Land and Climate
Roughly the same size as Chad and almost twice the size of the U.S. state of
Texas, Peru is the third largest country in South America. It covers 496,225
square miles (1,285,216 square kilometers). Only about 3 percent of the land
is suitable for farming. The population is concentrated in the west. Peru is
divided into three distinct geographic regions: the narrow, dry coastal
plain (costa) in the west; the tropical lowlands (selva) of the Amazon Basin
to the east; and the high mountains (sierra) of the Andes roughly in the
center. The Andes rise to elevations of 22,000 feet (6,706 meters). Forests,
principally in the Andes and the Amazon Basin, cover more than half of the
country. Peru's biodiversity allows for a wide variety of flora and fauna.
Plant life ranges from desert vegetation to tropical forests. More than four
hundred species of mammals—including jaguars, tapirs, alligators, llamas,
alpacas (similar to llamas), and monkeys—inhabit the interior of the
country. Marine life and bird life are equally diverse; the government has
set aside more than 50 areas as protected land, some of which is starting to
be used for ecotourism.
Mild earthquakes are common, while more destructive quakes take place less
frequently. Peru shares with Bolivia the highest navigable body of water in
the world—Lake Titicaca. There is little rainfall along the coast, although
the winter is foggy, humid, and cool. Temperatures vary significantly
between the rugged Andes and the eastern jungles. In the capital city of
Lima, the temperature is moderate year-round, averaging 65°F (18°C). The El
Niño weather phenomenon periodically has a dramatic impact on Peru, causing
flooding and mudslides.
Several of South America's most advanced cultures lived in pre-Columbian
Peru. The last of these groups was the great Inca Empire, which excelled in
the art of stonecutting and also achieved a high degree of economic and
political development. Chimu ruins at Chan Chan as well as Incan ruins at
Cuzco and Machu Picchu make Peru a favorite destination for archaeologists
and tourists. In 1532, the Spanish invaded Peru under the leadership of
Francisco Pizarro. They conquered the Incas the next year. The area soon
became the richest and most powerful Spanish colony in South America because
of its location and many mineral treasures.
Under the leadership of South American liberator José de San Martín, Peru
declared independence from Spain in July 1821. With the help of Simón
Bolívar, the Venezuelan general who liberated several other countries, the
fight for full independence was won in 1824. For a century, Peru worked to
secure its territory and build its social institutions.
Peru's 1933 constitution mandated that the country be governed by a
president and legislature elected to six-year terms; however, military
leaders and dictators dominated Peru until the 1960s. A free multiparty
election was held in 1963, and Fernando Belaúnde Terry was elected
president. A military junta deposed him in 1968 and ruled for 12 years (a
period called la dictadura). Belaúnde was reelected in 1980, when the
military returned control of the government to civilians.
Economic troubles, which began during la dictadura, worsened under Belaúnde
and were not resolved during Alán García's presidency (1985–90). In 1980,
the Maoist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) began a campaign of violent
guerrilla warfare aimed at overthrowing the government. In the 1980s and
1990s, the Shining Path and other terrorist organizations were responsible
for some tens of thousands of deaths. They held power in the Upper Huallaga
Valley and were paid by drug traffickers for protection and the right to
operate in the region.
Despite these problems, the country maintained democratic institutions and
free elections. In 1990, Alberto Fujimori, a son of Japanese immigrants, was
elected president. He promised government reform and vowed to overcome
economic problems and terrorist violence. Saying he needed to make drastic
changes to enable progress, Fujimori suspended the constitution, dissolved
Congress, took emergency powers, and restricted civil liberties. A 1993
national referendum approved a new constitution that outlined a democratic,
albeit more executive-centered, government and a free-market-oriented
economy. Fujimori was reelected by a large margin in 1995, and his party
gained a majority in Congress. Fujimori's popularity was heightened by his
successful economic reform, the 1992 capture of Shining Path leader Abimael
Guzmán Reynoso, and the resolution of Peru's long-standing border dispute
Fujimori was elected for a third presidential term in May 2000, but
accusations of misuse of power and public funds arose, and the leader fled
to Japan and resigned. In 2002, Peru issued arrest warrants for Fujimori,
but Japan refused to extradite him. Then in 2005, Fujimori traveled to
Chile, where he was arrested and extradited to Peru. In 2009, he was found
guilty of authorizing human rights violations in the 1990s and sentenced to
25 years in prison.
After Fujimori fled, his opponent, Alejandro Toledo, was elected as the
nation's first president of indigenous heritage. Toledo was largely
unsuccessful in delivering on his stated goals of fighting poverty and
increasing employment opportunities. He was replaced by former president
Alan García, who won run-off elections in 2006 and through austerity
measures was initially able to improve the economy. However, García's
controversial gas and oil development policies and an economic downturn
diminished his popularity. Ollanta Humala won the presidency in a run-off
vote during June 2011 elections, in which he competed against Alberto
Fujimori's daughter, Keiko. Humala plans to strive for economic growth while
also more evenly distributing Peru's resources with its poor.
The population of Peru is approximately 29.2 million and is growing at 1
percent annually. Population density is generally low. Peru's population is
ethnically diverse. Many ethnic and linguistic divisions exist among
indigenous peoples, some of whom are still fairly isolated in the Amazon
jungle. About 45 percent is of indigenous heritage, descendants of the Inca
Empire. Another 37 percent is of mixed indigenous and European heritage.
Fifteen percent is of European descent (mostly Spanish), and the remaining 3
percent is composed of black descendants of West African slaves, as well as
other groups, such as Japanese and Chinese immigrants. About 29 percent of
the population is younger than age 15. Lima is the largest city, with over
eight million residents. About 77 percent of the population lives in urban
areas. People who live in the coastal region are called costeños, those in
the Andes are called Andinos, and those in the jungle are often referred to
as charapas (a turtle typical to the jungle of Peru).
Peru is a republic. It is divided into 25 regions and the constitutional
province of Callao. The president, currently Ollanta Humala, holds executive
power and serves a five-year term. Under the constitution, presidents may
not serve two terms consecutively. The executive branch is headed by the
president and also includes two vice presidents and a Council of Ministers,
the members of which are appointed by the president. The unicameral Congress
consists of 120 members, who serve five-year terms. The Supreme Court is the
country's highest judicial authority. Major political parties include the
National Unity Party, the Nationalist Party Uniting Peru, and the Peruvian
Aprista Party. Several other parties are also active. All citizens age 18–70
are required to vote, and those who fail to do so are fined.
Urban Peruvian families have, on average, three children, while four or five
is common among rural ones. Extended families frequently live together or
near each other. Not only do single adult children often live with their
parents, but newly married couples may do the same until they can afford a
place of their own. Even then, such couples may not move far, as many
parents build another floor onto their houses for subsequent generations.
Most Peruvians have relationships with even distant relatives (such as
great-aunts or uncles and third cousins). A common weekend pastime is for
families to gather and spend most of the day cooking, eating, and
Children are expected to begin helping with household chores around age
eight. Girls typically wash dishes and help in the kitchen, while boys take
out the garbage and do more physically demanding chores. Grown children
typically care for their aging parents; retirement homes are very rare.
The father is the head of the family. Because the mother usually spends most
of her time at home, she is in charge of the children and their day-to-day
activities. The father usually is consulted only for major matters. The
mother is also responsible for caring for the household. However, many
middle- and upper-class women do not themselves carry out domestic tasks;
instead, they supervise and direct the work of housekeepers and nannies.
Women who fill these positions have usually moved to cities to escape the
harsh conditions of rural life. They often leave family and sometimes their
own young children behind, only to end up working six days a week for
extremely low wages. Though they are part of the formal economy, these women
enjoy few employment rights. In response to the abundance of domestic help,
Peruvian houses and apartments of all sizes are now built with servants'
Women in rural areas cook, clean, and care for children in addition to
working alongside men in tasks related to farming, construction, and animal
tending. Both men and women must carry goods to market over long distances,
often without shoes.
Urban women occasionally work outside of the home, and about one-third of
the labor force is female. Women work as teachers, doctors, lawyers,
accountants, and business owners. They also hold many positions in
government: over a quarter of Peruvian legislators are women. However, in
general, tradition hampers the promotion of women into senior levels in many
occupations. Many women work informally as sidewalk vendors, selling
vegetables, clothes, prepared foods, and pirated forms of media.