a wall separates a garden from a poor community in Lima, Peru.

The "Wall of Shame" in Lima separating rich and poor, near the community of San Juan de Miraflores.

Peru is a fascinating, exaggeratedly beautiful place, with proud, yet humble people. Its productive oceans and unique position straddling the Andes spawned one of only six Cradles of Civilization, places where civilizations first emerged almost 5000 years ago (and the only one south of the equator). 
Many people flock to world treasures such as Macchu Picchu and the Nazca Lines, but Peru also rewards those with more time, offering world-famous Peruvian cuisine and top restaurants in Lima, vast protected tracts of Amazon rainforest, world class mountaineering, surfing, and much more. Peru occupies a prominent place within Latin American history, with chapters comprising the rise of unique complex societies, extraordinary natural wealth, dispossession, appropriation, reclamation, art, terrorism, war, national pride, and a region on the rise in an uncertain time of a global pandemic and massive shifts in how we work, digital transformation, commodities and more. ​​​​​​​

Enedina Conspiciona Avilez Soto (67) surveys the cement factory across the valley from near her home, in Villa Maria del Triunfo, Lima. 

Illegal gold mines stretch for tens of kilometers near La Pampa, in the Peruvian Amazon. All of it is illegal. Miners use mercury and other toxic chemicals to bind to gold which has been sluiced out of pits dug near rivers, leaving behind toxic wastelands which leach into the surrounding environment. In addition to mercury poisoning, deforestation, mosquito breeding, and crime, there is the specter of political mismanagement and a confusing security environment which seems to vex even the most jaded Peruvian. In 2019 the military effectively shut down these gold mines, declaring them illegal and smashing the pumps and sluices that are the lifeblood of the operations. However, only two years later, the towns of La Pampa, Nueva Arequipa, and others are thriving. One only has to drive on the Interoceanic Highway to Puerto Maldonado to experience these boom towns in their full glory - delivery drivers on motorcycles and tuk-tuks snaking through heavy truck traffic, sex workers huddled under rickety wooden awnings beckoning customers, children running pell-mell, multi-story buildings half constructed over bright orange, polluted mudflats. It's a modern day gold rush, in full view of the world, in full view of anyone who cares to intervene, and quite possibly one of the strangest communities you can easily drive to in the world. 

Wealthy suburbs carved into hillsides dot the area of La Molina, in Lima's east, part of a new "high-income axis" extending from the historic center to the highlands.

Sonia Mamni (20) helps her grandfather Antonio slaughter a sheep, which will provide food and a skin, as baby Mia keeps watch - at Laguna Quisma Cocha, 4100m.

The Wall of Shame has existed for decades as a proxy for the failure of an effective state response to informality, inequality, and crime. The simple fact is that the wall works - San Juan de Miraflores, in the district of Pamplona Alta, is the second least safe neighborhood in Lima, according to the NGO Ciudad Nuestra. On the other hand, Surco, in the district of Las Casuarinas, is the fourth safest neighborhood in Lima.

Paru Paru, at 4000m is a place where residents still speak Quechua, raise alpacas, sheep and potatoes, and weave textiles to survive. The millions of tourists who visit Machu Picchu each year pass just below in the Sacred Valley, but a world away. 

Peru is a country that people repeatedly told me was "emerging" - emerging from the shadow of decades of terrorism and guerilla warfare, from sprawling informality and crime, from under-investment in infrastructure and services, from dirty economies to those that are "green". But it's also a place of seemingly intractable inequality and waste. Latin America is the world's most unequal region, with highly segregated cities, and perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in Lima, a city of over 10 million people, most of them draped over bone-dry, dusty foothills of the Andes. In the summertime, tendrils of fog creep from the coast at sunset and mix with the dense brown smog of these communities, suffusing the atmosphere with an eerie yet soothing orange glow. In the hillside section called Villa Maria del Trionfo, slum communities extend in ragged checkerboards up near-vertical slopes, marked out in a series of informal plots which migrants from the interior pay to criminal organizations instead of the state as a sort of deed on the land. In the distance, illuminated by the setting sun, a hulking cement factory gapes like a science fiction film backdrop.

Spinning alpaca wool into yarn is something that almost every woman in the mountains above the Sacred Valley does constantly. Here, Concepcion Usca Foco (67) uses a traditional spinning tool called a pushka inside her home in Huilloc Alto, high above the town of Ollantaytambo. 

Almost every piece of women's outer clothing in mountain communities is spun wool (or sometimes, brightly colored synthetics). In addition, each region also has its own unique style of hats - some variations being different even within just a few kilometers.

The "Wall of Shame" in Lima extends for kilometers, even over sparsely populated mountaintops, in a bid to keep rich and poor separated.  

Lima is dotted with sparsely populated holiday housing developments like in Punta Negra, some of which abut densely populated low income neighborhoods. 

Walls enclose green lawns and swimming pools in Lima, sometimes two and three walls deep in a sort of rolling barricade only visible from the air. 

Beachside mansions and resorts in Pucusana, about 45 minutes south of Lima, below the informal communities on the hillsides above.

Tree plantations stabilize the loose soil around Lima, some of them filled with desire paths, as residents find ways to access the highway and services below.

Fortunata Pfuturi, in her home in Rucca, Peru.

Walls are omnipresent in Lima, even when it's not apparent what they're enclosing.

Lima's suburbs are growing at such a rapid pace that they threaten archealogical sites like this one near Julio Cesar Tello. The pressures of migration, housing, and jobs can seem much bigger than the need to preserve history, even at the expense of losing it forever. The future of the urban space surrounding Lima is unwritten.

If Peru is truly "emerging", it's doing so in its own way, in a manner that's a fascinating mix of south Asian informality and New World frontier dynamism. As technology spreads, remote mountain communities are now connected to the internet and to distant relatives with ease, and the knowledge of life and supposed prosperity in the city is creating a huge draw, but at what cost? From the air and on the ground, the urban tableau of Lima is distressingly similar to other mega-cities - a patchwork of gated communities, unreinforced brick slum buildings, and walls everywhere. There's a reason Lima is known as the "City of Cages". The unique rock walled pens, colorful woven clothing and ornate hats of the mountains don't exist here. 
The natural environment, like so many other parts of Latin America, seems useful more as a repository of commoditizable wealth than as a sanctuary, and I witnessed the most distressing, stunning scenes of natural destruction caused by illegal gold mining as exists anywhere on the planet, right in plain view along a main highway through the Amazon, a phenomenon impossible to exist with the complicity of the state. At the same time, a tsunami-induced oil spill coating the beaches north of Lima was decried as callous and irresponsible on the part of the multinational Repsol, an obviously juicy political foil. The productive farmland and cultural landscape near Chinchero is quickly being erased for a controversial and potentially dangerous new airport, all of which leads me to believe that the much-heralded boon in mining for the "green" economy might not be as clean as it sounds​​​​​​​

Runoff from gold mining in the Madre de Dios region enters the Inambari River near Mazuko, Peru.

Enedina Conspiciona Avilez Soto (67). 

An oil spill coats the beach in Ventanilla, Peru on January 19. Reports say the underwater volcanic explosion and subsequent tsunami originating in Tonga were to blame in dislodging an oil tanker near Lima at a refinery owned by Spanish company Repsol. As of writing, the Peruvian government has banned four executives from leaving the country, and sentiments from the population are running high. 

Chincerho is on a high plain near Machu Picchu and the site of the new international airport being built to replace the outdated, dangerous one in the center of Cusco. It has been beset by controversy.

Potatoes are a staple food in the Andes. There are thousands of varieties, based on altitude and soil. 

The dystopian landscape of Villa Maria del Triunfo, in Lima's southern district, is dominated by the Unacem cement plant.

Walls and expanding populations in Lima's eastern suburbs.

Villa Maria del Trionfo and the hulking cement plant in the distance, completely encircled by walls.

Nueva Arequipa, the boom town at the center of the devastated Madre De Dios gold mining region.

Peru isn't just a bit player in the gold mining industry - Peru is the world's sixth-biggest exporter of gold, and the largest in Latin America. 

The husband of Enedina Conspiciona Avilez Soto at their home in Lima.

Children are carried with their mothers everywhere, swaddled in thick woolen blankets and clothes that rarely seem to come off. 

Country Club El Bosque Sede Playa opposite the dusty communities of Punta Negra, south of Lima. 

The Pachacamac archealogical ruins next to Julio Cesar Tello community. 

Sonia Mamani celebrates the slaughter of a sheep at her grandparents' home near Paru Paru. 

Local flora in Amaru, above the town of Pisac. 

Sheep shearing involves first binding the legs, in this case with a woolen thread. 

You may also like

Back to Top