Machu Picchu is an ancient city atop a mountain in the jungle. Wow. You should go. My mother and her husband Dick joined us to marvel at the ruins. Of all the wonders of the world, Machu Picchu is the most remote, so it is a logistical challenge to get there. First, spend a few days in Cusco to adjust to the high altitude. While there, don´t miss Sacsayhuaman, a fort where gigantic boulders are so perfectly aligned that you can’t even stick a piece of paper between them – and the Incas used no mortar. From Cusco you can hike an ancient trail to Machu Picchu (three nights of camping) or take the tourist train to Aguas Calientes from where you can take a bus to the archaeological site. I calculate that Aguas Calientes is the most touristy city on the planet per square kilometer.
When I went to Machu Picchu 20 years ago, things were different. I was the only tourist on the plane from Lima to Cusco, and the woman sitting next to me had a live chicken in her purse. This time, the plane had only tourists (mostly North Americans). Back then, I hiked the famous Inca trail with a Peruvian friend and encountered few other people, mostly Quechua farmers. Now the trail is so crowded, one has to make a reservation at least 3 months in advance. (Lili and I hiked a different Inca trail in the Lares valley to avoid the crowds and get some culture). In 1988, the train to Machu Picchu was cheap; now it is so expensive that locals cannot afford the ride; this makes people angry.
The reason there were so few tourists in 1988 was civil war. A Marxist group known as the Shining Path conducted a guerrilla insurgency against the corrupt government. They have since abandoned the struggle in favor of the more lucrative and less dangerous cocaine trade. Indeed, in 1988 it was impossible to travel from Peru to Bolivia by land as all the bridges were destroyed (I flew). Nearly every tourist I met got robbed, some at knife-point in broad daylight. The government is still corrupt, but there is peace, security, and far less poverty thanks in part to all those tourist dollars.
More good news: indigenous people from Peru´s lowland jungle recently forced the government to cancel their plans to implement a so-called free trade agreement with the USA that would have destroyed vast areas of pristine forest they call home. They achieved this remarkable victory through their willingness to die for it. Score one for the good guys!
By the way, to understand the current economic crisis, I recommend Capitalism: A Love Story. Nobel laureate Paul Krugman asks, How did economists get it so wrong? But if you ask someone in Africa they´ll say the crisis is expensive food. In Bangladesh they'll tell you the crisis is rising sea levels. Many Quechua highlanders in Peru would say, "What crisis?" if only they spoke English. In New Zealand, young workers who lost their jobs abroad are coming home to live with their parents, and burglary rates are increasing. In my opinion, the recession in the rich countries is merely a warning bell. Just wait until petrol prices skyrocket! They will. Friends, radical reform is needed urgently.