Llamas and Peruvian flag on the Altiplano of Peru
Established on coast in 1535 by the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizzaro, Lima served as the capital of the entire Viceroyalty of Peru during the colonial period. Unlike most other major cities in Spanish America, Lima was not constructed on a pre-existing urban complex but built to provide access to and from the riches of highland Peru. Shown is the government palace, seat of the executive branch of government. The multicolored flag flying next to the Peruvian flag represents all native Andean peoples.
Colonial architecture survives in modern Lima. Of note are the closed balconies from which the ladies of the Spanish elite could watch goings-on in the street below without themselves being seen.
The Southern Incan capital of Cusco, like major Incan (Quechua and Aymara) population centers throughout the Andes, is situated in a high, flat intermontane valley (altiplano) flanked by the two parallel ranges of the Andes Mountains. Cusco lies at an elevation of approximately 11,200 ft asl.
The Spanish town of Cusco was built on top of the old Incan city. Its layout is typical of Spanish colonial towns, following a grid pattern of streets around a central plaza (plaza major), a plan dictated by Spain’s Laws of the Indies.
Plaza des Armas
Cusco’s Plaza des Armas around which—according to decree—are the main Catholic cathedral and convent, government buildings, and military headquarters. Stone arcades and tile roofs are among architectural features common to Spanish colonial towns. This was also a plaza or square during the Incan period.
Streets are steep in Cuzco, challenging to visitors from lower elevations!
Large blocks of stone, expertly cut by precolonial peoples to fit close together without mortar, remain as foundations for colonial era buildings.
The Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River near Pisac (elevation 9, 751 ft asl). Pisac is about 20 miles northeast of Cusco.
Stone-fronted bench terraces, constructed by pre-Incan and Incan peoples, created narrow fields on steep slopes. Many are still in use. Note people in lower left for scale.
Andean farmer demonstrates foot-plow developed for use on the terraces. The steel blade would have been stone originally, as seen on the plow lying at his feet. Before the Spanish Conquest, native peoples did not have domesticated animals such as oxen, horses, or donkeys that could pull plows.
Native andean root crops
. A display of native Andean rootscrops at the Pisac market. Hundreds of local varieties of white potatoes were developed by Andean peoples in addition to oca and ulloca. Maize (corn) is also native to the Americas.
. Germinating corn provides malt for local, homemade beer (chicha) production.
Chicha being sold and consumed at Pisac’s market. This is a cottage industry. When fresh brew is ready, homes fly flags to alert potential buyers.
Contemporary Andean agridculture
Andean agriculture today is a mixture of European and Andean crops. The yellow fields are wheat; plowed patches likely await planting with native root crops.
Wheat fields against backdrop of High Andes
Wheat fields dominate level lands on the Altiplano near Cusco. Wheat is a European introduction.
Oxen, introduced by the Spanish, are still used today for plowing in areas where tractors are unsuited or are too expensive to purchase and maintain.
Llamas are domesticated forms of the wild guanaco. They remain common and are still used as beasts of burden at high elevations. Their close relative, the domestic alpaca, is raised largely for its wool.
Rural homestead on the Altiplano
Guinea pigs were first domesticated in the high Andes for food. Here they are maintained in a miniature farmstead of their own.
Spectacular Machu Picchu, the iconic landscape of Incan Peru, lies above the Urubamba River north of Cusco and at a lower elevation (7,970 ft asl). Its remoteness prevented its discovery by the Spanish conquerors and so was relatively intact when first seen by an outsider, Hiram Bingham, in 1911.
Some of the highest peaks of the Andes have glaciers remaining from the Pleistocene Epoch, but they are rapidly retreating.
Close up of glacier. Climate change is quickly reducing the ice remaining in the central Andes.
To the south, the Altiplano becomes drier and a vegetation type known as puna dominates. Wild vicuna, a relative of domesticated alpacas and llamas and South American member of the camel family, are inhabitants of this high, cold grassland. Vicunas are endangered species, here protected on the Salinas and Aguado Blanco National Reserve at elevations near 13,000 ft asl.
Tussocks of ichu or Peruvian feathergrass characterize the puna.
walls and corrals in the puna attest to the main land use: grazing of sheep and llamas.
Poorly drained high altitude peatlands (bofedales) are dominated by cushion plants and grazed by sheep and llamas.
The viscacha is a wild, rock-dwelling rodent native to the high Andes. It is closely related to chinchillas and belongs to the diverse group of South American caviomorph rodents which also contains guinea pigs (cavies).
Lake Titicaca, touted as the highest navigable lake in the world, straddles the Peru/Bolivia border on the Altiplano. The snow-covered mountains in the distance are in Bolivia.
Totora reed island
Lake Titicaca is perhaps best known for the 40-odd man-made floating islands of totora reed. They are inhabited by the Uros people and have been since pre-Incan time.
Reed house on a Uros island
Close up reed house on an Uros island. Note cooking stove and solar panel. Totora reed grows in marsh in background.
Islands of solid rock also occur in Lake Titicaca. Here on Amantani, potato fields supporting the local Quechuan-speaking population have recently been harvested.
Small potatoes freeze-dry at night on the porch of this home on Amantani to produce traditional chuño. White chuño is washed (probably in the lake) and dried in the sun. Black chuño is dried by trampling on the tubers to squeeze out the water content.
The mysterious Nazca Lines occur on a low, arid plateau in the western foothills of the Andes in southern Peru. They consist of numerous lines, geometric patterns, and zoomorphic figures and are believed to date to 450–600 A.D. Shown is a hummingbird.
This figure lies close to a highway, where an observation tower has been constructed. Such development for tourism may threaten the very ancient geoglyphs that attract visitors.
Close-up of Nazca Line.
The geogyphs were produced by scratching aside the shallow desert pavement.
Peru once had the world’s largest fishery. The main catch was anchovettas that thrived in the cold waters of the Humboldt Current offshore. Overfishing and a severe El Niño in 1972, which brought warm waters to the west coast of South America, led to its collapse. The fish was primarily used for meal to feed poultry in industrial farms in North America and Europe. In the absence of fish, soybeans replaced fish meal as feed.
The Ballestas, sometimes promoted as Peru’s Galapagos Islands, lie off the Paracas Peninsula south of Lima
Another industry that collapsed due to over-harvest (mining) and innovations elsewhere was the guano industry. Nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich bird droppings (guano) were a fertilizer in high demand on 19th century North American and European farms until nitrates could be produced industrially. Infrastructure related to export remains on the Ballestas.
Seabirds producing prodigious amounts of guano include, left to right, guanay (cormorants), Humboldt Penguins—which burrowed into the guano deposits to nest, and boobies. Pelicans were also important guano birds. The cold Humboldt Current supported a huge fishery of small anchovetta upon which the birds fed. The current also created an arid climate, which meant rains rarely washed the guano into the sea. It accumulated to great depth and was
South American sea lions
. South American sea lions haul out on the Ballestas. Like the guano birds, they cycle nutrients from the rich waters of the Humboldt Current onto the land.