It may be one of the world’s best kept secrets. For a lot of people it is probably just one more country in South America located somewhere in the jumble of countries that only a geography lover would know.
But as competition has grown among super powers or emerging economies, Peru, a nation roughly twice the size of Texas and situated on South America’s west coast, has quietly become prime real estate.
For generations, the U.S. had been Peru’s number one trading partner. But in the last several years, it has been supplanted by China, a country that has found in Peru a partner more than willing to exchange its vast wealth of natural resources for the hard currency it needs to build everything from roads and bridges to new factories.
China is currently spending $20 billion a year trading with Peru. It is at or near the top of countries buying Peru’s copper, gold, zinc, iron ore and petroleum. It is also spending lavishly on Peru’s agricultural bounty, the fruits and vegetables that grow in the country’s varied geographic regions.
Agriculture is expected to remain one of Peru’s strongest economic engines. It annually exports asparagus, avocados, tomatoes and potatoes. In fact, Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have introduced the potatoes he took from Peru to Europe in the 1500’s.
“There is no reason not to love Peru,” says Marjorie Silva, Peruvian expatriate and owner of Azucar, an eclectic Peruvian bakery located on a stretch of south Broadway that is quietly emerging as new ‘go to’ location for food, clothing and nightlife.
Silva left Peru a dozen years ago and began a new life in Denver. She is not alone. Denver has a thriving colony of ex-Peruvians that now numbers in the thousands.
But while her feet, along with her family — a husband and two sons — are firmly anchored in her new country, a part of Peru will always occupy a special place in her heart.
“It is a place that is really rich,” she says as she sips a cup of the special blend Peruvian coffee that brings in so many of her fellow countrymen along with many others. “It is also a place that is really poor,” she adds, always conscious of Peru’s historic poverty.
Travelers planning on visiting, says Denver travel agent Debbie Tasayco, need to be aware that poverty often breeds crime and tourists can be targets. “It has gotten much better, but there are still places you need to be aware of.”
Tasayco, who has lived in Denver since 1994, regularly books group tours to Peru and lets clients know what could happen. She says she tells them to avoid flashy jewelry or watches and to be alert.
The history of Peru is incentive enough for anyone. But, she says, the food, music and culture are amazing. “You can’t miss the chance to visit Peru.” She recommends La Casa de la Perricholi about fifty miles from Lima where a visitor can learn the history of the country.
In the last dozen years, a number of new economic reforms along with new national leadership have helped catapult this nation of 29 million to the sixth healthiest economy in South America. The boom has helped grow Peru’s middle class.
Recent economic figures out of Peru are remarkable for a country that has struggled for most of the 20th century. Its economy is growing at an 8.8 percent annual rate. Unemployment is now 7.9 percent. Inflation is holding steady at 1.9 percent. Not that long ago, few could have imagined this amazing economic evolution.
In the 1980’s, Peru was locked in an economic and political morass. As it fought to gain control over its economy, the country was also wracked by regular and deadly terrorist strikes creating great fear and uncertainty from the ocean to the Andes.
The Shining Path, a stealth Maoist guerrilla force, was terrorizing both urban and rural populations. Concurrent with the fear shadowing Peru, the country was also plunging into an era of hyper-inflation.
The nation’s central bank was broke. Inflation was running at 2,600 percent. The gross national product was floating aimlessly in an ocean of red. A handful of Peru’s currency was only slightly more valuable than confetti.
“I lived where there was a lot of terrorism,” remembers Silva. “A bank exploded a block from my house.” No place, it seemed, was safe. And the soldiers guarding the streets of Lima, the nation’s capital and largest city, could only guess where the Shining Path would strike next.
In early February, Peruvian President Ullanta Humala announced the surrender of the leader of Shining Path. But it is far too early to know with any confidence if the surrender also means the end of the organization.
Today, the nation’s economic growth is along the coast where most of the population, its wealth and modernization reside. The interior still has vast pockets of poverty but it is hoped that the turn toward a more stable economy will one day reach populations in the rural parts of the country.
An oddity that adds to Peru’s diversity is its Chinese population, much of which lives in Lima. So ubiquitous are Chinese and Chinese culture that the city has a section known as Barrio Chino or Chinatown.
The Chinese first came to Peru in the mid-1800’s to work as laborers building the country’s roads, rail system and factories. Today, Chinese restaurants, or chifas, abound in Lima and across the country. “We have the best Chinese food,” says Silva, an air of affection in her words.
Today, Peru has South America’s largest Chinese population though many have intermarried with the Mestizos, Amerindians, Afro-Peruvians and Europeans who also call Peru home.
Peru continues to be a thoroughly mystifying country. It is blessed with great beauty and geographic diversity. Nothing underscores this like Machu Picchu, a pre-Columbian architectural masterpiece, 7,900 feet above the ocean.
Amazingly, it remained undiscovered by plundering Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro. Pizarro’s arrival signaled the end of the Inca Empire.
Machu Picchu lied dormant until it was rediscovered in 1911. Its mysteries are still being debated. Was it home to a privileged few — it is estimated that it could comfortably sustain about 1200 — or was this centuries old wonder the reserve of the religiously anointed?
Another natural beauty in Peru is Laguna Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake. It lies on the border of Bolivia and Peru. It is more than 50 miles wide and 118 miles long and is fed by 27different rivers.
Peru’s amazing rain forest covers half of the landmass of the country and is also its most popular tourist attraction. It contains an abundance of amazing plant and animal life but is also threatened by policies that have already seen dramatic deforestation.
In addition to the rainforest, Peru is blessed with the Andes mountain range which winds through the country and beyond. The range stretches more than 4,000 miles with peaks averaging more than 13,000 feet in elevation.
Peru remains a country with great challenges and great promise, great beauty and amazing culture. But no matter how far away its sons and daughters travel, says Silva, it is never more than a memory and heartbeat away.