In this article you’ll find helpful information on Perú’s history, geography, culture and wildlife, as well as contacts to help you plan and prepare for your journey. You will discover helpful information on some of the most interesting regions of Perú, including detailed itineraries and convenient links for making reservations.
Perú is one of the richest nations with respect to culture, history and archaeolology. Once the cradle of the Inca empire, ceremonial complexes, temples and trading centers are seen throughout the country, with more yet to be discovered.
Peru is often visualized as a mountainous country, yet it is one of the most geographically diverse nations in South America. Over half of Peru is Amazon rainforest, and due to the rugged terrain of the Andes Mountains and the distance for exporting natural resources by river to the Atlantic, the remoteness and inaccessibility of these jungles makes them some of the most pristine on Earth. It is true though, that Peru’s mountainscapes are spectacular, and second only to the Himalayas in size and grandeur. Covering the slopes of the Andes are Amazonian cloud forests, a mystical place of tree ferns, mosses and orchids, and the last haunt of the Incas.
Peru’s archaeological sites draw travelers from all over the world, yet Peru has so much more to offer – stunning landscapes, an abundance of wildlife and the strong and friendly character of its people. There is also a rich variety of music, dance and arts in the cultures of Peru, and given it’s bounty of oceanic and tropical resources, Peruvian cuisine is some of the best in South America.
The people of Peru are extraordinarily friendly, and their character and spirituality is strongly tied to the Earth. It is true that many travelers also consider an experience in Peru as nothing short of spiritual.
Cultures of Peru
Peru’s population is over 26 million, almost half being concentrated in the narrow coastal desert, and roughly half in the Andean highlands. Although more than half of Peru’s territory can be found in the Amazon Basin, less than 5% of it’s population lives in these rainforests.
Around 45% of Peru’s population is Indian, more appropriately referred to as “indigenas”. Most indiginas speak in Quechua and are found in the Andean highlands. Another 37% of the population is mestizo, a mix of Spanish and Indian, 15% are white and the remaining 3% black or Asian.
The heritage of the Andean culture is clear in its folk art forms including music, dance and crafts. Traditional Andean music is referred to as “musica folklorica” and is heard at fiestas and performed in resaurants and bars that cater to music, known as “Penas”. The most recognized music from the Andes is based on drums and wind instruments including the flute.
Handicrafts, especially those from the Andean Highlands are based on pre-Columbian motifs. Textiles and weaving are an important indigenas craft, and traditional Alpaca wool is used to create ponchos, sweaters and hats that are in great demand, as well as gold and silver pieces that are linked to the ancient rituals and heritage of the Inca.
History of Peru
For most travelers, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the history of Peru is the Inca Civilization, however numerous pre-Columbian cultures preceded the Inca by many centuries. During the period between 100 ad to 700 ad, sometimes referred to as the Classic Period, two distinctive cultures were known for their pottery, metalwork and weaving. The Moche from the Trujillo area were one of these distinct cultures, along with the Nazca culture from the south.
From 700 ad to 1100 ad the strongly militaristic Wari culture was the main influence. By about 1000 ad the Wari began to splinter into smaller regional kingdoms including the Chimu, whose capital was the huge adobe city of Chan Chan. Contemporary with the Chimu were the Chachapoyas, who built the massive fortressed city of Kuelap in the tropical Andes.
The Inca Empire, for all its greatness existed for roughly a century. Around 1430, the Inca ruled only the valley of Cuzco, but this period marked the rapid military expansion that ultimately stretched the Inca Empire along the Andes from southern Columbia to northern Chile. Around 1530 the Spanish Invasion began, and in 1532 Francisco Pizarro reached Cajamarca, captured and killed the Inca Emperor Atahualpa, that effectively brought an end to the Inca Empire.
Lima: The Colonial Capital
Once considered to among the most beautiful cities in Latin America, Lima has been transformed over recent years to recapture it’s colonial history and charm. The three main areas of interest in Lima are Lima Centro, Miraflores and Barranco. Lima Centro is where one finds the Plaza Major, that is often called the Plaza de Armas. This is the historical cornerstone of Lima’s foundation, from here avenues fanned out as the city grew. The Plaza Major is where one finds the historical Palacio de Gobierno or Presidential Palace, the monastery Santo Domingo and the Cathedral, that dates back to the 16th century.
The suburbs of Miraflores and Barranco are the focus of city’s action, night life and fine shopping. Lima is also known for exceptional restaurants and museums, and given the city is an international gateway for most travelers, it’s well worth taking a little time in this capital city, to learn more about Perú as a nation.
Built as a “royal estate” for the Inca emperor Pachacuti, Machu Picchu is an astounding and perennially mysterious climax to one of the world’s most famous journeys: the Inca Trail. Perched high above a sinous bend in the Urubamba River, Machu Picchu has lured explorers, poets and pilgrims to its mist-wreathed ridgetop ever since its discovery by the American explorer Hiram Bingham in July, 1911.
No one lived here before the Incas. Those mighty empire builders from Cusco discovered this extraordinary place, finding it rich in natural features sacred to their religion.
Both inspired and humbled by its dramatic natural beauty, their answer was to create on a vast scale one of the planet’s most sensitive and harmonious works of art. The aesthetic genius of its layout and architecture coupled with the durability of its brilliant planning and engineering have given us this finest of jewels among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Inca
Cusco is a city of extraordinary historical significance. Inca legend suggests that Cusco was founded in the 13th century by the leader Manco Capac, but it’s history actually predates that, when it was inhabited by the Killki culture that preceded the Inca by 500 years. When Pizarro arrived in 1533 he found Cusco thriving as the capital of the world’s largest empire at the time, the Inca. The foundation of the city is still that of the Inca, and surrounding Cusco are fantastic Inca ruins that demonstrate their impeccable talents at crafting stone.
Cusco’s cultural center is the Plaza de Armas, where one finds historical cathedrals, bustling café’s and shops, and plenty of night life. Notable attractions in the Plaza include the Cathedral, the nearby La Compañia, and Triunfo Chapel, the first Spanish church to be built in Cusco. Surrounding Cusco are the Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman with it’s fortressed stone walls, as well as Tambo Machay that were former imperial baths. Cusco is a gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, but also an attraction in and of itself.
Manu: The Andes to the Amazon
This is one of the most interesting wildlife expeditions in the world. You will travel through the best transect from the highlands to the lowlands that includes different ecosystems with its particular flora and fauna like: Andes, Puna, Cloud Forest, Jungle highland and lowland.
This five-night program provides a complete overview of the habitats and wildlife of all elevations along the road-and-river route from Cusco to the Manu lowlands. We travel in our expedition bus down the orchid-festooned cloud forest road to Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge, which offers the world’s finest viewing of these blazing scarlet birds.
The following day, we drive and boat to Pantiacolla Lodge in the foothills of the Andes. On day three, we boat to Manu Wildlife Center and spend three nights there exploring the vast Manu lowlands. This itinerary includes a visit to the Macaw Clay Lick, the Tapir Clay Lick, a canopy platform, and an oxbow lake. On the last day, you fly out to Cusco.
Chiclayo & Trujillo: The Northern Coast
The Northern Coast’s civilizations left us astonishing evidence of their achievements. Tucume, the “Valley of 26 Pyramids”, was a thriving city of temples and squares built by the Lambayeque in the 11th Century and conquered by the Chimu in the 14th. The exquisitely decorated Moche Temples of the Sun and the Moon stand a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, near the 500-acre complex of Chan Chan, capital of the Chimu Empire, the largest adobe city in the world and one of the largest and most developed cities in the ancient Americas.
The Moche tomb of Sipan -the richest burial site discovered in the Western Hemisphere (October 1988 National Geographic) is a few miles east of the modern city of Chiclayo. Finely crafted gold artifacts and ceramics recovered from these complexes are on display at the Museum of the Royal Tombs – one of the finest in South America as well as at the Museum of Sican.
The region’s shamans, direct descendants of these lost civilizations, are famous throughout Peru for their healing skills and wisdom, and can be visited by travelers. Nature lovers may explore the unique dry forest of Chaparri and the Spectacled Bear reintroduction project. Birdwatchers enjoy spotting the region’s 40 endemic bird species, including the emblematic Marvelous Spatuletail Hummingbird. Travelers may also visit Colonial House and traditional haciendas that breed and show Peru’s world famous “Paso Fino” horses.
In Chiclayo, visit the famous Sipan tomb that is considered one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the last 30 years, and walk following the steps of the ancient Peruvian at the pyramids of Tucume. Chiclayo is home to the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum, considered to be one of the top ten new museums in the world. In Trujillo, visit the beautiful Sun and Moon temples built by Moches the colonial city, and Chan Chan citadel, the capital of the Chimu empire.
Ica: Nazca and Paracas
One of the great mysteries of South America if not the world, are the Nazca Lines, a series of geometric shapes etched from the desert along the southern coast of Peru. The motifs depict a hummingbird, spider, a monkey and others – they are drawn in a single continuous line and etched by clearing the desert’s brush and crust to reveal sand underneath. Many theories surround these mysterious lines, but experts including the famous archaeologist Maria Reiche believe they were an astronomical calendar, designed to help organize the planting and harvesting of crops.
The Nazca region also holds great interests for wildlife enthusiasts including Paracas, a National Reserve established to protect marine life, including sea lions and a variety of peleagic birds. Paracas is also known for the unusual trident or candlestick motif known as El Canelabro, that is carved from the sand dunes along the coast. Like Nazca, there are mysteries surrounding this symbol carved in the desert. Some have attributed it to extraterrestrials, but experts theorize that this was a place of religious significance, where priests worshipped the setting sun.
Chachapoyas & Kuelap: Cloud Forest Kingdoms
Chachapoyas, which means “People of the Clouds” is the name of a civilization that fought from high forest strongholds in resistance to Inca expansion and Spanish invasion. One of the last kingdoms to succumb to the Inca, its legacy includes one of South America’s archaeological wonders – the defensive fortress of Kuelap. Perched on the shoulder of a 10,000-foot mountain, this 9th Century citadel comprises an urban complex of more than 400 stone edifices – homes, palaces and temples enclosed by a 70-foot-tall stone wall. Their architecture demonstrates decidedly non-Inca features, such as protruding geometric patterns, cornices, and friezes. Kuelap’s setting is unforgettably beautiful – a tropical cloud forest festooned with orchids and steeped in mystery.
The Revash Tombs, the Karajia Sarcophagi and the extensive network of Chachapoyas paved trails also serve as a reminder of the greatness of this vanished nation. Archaeologists just now are mapping and excavating many important Chachapoyas sites. The museum in Leymebamba, which displays 200 mummies recovered from the remote Lake of the Condors, describes the extraordinary embalming methods of the Chachapoya, their lifestyle and culture. The Museum also houses a collection of knotted Quipu, the record-keeping device of the Incas.
Cajamarca: Land of Incas
Cajamarca is a city of colonial charm, much like Cusco but still yet to be discovered. The rolling landscapes of Andean countryside are home to endemic flora and fauna, they are also home to the important archaeological sites of Ventanillas de Otuzco and Cumbemayo. It is a place of great historical significance – in this city Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro captured, imprisoned, ransomed, and executed Inca Emperor Atahualpa, unleashing the destruction of Inca civilization.
Travelers may stroll in the town square – site of the first and decisive battle between the Spanish and the Inca – and visit the ransom rooms that were filled with gold and silver by legions of loyal Inca subjects in the attempt to buy the freedom of their doomed regent.
Iquitos & The North Amazon
Established in 1964, 50 miles down the Amazon River, the Explorama lodges are deep in primary rainforest. On the Napo River, a branch of the Amazon, ExplorNapo provides access to the pristine forest of Explorama´s Sucusari Reserve, as well as access to the adjoining Amazon Canopy Walkway, one of the longest treetop walkways in the world.
This adventure offers the opportunity to live in an authentic Amazon River style with palm-thatched houses, kerosene lighting and open-hearth cooking in a rainforest surrounding. Other options available from ExplorNapo include an overnight adventure staying in ExplorTambo camps which are located in more remote rainforest, as well as staying overnight at the ACTS Field Station.
Opened in 1993, ACTS, Amazon Conservatory of Tropical Studies, provides a research station for scientists in the rainforest and an opportunity for guests to share in their discovery. The large, thatched buildings are identical in construction to those found at Explorama Lodge.
A donation to maintain and protect the surrounding Reserve and Canopy Walkway is included in the tariff for the ACTS Field Station. In addition to the Walkway, extensive trail hikes are available including the “Medicine Trail” used specifically to show the local rainforest plants used in modern medicine as well as examples of native plant remedies which science may use in the future.
The Canopy Walkway is an experience unequaled in the rainforest! At a height of over 115 feet and extending for one-third of a mile, the Canopy Walkway provides a view of the rainforest from the treetops, the best vantage point for observing Amazon wildlife and vegetation.
The Canopy Walkway is accessible to all and requires no special skills or equipment. The suspended walkway is spread between 14 of the area’s largest rainforest trees and is one of the longest canopy walkways in the world.