Traditional and Chic
With its ancient ruins, snow-capped Andes, and vast Amazon wilderness, Peru has long captured the imagination of people in distant lands. But for much of the 1980s and ‘90s few dared to visit the country, which was wracked by a violent conflict between the Shining Path guerrilla movement and Peru's armed forces. Even after the violence subsided in the ‘90s, the country's tourism infrastructure was quite limited, catering primarily to backpackers and other budget travelers.
Thanks to two decades of economic growth and its growing popularity as a tourist destination, Peru now has more options for experiencing its cultural and natural heritage than ever before. A growing number of the country's tourism businesses are becoming environmentally and socially responsible, and the industry is helping countless Peruvian's to work their way out of poverty, which remains the country's biggest problem.
The country offers an extensive selection of hotels, restaurants, and tour options, and they range from traditional to chic. Lima, which most travelers avoided a decade ago, is now user-friendlier than ever with plenty of great restaurants, nightlife, and a growing selection of accommodations. Like any big city, it has a crime problem, but the areas where most attractions or hotels are concentrated are safe. It is also easier than ever to travel within the country and experience its ancient sites, jaw-dropping landscapes, and mind-boggling biodiversity.
Peru's President Ollanta Humala, who was elected in May of 2011, is a leftist who has implemented market-friendly policies comparable to those of neighbors Brazil and Chile, in order to fund programs to improve life for the approximately 10 million Peruvians who live in poverty. He has built upon the reforms and economic growth of the two democratic administrations that preceded his, which marks a bit of continuity after decades on a political roller coaster.
For much of the past decade Peru has experienced some of the highest economic growth in Latin America, averaging nearly 7% annually. Driven by high mineral prices and steady demand from China, the boom has also included growth in exports of agricultural products such as asparagus, coffee, seafood, and textiles, as well as tourism. Per capita income has doubled since 2003, and though much of that increase has gone to the upper echelons, the percentage of Peruvians living in poverty has dropped from 50% to 35%. Tax revenues have likewise grown, which is reflected in the refurbished government buildings, new infrastructure, and a bigger police force. For travelers this means more hotels and restaurants to choose from and safer, cleaner neighborhoods, but also higher prices, and a less favorable exchange rate than in years past.
Marches and road barricades are part of Peruvian political life as communities, unions, and other groups periodically take to the streets to protest projects or policies they don't like, or to demand government help. The protests usually end peacefully, but over the years there have been occasions where police fire has resulted in deaths. Protests against the proposed Conga gold mine near Cajamarca shut down tourism in that city for much of 2012, and Cusco residents stage frequent protests and strikes, sometimes stranding travelers for a day or two. Unfortunately, many of that region's residents perceive little benefit from tourism and don't hesitate to disrupt transportation to pressure the government to respond to their demands. The likelihood of having a protest interfere with your travels is small, but keep an eye on the local news nevertheless.
As a result of centuries of Spanish rule, Peru remains predominantly Roman Catholic, with more than 80% of the population identifying themselves as such. Catholicism influences the daily lives of most Peruvians, as well as state affairs. The newly elected president's inauguration ceremony begins with a mass in Lima's Cathedral, for example, and the country's archbishop is frequently in the news. Despite this overwhelming presence, many Peruvians have moved toward Protestantism and Evangelicalism, which currently represent about 12% of the population. Indigenous Peruvians fused Catholicism with their preconquest religion, with Pachamama (Mother Earth) representing the Virgin Mary, so in the highlands people observe both Catholic and pre-Columbian holy dates, with rituals that meld traditions from both cultures. If you're lucky, you'll witness a religious procession, celebration, or other display of faith during your travels in the country.
As with most of South America, fútbol (soccer) is Peru's second religion. The country's best teams are Universitario de Deportes and Alianza Lima, and a game between Universitario and Alianza is considered a "clasico." Peru's national team hasn't managed to qualify for the World Cup in more than two decades, which causes much frustration and debate. The country's female athletes are its greatest source of pride; boxer Kina Malpartida and surfer Sofía Mulanovich have both been world champions in recent years.
Peru's most famous writer is the Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, who has written several books set in Peru, which makes him a good author to read before or during a trip there. The Story Teller and The Green House are two of his most Peruvian novels, though the comic Aunt Julia and the Script Writer and Captain Pandora and the Special Services are also set in the country.
Other important 20th-century writers are José María Arguedas, Ciro Alegría, and Manuel Scorza, all of who wrote about the country's indigenous culture. Daniel Alarcón, who was born in Peru but raised in the United States, sets his fiction in the country. Peru's most famous poet is Cesar Vallejo, who only produced three books of poetry, but is considered one of the most innovative poets of the 20th century.
Peruvian music can be split by regions: the sounds of the Andes and the sounds of the coast. "Huayno," the music of the Andes, is traditionally played on acoustic guitars, a small stringed instrument called the charango, and a panpipe called the zampoña, but its more popular form now relies on synthesizers and electric guitars. Coastal "música criolla" has Spanish, Gypsy, and African roots and is played on acoustic guitars and a percussion instrument called the cajón—a large wooden box. The late Chabuca Granda popularized this genre, and singers such as Susana Baca, Tania Libertad, and Eva Allyón continue the tradition. Peru's most popular music is probably Cumbia, a Colombian genre popular throughout Latin America, played here with a distinctive Peruvian touch.
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