Basic facts on Perú

Basic facts on Perú

This sections covers material that is treated in much more depth elsewhere. Each subsection offers a suitable link. Here, you will find an introduction to Perú's geography, basic population, society, history and economy; its language, telecommunications and visa requirements.



People sometimes ask where the name "Perú" comes from, and receive as many different replies. The name appears with the arrival of the Spanish - for the Inca called their region Tahuantinsuyo, the world's four quarters - and appears to originate from the native name for a river in Ecuador, the Birú. Sailing past this moved one into new domains, as defined by Spanish warrants, and so the corruption of this name applied to all the land immediately South of the river. Following the extent of the Inca empire, the Viceregency of Perú did, of course, once comprise Ecuador, Bolivia, much of Chile and some of what is now Argentina.

Perú is located on the West coast of South America, South of Ecuador, North of Chile and Bolivia and West of Brazil. It covers one and a quarter million square kilometres. It has a coastline of nearly 2,500 kilometres, but the ocean is cold due to the Humboldt current. It is, however, very rich in marine life. The Andes run North to South, offering impressive peaks. The highest is Nevado Huascarán at 6,768 m. [More here]

Perú is divided into three biogeographical regions. The coastal area is desert, patched with irrigated land. The cold sea ensures that virtually no rain falls, and water is derived from runoff from the Andes. Despite its seeming hostility, over four fifths of the population lives in this region. Arable land makes up only about 3% of the country, which is chiefly wilderness, forest, mountain, grazing land or desert. [More here]

A few million of the 28 million inhabitants live in the Andes. These mountains stretch without a break from Ecuador in the North to Chile in the South, extending East into Bolivia. They have been created by the Pacific continental plate, which dips under South America along the entire West coastline. The Western Andes rise sharply to a flat, high area which is called the altiplano or puna. In the South, where this is at its most extensive, this plain passes out of Perú and into Bolivia. It is inhabited by culturally-distinct Aymara-speaking group of native Americans. Further North, the Andes become more up-and-down, and the language of Quechua dominates. The Northern Andes are far wetter than the Southern altiplano, which is at best dry grassland. Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake on Earth, whilst Lake McIntyre is the official source of the vast Amazon River.

A tiny fraction of the inhabitants - perhaps a quarter of a million - live in the vast jungle that exists on the East side of the Andes. This area of flat forest and occasional grassland is traversed by the huge Amazon, Marañon and Ucayali rivers, which unite near Iquitos to flow into Brazil as the unified Amazon. The region where mountain touches jungle is called the "eyebrow" of the jungle or "ceja de selva". This is amongst the most biodiverse areas on Earth. [More here]. Restricted areas of it are also important because of the cultivation of the coca plant, from which cocaine can be derived.


Perú has 28 million people, most of mixed racial origins. Such mixtures a are terms "mestizo" or "chollo", the latter implying a more friendly set of assumptions than the former. The mix is made from chiefly Spanish immigrants and the highland native American populations. The latter have conserved their racial separation most effectively in the Northern and Southern highlands. Scattered tribes of related by distinct peoples live in the Western jungles of Perú. [More here]

A third of the population are under 14, and 5% are over 60 years old. The population has, however, stabilised with a sharply declining growth rate which now stands at 1.7% per annum. There is significant net migration out of Perú, particularly amongst the educated cadres. Average life expectancy is 70 years.

Most people in Perú live in towns, and most towns of any size are on the coast. The capital city is Lima. Slightly less than one third of the entire population lives there, depending chiefly on the river Rimac for water. It has been the subject of repeated mass migration, and the historical centre has been largely abandoned by the richer elements, who have moved to the coastal suburbs. Inland, shanty towns called "pueblos jovenes" ring the capital, each differentiated by its time of settlement and thus degree of upgrade. Late settlements have yet to acquire water or electricity, and are roofless. (Although it drizzles frequently, never rains in Lima.) These are constructed of cardboard or old tins, beaten flat. Earlier settlements have acquired services, and shacks have been replaced by more substantial dwellings.


There is a major section on the history of Perú. In brief, however, Perú has evidence of settlement that goes back 17,000 years. Perúvian groups began to form major settlements around 6000 years ago, and at least one was certainly the largest in South America and perhaps in the world. This was fueled by the riches of the ocean, and almost all activity that has left a cultural trace occurred on the coast.

Later civilisations expanded into the Andes. The Incas were a group that began slowly, settling at Cuzco. A single leader, Pachacutec, welded the Inca people together and began a process of conquest and diplomatic capture. The upshot was that the Inca dominated a huge territory, from the middle of what is now Chile, through Bolivia and up into Ecuador. Around 11 million people were subject to the despotic control of the Inca society. Major engineering and building feats were accomplished, including the famous Machu Picchu.

Inca rule was broken by the Spanish, who invaded less than a hundred years after the expansion of the empire was complete. Brutal consolidation followed. Land, held under a vice-regency of the Spanish crown, divided up the land between individuals who had the personal ownership of the people who lived on it. This situation persisted for over two hundred years, during which time the native American population fell to about a tenth of their pre-conquest level. The discovery of huge silver deposits at Potosí in what is now Bolivia gave a fillip to what was a tale of slow decline.

Spain lost control of its Latin colonies during the Napoleonic wars in Europe. Perú was relatively late in breaking away, but eventually forces from outside the country fought the Viceroy's forces to a standstill and Spain withdrew. Perú was an independent Republic. Soon after, the value of the guano - bird manure - deposits in which the country abounded was discovered, and the remainder of the nineteenth century saw a boom. The Spanish crown had offered some protection to the native Americans, and this was lost in the pace of getting rich quick. Huge landholdings were established, the so-called latifundismo. A disastrous war was fought with Chile, and several with Ecuador.

There were occasional Andean revolts during this and preceding periods, but each was suppressed. Challenge to the status quo came from leftist pressure amongst the poor of Spanish origins. Revolutionary movements were suppressed by military intervention and coups up to and after World War II. The left gradually engaged with government after this war, eventually leading to a leftist - or anyway, reform-minded - military coup. This introduced land reform, ousting the major land owners and giving their effective serfs ownership of the land to work as co-operatives.

Democracy was restored in the Eighties during a period when the military lost control of the economy, and the policies which were followed were unable to stave off economic disaster. Two major terrorist groups - the Sendero Luminoso, which operated largely in the country, and the Tupac Amaru, which was largely urban - created chaos. Very large numbers of people were evicted from the country. This was eventually brought under control in the 1990s. The same administration delivered sweeping institutional and economic reforms, producing a lasting change in the way that everything from public services to commerce operate.

Unhappily, the President who achieved all of this, Alberto Fujimori, was found to be heavily involved in all manner of corrupt practice, and he is now in exile in Japan. Perú suffers from weak institutions, a narrow political class, endemic corruption validated by attitudes towards the poor and driven by the narcotics harvest. Its politics have now broadened and the educated generation now coming to power are largely intolerant of what was hitherto the norm. One has to be hopeful as to its prospects.


Perú is a constitutional republic and a functioning democracy. [More here] As noted above, its political history has been turbulent. The Spanish conquest of the native American population - then chiefly organised under the Inca empire - was brutal. Numbers fell from around 11 million to near one million before recovering to present levels. The Perúvian vice-regency and post-independence nation was proverbial for its unequal distribution of wealth. Participatory democracy has come slowly. There have been a number of military coups during the twentieth century, and an internal war was waged against the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and Tupac Amaru groups during the 1980-95 period, with the loss of tens of thousands of lives and the migration of millions to the cities. Suffrage is now universal.

Perú is chiefly Roman Catholic, but with local elements mixed into the performance of this. Syncretistic religion - incorporating historical deities and local sacred sites ("huacas") - is particularly strong in the highlands. Spanish and Quechua are the twin official languages. [More here]

In the order of 88-90% of the population can read, with a lower rate amongst women. Child mortality is higher than normal for a country of Perú's income per capita, but its other vital signs are typical of a lower middle income country. In the order of a third of the adult population are under-employed, although formal unemployment is hard to assess as there is no social security system and those without permanent employment will starve.

The President elected by popular vote for a five-year term. Separate elections are held for congress, who are elected for a similar period. Perú has a plethora of political parties. Judges are appointed by an independent body. Perú is divided into 24 departments for administrative purposes, subdivided in 194 provinces. Additionally, the territory is divided into 25 regions, including provinces of one or more departments.

The military are evident forces in many aspects of life, particularly in the provinces. Previously, these were extremely distinct activities with individual traditions. This led to rivalry and other difficulties. They now operate under a central command, but the traditional sectors are still internally important. The army (Ejercito Perúano), Navy (Marina de Guerra del Perú), Air Force (Fuerza Aerea del Perú) give employment to around a million people, although far fewer are enrolled directly in the forces. These forces spend around a billion dollars, or something under 2% of GDP, annually. The chief challenge to the military have been the management of the narcotics industry and the control of internal terrorism.

Corruption has been a feature of political life in Perú and there was a major scandal at the turn of the twentieth century which involved the serving President, the head of the intelligence service and much of the military high command. It appeared that the mission to "manage" the drug industry had been taken over-literally. There has since been a major house-cleaning, but relations between the civil and military powers remains an edgy one.


Perú is classified as a lower middle income country. Converted to take account of what money will buy in the country, the gross national product per person is around US$4800 per annum. Average individual spending power is probably around US$1500 per person per annum, but with wide disparities between the educated and the Andean poor. [More here]

The economy rests of services, by which individual Perúvians trade amongst themselves. Farming and fishing make up only 10% of the total, although these are the chief occupations of anyone not in the capital city. Around half the population lie below the UN-defined poverty line.

The labour force consists of some 7.5 million, around 10% of whom lack a job at any one time, but probably half of whom are doing hand-to-mouth or menial jobs at any one time. The manufacturing sector (such as textiles and construction) is heavily focused on the capital, and relies on the informal sector for much of its value added. That is, for each gleaming factory there are a myriad of sweat-shops which make or assemble the component parts of the ostensible output. This is particularly true of the important textile industry.


Perú has two official languages, Spanish and Quechua. Spanish - Español - is sometimes referred to as "Castellano", much as some United States citizens resent being told that they speak English. However, it is essentially identical with European Spanish, but with a softer intonation and slower diction. The letter "c" is not lisped, and rough consonants such as "j" and "g" are much less stressed. The poorer people of Lima speak either an argot called "jerga" which in incomprehensible to anyone else, or one of the languages of the countryside. Their Spanish is much simplified and spoken with a staccato diction that leads it to be called "duck Spanish": castellano del pato.

Quechua is spoken by around a quarter of the population, and most have Spanish as their second language. Aymara is spoken in the Southern uplands, and on into Bolivia. Perú also has at least fifty languages spoken by the isolated tribes people in the vast Amazon jungle.

English is spoken in Lima only by the educated and by some of those who work in hotels and in the tourist trade. Only a very limited number of people will speak English outside of the capital, except in Cuzco, where the tourist trade flourishes. Other languages are rare except for those of immigrant descent. There are, in particular, substantial German and Japanese colonies in Perú.


Citizens of the EU, Asia, South or North America, Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa no not need a visa to enter Perú as a tourist. Others do require a visa, obtainable from Perúvian Embassies and consulates. This requires a valid passport, two coloured photographs and an air ticket that includes a booking on from Perú. You will also need to provide proof of your ability to support yourself.

Tourist visas run for 90 days from entry, and this can be renewed three times for a further 90 days each time. Renewals after 180 days attract a fee. Business Visas are beyond the scope of this guide, but are rather more complex to obtain. The same is true of the student visa, which can only be obtained outside Perú.

Appliances and telecommunications

Perú has around 2 million fixed telephone lines to serve a population of over ten times that number. Around half a million mobile phones are also used, chiefly in the capital and along the coast. There is, however, a project in train to make mobiles more available, and the provincial towns in the Andes have increasing access to cell phones. Where the system exists, it works well. Perú is connected to the outside world by two satellite uplinks and a marine cable, so the international service is good and predictable. There are ten internet service providers who have a customer base of 3 million users. Virtually all towns of any size have Internet cafes.

travellers can buy cards in shops in almost any town which allow you to use the extensive network of public telephones. These come in multiples of S/-10 (about $3 at the time of writing.) They come with a cap of silver-coloured wax over a number, which you expose by scratching off the covering. You dial this number before adding the number which you want to access. You can then place international calls from a shop in the jungle, if you so wish. Reasonable hotels all offer telephones in the room, or a telephone in reception at the very least.

There are 13 TV channels, received by around 3 million households. Hotels and bars usually have cable, offering CNN in Spanish and a range of Latin stations. There are a huge number of radio stations, all broadcasting in the dominant languages of Perú. Electricity is 220v 60Hz, and uses US-style plugs.