca (Arequipa)
- Cordillera Blanca (Ancash)
- Lake Titicaca (Puno)
- Parque Nacional Manu (Amazon)
- Islas Ballestas (Pisco)
Sidebar: Origin of the Word ‘Andes’
The origin of the word ‘Andes’ is uncertain. Some historians believe it comes from the Quechua anti, meaning ‘east,’ or anta, an Aymara-derived term that signifies ‘copper-colored.’ Interestingly, the mountains don’t stop at the Pacific coast; 100km offshore is a trench that is as deep as the Andes are high.
Sidebar: Peru's Rainforest Life
One of the most engaging books on rainforest life is Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata’s Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America. Partially researched in the Amazon Basin, it is an essential, highly enjoyable primer on life in the lowland tropics.
Sidebar: Peru’s Avian Life
A comprehensive overview of Peru’s avian life is contained in the 656-page Princeton Field Guide Birds of Peru (2010) by Thomas Schulenberg.
Sidebar: Travellers’ Wildlife Guides: Peru
Travellers’ Wildlife Guides: Peru (2014), by David Pearson and Les Beletsky, helpfully lists the country’s most important and frequently seen birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and ecosystem habitats.
Sidebar: Online Encyclopedia of Flowering Plants
Andean Botanical Information System (www.sacha.org) is a veritable online encyclopedia of flowering plants in Peru’s coastal areas and the Andes.
Sidebar: A Neotropical Companion
A Neotropical Companion, by John Kricher, provides an introduction to the wildlife and ecosystems of the New World tropics, including coastal and highland regions.
Sidebar: Amazon & Rainforests News Website
Monga Bay (www.mongabay.com) is an online resource for news and information related to the Amazon and rainforests around the world.