Although the continents are the same age, South America’s history—pre-Columbian, colonial, and modern - is infinitely older and richer than that of North America. In South America, Peru has much to offer any traveler interested in adventure, nature and the outdoors, wildlife and archaeology.
Mystical Peruvian cultures like the Chavín, Chimú and Moche have left us with world-class ceramics, gold and copper figures, and textiles, while ancient ruins like Tiwanaku, Caral, Chan-Chan, Kuélap, Sipán, the Nazca Lines, and the incomparable Machu Picchu stand in mute testimony to the ingenuity and might of the Incas, the Huari, and other vanished civilizations. And Cuzco, oldest city in the Americas, replete with ancient cathedrals and Inca stonework, is redolent with culture and history. Lima’s unrivalled museums barely scratch the surface of a country so riddled with relics that they cannot all be curated.
North America has mountains, rivers, canyons, forests and deserts, but they are bigger and more numerous in South America where 13 countries vie for Mother Nature’s exuberance. And Peru may well have grabbed the lion’s share. The driest deserts, deepest canyon, highest lake, mightiest river and wildest forest are there, as are towering peaks, impossibly high waterfalls, massive glaciers, triple rainbows and staggering rainfall. Even the region’s architects are superlative: the most dramatic floods, the strongest earthquakes, and the hottest sun have conspired to sculpt this remarkable place. Peru has more climate types than all of Europe and North America combined.
And this is only the beginning: there are more kinds of birds, monkeys, orchids, fishes and frogs there than anywhere else. Home of the potato, with over 3,000 varieties, and the tomato, Peru also dominates the modern culinary world through its fusion cooking and incomparable chefs. With 1,500 miles of Pacific coastline bathed by the cool, plankton-rich waters of the Humboldt Current, the marine life—and therefore the seafood—is stupendous. A myriad of Peruvian indigenous tribes has produced the greatest diversity of language types in the Western Hemisphere.
This magic world is defined by a Paleozoic stream born on the mega-continent of Gondwana. For sixty million years it emptied into the Pacific Ocean, even after the South American Plate split from the mainland and began its westward drift. An abrupt collision with the Nazca Plate gave birth to the Andes Mountains and the uplift stalled the course of the river, creating a vast inland lake. Over the next 50 million years the continent began to tilt until the water overcame the topography, burst its rocky prison surging eastward to the Atlantic. As the lake began to empty, thousands of feeder creeks and streams formed what is now the world’s largest drainage basin, covering some 2,720,000 square miles and accounting for twenty percent of the freshwater entering the oceans. The stingrays and Pink Dolphins that ply its waters today are descendants of Pacific Ocean ancestors that date from the period when the river flowed west.
High on the glacial slopes of Peru’s 18,000-ft Nevado Mismi a glinting sheet of cold water shimmers down a rock face called Barranco Apacheta. Meandering over mossy stones, it crosses a grassy alpine valley before being joined by the Carhuasanta and other rivulets. Gathering momentum, now as the río Apurímac, later joined by the río Mantaro to form the río Ene, then the Urubamba, and on to the Ucayali, it finally meets the Marañón and something entirely different results. When its journey to the Atlantic Ocean ends 4,250 miles away, the little stream from high in the Andes will have become the world’s largest river by volume, as well as the longest: The Amazon. Quite simply the mightiest of rivers, it is fed annually by a tsunami of broken things—twisted trees, tangled vegetation and mangled detritus—all pushed by icy, swollen Andean streams. The Amazon can rise by 30 feet during the flood season, boiling over its banks and churning into 140,000 square miles of surrounding rainforest where it becomes an ocean of epic proportions. Two thousand miles long and in places 30 miles wide, the Amazon discharges over 55 million gallons per second, for a total output that exceeds the next ten largest rivers… combined. At the river’s yawning mouth a roiling plume of freshwater 300 miles wide surges for over 250 miles straight into the Atlantic Ocean. The Amazon is our largest wilderness, and the braided lives of the people and creatures that inhabit it are every bit as alluring as its harlequin birds, exotic flora and iridescent butterflies.
More than one-third of all the species in the world call the Amazon Basin home, and new ones are being discovered almost daily. Insects, which constitute 30% of the Amazonian biomass, already comprise 500,000 species. There are over 2,500 species of fish in the river, more than the entire Atlantic Ocean. The 1,500 kinds of birds represent about ten percent of the world’s total. On a 5-acre plot the number of tree varieties can exceed half that of the entire United States. At least 40,000 plant species have been found in the basin. There are more kinds of amphibians and reptiles in the upper Amazon than in any similar sized area of the world. One of the world’s largest fishes, the Arapaima, lives here, as does the largest freshwater otter, three kinds of dolphins, and the immense Harpy Eagle, easily the most powerful predatory bird on earth. The Jaguar, one of the world’s most imposing wild cats, is here along with nearly 450 species of mammals. The Anaconda, largest of all snakes, makes its home in the waters of the Amazon, along with the enormous Black Caiman and the bizarre Electric Eel. And there’s the infamous piranha, source of endless, inaccurate television shows and movies.
This is a place of unsurpassed mystery, brimming with secrets of the natural world and awash with countless animistic tales of ghosts, goblins, sirens, gigantic snakes and mythical monsters. Amazonian Indians, according to tribe, view their nations as having originated from wondrous things like rainbows, anacondas, or stars. In a land where so much remains unknown, such beliefs help make sense of events that surpass human understanding. Shamans mediate the constant flux of the prevailing Amazonian vision of duality, a cyclic flow of energy that alternates between life and death, construction and destruction, health and illness, equilibrium and disequilibrium.
Legend has it that Sachamama, the gigantic boa mother god, progenitor and protector of the Amazon, prophesied the arrival of those who would plunder her riches. Modern Amazonians lead lives steeped in tradition but the outside world intrudes in the form of everything from well meaning missionaries to the internet and satellite television. Humanity’s greatest show—a ballad of takers and leavers—has played for centuries across this green tableau: greed for raw materials; the endless competition for souls to convert; parades of anthropologists and biologists driven by intellectual curiosity or ego; lust for gold, rubber, oil, timber, medicinal plants, and power. And Sachamama, saddened that her worst fears have been realized, is said to wander the deepest forests, wailing in agony.
In the Quechuan language, the meaning of Apurímac, headwater of the Amazon, is “the God who speaks.” No doubt the great river could talk forever about what it has witnessed. Peru is already full of World Heritage sites but it’s time to recognize one more: The Amazon, our last frontier, the lungs of the planet, the world’s pharmacy, is the most intriguing, astonishing, and impressive place on earth, yet it has never received the distinction it most deserves: Premier Wonder of the World.