Midway through the current term for Alan Garcia, Peru's president, approval ratings had him in the mid-20's (actually up from 19% in the later part of 2008). This displeasure mirrors public sentiment during my 1986 trip to Peru, when the same Alan Garcia presided over an economy that experienced one of the highest yearly inflation rates on record. During his term from 1985-1990 the average inflation rate was often over 100% per year but in 1990 it climbed to an astronomical 7,482% (World Development indicators Database). During this time there were limits on the amount of food that a family could buy and the thinly-stocked markets changed their prices by the hour. In one of many efforts to control inflation, the Peruvian government changed the currency in 1985 from the Sol (Spanish for "sun") to the Inti (Quechua for "sun"). Just as the underlying translation of the currency's name didn't change, neither did the economic outlook. In 1991, the government changed the currency again, introducing the Nuevo Sol ("new sun") and valuing it at 1,000,000 Intis to the Nuevo Sol. (note the image of a 5 million Inti note below)
While Peru's embattled president is the same from my trip 23 years ago, many things have changed. Most importantly, the terrorist activity by the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru (MRTA), who during the 1980's controlled perhaps a third of the country, has been quelled. Peru is much safer now than in the 1980's. In 1986 I remember curfews in place in Lima and I remember being afraid to go out after dark in Cusco. The few travelers that were visiting Cusco banded together for safety. Anyone who ventured into the Mercado San Pedro came out with razor blade slashes on their backpacks. In 1986 I was afraid to hike the Inca Trail but in 2009 our family did it and we booked it online. In 1986 there were car bombs, hijackings, kidnappings, power outages and endemic drug trafficking but in 2009, the closest thing to violence I've seen in Cusco was a heated-but-peaceful street demonstration of campesinos protesting water privatization.
As Peru has become safer, more and more tourists have ventured here. Cusco's population has increased three-fold from 1986 and today is close to 350,000. There are far more restaurants, hotels, and tour agencies catering to the foreign tourist today than there were in 1986. At that time I don't recall anyone offering me a massage; today it is impossible to walk by the Plaza de Armas without a young woman offering one. The quality of the textiles is much better. I remember mostly machine-made sweaters and chullos of synthetic-fiber and day-glo colors. Today the variety and quality of hand-made alpaca goods can be extremely good. Aguas Calientes (today called "Machu Picchu Village"), the town at the base of Machu Picchu, has grown exponentially; in 1986 it was a few guesthouses huddled near the railroad tracks. If you wanted to go out to dinner, all you had to do was walk across the railroad tracks to find 3 or 4 shacks offering food. Perhaps the greatest symbol of all this change is the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. For $700 a well-heeled tourist can have a single room at the site of the ruins overlooking the ancient Inca citadel. Even though the unpopular president hasn't changed, Peru has come a long way in 23 years.