While wealthy Peruvian families and foreign tourists flock every year to Machu Picchu, crown jewel of the ancient Incan empire, the fact that many Peruvians have never seen the historic city is a sharp reminder of the country's stark division between rich and poor.
In Lima, several miles separate neighborhoods of opulent homes protected by electrified fences from slums called "human settlements," where having utilities is just a wish.
This spring, a program sponsored by a nonprofit American foundation and its partners gave 12 children from the capital city's disadvantaged neighborhoods the opportunity to see beyond their everyday world.
These youngsters Â- ages 9 to 12 Â- and 12 parents, three teachers, and a camera crew spent a week in Peru's Valle Sagrado, or Sacred Valley, an area filled with the wonders of the ancient Incan world.
The trip was sponsored by the nonprofit Discovery Channel Global Education Fund (DCGEF) and Globus, a travel company. The goal of the DCGEF is to use technology to improve education in low-income areas of the world.
To qualify for the trip, students and teachers participating in the DCGEF initiative in nine Lima schools were asked to write an essay about what the program had meant to them.
Participating schools in Africa and Latin America receive videos that use content from the Discovery Channel's nature, geography, and history programs. DCGEF also furnishes the equipment needed to show them and teacher training. "The idea is to use the videos as a tool to discuss a wide range of subjects," says Marithza Aldazabal, the DCGEF representative in Peru.
"Any given video could be used in the classroom to address subjects like social values, ecology, history, and even math."
The fact that a video of animals can be seen as a metaphor for human and social values did not seem to escape the children's understanding. The students clearly made the leap between the natural world and their own lives.
"The segment about the Kodiak bears cleaning, feeding, and risking their lives to keep their cubs safe reminded me of our mothers," wrote Cindy Kiara Cabrera. "Many of us have single-parent mothers who give love and education, keep us from any danger, and teach us to be independent in order to live our lives responsibly."
Each child could bring one parent on the six-day trip. For Rebecca Huiper, it was an opportunity to spend time with her daughter, 9-year-old Tania, whom she sees only once a month. Tania attends a parochial boarding school because her mother can't afford to make a home for her.
Rudecindo Luján, father of two and a physical education teacher, had ambiguous feelings about the trip. On the one hand, he was thankful for the opportunity. On the other hand, he apologized to his son for not being able to provide such things on his own.
Done independently, a day trip to Machu Picchu costs per person: train ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu and back, $73; bus ride up and down the mountain, $7; entrance fee to the citadel, $20. And that doesn't include meals or air fare from Lima. That's a formidable amount for an ordinary Peruvian when, according to Mr. Luján, the average monthly salary of a public employee like himself is $175.
Peru has three distinct geographical regions and climates: rain forest, mountains, and desert. The trip concentrated on the Andean mountain section, where the Inca culture developed.
Cusco, or Qosqo in the native Quechua language, was the starting point of the trip.
Although the Sacred Valley has archaeological evidence dating back to 5000 BC, it is unclear when the first Incas settled there. Estimates range from AD 1200 to 1400. What is well documented is that in 1572, after a war with the Spaniards that lasted 36 years, Tupaq Amaru I, the last emperor of the Incan dynasty, was defeated.
After that, the history of Cusco is a story of colonization. In an effort to erase the native culture, the Spanish attempted to disguise the Incas' stone structures by finishing the walls with plaster and building on top of and around them.
The little group from Lima quickly learned to examine walls for telltale signs of their architectural heritage. Incan walls were never built to a 90-degree angle from the ground. Some structures lean back from the street as if quietly murmuring their identity to passersby in the know.
As the group moved through the , or Sacred Valley, the children had hands-on opportunities to learn about their Inca heritage.
Carlo Lavini played his quena, or flute, with a local musician in the historic Pisac market. Luis Matos and Tania Sulca learned how to plow a field behind a team of oxen. And the whole group exchanged poetry, songs, games, and stories with a group of local schoolchildren. This exchangewas an eye-opening experience for some of the city kids, who realized that the local children had outperformed them.
All activities came under the omnipresent stare of a camera crew, which recorded every activity. Sometimes an impromptu moment had to be "replayed" for as long as 15 minutes so it could be captured on film. Naturally, the students became bored.
"Next time, I think next time we'll relax that need [to record each and every moment of the journey] a bit to make sure we don't hold up the pace of the trip," Steve Born of Globus said in evaluating the trip.
The highlight of the week was the world-famous Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, the highlight of the trip.
As the children and adults stood atop the mountain, the fog kept lifting in spots, partially revealing sections of this eagerly awaited sight as if to direct the group's experience.
At the beginning of the journey, this was a group in name only. But after days on the road together, there was a growing awareness of sharing something special that defined them. Parents, children, and teachers had bonded with a fervor that manifested itself in front of one of the most magnificent sights in the world.
The excitement in the air formed an emotional tornado that affected everyone Â- including the supposedly blasé journalists documenting the trip. Children, parents, teachers, and reporters hugged one another as the tiny disposable cameras handed out to the children clicked incessantly.
Machu Picchu was the favorite site of every child. Pressed to explain why, most just shrugged and gave a look as if to say: Isn't it obvious?
One child, though, enjoyed the impressive site for a different reason. Roberto Carlos Carballo explained that before the trip, his father had quizzed him about Machu Picchu's Intiwatana, a kind of sundial, for a homework assignment. When Roberto didn't know the answer, he was grounded. "Now," he says proudly, "I will know."
For 12-year-old Diego Chiriboga, who's diagnosed as autistic, the journey provided a cornucopia of visual stimuli that he'll use in his art Â- his way of expressing himself to others.
Words were not necessary to show his excitement. He could hardly remain seated and tried to put his head out the window as the train traveled along. After his mother, Miriam Rivera, used all the film in her camera, she sketched the landscape for him. "I do this so he can have a reference to make his drawings later, though he'll remember," she says.
Diego communicates by pointing to a book with icons, and he had no trouble getting the other children to understand him. In one instance he managed to borrow binoculars and got a lesson on their use from a fellow student.
Later in the trip, he indicated that he wanted to try a shot during an impromptu half-court basketball game. Diego had won his right to come along by making a drawing instead of writing an essay, as the other children had done.
At Machu Picchu, teacher Matilde Chang confessed that she was a little disappointed. "I thought it would be bigger," she says wistfully, as if feeling victimized by her own imagination.
Parent Yolanda De la Cruz Garcia, impressed by the number of foreigners visiting the archaeological citadel, asked how people knew about this place, not grasping its worldwide fame.
On the plane ride back to Lima, everyone was very quiet, reflecting on what they had seen and learned. All felt that their world had expanded. Cindy Cabrera's words seemed to summarize the whole experience: "I feel like I am waking up from a dream."
Back in Lima, three groups of parents and children began compiling scrapbooks documenting the trip Â- with everything from notes they took, photographs they snapped with their disposable cameras, and even dried flowers they had plucked along the way. The exercise helped them relive the experience, and they plan to share use them when recounting their adventures to others in their schools and community.
Although this trip was the first undertaken by DCGEF, Globus, and their partners, it won't be the last. "After hearing about the impact it had on the kids, it's even more motivation to continue these trips," says Mr. Born.
"We hope that we will learn some things from the first time to make the next one even better. One thing we'll certainly do, as we did with this Peru trip, is work with the local DCGEF Education Centers in our destination to make sure that we're planning a trip based on what they feel is important for the kids to experience. After all, the trip is for them."