**This is a Guest Post by Alex Trembath**
Peru, homeland of the Incas and stronghold of the Spanish Empire, has a complex history. Alex Trembath of Career Gappers explains how visitors can explore it today, from the relics of imperialism in the South to the Amazonian influence in the North.
Modern Peru is a country of rich diversity that attracts millions of visitors every year. Characterised by colourful towns and cities, contrasting jungle and desert landscapes, and lush countryside scattered with relics of its Incan past, few places are as intriguing or photogenic.
The fusion of indigenous and international influences has given Peru a unique identity that resonates through its art, its architecture, its food and its people. But while there is much to absorb, by approaching it through three different historic lenses you can begin to get underneath the surface of this fascinating country.
1. Inca History in the Cusco Region
Peru is best known in the eyes of the world for its historical status as the centre of the Inca civilization. Originating in the highlands of Peru in the 13th century, the Incas advanced over three centuries to become one of the biggest and most sophisticated empires the world had ever seen. At their peak, they were masterful architects who developed highly innovative transport and farming systems.
The Andean mountain city of Cusco was the Inca’s administrative and cultural capital, the remnants of which can be seen throughout its cobbled streets and surrounding valleys. Of course, the most famous surviving artifact is Machu Picchu; but the world wonder at the end of the Inca Trail is not the only way to discover the region’s history.
The city of Cusco itself is home to two very important Inca ruins in particular. The first is Coricancha, the ‘temple of the sun’. Just a few blocks south-east of the central Plaza de Armas, all that remains today of the once-magnificent building is its structural stonework, which forms the base of Convento de Santo Domingo.
At the height of the Inca civilization, the walls of Coricancha were adorned with gold, but the Spanish conquerors flattened the temple and built a church on its foundations. Over the centuries, however, the Inca stonework survived earthquakes that devastated the structure on top of it. The six-metre-high original walls still stand, and visitors today can explore the inner courtyards and chambers.
A short climb up the hill that towers over Cusco’s north-west is the city’s second notable Inca site: Sacsayhuaman. The jagged walls of this 15th-century ceremonial site doubled up as a defensive fortress when the Spanish invaders arrived. One of the largest structures built by the Incas, its original walls are still intact, evidencing their architectural brilliance.
Some 50 kilometres north of Cusco lies the Sacred Valley. This scenic region contains some of the most impressive examples of the Inca architectural principle to blend man-made structures into their natural setting.
At the valley’s entrance, the ruins of Pisac provide one of the most striking cases. Perched atop a hill lined with beautiful agricultural terracing, its temples, ceremonial centre and baths are carved immaculately into the landscape. The cliff face opposite the rear side of the hill is interspersed with holes; these are the remnants of plundered Inca graves.
So while Machu Picchu remains the most iconic image of the Incas and the highlight for many visitors, there is no shortage of alternative sites to discover the origins of the empire.
2. Spanish Colonial History in Lima and Arequipa
The Inca civilization suffered a violent downfall in the 16th century when it could not withstand the Spanish invasion. For three centuries Peru subverted under the colonial rule of Spain, a period that has come to define modern Peru to a large extent.
While the legacy of colonialism is the subject of frivolous debate, few can argue the artistic qualities the period has left in its trail, in particular the architecture. The old cities of Peru are characterized by majestic churches and cathedrals, colourful houses and romantic cobblestone streets that hail back to this era.
Peru was actually the administrative centre for the entirety of Spanish colonial South America. The vast empire spanning from Panama to the southern reaches of Patagonia was known as the Viceroyalty of Peru, with Lima its capital.
Today, Lima remains the capital of modern Peru, and with a city-limits population of 9 million, it is South America’s second-biggest city. For most visitors, it is the starting point for exploring Peru, and its Centro Historico is the best place to begin getting immersed in the country’s Spanish history.
Plaza Mayor stands at the heart of Lima’s historic centre, flanked by the city’s two most iconic buildings: Palacio de Gobierno and La Catedral de Lima. These two structures epitomize the grandiose baroque style that was imported from Spain. Further examples of the colonial style can be found within close proximity of Plaza Mayor, most prominently Convento Santo Domingo and Monasterio de San Francisco.
Perhaps the best-preserved specimen of baroque architecture is Palacio Torre Tagle, an 18th-century ‘casona’ with distinctive pink walls and aged wooden balconies. As it is now a government building access is restricted, but it is possible to enter the lower courtyards to see its columned interiors.
Peru’s second-most populous city today is Arequipa, the ‘White City’. While the baroque style is dominant here too, Arequipa has its own distinguished brand, with many of its buildings made from similar white volcanic stone. With snow-peaked mountains and the ominous Misti Volcano rising up over this pale skyline, the city offers some beautifully dramatic streetscapes.
Plaza de Armas is the centrepoint of Arequipa’s historic centre, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The square’s most striking feature is the Basilica Cathedral, which stretches across the entire width of its north side. Although originally built during Spanish rule in the 17th century, it incorporates a fusion of European influences, seen in its Italian marble columns, French-carved pulpit, and Belgian pipe organ.
The city’s true masterpiece, however, is the Monastery of Santa Catalina, a citadel within the city. Surrounded by high walls, it covers an area of 20,000 square metres three blocks away from Plaza de Armas. Originally built in 1580, its inner goings-on were shrouded in mystery until it was opened to the public in 1970.
As Peru is often an entry point to South America for backpackers embarking on the ‘Gringo Trail’, these historic cities set the tone for discovering the Spanish influence across the length and breadth of the continent.
3. Amazonian Culture and Rubber Trade History in Iquitos
The Amazon rainforest, sprawling over a huge area from the eastern side of the Andes to Peru’s far north, represents yet another layer of the country’s multifaceted identity. Although Amazonia covers more than 60% of Peru’s territory, it is home to only 5% of the population.
The biggest city in the Peruvian Amazon today is Iquitos. The area around it has been populated by indigenous Amerindian peoples for thousands of years. In the 17th century the demographics began to change; Jesuits missionaries headed there to convert the native population to Christianity.
Before the advent of aviation, the dense jungle in northern Peru was only accessible by river. Identified by the colonised Peruvian Government as a strategic location on the Amazon River, Iquitos grew slowly but remained a small trading village until 1864, when something happened. Steam navigation.
The day that steamships first arrived in Iquitos, the city was forever transformed. The upstream route from Peru’s major economic centres was suddenly opened up. Iquitos flourished into the most important port in the Peruvian Amazon, and more was yet to come.
Hundreds of miles north in the USA, Charles Goodyear invented vulcanisation, a means of making rubber durable in extreme temperatures. The global demand for rubber soared, particularly in Europe in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution.
The Amazon rainforest, ripe with rubber seeds, became a goldmine for rubber. The trade boomed across the region, and by the turn of the 20th century the Amazon was producing 95% of the world’s rubber. Unfortunately, this rapid growth was catastrophic for indigenous communities, who were subjected to slavery and brutality in the race to ramp up production.
Iquitos was at the heart of the rubber trade in Peru; but it didn’t last long. Years earlier, in 1876, a British man called Henry Alexander Wickham had smuggled some 70,000 rubber seeds from the Amazon in his steamship. Back in England, the seeds were planted in London, and then in new plantations across Asia.
The Amazonian rubber trade was doomed. With production conditions far more suitable in Asia, the trade in the Amazon collapsed, and the region’s economy with it. Incredibly, by 1928 only 2% of the world’s rubber was produced in the Amazon.
The legacy of this boom-and-bust history is still evident along the river shores of Iquitos, where old steamships lie rusting in the reeds. One preserved century-old vessel, the Ayapua, is home to the Historic Boat Museum, which tells the story of the city’s eventful trading history.
While the region never quite recovered from the rubber trade bust, Iquitos has re-emerged as a vibrant city. Although noisy and bustling, it somehow blends perfectly into its jungle setting, and for visitors provides a gateway for exploring the Amazon.
Indigenous peoples still populate the region and frequent the city’s famous Belén Market to sell crafts and produce. On the riverfront, the Museum of Indigenous Amazon Cultures offers a window into their way of life, with statues and artefacts representing over 40 nearby tribes. For a diverse city with a turbulent past, the future is bright.
Pics of the Journey in Peru
This article is based on Alex’s experiences and learnings after visiting Peru in 2017. He can be contacted directly through his website and social media accounts: