History, Society, Food and Climate in Peru

Peruvian woman in Cusco, Peru. © Peter Hershey.


Peru’s vastly distinct and diverse history dates back thousands of years from the coastal civilizations such as Paracas, Nazca, Mochica, Sipan and Chimu to the Andean civilizations including the legendary Incan, but also lesser known Tiahuanaco and Chachapoyas. Peru’s archaeological treasures are beyond compare in the western hemisphere. Whether you visit the jungle, mountains or coast, the scenery is dramatic, often spectacular.

The first peoples to inhabit the land that is now Peru were hunters and nomads. A basic overview of the past 12 thousand years can be outlined as follows. There are remains found in the valley of Ayacucho, which date back to 12,000 B.C. Agriculture fishing and the domestication of animals appear around 4000 B.C. By 2000-1000 B.C. highland peoples were growing food on terraces and from 1000-300 B.C., Chavín Horizon archeologists uncovered evidence of artistic and religious activity.

As Chavín’s influence waned, other cultures sprang up over the next 500 years. The most important were the Salinar (near Trujillo), the Paracas (near Lima), and Moche. Later the Wari, an expansionist, warlike and urban dwelling people gained ascendancy, and imposed their way of life on all those they defeated. Around 1000 A.D., other states achieved dominance. Notable among these were the Chimu Kingdom (of which Chan Chan was the capital) and Chachapoyas.

So what of the famed Incas? Prior to the 1430s, Incas ruled only the valley of Cusco. They

Peruvian woman with child. ©Rod Waddington.

then set out to conquer their neighbors. After a decisive victory over the Chankas, the Inca Pachacutec began a legendary expansion forming the great Inca Empire. In just over 50 years, the empire became the largest ever in the Western Hemisphere. It stretched from central Chile up to southern Chile and as far east as Bolivia and Argentina.

Like the Wari, the Inca imposed their culture on those they subjected. In so doing, they stirred up considerable resentment and so eased Pizarro’s task when the Spanish arrived and conquered Atahualpa in Cajamarca, 1532. Pizarro later founded Lima in 1535.

In 1821 José de San Martin formally proclaimed Peru’s independence from Spain, a claim fortified by Símon Bolívar’s victories in 1824 at Junín and Ayacucho.

Peru’s short-lived peace ended in 1866 when war broke out with Spain. Peru won this encounter but fared less well in the 1879-1883 War of the Pacific, losing rich areas of the northern Atacama Desert to Chile. Later disputes with Ecuador in the 20th century, most significantly the war of 1995, caused many casualties.

Peru, especially during the last 30 years, has been plagued with economic and political instability and guerilla insurrections. Battles between the Peruvian Armed Forces and The Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) claimed over 60,000 lives. Against this backdrop, Alberto Fujimori came to power in 1990. Fujimori was president for two terms. His third “election” was widely believed to have been rigged. Eventually scandals forced Fujimori from power and he fled to Japan. The neo-liberal reforms he imposed, which included wide-scale privatizations of government firms, and the energetic pursuit of international trade agreements, revolutionized and propelled the economy. In general terms, this broad framework of market friendly reforms have been respected and further promoted by subsequent governments.


Spanish, Peru’s official language, is spoken in cities and towns across Peru. In the mountains, however, Quechua and Ayamara are spoken as first languages by more than four million Peruvians, and many more indigenous languages are spoken in the jungle


Special forces operations in Peru.

Although there was a car bomb explosion in 2002, just before the visit of President Bush, Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) and MRTA (Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru), the two terrorist guerilla groups have not been a major threat in recent decades. They still exist in some parts of the country, but predominantly in cocaine growing and trafficking areas such as the Huallaga Valley, in the Tingo Maria, and jungle areas east of Ayacucho. Before traveling off the “beaten track”, check for travel advisories at the clubhouses and/or with other travelers. The situation is well under control and disturbances are quite rare, and as such, terrorism does not present a danger to foreigners in Peru.

Food and water

Peruvian cuisine is unique, tasty and varied, although sometimes lacking in vegetables! Beware of the fiery sauce called “aji”; use it very sparingly until you have assessed its potency. As a rule, do not eat raw vegetables, unless you are certain they have been well washed. You are the best doctor for your stomach; so use your judgment. If you are a newcomer to Peru, eat lightly at first and give your stomach time to get used to the unfamiliar food. Eating food from street vendors should be all right, but take special care with sauces that can go bad, especially mayonnaise.  Most medium priced restaurants are clean and safe. Crowded restaurants are usually best; avoid empty restaurants unless you have a prior recommendation. Note: ceviche is generally “cocinado en limon” (marinated in lemon juice) rather than thermally cooked, which doesn’t always kill all harmful bacteria in the fish.

Climate / Seasons / Regions of Peru

Peru has three different climatic zones: the desert coast, Andes mountains and Amazon rainforest. Peru is one of the most ecologically diverse countries with over 66% of Peru as forest or woodland. Of that, only 3% is arable and nearly 21% permanent pasture. All three regions have their own seasons and are vastly different. Peruvian weather patterns are not always predictable, due to the shifting El Niño and La Niña ocean currents, but certain generalizations can be made.

The desert (La Costa): With 2414km, the coastline of Peru has 2 seasons: winter, from April until November and summer, between December and March. The summers are hot and dry; the winters can be cloudy and cool. Lima, on the coast, has its own climate: hot and humid during the summer and grey and humid during the winter when the fog (garua) comes in.

The mountains (La Sierra): With the Cordillera Blanca reaching 6768m above sea level, Peru is the eleventh-highest country in the world. There are two main seasons in the

Mountain of Seven Colors, Peru.

Andes. The dry season is from May through October and the rainy is between November and April. The dry season is characterized by clear, sunny days and cold nights (when the temperature can drop below freezing). In the rainy season it generally rains each afternoon, the mornings can be clear. The heaviest rainfalls come in the months of January and February. The temperature is mild, but chilly at night. Landslides can block roads during this period. Caution should be taken if traveling during rainy season.

The rainforest (La Selva): Peru contains over half a million kilometers of Amazon Rainforest covering nearly two thirds of Peru’s land mass. Like the Andes, the jungle is divided into dry and rainy seasons. The dry season is from May until October and rainy from November until April. The temperature in the dry season is high and nights are warm with the exception of June nights when it can be quite chilly. On occasion, during the dry season a cold front called “friajes” can cause temperatures to drop to 50’F (10’C). The rainy season can bring heavy rainfall, which sometimes lasts for 2- 4 days. When it clears up, it is humid. The nights are cool. Rivers can rise up to 2-3 meters during this time, which makes camping close to the shore dangerous and some rivers un-navigable.