Official name: Republic of Peru
Area: 1,285,220 square kilometers (496,226 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Nevado Huascarán (6,768 meters/22,205 feet)
Lowest point on land: Sea level
Hemispheres: Southern and Western
Time zone: 7 A.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 1,287 kilometers (800 miles) from southeast to northwest; 563 kilometers (350 miles) from northeast to southwest
Land boundaries: 5,536 kilometers (3,440 miles) total boundary length; Bolivia 900 kilometers (559 miles); Brazil 1,560 kilometers (969 miles); Chile 160 kilometers (99 miles); Colombia 1,496 kilometers (930 miles); Ecuador 1,420 kilometers (882 miles)
Coastline: 2,414 kilometers (1,500 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 370 kilometers (200 nautical miles)
1 LOCATION AND SIZE
Peru is located on the western coast of South America, just south of the equator. It is the third-largest country in South America and shares borders with Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, and Chile. With a total area of about 1,285,220 square kilometers (496,226 square miles), the country is slightly smaller than the state of Alaska. Peru is divided into twenty-four departments and one constitutional province.
2 TERRITORIES AND DEPENDENCIES
Peru has no territories or dependencies.
Peru has two seasons that correspond to rainfall rather than to temperature. Summer is from January through March and winter is during the remainder of the year. Because of extremes in topography, average temperatures vary greatly between regions.
In the La Sierra region, temperatures average 8°C (47°F) all year. To the east in the montaña forests, the temperature is warmer but still fairly moderate. To the south, in La Selva and the jungles of the Amazon Basin, temperatures average 20°C (68°F) and can soar as high as 35°C (95°F) during the hottest months. The Coast (La Costa) is also warm all year, averaging 20°C (68°F). Despite being a desert area, these relatively moderate temperatures are credited to nearly constant cold air movement. The Peru (Humboldt) Current is a wind blowing from the very cold waters, located in the Peru-Chile Trench of the Pacific Ocean, toward the equator.
In addition to the chilly Peru Current, Peru is affected by a second weather phenomenon: El Niño. Every four to ten years, El Niño presents the strongest climate-changing phenomenon on Earth. El Niño is a warm current originating from the central Pacific Ocean along the coasts of Peru and Ecuador that, among other effects, brings flooding rains and unusually warm temperatures to Peru. Peruvian fishermen chose the name El Niño, which refers to the infant Christ, because the weather system begins near Christmas. El Niño has strong worldwide effects on climate, as well as on fishing, agriculture, and animal and plant life.
Most rain and moisture originates from trade winds to the east, blowing across the Amazon Basin. Because the mountains trap nearly all the rains, the coastal plain is relatively dry year-round, averaging less than 2.5 centimeters (one inch) of annual rainfall in Lima. During the winter season, however, a nearly constant mist, the garua , shrouds the coast. In extreme contrast, the eastern forests receive an average annual rainfall of 245 centimeters (100 inches); in some years, these areas are inundated with up to 350 centimeters (140 inches).
4 TOPOGRAPHIC REGIONS
Peru is a country of geographic extremes. Consider, for example, that two canyons in Peru are each twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States. Peru also has the highest navigable lake in the world and has some of the world's highest and most spectacular mountains. Off the Pacific Ocean shoreline is a trench as deep as the Andes Mountains are high, and the driest desert on earth is located in Peru.
Peru has three major topographic regions running from north to south: La Costa, La Sierra, and La Selva. La Costa, bordering the Pacific Ocean, is a 2,414-kilometer- (1,500-mile-) long desert; it is only 16 kilometers (10 miles) wide at one point, but it widens to about 160 kilometers (100 miles) in both the north and the south. La Sierra is the Peruvian portion of the Andes, a vast mountain range crossing Peru and parts of Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador. La Selva covers roughly 60 percent of Peru. It is the rainforest region of the Amazon Basin, between the mountains of La Sierra and the eastern foothills.
Peru has occasional volcanic activity and earthquakes from the effect of the offshore Nazca Tectonic Plate moving under the South American Plate, on which Peru sits.
5 OCEANS AND SEAS
Seacoast and Undersea Features
The western border of Peru is the Pacific Ocean. Offshore, the ocean floor drops quickly into the Peru-Chile Trench, a trench that is 1,770 kilometers (1,100 miles) long and averages a depth of 5,000 meters (16,400 feet), as deep as the Andes Mountains are tall. Cold water rising in the underwater trench generates the chilly coastal winds named the Peru Current.
Sea Inlets and Straits
A section of the north coast near Ecuador has two inlets: Bahía de Paita (Paita Bay) and the larger Bahía de Sechura (Sechura Bay).
Islands and Archipelagos
The Islas de los Uros, in the Peruvian part of Lake Titicaca, may be the most unique inhabited islands in South America. The Uros are made of reeds that float; consequently, they are also called Islas Flotantes. The largest islands in the group are Toranipata, Huaca Huacani, and Santa Maria. Lake Titicaca also surrounds more than thirty normal islands on each side of the Peru/Bolivia border. On the Peruvian side, two important islands, both to the east of Islas de los Uros, are Isla Taquile and Isla Amantani; the latter contains Inca ruins. A third, Isla Esteves, is connected to the mainland town of Puno by a causeway.
Because the ocean floor is so steep, few islands appear off the Pacific coast of Peru, and those that do are relatively small. Starting from the north, a few kilometers from the shore of the Sechura Desert, are Isla Lobos de Tierra and Islas Lobos de Afuera, the latter of which actually is composed of two tiny islands. Much further south, near the mouth of the Pisco River within Reserva Nacional de Paracas, are several islands notable for the rare sea animals and birds that live there, including the most northern habitat of penguins. From north to south they are the Chin-cha Islands, Islas Ballestas, Islas de Sangayán, and Isla de la Independencia.
The coastline is somewhat featureless, with few ports, bays, or dramatic points. The Pacific coast begins at the border with Ecuador in the Gulf of Guayaquil. Punta Negra on the northern coast separates Bahía de Paita and Bahía de Sechura. Further south, the Paracas Peninsula juts out below Lima near the town of Pisco.
6 INLAND LAKES
Dozens of small lakes filled by milky-blue glacial water speckle the Peruvian Andes. One notably large lake, Lake Titicaca, is by far the largest lake in the country. At 3,856 meters (12,650 feet) above sea level, Titicaca is the world's highest navigable lake. It is situated in the mountains, in Peru's southeastern corner on the border with Bolivia. The lake is nearly equally shared between the two countries. Titicaca is 220 kilometers (136 miles) long and 60 kilometers (37 miles) at its widest. Its surface covers a total area of 8,320 square kilometers (3,212 square miles) and its maximum depth is 360 meters (1,181 feet).
In 1998, the especially severe El Niño created Peru's newest lake. It is located in the northern desert district of Piura and was formed from rainfall and drainage off the western mountains. It has become the second-largest lake in Peru, but it has not yet been named. Experts expect the lake will dry out in a few years unless another El Niño occurs.
7 RIVERS AND WATERFALLS
About sixty rivers flow generally westward through the coastal plains to empty into the Pacific. They are relatively short and low-volume. The rivers swell during the few rainy months, then diminish or even dry up during the arid season. Rio Santa is an exception. It is larger in volume than the other rivers flowing into the Pacific and flows mostly from north to south for 160 kilometers (100 miles). Other rivers that empty into the Pacific include the Chicama, the Huaura, the Pisco, and the Ica Rivers.
Scores of rivers flow eastward into the Amazon Basin. Because of heavy rainfall, these rivers carry a tremendous volume of water. Many of these rivers are tributaries that create the Amazon. The Amazon is the second-longest river in the world with a total length of about 6,570 kilometers (4,080 miles). In 2000, a National Geographic expedition established the precise source of the Amazon to be a stream running from Nevado Mismi, an 5,597-meter (18,363-foot) mountain in the Cordillera del Chila of the central-south Andes. It is the farthest point from which water flows year-round into the Amazon. Less than one-tenth, or a total of 592 kilometers (368 miles), of the Amazon flows through Peru, however. The river flows through Colombia and Brazil before reaching the Atlantic Ocean. It has eighteen major tributaries, including ten that are larger than the Mississippi River. The river is also known as having the world's largest flow of water, emptying about 80 million gallons of water per second into the Atlantic Ocean. The Amazon Basin is home to the world's largest tropical rainforest area.
Major northeastern Peruvian rivers that contribute to the Amazon include the Marañón, the Ucayali, and the Yavarí. The Marañón flows northeast from the Andes and the Ucayali flows north from central Peru; both tributaries join the Amazon in the northeast. The Marañón has many tributaries of its own, including the Napo, Mantaro, Huallaga, Tigre, and Pastaza. Rivers that feed into the Ucayali include the Urubamba and the Apurímac. The Urubamba River flows through El Valle Sagrado (The Sacred Valley), beside and below the ancient city of Machu Picchu. The Yavarí River flows somewhat parallel and to the east of the Urubamba and makes up most of Peru's border with Brazil. The Putu-mayo River, which forms the border with Colombia, later joins the Amazon in Brazil.
In southeastern Peru, there are several important rivers. The Purús, Río de las Piedras, Madre de Dios, and Inambari drain the region north of Lake Titicaca. They all flow northeast and join the Amazon thousands of miles later, in Brazil.
Besides various estuaries, one remote large wetland in the northeast Selva region is especially interesting. Reserva Pacaya Samiria (20,800 square kilometers/8,031 square miles) is a complex expanse of alluvial terraces and floodplains covered by tropical rainforest. It contains two river basins, permanent freshwater lakes, and seasonally flooded, forested wetlands.
The western side of Peru, bordering the Pacific Ocean, is desert. One particularly inaccessible area in the far northwest is the Sechura Desert. This desert consists of shifting sand dunes and borax lakes. It is a national reserve area.
The driest area anywhere on Earth is at Peru's far south near the Chilean border. This region marks the beginning of the Atacama Desert, an area that virtually never receives rain and is measurably drier than the Sahara Desert.
9 FLAT AND ROLLING TERRAIN
Some of the world's most spectacular forests are in Peru. An enormous band of tropical cloud forests ( montaña ) form a natural border between the Andes and the Amazon Basin to the east. Starting at about 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) and below, the mountain vegetation changes from grasses to bushes, shrubs, and then trees. This transition in vegetation is sharply noticeable, hence the Spanish name for it: ceja de la montaña (eyebrow of the forest). Further east and south, toward Brazil, is La Selva, the lowland forest and rainforest region of Peru. Over some areas of this region, the forest is so dense that access to it exists only along the rivers.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Nazca lines, created by the ancient Nazca people of southern Peru, continue to mystify archaeologists. The elegant lines are really a series of over three hundred pictures or drawings of animal and plant figures (called biomorphs) and geometric figures (also called geoglyphs) that were created in the desert plains on the southern coast of Peru, about 400 kilometers south of Lima. Since the lines of the pictures extend for hundreds of meters, the images are only completely recognizable from the air; because of this, they were not discovered until the 1920s as airplanes began to fly over the area. The Nazca people created the lines by moving aside the dark stones of the desert to reveal the lighter-colored sands beneath.
Since the climate there is very dry and relatively windless, the pictures have remained for centuries. Archaeologists have not yet agreed on why the Nazca people drew the pictures. One theory indicates that the images were created as part of rituals involving the worship of sky gods and ancient astronomy or astrology practices.
10 MOUNTAINS AND VOLCANOES
The Andes Mountains (Cordillera de los Andes) is the world's longest continuous mountain chain. At about 8,045 kilometers (5,000 miles) long, it stretches down the entire western coast of South America, from Venezuela to the Tierra del Fuego of Argentina. The Andes is the second-highest mountain range in the world, with some peaks rising more than 6,096 meters (20,000 feet).
Covering the greater part of the country, the Andes Mountains in Peru are subdivided into three main parallel ranges. From west to east, they are the Cordillera Occidental, the Cordillera Central, and the Cordillera Oriental. The Cordillera Occidental is further divided into the adjacent Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Huayhuash. Nevado Huascarán, Peru's highest mountain, towering to 6,768 meters (22,205 feet), is in the Cordillera Blanca about 97 kilometers (60 miles) inland from the coastal city of Chimbote. The Cordillera Huayhuash is lower but includes Nevada Yerupajá at 6,634 meters (21,765 feet) and Cerro Jyamy at 5,197 meters (17,050 feet). In the south are two of the highest volcanoes in the world: Volcán Misti, which rises to 5,801 meters (19,031 feet) at the edge of Arequipa, and the slightly shorter Volcán Yucamani, which reaches 5,444 meters (17,860 feet).
11 CANYONS AND CAVES
Cañon del Colca (Colca Canyon), in southwest Peru, is 3,182 meters (10,607 feet) deep, twice as deep as the United States' Grand Canyon. Unlike the Grand Canyon, however, parts of Colca Canyon are inhabited. The canyon attracts visitors who not only want to view the magnificent canyon itself, but also wish to watch the Andean condors, which hunt and nest in the canyon. Only recently has the canyon been fully traversed. Nearby Cañon del Cotahuasi is less explored. Some observers think that Cotahuasi is deeper than Colca, and ultimately may prove to be the world's deepest canyon.
12 PLATEAUS AND MONOLITHS
The Altiplano (meaning "high plain") is a high plateau within the Andes that is shared by Peru and Bolivia. Lake Titicaca is located here. The high level plain is densely populated. Open land is used mainly as pasture for sheep, goats, alpacas, and llamas. The Mato Grosso plateau extends from Brazil into southeast Peru and northwest Bolivia. This is a sparsely populated area of forests and grasslands.
13 MAN-MADE FEATURES
Peru's Valley of the Pyramids, or the Pyramids of Tucume, is the most significant artificial geographic feature. The Valley of the Pyramids is located between the cities of Chiclayo and Trujillo. Twenty-six step-type pyramids, built sometime before 1,100 A.D. , serve as tombs for ancient Peruvians. One pyramid honors the Lord of Sipan, believed to have been a revered leader of the Moche people, who were prominent from about 3 A.D. to 700 A.D. Archaeologists have discovered artifacts of gold, silver, copper, and semi-precious stones in his tomb, as well as several sets of human remains. Scientists speculate these remains were unfortunate subjects of the king, who may have been entombed alive at the time the pyramid was closed for the king's burial.
14 FURTHER READING
Barrett, Pam. Insight Guide: Peru. London: Geocenter International, 2003.
Pearson, David, and Beletsky, Les D. Peru: The Ecotravellers' Wildlife Guide . Burlington, MA: Academic Press, 2000.
Landau, Elaine. Peru. New York: Children's Press, 2000.
Lyle, Gary. Peru. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 1998.
Wright, Ruth M, and Alfredo Valencia Zegarra. The Machu Picchu Guidebook: A Self-Guided Tour. Boulder, CO: Johnson Books, 2001.
Virtual Peru . http://www.virtualperu.net (accessed April 3, 2003).