Here's a short timeline of events that could have nearly landed you on the Forbes list of billionaires just short of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling ($1 billion):

  1. Buy $10,000 worth of McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) on Jan. 2, 1975, a few years after the inventions of the Big Mac and Egg McMuffin gave the restaurant nationwide marketing power. 
  2. Roll your McDonald's gains into Cisco Systems' (Nasdaq: CSCO) 1990 IPO, convinced that routers would fuel the next technological revolution.
  3. Ditch Cisco for Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM) in 2000, as it became clear that handheld devices were going to make the Internet portable.  

Had you followed those three steps, your initial $10,000 stake would be worth more than $933 million today -- and you'd be sitting pretty.

Pretty ... vacant
Of course, you didn't do that; I didn't do that; no one did that. It would have been almost impossible to make those three calls -- and only those three calls -- at the right times and places.

You would need to travel back in time to make this hypothetical situation a reality, and there's simply no way to do that.

Or is there?
I recently returned from a research trip to Latin America. While in Buenos Aires, we met with Marcos Galperin, the impressive CEO of e-commerce site MercadoLibre. In talking about his company's potential, Marcos said something I haven't been able to shake ...

"By bringing this business to this place, we have the opportunity to get into a time capsule."

"This business?"
The business, of course, is e-commerce. Back in 1997, it was a nascent industry. Consumers didn't know the brands, didn't trust that they'd receive their orders, and weren't willing to send their credit card numbers out into cyberspace.

That, of course, has all changed. More than $100 billion worth of business was done online in 2006, with companies such as OfficeMax (NYSE: OMX), Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX), and Blue Nile (Nasdaq: NILE) being major beneficiaries.

"This place?"
The place is Latin America generally -- Brazil and Mexico, more specifically.

Brazil and Mexico are the fifth- and 11th-largest countries by population, respectively, in the world, and the 10th- and 14th-largest economies. But both countries lack two key catalysts when it comes to the growth of online commerce:

  1. Broadband penetration.
  2. A thriving middle class.

In other words, consumers in these countries -- like their economies overall -- are emerging.

That, however, is changing, which is why Marcos and his investors (note MercadoLibre's price-to-earnings ratio of 190!) are so excited about the future. It's an opportunity to go back and bet on the online business model of 1997.

More where that came from
But Latin American e-commerce isn't the only time capsule opportunity that international investing provides. There's banking in India (how about buying Bank of America in 1991, when it began consolidating the industry?), construction in Mexico, and even auto sales in China.

Simply put: Mature industries here offer exciting growth opportunities elsewhere around the world. What's more, international investments can help you diversify your portfolio to reduce volatility and provide a hedge against a weakening U.S. dollar.

That's our view at Global Gains, and it's our job to help subscribers identify and buy the very best foreign stocks for their portfolios. Our picks are 15 percentage points ahead of the market to date, and we recently told our subscribers about our top three ideas from our trip to Latin America.

You can see those three names as well as all of our research and recommendations by joining Global Gains free for 30 days. There is no obligation to subscribe.

This article was first published on Jan. 7, 2008. It has been updated.

Tim Hanson does not own shares of any company mentioned. Netflix is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Blue Nile is a Rule Breakers recommendation. Bank of America is an Income Investor selection. This is the time and place to tell you that The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.