Peru is undoubtedly one of the most captivating countries in South America. Famous for the epic lost citadel of the Incas, Machu Picchu, and the breathtaking Nazca lines, the country’s unique past awakens the adventurer in every traveller. Its awe-inspiring landscapes range from wild Amazonian jungles to vast coastal deserts to the icy peaks of the Andes. At its heart, Peru is home to a biodiversity rarely seen within the borders of a single country, with a spectacular list of wildlife that goes far beyond the familiar llamas and soaring condors. In addition, Peru’s friendly, multi-ethnic population is a cultural treasure in its own right. The enchanting mix of dozens of different indigenous and mestizo groups, all with their own colourful traditions and culinary delights, is an encounter you won’t soon forget.
In short, this is a country of unimaginable extremes, where choosing destinations can be a challenge. Whether you choose to go off the beaten track, follow in the footsteps of the thousands of visitors who have walked the Gringo Trail before you to see some of the best sites, or experience the jungle on a relaxing multi-day boat trip down the Amazon, Peru is likely to surprise you in everything you do.
Peru covers 1,285,216 km2 (496,225 sq mi) in western South America. It is bordered by Ecuador and Colombia to the north, Brazil to the east, Bolivia to the southeast, Chile to the south and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The Andes Mountains run parallel to the Pacific Ocean, defining the three regions traditionally used to describe the country geographically. The costa (coast) in the west is a narrow plain, largely arid, except for the valleys formed by seasonal rivers. The sierra (highlands) is the region of the Andes; it includes the altiplano plateau and the country’s highest mountain, Huascarán, at 6,768 metres. The third region is the Selva (jungle), a vast flat area covered by the Amazon rainforest that extends eastwards. Almost 60% of the country’s surface area is in this region.
Most Peruvian rivers originate in the peaks of the Andes and flow into one of three basins. Those that drain to the Pacific are steep and short and flow only sporadically. The tributaries of the Amazon have a much larger flow and are longer and less steep when they leave the Sierra. The rivers that flow into Lake Titicaca are generally short and have a large flow. The longest rivers in Peru are the Ucayali, Marañón, Putumayo, Yavarí, Huallaga, Urubamba, Mantaro and Amazon.
Peru’s largest lake, Lake Titicaca, located between Peru and Bolivia at the top of the Andes, is also the largest in South America. The largest reservoirs, all located in the coastal region of Peru, are the Poechos, Tinajones, San Lorenzo and El Fraile reservoirs.
Due to its diverse geography and climate, Peru has a high biodiversity with 21,462 recorded plant and animal species (in 2003), of which 5,855 are endemic. Peru has more than 1,800 species of birds (120 of which are endemic), 500 species of mammals and over 300 species of reptiles. Among the hundreds of mammals are rare species such as the puma, jaguar and spectacled bear. Peru’s birds produce large quantities of guano, an economically important export product. The Pacific Ocean is home to large quantities of sea bass, flounder, anchovies, tuna, crustaceans and shellfish and is home to many sharks, sperm whales and whales.
Peru has an equally diverse flora. The coastal deserts produce little more than cacti, with the exception of the rolling misty oases and river valleys, which are home to unique flora. The uplands above the tree line, known as puna, are home to shrubs, cacti, drought-resistant plants such as ichu, and the largest species of bromeliad – the spectacular Puya raimondii. The slopes of the Andean cloud forest are home to mosses, orchids and bromeliads, and the Amazon rainforest is known for its diversity of trees and canopy plants.
Peru is a multi-ethnic nation formed by the combination of different groups over five centuries. The Indians inhabited the Peruvian territory for several millennia before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. According to historian Noble David Cook, their population dropped from nearly 5 to 9 million in the 1520s to about 600,000 in 1620, largely due to infectious diseases. Under colonial rule, Spaniards and Africans arrived in large numbers, mixing heavily with each other and with the indigenous peoples. After independence, there was gradual immigration from England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. The Chinese and Japanese arrived in the 1850s to replace slave labourers and have had a major impact on Peruvian society ever since.
According to a 2015 genealogical DNA test, the average Peruvian is 79.1% Amerindian, 19.8% European and 1.1% sub-Saharan African overall.
With approximately 31.2 million inhabitants, Peru is the fifth most populous country in South America. The population growth rate decreased from 2.6% to 1.6% between 1950 and 2000; the population is expected to reach about 42 million in 2050. In 2007, 75.9% lived in urban areas and 24.1% in rural areas. Major cities include Greater Lima (with over 9.8 million inhabitants), Arequipa, Trujillo, Chiclayo, Piura, Iquitos, Cusco, Chimbote and Huancayo, all of which had over 250,000 inhabitants in the 2007 census. 90] There are 15 uncontacted Indian tribes in Peru.
In the 2007 census, 81.3% of the population over 12 years of age identified themselves as Catholic, 12.5% as Evangelical Protestant, 3.3% as Other Protestant, Judaism, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and 2.9% as non-religious. The literacy rate was estimated at 92.9% in 2007, lower in rural areas (80.3%) than in urban areas (96.3%). Primary and secondary education is compulsory and free in public schools.
Amerindian religious traditions also play an important role in Peruvian beliefs. Catholic holidays such as Corpus Christi, Holy Week and Christmas are sometimes mixed with Amerindian traditions. Amerindian festivals, celebrated in pre-Columbian times, are also common throughout the country. The Inti Raymi, an ancient Inca festival, is still celebrated.
Most towns and villages have their own official church or cathedral and patron saint.
Peru’s economy is classified as upper middle income by the World Bank and ranks 39th in the world. Since 2011, Peru has been one of the fastest growing economies in the world, thanks to the economic boom of the 2000s. It has a high Human Development Index of 0.752 based on 2011 data. Historically, the country’s economic performance has been linked to exports, which provide hard currency to finance imports and external debt. Although they have provided substantial revenues, self-sustaining growth and a more equitable distribution of income have proved difficult to achieve. According to 2010 data, 31.3% of the total population is poor, with 9.8% living in extreme poverty. Inflation was the lowest in Latin America in 2012, at only 1.8%, but it increased in 2013 with the rise in oil and commodity prices; in 2014 it rose to 2.5%. The unemployment rate has been falling steadily in recent years and has been at 3.6% since 2012.
Peruvian economic policy has been very different in recent decades. The government of Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968-1975) launched radical reforms including land reform, expropriation of foreign companies, introduction of an economic planning system and the creation of a large public sector. These measures failed to achieve their goals of income redistribution and ending economic dependence on industrialised nations.
Despite these achievements, most of the reforms were not reversed until the 1990s, when the liberalising government of Alberto Fujimori ended price controls, protectionism, restrictions on foreign direct investment and most state ownership of enterprises. The reforms have led to sustained economic growth since 1993, except for a dip after the Asian financial crisis in 1997.
Services account for 53% of Peru’s GDP, followed by manufacturing (22.3%), extractive industries (15%) and taxes (9.7%). Recent economic growth has been fuelled by macroeconomic stability, improved terms of trade and increased investment and consumption. Trade is expected to increase further following the implementation of a free trade agreement with the US, signed on 12 April 2006. Peru’s main exports are copper, gold, zinc, textiles and fishmeal; its main trading partners are the US, China, Brazil and Chile.
Water supply and sanitation
The water and sanitation sector in Peru has made significant progress over the past two decades, including an increase in water supply from 30% to 85% between 1980 and 2010. Sanitation coverage also increased from 9% to 37% in rural areas between 1985 and 2010. Progress has also been made in drinking water disinfection and wastewater treatment. However, many challenges remain, such as
- Inadequate service coverage ;
- A poor quality service that endangers public health;
- Lack of sustainability of the systems built ;
- Tariffs that do not cover the costs of investment, operation and maintenance of services;
- Institutional and financial weakness; and
- overstaffing, lack of skills and high staff turnover.