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Books

Nonfiction -- The classic work on Inca history and the Spanish conquistadors is The Conquest of the Incas (Harvest Books, 2003), by John Hemming, a very readable narrative of the fall of a short-lived but uniquely accomplished empire. Lost City of the Incas (Phoenix Press, 2003), is the travelogue and still-amazing story of Hiram Bingham, the Yale academic who brought the "lost city" to the world's attention in 1911. Bingham's book makes for a very interesting read, especially after so many years of speculation and theory about the site. Also available by Bingham is Inca Land: Explorations in the Highlands of Peru (National Geographic, 2003), detailing four expeditions into the Peruvian Andes, originally published in 1922.

The Incas and their Ancestors (Thames and Hudson, 2001), by Michael Moseley, is a good account of the Inca Empire and, importantly, its lesser-known predecessors. For most readers, it serves as a good introduction to Peru's archaeology and the sites they will visit, although some people find that it reads too much like a textbook. Illustrations include black-and-white photographs of Inca drawings and a few color photos. A terrific story of a recent archaeological find is Discovering the Ice Maiden: My Adventures on Ampato (National Geographic Society, 1998), by Johan Reinhard. The account of Reinhard's discovery of a mummified Inca princess sacrificed 500 years ago on a volcano summit in southern Peru details the team's search and its race to save what is considered one of the most important archaeological discoveries in recent decades. The book contains excellent color photographs of the maiden who can now be viewed in Arequipa. Reinhard's The Ice Maiden: Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the Andes (National Geographic, 2005) is a memoir of archaeological adventures and the impact of his discovery of Juanita (both on him personally and the interpretation of Peruvian history).

The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Duke University Press, 1995), edited by Orin Starn, is one of the finest primers on Peru's recent history and political culture. It includes essays by several distinguished voices, including Mario Vargas Llosa.

The Madness of Things Peruvian, Democracy Under Siege, by Alvaro Vargas Llosa (Transaction Publishers, 1994), isn't easy to find, and it only chronicles up to the mid-'90s, but it is a well-rendered analysis of the failings of Peruvian democracy. Robin Kirk's The Monkey's Paw: New Chronicles from Peru (University of Massachusetts Press, 1997) is a story of the impact of social and economic upheaval in Peru on marginalized peoples, with the homegrown guerrilla movements taking center stage.

Naturalists and birders might want to pick up A Field Guide to the Birds of Peru (Ibis Pub Co., 2001), by James F. Clements, although it is perhaps not the comprehensive field guide that a country as biologically diverse as Peru deserves. Many serious birders prefer A Guide to the Birds of Colombia (Princeton University Press, 1986), by Steven Hilty and William Brown, probably the definitive regional guide (and covering many of the birds also found in Peru). Also of interest is A Parrot Without a Name: The Search for the Last Unknown Birds on Earth (University of Texas Press, 1991), by Don Stap, an account of John O'Neill and LSU scientists documenting new species in the jungles of Peru.

Peru: The Ecotravellers' Wildlife Guide (Academic Press, 2000), by biologists David Pearson and Les Beletsky, is a 500-page handbook survey of Peruvian flora and fauna, including information about conservation, habitats, national parks, and reserves. It's a good introduction for readers ready to explore the Peruvian outdoors, from the Andes to the Amazon and other repositories of Peru's magnificent animal and plant life. The book is nicely illustrated and useful for identification purposes.

Peter Frost's Exploring Cusco (Nuevas Imágenes, 1999) is one of the best-detailed local guides, with excellent historical information and frank commentary by the author, a longtime Cusco resident, on the ancient Inca capital, the Sacred Valley, and, of course, Machu Picchu. Peru & Bolivia: Backpacking and Trekking (Bradt Publications, 1999), by Hilary Bradt, is a trusty guide, now in its third decade, of classic treks in Peru and Bolivia. Although it's in its seventh edition, with several new walks and treks added, some readers find it outdated. Still, it's a good all-around guide for trekkers and walkers.

The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness (Ingram, 1996) is a travelogue by Peter Matthiessen, who trekked some 10,000 miles through South America, including the Amazon and Machu Picchu. Matthiessen found larger-than-life characters and ancient trails deep in the jungle, experiences that led to the author's fictional novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord (Vintage Books, 1991). Set in the unnamed Peruvian jungle, it's a thriller about the travails of the missionary Martin Quarrier and an outsider, Lewis Moon, a mercenary who takes a much different tack while immersing himself in a foreign culture. Both are displaced outsiders whose lives have an irreversible impact on native Amerindian communities deep in the Amazon.

Another good travelogue on Peru is The White Rock (Overlook, 2003), by Hugh Thomson, an absorbing account of Thomson's 20 years traveling throughout the Andes of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador in search of lost Inca cities.

Fiction -- The towering figure in contemporary Peruvian fiction is Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru's most famous novelist and a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize, who was nearly elected the country's president back in 1990. It's difficult to choose from among his oeuvre of thoroughly praised works; Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (Penguin, 1995) is one of his most popular works, but it's without the heft of others, such as The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (Noonday Press, 1998), a dense meditation on Peruvian and South American revolutionary politics that blurs the lines between truth and fiction, or Death in the Andes (Penguin, 1997), a deep penetration into the contemporary psyche and politics of Peru. Another side of the author is evident in the small erotic gem In Praise of the Stepmother (Penguin, 1991), a surprising and beautifully illustrated book. His powerful book The Feast of the Goat (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001), about the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, made the year-end best lists of many critics in 2001. Vargas Llosa might be a difficult and "heavy" writer, but he is an unusually engaging one.

Alonso Cueto is one of the next generation's most ballyhooed novelists; he won several international awards for La Hora Azul (The Blue Hour; Editorial Anagrama, 2005). El Susurro de la Mujer Ballena (The Whisper of the Whale Woman; Planeta, 2007) is his latest.

César Vallejo, born in Peru in 1892, is one of the great poets of Latin America and the Spanish language. Complete Posthumous Poetry (University of California Press, 1980), in translation, and Trilce (Wesleyan University Press, 2000), a bilingual publication, are the best places to start with this great poet. Vallejo wrote some of the poems in Trilce, a wildly creative and innovative avant-garde work that today is considered a masterpiece of modernism, while in prison. Vallejo later fled to Europe and immersed himself in the Spanish Civil War.

Films

Peru's film industry trails far behind those of its neighbors Argentina and Brazil, though a recent Oscar nomination may begin to change that. In a historic achievement for Peruvian film La Teta Asustada ("The Milk of Sorrow"), by Claudia Llosa, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2010 (it also received the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2009). Less exalted but also reaching an international audience was Máncora (Maya Entertainment Group, 2009), a sexy Peruvian road movie set in part in the Pacific surfing resort along the northern coast, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009.

The best-known films about or featuring Peru are still foreign. Two recent documentaries try to untangle the lasting impact of disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori. The Fall of Fujimori: When Democracy and Terrorism Collide (Stardust Productions, 2006) is a portrait of the eccentric ex-President and his controversial war against guerrilla movements in Peru. State of Fear (Skylight Pictures, 2006), based on the findings of the Peruvian Truth Commission, chronicles the 2-decade-long reign of terror by Shining Path. It doesn't shy away from documenting the abuses of the government in fighting terrorism.

Touching the Void (IFC Films 2004), available on DVD, is the harrowing dramatic reenactment (based on the book by Joe Simpson) of a climber's disastrous and near-fatal accident climbing in the Andes mountains near Huaraz. It is gripping, but may derail any mountaineering plans you had.

The Dancer Upstairs (Fox Searchlight 2003), a drama directed by John Malkovich and starring Javier Bardem, is a political thriller loosely based on the hunt for Abimael Guzman, the Shining Path leader, and the complicated story of the American Lori Benson, implicated and imprisoned as a terrorist collaborator in Peru (though the movie is set in an unnamed South American nation). The Motorcycle Diaries (MCA Home Video, 2005), an excellent 2004 film by Walter Salles about the young Che Guevara, is in large part a travelogue of Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela, but Machu Picchu plays a scene-stealing role.

On a slightly lesser artistic note, the last installment in the Indiana Jones series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Paramount Home Entertainment, 2008), takes place in part in Peru, including the Nasca Lines and (ostensibly) the Peruvian jungle (actually filmed in Hawaii).

Peter Matthiessen's novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991) was later made by Hector Babenco into an occasionally pretty but silly movie starring John Lithgow, Daryl Hannah, and Tom Beringer with a bowl-cut and face paint, and relocated from the Amazon Basin of Peru to Brazil.

Music

Many travelers may be at least superficially familiar with the dominant strains of Peruvian music. Anyone who has traveled in Europe, South America, or even Asia is likely to have seen and heard roving bands of street musicians decked out in highlander garb (ponchos and chullo hats) playing the música folclórica that emanates from high in the Andes mountains. Known for its use of the quena (pan flute), played like a recorder, charango (from the lute family), and mandolin, the distinctive sounds of this Peruvian music -- similar to that heard in other Andean countries, such as Bolivia and Ecuador -- were widely sampled in the Simon and Garfunkel song "El Cóndor Pasa." That song was based on a melody by a Peruvian composer, Daniel Alomía Robles, who himself had appropriated a traditional Quechua huayno folk melody.

I'd point adventurous ears with an interest in ethnomusicology toward a handful of Andean música folclórica recordings released by the Smithsonian Folkways Series. "Mountain Music of Peru," a 2-volume series released in the early 1990s, includes recordings, celebratory and religious in nature, that were made in mountain villages in the 1960s. As such, they are raw and lack studio polish. Smithsonian also issues other volumes covering the traditional regional music of Peru, from "Cajamarca and the Colca Valley" (Vol. 3) to "The Region of Ayacucho" (Vol. 6). Though its song selections aren't specifically Peruvian, listeners may also enjoy the "Rough Guide to the Music of the Andes" compilation.

Just as there is a notable divide in Peruvian cuisine, with radically different takes in the sierra (mountains) and costa (coast), so too is Peruvian music divided along these lines. In coastal areas, principally Lima and communities just south, such as El Carmen, the most distinctive music came from the Afro-Peruvian population, descendants of slaves. Black Peruvians created a unique mix of African rhythms and Spanish and other European influences, called música criolla. Percussion is fundamental, in addition to strings and vocals, but the music is frequently bluesier than its jazz-inflected Afro counterparts that developed in Brazil and Cuba. A great place to start exploring is the compilation, selected by David Byrne and released on his Luaka Bop label, "Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru," featuring the influential singers and groups Eva Ayllón, Susana Baca, Perú Negro, Chabuca Granda, Nicomedes Santa Cruz, and others. Those same stars (but no repeat songs) are also featured on "The Rough Guide to Afro Peru."

Chicha is a relatively new addition to the list of musical genres. A hybrid of sorts of the huayno and Colombian cumbia, chicha is an extremely popular urban dance, especially among the working class. It has spread rapidly across Peru and throughout Latin America.

Susan Baca, with her recordings on the Luaka Bop label, has reached an audience of American and international ears. Look for her eponymous album or "Ecos de Sombra." Both are superb. In Peru, Eva Ayllón is even more of a megastar. A good recording available worldwide is "Eva! Leyenda Peruana." Another longtime female Afro-Peruvian performer is Chabuca Granda; a greatest hits collection of her work is called "Latinoamericana." Perú Negro's albums "Sangre de un Don" and "Jogorio," recorded after the death of the group's founder Ronaldo Campos in 2001, are both widely available.

A taste of Peruvian music serves either as great preparation for a trip to Peru or as a fond souvenir after the fact. But nothing equals grooving to live Peruvian coastal música criolla in a nightclub, at a stylish Lima jazz bar, or peña -- a one-time social club now frequented by locals and tourists for live music -- or hearing highlands' música folclórica during an Andean festival or stumbling upon it in a town square. The renaissance of Peru's indigenous musical forms is a hugely welcome development in this culturally rich country.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.