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The land of gold and of the sun-worshipping Incas, Peru was sixteenth-century Europe's major source of treasure, and once the home of the largest empire in the world. Since then the riches of the Incas have fuelled the European imagination, although in many ways the country's real appeal lies in the sheer beauty of its various landscapes, the abundance of its wildlife, and the strong and colourful character of the people - newly recovered after a period of political upheaval, from the 1980s until the early 1990s, that was as bloody and unpredictable as any during the country's history.
Above all, Peru is the most varied and exciting of all the South American nations. Most people visualize the country as mountainous, and are aware of the great Inca relics, but many are unaware of the splendour of the immense
and the vast tracts of
. Dividing these contrasting environments, chain after chain of breathtaking peaks,
, over seven thousand metres high and four hundred kilometres wide in places, ripple the entire length of the nation. So distinct are these three regions that it is very difficult to generalize about the country, but one thing for sure is that Peru offers a unique opportunity to experience an incredibly wide range of spectacular scenery, a wealth of heritage, and a vibrant living culture.
The Incas and their native allies were unable to resist the mounted and fire-armed conquerors, and following the Spanish Conquest in the sixteenth century the colony developed by exploiting its Inca treasures, vast mineral deposits and the essentially slave labour which the colonists extracted from the indigenous people. After achieving independence from the Spanish in the early nineteenth century, Peru became a republic in traditional South American style, and although it is still very much dominated by the Spanish and
descendants of Pizarro, some ten million Peruvians (more than half the population) are of pure Indian blood. In the country, native life can have changed little in the last four centuries. However, "progress" is gradually transforming much of Peru - already the cities wear a distinctly Western aspect, and roads and tracks now connect almost every corner of the Republic with the industrial
that dominate the few fertile valleys along the coast. Only the Amazon jungle - nearly two-thirds of Peru's landmass but with a mere fraction of its population - remains beyond its reach, and even here oil and lumber companies, cattle ranchers, cocaine producers and settlers, are taking an increasing toll.
Always an exciting place to visit, and frantic as it sometimes appears on the surface, the laid-back calmness of the Peruvian temperament continues to underpin life even in the cities. Lima may operate at a terrifying pace at times - the traffic, the money-grabbers, the political situation - but there always seems to be time to talk, for a
another drink a?¦ It's a country where the resourceful and open traveller can break through complex barriers of class, race, and language far more easily than most of its inhabitants can; and also one in which the limousines and villas of the elite remain little more than a thin veneer on a nation whose roots lie firmly, and increasingly consciously, in its ethnic traditions and the earth itself.
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