How did Peru get its name?
Garcilaso de la Vega, was the first one to shed light of how Peru got its name. Vega was born, the son of a Spanish conquistador and an Incan princess, in 1539. He was one of the first to write detailed accounts of the Incas and Spanish conquests in Peru. His book was published in 1609, was called, The Royal Commentaries of the Incas.
The story goes that in 1513, Spaniard Vasco Nunez de Balboa discovered the South Sea. He spotted a native Indian who was quietly fishing at the mouth of an estuary. His crew captured the native and hauled him aboard the boat. After finally calming him down, the Spanish attempted to ask him questions about the unknown land. Scared and confused but wanting to please his captors, he blurted out the word Beru, which was actually his name. He then blurted out a second word, Pelu, which means, “river” in the Inca language. The Spanish combined the two words to create what we know the country to be called today; Peru. (The Incas and natives knew their country as Ttahuatin-Suya, meaning, “the four-quarters of the world.”)
Where is Peru Located?
Peru is located on the western border of South America. Her neighbors are Ecuador and Columbia to the north, Brazil to the east, Bolivia to the southeast, Chile to the south and the Pacific Ocean to the west. It is the third largest country on the continent, behind Argentina and Brazil. Lima is the capital city and its main economic hub.
Peru has enormous biodiversity, with ninety distinct microclimates. It is listed among the ten most biodiverse countries in the world. The coastal plain, (costa) is a narrow strip of desert land that runs the length of the country. There is an upland region, (sierra) the highland, which includes the very high mountain ranges of the Andes, as well as gorges and deep valleys. There are many rivers that are born in the Andes and descend to the Pacific, allowing for irrigation to serve a very arid region. The east is home to the tropical Amazon basin’s rain forest, jungle (selva), and the Amazon River. Lake Titicaca, lies between Peru and Bolivia and is the largest lake in all of South America. It is also the highest in altitude, navigable lake in all the world. In Andean belief, Lake Titicaca is the birthplace of the sun. Its waters are renowned for stillness and bright reflections. Jacques Cousteau discovered ruins of an ancient city under the lake’s surface, He also discovered the descendants of the Quechua people, who still live on the islands today.
A Brief History of Peru
Peru has an ancient history, stemming from various tribal groups that lived there. In the 12th century, the small city state of Cuzco was formed by the Killkes tribe. This began the formidable era of the Incan Empire. Over the next several hundred years, the Incas managed to conquer not only Peru but also parts of Ecuador, Bolivia and northern Chile. They had a highly developed civilization when the Spanish arrived there in 1531. Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, conquered and captured Cuzco in 1533. Peru was a great source of wealth and power for the Spanish, mostly from the gold and silver discovered in the Andes Mountains. In 1535, Pizarro established Lima as the capital of Peru, which remains so today. With the help of others, from Bolivia and Venezuela, Peru was able to defeat the Spanish and become a free country in 1821, when they declared their independence.
Like many newly independent countries, Peru went through a difficult time with coups, dictatorships, military rule and wars with guerilla groups fighting against the government. In recent history, Alberto Fujimori, won three consecutive terms, despite being accused of fraud. He then stunned the nation when he resigned during a trip to Japan. Revelations that Fujimori secretly held Japanese citizenship outraged the populace, since he could not be extradited to face corruption charges. Eventually he ended up in Chile to pursue his political ambitions. There he was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was recently pardoned, after serving only 12 years, as he is suffering from cancer. The pardon caused outrage, once again. Despite Fujimori’s crimes against humanity, he did some good things for the economy, which continues to thrive. Their economy is dependent on its many commodities, but prices do fluctuate with the world markets. They are the world’s second largest producer of silver and copper. They are the sixth largest producer of gold; mining 162 tons of gold a year. Peru’s coastal waters provide for excellent fishing grounds. Fish and agriculture are very important to their growing economy, as are minerals and natural resources. Tourism continues to contribute more than ever to this nation’s economic growth.
With more than 10,000 years of history, Peru is filled with a great wealth of culture and tradition. As the oldest civilization in South America, Peru is home to many riches. Peruvians fully recognize the importance today of their heritage and the value the Andes and the Amazon offer in natural resources and ancient traditions.
Spanish is the official language, along with Quechua and Aymara. There are 45 other native languages that are spoken as well. Catholicism is the predominant religion in Peru and is very important in the lives of Peruvians. Yet they exist peacefully alongside other belief systems including indigenous beliefs, with shamans and medicine men playing important roles.
The coca plant (the same one used to make cocaine) has been used for thousands of years in the Andean world. It is used for its medicinal properties and religious significance. Coca leaves, which are brewed in tea, are particularly effective against altitude sickness, which is helpful at high elevations.
Since pre-Hispanic times, music and dance have played vital roles in Peruvian society. Ancient Peruvians used seashells and reeds, along with animal bones, to produce sounds. Weaving is another prominent art form in Peru. It is believed that every form of weaving known today, was invented by the Peruvians. It is estimated it takes somewhere between 500 to 600 hours to spin, dye and weave a traditional poncho. They are typically given as gifts to one who enters adulthood and it is expected to last them a lifetime.
In Cuzco, Peruvian history is displayed in the architecture. Here you will find Spanish, colonial style churches and dwellings built directly on top of their old Incan stone temples.
Why Visit Peru?
Peru, being home to amazing biodiversity, is one of the most unique and colorful places to visit on the planet. Peru has 25,000 plant species, it ranks first in the world in distinct fish species, second for species of birds and third for amphibians and mammals. It is home to 12 UNESCO world heritage sites, including the famous Machu Picchu that was recently deemed one of the Seven New Wonders of the World. It was uncovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham and today displays the pride and complexity of the ancient Inca civilization as one of the most popular tourist destinations. The stone work, masterfully constructed to be seismically stable, is one of the mysteries of this ancient site.
Peru is also home to numerous natural wonders, including Rainbow Mountain and the Painted Hills, where mineral deposits color the landscape like a rainbow. The Cerro Blanco sand dune, located in the south of Peru, is the highest in the world. Peru’s Nazca Lines, are a collection of more than 70, giant, human and animal geoglyphs. There are 10,000 lines, some of them are up to 30 miles long and it remains one of the world’s biggest, archeological mysteries that was never even discovered until man took flight. The Andes, the beautiful coastlines, deserts, the Amazon basin and rivers, and Lake Titicaca are all great reasons to visit Peru. However, it may just be worth a visit there for the gastronomy alone; it is one of the best cuisines in all the world.
The diversity of Peru’s agricultural production comes from its microclimates and varied geography. Peru’s multiple cultures along with the brilliance of her chefs, have enriched the cuisine to the point of it being recognized as one of the best in the world. Gastronomy has become such an important element in the lives of Peruvians, it is part of the national identity. The cuisine of Peru is both ancient and modern. It is a fusion of the indigenous population along with contributions of immigrants from Europe, (mainly Spain, Italy and Germany), Asia (China and Japan) and West Africa. Imagine a cuisine where there are the over 3800 varieties of potatoes. Corn is available in every color, shape and size, along with rich grains, like quinoa. We certainly can’t forget the abundant seafood, especially their amazing ceviche, available all along the coast. High in the Andean region, cuy (guinea pig) and alpaca, are popular sources of meat. It is, however, the native aji chilies, pureed into amazing sauces, that just might be their most delicious contribution. The flavors of Peruvian cuisine are bold, rich, and spicy. Yet they can be subtle and complex, as well. You will certainly want to enjoy the amazing flavors of this cuisine with their famous pisco sour; Peru’s national drink.
So let’s enjoy a Peruvian Meal:
We set the scene with the colors of the flag; red and white. We placed dolls, hand crafted by natives, to represent the Incan empire, a photo of the magnificent Machu Picchu, a yellow aji pepper, silver and gold coins to represent their wealth, potatoes, a rope, with knots, representing the ancient system of record keeping, called quipus, a penguin statue (yes they have penguins in Peru), and palm fronds to represent the Amazon rain forest. Finally, a soccer ball was added, as it is their national sport.
Our first course was ceviche; the national dish of Peru. Ceviche is so loved and is part of its national heritage. It actually has its own holiday on June 28th of each year. This ceviche was one of the best we have ever had. It was unique in that, besides the delectable seabass, it had sweet potatoes and giant kernels of toasted corn. It was flavored with aji peppers, red onion and a citrusy flavored marinade, made with fresh lemon and lime. The ceviche was served with the marinade, in the tradition of cevicherias and is called, leche de tigre or “tigers milk.”
For the main course we had their famous, pollo a la brasa. This dish is loved in Peru but may be more famous in the USA. It just may be the best chicken ever. It was a split, roasted chicken, lightly seasoned with vinegar, cumin and pepper. It was tender and succulent. But it’s the sauces, for which the Peruvians are so famous, and into which you dip the bites of chicken, that make the dish. The two sauces we had were, aji verde and aji de huacatay, (which was my favorite.) Both sauces are phenomenal and the dishes you can use them on are endless. The aji verde is very common and flavored with aji paste, chilies, cilantro, lime, garlic, oil, cheese and mayo, all blended together. The aji de huacatay is also made with cilantro, aji paste, garlic, and oil but has the addition of huacatay paste, which can be found in your Latin market. Huacatay is a fresh herb, that tastes somewhere between basil and mint. It is sometimes called black mint and is related to the marigold and tarragon families. These sauces were off the charts, amazing. We actually did not have a side dish, but potatoes, cooked anyway you like, would be a great accompaniment and totally authentic.
For dessert we enjoyed suspiro de limena, which is a caramel meringue, parfait that is exceptionally sweet and delicious. The name of the dessert, literally translated means, “the sigh of a Lima lady.” I think that pretty much sums it up.
After our feast, we took our pisco sours, (made with Peruvian pisco, as the base liquor and lime, which makes up the sour, along with bitters, egg whites and a simple syrup,) to enjoy, as we watched Wild Peru, by National Geographic. This film highlights the amazing biodiversity of the land and sea of Peru. Did you know you can swim with pink dolphins there? By the way, Peru also has a national holiday, in honor of the cocktail, pisco sour, which happens the first Saturday of every February.
I leave you with my favorite Peruvian Proverb:
“It is better to prevent than cure.”
Until next time
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