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Global Citizen travel guide: Machu Picchu

An American historian named Hiram Bingham was sniffing around in the Andes Mountains in 1911, when some of the locals tipped him off to some nice old stone walls high on a nearby mountain. Predictably enough for a historian, Hiram decided to check the walls out. After quite a lot of tree clearing and soil removal, it turns out that he had stumbled upon Machu Picchu. Good decision, Hiram. Good decision.

hiram.jpgImage: Hiram Bingham, 1911

Machu Picchu was constructed around 1450 by the Inca people, whose empire stretched most of the length of South America at its peak. Our best guess is that Machu Picchu was a mountaintop estate for the Inca emperor, with the complex containing over 200 structures, including houses, guardhouses, agricultural terraces, and a temple. The uninvited arrival of the Spanish conquistadors a century later caused the Inca to abandon the secluded site, which they then kept secret from the Spanish. The fact that those rude Spaniards never found the site has enabled it to remain largely intact, and it is a highly significant cultural and archaeological icon.

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A lot has changed since the 1500s. The Spanish ended up prevailing, and Peru became an independent nation in the 19th century. Today, Peru is classified as a developing country, and a large percentage of its people are of mixed ethnicity. The Peruvian economy has been outperforming the rest of Latin America in recent years, with the capital city of Lima being the powerhouse of the nation.

Machu Picchu, meanwhile, is located hundreds of miles southeast of Lima, where the massive Amazon rainforest joins the Andes Mountains. There is a significant urban/rural divide for the people of Peru. For example, national literacy was estimated to be 92.9% in 2007, but 96.3% in urban areas, and only 80.3% in rural areas. It’s a real challenge to deliver good schooling and healthcare in remote areas, and there are typically fewer employment opportunities away from the big cities. This is really significant for the local communities in Machu Picchu area.

aguascalientes.jpgAguas Calientes, the nearest town to Machu Picchu, offers many services to visitors.
Image: Diego Delso / Wikimedia Commons

Shakira is Machu Picchu’s main rival as the most famous thing in South America, but since Shakira tours the world, you don’t have to get on a plane to verify the truthfulness of her hips. Machu Picchu, on the other hand, brings in over a million tourists per year, up from 400,000 15 years ago. Such a big drawcard is big business, and the site was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981, and a World Heritage Site in 1983. This creates a challenge – how to manage a famous, fragile site in such a way that satisfies visitors, preserves the site, and improves the lives of the locals?

Showcasing Machu Picchu while helping the locals

Tourism is the third largest industry in Peru, employing over a million people, and growing fast. Machu Picchu entrance fees generate $36 million per year, part of which is used for site restoration and maintenance, while visitors spend a much larger amount than that on accommodation, tours, food, and souvenirs. Each of these activities translates to local jobs, though many of them are poorly paid. There are numerous tour companies who emphasise their good treatment of local workers, paying them living wages and providing them with safe working conditions. By choosing these providers, you can do your part to improve the industry’s standards, as well as experience the incredible sights and experiences of Peru and its people.

The relative political stability of Peru has allowed a strong NGO presence to build up, many of them working to ensure that local people all over the country have access to opportunities. Plan Peru is one of those, coordinating over 7,000 child sponsorships in the Cusco/Machu Picchu region, along with programs focused on learning skills, food security, governance, and more.

girls05.jpgImage: Quinet / Wikimedia Commons

One important way that Plan Peru is helping the country’s poorest people to connect with better work opportunities is by empowering young people to find employment. The NGO (non-government organisation) has enabled over 1,200 young Peruvians to access formal education and develop skills such as literacy, budgeting, rights, planning, self-esteem, and more. This stuff matters, because without these skills it’s difficult for people to operate tourism/hospitality businesses that can add value to the experiences of overseas visitors, and change the lives of the locals.

If you ever get the chance to go to Peru, do everything you can to see Machu Picchu! The scale and craftsmanship of it are truly impressive. If you want to get further off the beaten track, I’d also recommend the Inca fort of Kuelap in the northern part of the country. Other great Peru experiences include voyaging down the Amazon River on a cargo ship, the warm coastal waters of Mancora, and the chaotic energy of Lima. Not many countries pack this much variety in!

But when in places like Peru, remember that you can help to create positive change in communities by supporting businesses who offer good working conditions to staff, and are run in ways that respect the rich cultural and natural heritage. It’s a win-win.