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.
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.
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.