Mountainous terrain, vast coastal deserts and steamy, tropical rainforests
For over 300 years before the arrival of the Spanish, most of the Peru was the heart of the Inca empire, which stretched from Ecuador to Chile. The Incas developed a sophisticated administrative system, although it was very different from those in Europe, China and the Middle East. The Inca Empire ended with the fall of Cusco (1531-1533) through the Spaniards under Pizarro. The Spanish founded Lima in 1535, which then became the centre of expansion in western South America. Soon after, Lima became the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru, which extended from the Caribbean to Argentina.
During the seventeenth century Peru was a major producer of silver. Indians were ruthlessly exploited during this era, with executions being common. Lima's political power waned by the late 18th century with the establishment of two new Spanish viceroyalties. However, Spanish colonialism was itself short-lived and Peru declared independence in 1821, following an uprising by local white settlers against Spain.
A long period of instability followed, during which the country was governed by generals. Peru again went to war with Spain between 1864 and 1871. In 1879 Peru, together with Bolivia, fought a four-year war with Chile over the nitrate-rich Atacama desert. This was a disaster for Peru and led to the occupation of Lima by the Chileans and to the loss of Peruvian territory to this day. The late nineteenth century saw industrial development, with the construction of railways connecting the mining centres of the highlands with the coast. This engendered a power struggle between the upper class and liberal elements. In the early twentieth century, Peru had eighteen presidents, many of whom became dictators. There were boundary disputes with Colombia, which was settled in 1932 by the withdrawal of Peru from a large part of the Amazon. Another with Ecuador was settled in Peru's favour in 1942, but was revived in 1981.
Liberal president Fernando Belaunde reformed Peru's social and economic conditions in 1963, bringing about fundamental changes to the lives of the poor. Ironically, the most reforms were made by the head of a junta, General Juan Velasco, who deposed Belaunde in 1968. He reformed agriculture and nationalised mining companies, railways banks and other public services. He was deposed after seven years in power by General Francisco Bermudez, who restored free elections in 1980. Recent history has been dogged by the terrorism of the Maoist Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) group and by presidential corruption.