Peru - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Peru Highlights

The fall of the Incas

The arrival of the European army was preceded by European disease, which spread south from Mexico and struck down the Inca Huayna Capac and his heir. One of his sons, Huáscar, coveted the throne, as did his brother Atahualpa, who had been leading forces in Ecuador. The two brothers came to blows and civil war was inevitable; after a bitter struggle, Atahualpa triumphed. Against this backdrop of disease and civil war, the Spanish conquistadors, comprising just 62 horsemen and 106 infantry soldiers, arrived in Peru on 24 September 1532, led by Francisco Pizarro. Landing at Tumbes, the small army quickly progressed inland.

Fatally, Atahualpa hesitated and failed to halt the Spaniard’s advance. When the two met at Cajamarca, Pizarro laid a trap and tricked the Inca leader into coming down from his secure position, whereupon he was ambushed, his men butchered and the Inca himself taken prisoner. Atahualpa struck a deal to save his life, offering to fill a room with gold and two more rooms with silver.

The Spanish agreed and Atahualpa asked his army to disband as a show of good faith; there has seldom been a more catastrophic misjudgement by one man. As the ransom was collected, the Spanish began to fear that a free Atahualpa would launch a counterattack. Scared of his potential retribution, they tried Atahualpa for plotting a rebellion and sentenced him to death by burning.

Tradition dictated that the Inca had to be mummified and so, in a desperate bid to ensure his body was properly preserved after his death, Atahualpa converted to Christianity to escape the fire. Treacherously, the Spanish then murdered him on 26 July 1533 and burnt the body regardless.

Pizarro established a puppet monarch, choosing Huascar’s brother, Tupac Huallpa, thereby ensuring he could exercise influence and power with minimum force. The Spaniards then marched on Cusco.

Natural history

Puya raimondii, Peru by jaroslava V ShutterstockPeru’s natural wonders are myriad and well known, for good reason. The country boasts an extraordinary natural variety from deserts to glacier-capped mountains, high plains to verdant rainforest, and Pacific Ocean beaches to vast inland lakes. Twenty eight of the world’s 32 recognised climate zones are found across the country.

As a result, Peru has an enormous biological diversity and supports a wide variety of life forms, from marine animals to river dolphins as well as favourites such as a llamas and alpacas, vizcachas and jaguars. There are also hundreds of bird species, with both migratory and resident species on the coast, condors and birds of prey in the mountains and hummingbirds, parrots and macaws in the Amazon.  

Scientists have calculated that Peru probably has more species of both plant and animal than any other country, even though, at 1,285,200km2, it comes only 19th in terms of land area.

These wild places and their inhabitants are protected by a network of more than 60 natural parks, which include some of the world’s great wild spaces and rainforest reserves.

(Photo: Puya raimondii, the largest flower spike in the world © jaroslava V, Shutterstock)

People and culture

Andean dress, Peru by Jarous ShutterstockPeru has a diverse collection of inhabitants, with indigenous groups and immigrants making up the multi-ethnic mix.

At the heart of the country is a substantial indigenous population, which accounts for approximately a third of the population. However, the division lies roughly along class lines, with the wealthier white and mestizo urban class in conflict with the indigenous campesinos, whose communities are often marginalised and under threat from mass migration to urban centres, development and projects such as road building. Sadly, discrimination and exploitation of these groups continues.

(Photo: Traditional Andean dress © Jarous, Shutterstock)

Although the Incas had no written text in the traditional sense, Peru has since developed a vibrant and well-established literary tradition that dates from the time of the conquistadors. Many of the Spanish left chronicles and accounts of their battles and to counterpoint these are the indigenous writings of Pedro Cieza de Leon, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and Felipe Huamam Poma de Ayala.

Of Peru’s contemporary writers, Mario Vargas Llosa is the most celebrated and he also won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010. Typically, he writes narratives intricately woven with Andean motifs and reflects the country’s history and daily life. Good starting points are Conversation in the Cathedral, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and Death in the Andes. The Peruvian poet César Vallejo is also feted for his use of language and imagination.

Historically, both music and dance have been an integral part of everyday life in Peru, especially in rural areas.

Traditional instruments include the queña, a type of reed flute with a notched end, and the charango, a stringed mandolin originally made from an armadillo shell. Accompanying instruments include drums, harps, violins, guitars and of course panpipes.

Depending on where you are in the country, keep an ear out for the waltz-like huayno in the highlands, with its soaring vocals and high-pitched instruments; the sultry criolla along the coast, which has African and Spanish flavours; and chicha in the urban areas, which is a fusion of Colombian dance and Andean music.

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