Before the Spanish invasion of Latin America in the early 16th century, many advanced cultures had settled in present-day Peru culminating in the vast Inca Empire. The Spanish imposed its cultural practices on the country, in everything from religion to building construction, and this quickly became very widespread as the country was brought under its control.
However, owing to the geography of the country, the smaller, more remote groups of indigenous peoples living in the mountains were largely untouched by Spanish culture. After centuries of colonial rule, Peru declared independence in 1821, and the revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar took over the running of the country.
Unfortunately, relations between Peru and its neighbours were not smooth, and over the next 100 years the government had its hands full trying to fight wars while keeping the economy stable. The War of the Pacific (1879-1883) between Chile and Peru all but bankrupted the country, leaving it little chance to recuperate. From 1914 onwards, Peru seemed to lurch from one military coup to another, some more destructive than others. Added to which, throughout the 1980s, it also had to combat the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) extremist guerrilla group belonging to the Peruvian Communist Party, resulting in thousands of deaths.
Since 1990, Peru has been trying to recover and sustain economic growth, and it is now one of the fastest-growing economies in South America. Despite its booming modernisation, however, tribal life remains in many ways the same today as it was before the Spanish conquest, with indigenous people still dressing in traditional clothes, living in agriculture-based communities and speaking the original languages. Quechua, which was spoken by the Incas, is still widely used in Peru, with an estimated 6 to 8 million speakers. Likewise, the physical characteristics of indigenous peoples remain distinctly Amerindian, whereas in the bigger cities you are more likely to see lighter skin and eyes, and more Western features.
Peru has suffered through surges of drug trafficking, which have threatened the recent relative peace of the country. Some estimate that Peruvian cocaine exports have overtaken those of Colombia.
Peru is a large, mountainous country on the Pacific coast of South America that borders Ecuador and Colombia to the north, Brazil and Bolivia to the east, and Chile to the south. The Pacific Ocean lies to the west. There are three natural zones:
The Costa region, which contains Lima (the capital), is a narrow coastal plain consisting of large tracts of desert broken by fertile valleys. The cotton, sugar and rice plantations and most of the so-far exploited oil fields lie in this area, as does the majority of the population. The best roads run along the coast, having straight, flat paths ahead of them, and travel times are usually good.
The highland Sierra contains the Andes, with peaks over 6,000m (20,000ft), most of the country’s mineral resources (silver, zinc, lead, copper and gold) and the greater part of its livestock. Roads in this area wind up, down and around mountains, so travelling in this area is often time-consuming.
The Selva (jungle), an area of fertile, subtropical land, lies between the Andes and the borders with Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador. The Amazonian jungle has vast natural resources. The absence of land communications, however, left the area largely uncharted until full-scale oil exploration began in 1973. Even today roads barely penetrate the region. Some areas are best reached by small plane.