Peru travel, safety advice and culture

The ruins of Machu Picchu high in the Peruvian Andes are a maze of superbly built stone alleys and building foundations.

These ruins are the surviving legacy of an Inca community who may have been that nation's final stronghold against the invading Spanish conquistadors.

(Read more Peru travel facts ... )

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Peru landscape

Peru, which covers 1,285,216 square kilometres, offers exhilarating holiday travel because of its geographic splendour and the vitality of its third world culture.

History, archaeology, mountains, beaches, landscapes, culture and music all meld into a potpourri of adventure and breathtaking travel sights.

The Republic of Peru is home to just over 29 million people, almost 90% Roman Catholic (2011).

Major cities in Peru are Lima (population 9 million in 2011), Arequipa (population 904,000 in 2011) and Chiclayo (population 760,000 in 2011).

The geography of Peru is diverse and has various altitudes, creating 28 different climates, and there are three distinct geographic zones: a narrow swathe of desert coastline where most of the major cities are located; the mountainous highlands; and the lush Amazon jungle to the east with its staggering diversity of flora and fauna.

The geography, flora and fauna are breathtaking and are usually the most memorable aspects of Peru holiday travel. Biologists have identified 103 ecological zones on earth and Peru is home to a whopping 83 of them.

About three fifths of Peru is jungle, much of it protected within national parks, and the country is basically separated into the hot, sticky Amazon of the lowlands and the high jungles of the mountains.

Peru also has Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake at 3,856 metres, which has artificial floating islands made from totora reeds.

Peru travel facts

Peru's residents are mostly of Andean ancestry in the highlands and mixed blood on the coast.

There is a strong presence of European blood - mostly Spanish.

Peru's western coastal plain is called the costa, the mountains and highlands are called the sierra, and the eastern Amazon jungle lowlands are called the selva.

The coastal strip is blanketed with sea fog for many months of the year, although the skies remain clear in the far north of Peru where many tourists are lured to travel by superb beaches, surfing, deep sea fishing and quaint coastal villages.

Peru's coastal desert strip is dissected by more than 40 river valleys carrying water down from the Andes.

The dry coastal desert area is where Peru's capital city of Lima is located. A key attraction in this region are the huge sand dunes near Ica.

Lima, founded in 1535 by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and dubbed the City of Kings, is nestled around the banks of the Rimac River.

Peru geography facts

Further east are the sierra highlands which include the peaks of the Andes rising to more than 6,000 metres.

This region produces much of Peru's mineral resources (silver, zinc, lead, copper and gold) and shelters most of its livestock, yet a vast majority of the people are poor and modern infrastructure is sparse.

The Andes mountain range occupies the middle third of Peru and it is here that tourists can wander 8,000 kilometres of ancient Inca trails to view the country's many awe-inspiring ruins, including Machu Picchu.

Highlights include the fairly remote Huayhuash in the north and the lush valleys of the Vicanotta and Vilcambamba ranges, along with the Colca Canyon near Arequipa which boasts one of the world's deepest gorges.

Mountain climbers itching to tackle the Andes might go to Cordillera Blanca, which has 33 mountain peaks above 6,000 metres plus excellent treks.

A 2,000 kilometre belt of cloud forest runs through the highland spine of Peru.

Further east again are the fertile, subtropical uplands between the Andes and the Brazilian border. The Amazon jungle is a lush region sparsely populated mostly by Indians, mixed-blood people and a fair sprinkling of Europeans, mostly Spanish, with some areas still largely unexplored.

Although most tourists associate the Amazon River with Brazil, this mighty watercourse (carrying about a fifth of the world's fresh water) actually begins in the Peruvian Andes.

Peru's Amazon jungle has countless attractions for travellers, backpackers in particular, such as Sandoval Lake. The easiest way to see the lake is to fly to the industrial port city of Puerto Maldonado on the Amazon side of the Peruvian Andes, where the primary trades are rubber, logging, gold and oil prospecting, and crops such as coffee and nuts.

Peru history facts

To explore the Amazon from Peru, the destination you should seek is the river port of Iquitos, a remote settlement some 90 minutes by plane from Lima.

A substantial portion of the Amazon forests and basin lies in Peru, rich with some of the world's most amazing biodiversity.

The official Peruvian languages are Spanish and Quechua, and it's recommended that you spend some time learning at least the basics of Spanish before you buy your airfares to embark on your Peru holiday travel.

Aymara is spoken by many Indians in the region surrounding Lake Titicaca, and there are numerous dialects spoken in jungle areas.

The estimated literacy rate for people aged over 15 in Peru was 93% in 2011.

Public health is poor in Peru with 2008 figures showing about 10% of urban households and 39% of rural households lacked potable water, while 19% of urban households and 64% of rural households lacked access to sanitation facilities. Peruvians still die from malnutrition or poverty.

The Inca civilisation reigned supreme in Peru until its overthrow by the Spanish conquistadors in 1533. Independence was declared in 1821 and the last of the Spanish forces were defeated in 1824.

Military rule was replaced by democracy in 1980 but Peru suffered economic collapse and a violent insurgency over the following decade. Economic recovery was enjoyed till the late 1990s when the country's economy slumped and political turmoil saw the president resign.

Peru safey advice

Peru has been stable for the past few years but travellers should be mindful of the underlying poverty which breeds crime and occasional guerilla activity. In 2010, 31.3% of the population was estimated to be living below the poverty line and the proportion has been falling sharply in recent years.

Peru became a republic after achieving independence from Spain in the early 19th century but its society and economy are still dominated by Spanish and mestizo descendants of the colonial invaders.

The cities have become "westernised" over the past few decades and social infrastructure such as paved roads has been spreading to almost all points in the republic, although the massive eastern landmass of the Amazon jungle remains mostly untouched and sparsely populated.

The coast of Peru is 2,500 kilometres long and the highest mountain in the Andes is Nevado Huascaran at 6,768 metres.

In 2013 Peru had 113,327 kilometres of roads but in 2007 only 14% were paved.

Seventy per cent of Peru's population is concentrated in the cities. The ethnic mix is 45% Amerindian, 37% mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white), 15% white, and 3% black, Japanese, Chinese or others.

In 2010 the average unemployment rate in Peru was 7.9%.

Peru travel facts

If you're an adventure traveller, beware that the Peru/Ecuador border region still has unexploded mines and ordnance left over from a border conflict resolved in 1998. There are also low risks from drug traffickers and guerrilla forces if you travel near the Colombian border.

Peru offers various locations you shouldn't miss during your South America holiday travels:

Cusco and Machu Picchu are prime attractions. The ancient Inca capital of Cusco is a glorious blend of ancient ruins and Spanish colonial buildings, and the city is just three hours by train along the picturesque Urubamba Valley to the pre-Columbian ruins of Machu Picchu. Cusco is a base for travelers from around the world who intend hiking either to Machu Picchu or to the various other ruins that dot the mountainous highlands of Peru. If your South America vacations are focused mostly on Machu Picchu travel, Cusco will probably be your headquarters.

Cloud forest and rain forest can be enjoyed in most areas, whether it be the hot, steamy swamp of the lower Amazon or in the mountainous highlands of Peru. About three fifths of Peru is jungle, much of it protected within national parks.

Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable body of water in the world at 3,856 metres above sea level and the lake splashes onto the shores of both Peru and Bolivia. Puno is the major town on the Peruvian coast and a half hour boat trip takes travellers to the Uros Islands which are artificial islands floating on a continually replenished bed of totora reeds.

El Misti is a 5,825 metre active volcano below which is nestled the stylish city of Arequipa. Tourists can climb to the top for a better view or explore Colca Canyon, which provides a spectacular visual feast. Nearby Cotohuasi Canyon is the deepest ravine in the world. Two other volcanos overlook Arequipa - Pichu Pichu (5,571m) and Chachani (6,075m). Places of interest in Arequipa include Santa Catalina convent and the Plaza de Armas town square, dominated by a twin towered Catholic church and grand two-storey buildings of cafes, shops and bars.

The Cordillera Blanca region is a lush South America paradise for climbers and outdoor adventurers, boasting 33 mountain peaks more than 6,000 metres high. The base camp for travellers is the city of Huaraz and the area also has some great treks and mountain bike routes for travellers who aren't busy climbing mountains.

Batan Grande is comprised of 20 pre-Inca pyramids situated deep within an ancient algarrobo forest.

Nazca on Peru's west coast boasts ancient geometric and animal designs etched into the surrounding desert flatlands, visible only from the air. The origin and reason for these designs is a mystery. Nazca is also a gateway to other pre-Inca sites and ceremonial centres.

Caral-Supe is a fascinating ancient city ruin dated to 2627BC, located in the Supe River Valley about three hours inland from Lima. Caral-Supe is the oldest known city in the Americas, its civilization pre-dating the Incas by 4,000 years. These ruins aren't as spectacular as Machu Picchu, for example, but are far less crowded with tourists and offer spectacular sunset views. The ruins are sprawled over 626 hectares on a dry desert terrace overlooking a green valley, and boast six large pyramidal structures, stone and earthen platforms and sunken circular courts.

Mancora Beach is a popular surfing haven on the far north coast of Peru where conditions are ideal for swimming and surfing throughout the year, unlike coastal areas further south.

Iquitos is a jungle-bound town in Peru with fascinating examples of European architecture built during the rubber boom of the late 1800s. Iquitos is the gateway town to Peru's northern rainforests. To give you some idea of the infrastructure, it is the largest town in the world that cannot be reached by road ... you catch a plane or arrive by boat. This laid-back river port is a service centre for fishing, logging and other industries and Iquitos has become a tourist magnet in itself, boasting a sassy nightlife and excellent restaurants. Competitors from around the world are attracted to the town's annual 20km Great River Amazon Raft Race. Ocean-going ships travel as far as 3,700km along the Amazon to Iquitos from the Atlantic Ocean. Infrastructure and accommodation is normally basic in Iquitos but an increasing number of upmarket tourist resorts, lodges and other facilities are being built in the town and throughout the Amazon basin.

Alto Purus National Park near the Brazilian border is deep Amazon jungle within which there are still native Indian tribes using bows and arrows who are isolated from the modern world. In 2007, nomadic Indians have been seen from the air along the banks of the Las Piedras River. An estimated 65 indigenous tribes in the Amazon Basin have shunned outside contact to avoid new diseases and some have fled the advancing gas, oil and timber industries for the past hundred years. These people should not be sought as they voluntarily avoid western contact, having no immunity to outside diseases that have historically decimated jungle tribes.

Cusco travel guide

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Holiday tips in Peru

Machu Picchu travel images

Peru travel tips for tickets

Alpaca in Peru

Peru holiday money advice

Peru weather for holiday travel

Peru travel crime hazards

Peru holiday health concerns

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