Peru shares borders with Ecuador and Colombia to the north, Brazil and Bolivia to the east, and Chile to the south. It lies just below the Equator and is the third-largest country in South America -- larger than France and Spain combined, covering an area of nearly 1,300,000 sq. km (500,000 sq. miles).
Peruvians like to say that their country consists of three distinct geological components: coast, sierra (highlands), and selva (jungle). The capital, Lima, lies on the coast, but the Amazon rainforest, which makes up nearly two-thirds of Peru, and the bold Andes mountain range dominate the country. Peru's considerable size, natural barriers, and a lack of efficient transportation alternatives make it a somewhat difficult and time-consuming place to get around.
The Central Coast & Highlands -- The Pacific coastal region is a narrow strip that runs from one end of the country to the other (a distance of some 2,200km/1,400 miles) and is almost entirely desert. Lima, the capital, lies about halfway down the coast. To the south, in one of the driest areas on earth, are Pisco, Ica, and Nasca, the cradle of several of Peru's most important ancient civilizations, as well as the famously mysterious Nasca Lines and the Ballestas Islands, promoted locally as "Peru's Galápagos" for their diverse indigenous fauna. The area is especially prone to earthquakes, such as the devastating one that struck the region in August 2007. Inland and tucked high in the Central Andes, Ayacucho is one of Peru's most fascinating cities, known for its colonial churches and artisanship but less felicitously associated with the Shining Path terrorist group.
Cusco & The Sacred Valley -- The dramatic Andes mountains in south-central Peru contain the country's most famous sights, including the former Inca capital of Cusco and scenic highland villages that run the length of the beautiful Sacred Valley. The valley is dotted with singularly impressive Inca ruins, of which Machu Picchu (and the Inca Trail leading to it) is undoubtedly the star. Cusco sits at an elevation of some 3,400m (11,000 ft.). Indigenous culture is particularly strong in the region.
Southern Peru -- Massive Lake Titicaca, shared with Bolivia, is the largest lake in South America and the world's highest navigable body of water (at 3,830m/12,566 ft.). Indigenous peoples inhabit ancient villages on islands (some of them man-made) in the middle of this huge body of water. Puno, at the edge of Lake Titicaca, is a rough-and-tumble town that hosts some of Peru's liveliest festivals. The elegant colonial city of Arequipa is one of Peru's most gorgeously situated, at the base of three snowcapped volcanoes. Nearby is Colca Canyon, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and site of perhaps the best place in all South America to view the regal condor.
Amazonia -- Although about 60% of Peru is Amazon rainforest, only about 5% of the country's human inhabitants reside there. One of the world's most dazzling arrays of wildlife -- more than 1,700 species of birds (more than the population found in the continental U.S.) and 2,000 species of fish -- make it their home. For the visitor, there are two primary jungle destinations. The northern jungle, of which Iquitos is the principal gateway (but accessible only by plane or boat), is the most explored and has the most facilities. Much less trafficked and more controlled is the Madre de Dios department, in the south, which contains Manu Biosphere Reserve, Puerto Maldonado, and Tambopata National Reserve. These can be reached by land or air from Cusco.
Northern Peru -- Peru's north is much less visited than the south, even though it possesses some of the country's most outstanding archaeological sights. Trujillo, Chiclayo, and Cajamarca (a lovely small city in the highlands) are the main colonial towns of interest. Near Trujillo and Chiclayo are Chan Chan, Túcume, and Sipán, extraordinary adobe cities, pyramids, and royal tombs and treasures that predate the Incas.
The mountain ranges in the center of Peru, north of Lima, are among the highest in Peru. Within Huascarán National Park, the Cordillera Blanca stretches 200km (124 miles) and contains a dozen peaks more than 5,000m (16,400 ft.) tall; the highest is Huascarán, at 6,768m (22,205 ft.). The region is a favorite of trekkers and outdoor-adventure travelers who come to Peru with white-water rafting, ice climbing, and other sports in mind. The main jumping-off point for these activities is the town of Huaraz. In valleys east of the capital is the important archaeological site Chavín de Huántar.
Also in Northern Peru are unassuming beach towns where the waves attract surfers from across the globe; Máncora, Órganos, and Punta Sal are among the most popular among a 25km (15-mile) stretch of coast. They are getting increasingly built up into low-key resorts with hotels and second home owners from Lima.
Peru's UNESCO World Heritage Sites
- Cusco city (designated in 1983)
- Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary (1983)
- Archaeological Site of Chavín (1985)
- Huascarán National Park (1985)
- Manu National Park (1987)
- Chan Chan Archaeological Zone (1988)
- Río Abiseo National Park (1990)
- Historic Center of Lima (1991)
- Nasca Lines (1994)
- Historic Center of Arequipa (2000)
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