What's New in Peru
For much of the past decade, Peru has experienced some of the highest economic growth in Latin America, averaging nearly 7% annually. Driven by high mineral prices and steady demand from China, the boom has also included growth in exports of agricultural products such as asparagus, coffee, seafood, and textiles, as well as tourism. Per capita income has doubled since 2003, and though much of that increase has gone to the upper echelons, the percentage of Peruvians living in poverty has dropped from 50% to 35%. Tax revenues have likewise grown, which is reflected in the refurbished buildings, new infrastructure, and a bigger police force. For travelers, this means more hotels and restaurants to choose from and safer, cleaner cities, but also higher prices.
Change and Continuity
At press time, Peru was preparing for presidential elections in April 2011, with a likely second round in May, if no candidate topped 50% of the vote. The leading contenders, which included a former mayor of Lima, ex-president Alejandro Toledo, and the daughter of jailed ex-president Alberto Fujimori, all represented center-right parties likely to continue the pro-business policies of recent administrations. It would seem that despite a third of the country living in poverty and sporadic social conflicts, the majority of Peruvians want stability and have faith in the current economic model.
Planes, Trains and Buses
A combination of public infrastructure and private investment has made Peru an easier country to explore than ever before. In Lima, a new express bus called the Metropolitano provides quick and inexpensive transportation between the neighborhoods of Barranco, Miraflores, and the historic El Centro. The addition of Peruvian Airlines to the list of domestic carriers and an expansion of routes flown by Star Peru and Lan means more options for flying between Lima and other Peruvian cities. This is especially good news if you're on a tight budget, since Peruvian Airlines and Star Peru charge foreigners considerably less than LAN, the country's main domestic airline. A comparable development in Cusco, where two new companies—Inka Rail and Andean Railway—now run trains to Machu Picchu, means there are more options for getting to Peru's top attraction. For years, one company, PeruRail, departed Cusco for Machu Picchu early in the morning and returned in the evening. Trains now run between the Sacred Valley towns of Ollantaytambo and Urubamba and Machu Picchu every hour or two, though PeruRail still offers early-morning departures from the Poroy station, near Cusco.
Peru's Nobel Laureate
Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, one of Latin America's most popular authors, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010. The award's announcement sparked widespread celebration in Peru and renewed interest in his work throughout the world. The author of more than a dozen novels and numerous plays, Vargas Llosa is also a respected journalist and essayist; his weekly opinion column is published on Sundays by the principal Spanish-language newspapers. Though he has set novels in other countries, Vargas Llosa primarily writes about Peru, which makes him a good author to read before or during a Peru trip. The Story Teller and The Green House are two of his most Peruvian novels, though the comic Aunt Julia and the Script Writer and Captain Pandora and the Special Services are also set in the country. More intense novels include The Time of the Hero, based on the author's years in a Lima military academy, and Death in the Andes and Who Killed Palomino Molero?, both of which chronicle the violence that wracked the country in the 1980s and early '90s, when the military struggled to defeat the Shining Path guerrillas.
Machu Picchu Centennial
July 7, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of American adventurer Hiram Bingham's rediscovery of Machu Picchu. Bingham reached the Incan citadel on an expedition funded by Yale University, which became the owner of all the artifacts his team unearthed. The Peruvian government is organizing a centennial celebration at Machu Picchu, promising participation by international celebrities. The centennial is sweetened by Yale's announcement in December 2010 that it would finally return the artifacts that Bingham removed from Machu Picchu back to Peru; they will be housed in a new Cusco museum.
Mother Nature's Fury
Peru suffers more natural disasters than any other country except Bangladesh. This includes periodic tremors and quakes, such as the 8-magnitude earthquake that shattered the southern coastal cities of Pisco, Ica, and Chincha Alta on August 15, 2007. That quake flattened entire city blocks, and killed more than 500, but the region's hotels and other tourist services reopened quickly and the southern coast remains a popular destination. More frequent disasters are the mudslides and flash floods, known as huaicos (pronounced "whycos"), that destroy homes, roads, bridges, and lives in the eastern Andes during each December-May rainy season. The most newsworthy huaico in recent years roared down the Vilcabamba River Valley in January of 2010, tearing out several kilometers of the railway between Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu and leaving thousands of tourists stranded in the town of Aguas Calientes until they could be rescued by helicopter. The tracks were replaced in a matter of months, during which time the country lost more than $1 million per day. According to scientists, such extreme weather events will happen more frequently due to climate change.
Protests, marches, and road barricades are part of Peruvian political life as communities, unions, and other groups periodically take to the streets to stop projects or policies they don't like, or to demand government help. The protests usually end peacefully, but under the government of Alan Garcia, police fired on several protests, resulting in numerous deaths. Cusco residents staged various strikes in 2010 that stranded travelers for a couple of days and halted train service to Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, many of that region's residents perceive no benefit from tourism and don't hesitate to disrupt transportation to pressure the government. The likelihood of having a protest interfere with your travels is small, but keep an eye on the local news nevertheless.
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