Peru - Environment - is in western South America and shares borders with Chile (to the south), Bolivia (south-east), Brazil (north-east), Colombia (north) and Ecuador (north-west). It has three major regions: a narrow coastal belt, the wide Andean mountains and the Amazon Basin. The coastal strip is predominantly desert, but contains Peru's major cities and its best highway, the Carratera Panamericana. The Andes comprise two principal ranges - Cordillera Occidental and Oriental - and includes Huascarán (6768 metres), Peru's highest mountain. To the east is the Amazon Basin, a region of tropical lowland, which is drained by the Maranon and Ucayali rivers.
Bird and marine life is abundant along Peru's desert coast, with colonies of sea-lion, the Humboldt penguin, Chilean flamingo, Peruvian pelican, Inca tern and the brown booby endemic to the region. Common highland birds include the Andean condor, puna ibis and a variety of hummingbird. The highlands are also home to cameloids such as the llama, alpaca, guanaco and vicuña, while the eastern slopes of the Andes are the haunts of jaguars, spectacled bears and tapirs. Peru's flora contains a number of hardy and unique plants, including patches of Polylepis woodland found at extreme heights. The vast wealth of wildlife is protected in a system of national parks and reserves with almost 30 areas covering nearly 7% of the country.
Peru's climate can be divided into two seasons - wet and dry - though this varies, depending on the geographical region.
Culture - Art prior to Spanish colonisation concentrated almost entirely upon the production of pottery, metalwork, stonecraft and textiles. The Spanish subsequently introduced urban planning, with cities laid out in chequerboard fashion, and constructed mansions, churches and monasteries which aped Spanish renaissance or the rather phlegmatic Spanish early baroque. Over time, these European styles increasingly showed signs of a native Indian influence, leading to a style known as mestizo. (The best examples of mestizo architecture can be found in the churches around Puno and Arequipa.) Painting too mimicked European influences but as local artists grew more confident, a new and distinctive Cuzco style developed, in which artists turned their attention away from the visible world, and concentrated instead on fairy-tale and fable. The influence of these works on Gauguin, who spent his childhood in Lima, is noticeable.
Peruvian music is almost entirely folk music, while its literature encompasses everything from independence-inspired polemic to the anarchic individualism of its many poets and the boyhood reveries of the internationally renowned author Mario Vargas Llosa.
Events - Many of the main festivals favour the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. These are often celebrated with great pageantry, especially in highland Indian villages, where the Catholic feast day is usually linked with a traditional agricultural festival. Some of the major events include: Carnaval (February-March), which is particularly popular in the highlands and features numerous water fights; Inti Raymi (24 June), the greatest of the Inca festivals with spectacular dances and parades; Peru's Independence (28 July); All Souls Day (2 November), celebrated with gifts of food, drink and flowers which are taken to family graves; and Puno Day (5 November), which features flamboyant costumes and street dancing in Puno.
Warning - Lima and traditional tourist areas such as Cuzco and Machu Picchu are considered safe, but care should be exercised at all times. Areas where the government is conducting counter-insurgency campaigns have been designated `emergency areas' and should not be entered. The Upper Huallaga Valley in the Amazon, home to drug barons and Shining Path guerillas, is definitely off limits. All nationalities should contact their embassy on arrival for a briefing on the security situation, with particular reference to their planned itinerary.
A 53-year-old border dispute between Ecuador and Peru erupted into armed conflict in February 1995. Ecuador disputes Peru's control of much of the Oriente, but the military engagements have focused on the Cenapa River border region in south-eastern Ecuador and north-western Peru. There is currently a ceasefire in the area but travellers should avoid this region and check that border crossings between Ecuador and Peru remain open.
The South Coast - The Panamerican highway hugs the coast and passes through many areas of interest south of Lima, including Pisco, a small fishing port used by travellers as a base to see the wildlife of the nearby Islas Ballestas and Península de Paracas. The area is of much historical and archaeological interest, with burial sites of the Paracas culture a major lure.
Arequipa & Lake Titicaca - Nicknamed the "white city", Arequipa is surrounded by spectacular mountains, including the volcano El Misti. A feature of the city is its many beautiful buildings made of a light-coloured volcanic rock called sillar. The Convento de Sanyta Catalina, perhaps the most fascinating colonial religious building in the country, was, until recently, home to almost 450 nuns. Many of the city's beautiful colonial houses, such as Casa Ricketts, are now used as art galleries or museums. Accommodation and food is cheap and often provided in lovely locations.
Lake Titicaca - at 3820 metres, is the highest navigable lake in the world. At over 170 km long, it is also the largest lake in South America. Its altitude means the air is unusually clear and the azure waters particularly striking.
Cuzco - The archaeological capital of the Americas and the oldest continuously inhabited city on the continent, Cuzco is now an important link in the South American travel network. Its legacy as the hub of the Inca empire is readily apparent: most of the city streets are lined with Inca-built stone walls and crowded with Quecha-speaking descendants of the Incas.
Activities - Trekking and mountaineering are popular during the May to September dry season in the Andes. The most popular hike on the continent is the 33-km Inca Trail, west of Cuzco. Equipment can be rented in Cuzco and the trek takes three days. Huaraz, north of Lima, is the climbing and trekking centre of Peru and the site of Huascara, at 6768 metres the highest mountain in the country. Equipment, drivers and guides are readily available; the best time for hiking is June to August.
Jungle treks can be arranged at Iquitos. Guides will probably approach you but their quality and reliability varies considerably so try to get a recommendation or a reference, and proceed with caution. The better companies that run jungle lodges can provide reputable guides. Treks can last anywhere from a day to over a week; bring plenty of mosquito repellent.
Getting There & Away - Lima's international airport, Jorge Chavez, is the main hub for flights to the Andean countries from North America and Europe, and has plenty of connections to neighbouring countries. Some international flights land at Iquitos, in Peru's Amazon region. There is a departure tax of approximately US$18 on international flights.
There are overland border crossings between Peru and Bolivia at Desaguadero and nearby Yunguyo on the shores of Lake Titicaca; between Peru and Chile at Tacna; and between Peru and Ecuador at Tumbes. It is possible to travel by river from Colombia and Brazil to Iquitos.
Getting Around - Peru is a big country, so many travellers take internal flights if they have limited time. AeroPeru, Faucett, Americana and Expresso Aero are the main domestic carriers, and provide extensive coverage. There's an 18% tax on domestic flights, but you can avoid most of this if you buy tickets abroad. There's a US$4 departure tax on domestic flights.
Public buses are the usual mode of transport over long distances. They are cheap, frequent and relatively comfortable, at least on major routes. When travelling between towns, have your passport with you as it will need to be shown at police checkpoints. Armed robberies on night buses are not unheard of in Peru, so travel on a day bus (or fly) if you have the option. Trucks often double as buses in remote areas. The fare is usually standardised according to the distance, but agree on the fare in advance. Local buses are slow, cheap and crowded; when you want to get off just yell out. Taxi fares need to be haggled over; there are no metered cabs.