Years ago, I met a couple who said they were getting ready for a trip to Machu Picchu as part of their backpacking tour of South America. I think I had barely heard of it and was really not quite sure of which country it was in. They made it sound impressive. Of course, not wanting to risk looking stupid, I asked an open-ended question about their travel itinerary and pieced it all together. (I Googled it later.) One of the most iconic places in South America, this ancient Incan city is now a World Heritage Site.
The name Peru is most likely stemmed from Birú; however, who Birú was referring to is somewhat disputed in history. Some believe he was a local ruler who ruled from what is now Panama, but other theories implied that he was a just an Indian crewmember on a ship that belonged to the governor Pedro Arias de Ávila. Regardless of its origin, it eventually changed over to Peru.
Peru is located in the northeastern corner of South America. It borders Ecuador and Colombia to the north, Brazil and Bolivia to the east, and Chile to the south. It also has a long coastline along the Pacific Ocean to the west. The Andes Mountains run down the coastline, dividing the country between the mountainous region and a highlands region. The Amazon rainforest extends itself into Peru as well, and many of the rivers that vein their way through the country are actually extensions of the Amazon River. Because of this immense change in scenery and altitude across the country (along with being near two major ocean currents), Peru has quite a wide biodiversity.
The earliest people in this area were of an agricultural-based society. During the 15th century, the Incan Civilization gained prominence in the Andes, growing to be the largest civilization in the Americas during the pre-Columbian era. With their capital in Cusco, their empire spread pretty much for the entire western seaboard of South America. However, they were no match to the Spanish Conquistadors. They pretty much exploited the people in their search for gold and silver and anything else they thought could turn a quick buck. And the Spanish brought quite a bit to the area: African slaves for labor, diseases, Catholicism, and the Inquisition. It was like a hellish Christmas. By the 18th century, several rebellions and reforms have taken place, but most were suppressed. Much of Central and South America was swept up in the mass independence movements during the early part of the 19th century. Peru was able to gain theirs through the help of Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín and their military power. As a new country, they worked to expand the railroad system and a number of other infrastructure improvements that ended up nearly bankrupting the country. There were a number of conflicts between Peru and its neighbors throughout the latter part of the 19th century and 20th century, several of which ended in many deaths on both sides. Today, the country is working toward a better human rights record, peaceful elections, and more transparency in government. (Most of the rest of us can strive for this, too.)
The capital city of Lima is not only the largest city in Peru, but it’s also one of the largest metropolitan centers in South America. It was named after a famous oracle (Limaq) who lived in the area. The capital city is located along the Pacific coastline about halfway between the borders. Lima (and not the Spanish word for lime, mind you) houses the center of the federal government as well as being a center for commerce, finance, and education. The National University of San Marcos is the oldest continuously functioning university in Latin America, opening its doors in 1551. It’s a global city, holding numerous international competitions, conventions, and events.
Peru’s economy is one of the fastest growing ones in the world. The World Bank classified them as an upper middle income, and they also have a high Human Development Index to match. Inflation is generally low, and unemployment rates are falling. Agrarian reformation and income redistribution has helped with some of this. Services account for more than half of the GDP, followed by manufacturing. Trade has increased through free trade agreements, especially with the US.
Roughly 97% of Peruvians are Christian, with about 80% of them being Catholic. The remaining 3% are non-religious. However, there are also a number of indigenous spiritual traditions that people also adhere to even if they are Christian, and sometimes they merge the traditions of the two. Some of the Incan festivals, such as Inti Raymi, are still celebrated to this day.
Peru lists three official languages: Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara. In areas where other indigenous languages take prevalence, those languages will also have a quasi-official status for that area. Spanish is used as the language of the government and in education and is spoken mostly among the coastal regions. In the mountainous regions and other areas, Quechua and Aymara tend to be spoken more than Spanish, especially in the Amerindian communities.
Lima has made great strides in recent years at really creating a name for itself as one of the global leaders in the culinary scene. Rivaling much larger cities, Lima has several restaurants that have made the list of Top Restaurants in the World. One of the key elements that many of Lima’s restaurants encompass is to embrace its multiculturalism: its demographics include Incan and other indigenous/pre-Columbian cultures, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Lebanese, and several other immigrant cultures. And not only do they embrace it, they blend it and merge it and create something that is quintessentially Peruvian. I’m really excited to venture into this and find out more.
Up next: art and literature