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Peru: The Demise of Machu Picchu

April 27, 2009

Descending the Cairo Side a novel of the traveling life

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1) The Intihuatana – Notice the crack in the upper post from the Peruvian beer commercial film shoot a few years ago: Photo by Shawn Herring

The first time I visited the famous “lost city” in 1978 my travel companions and I disembarked from a local train at a one-room rail depot in a remote valley covered by high jungle.  The spot was known as Aguas Calientes after the nearby hot springs of the same name.

2) Aguas Calientes, 1978:  photo by Craig Olivier

To reach the famous ruins on top of the mountain that overlooks the Urubamba Valley, we walked a couple of kilometers along the train track – the train made no further stops for eighty kilometers, so hiking was our only option – along the route that continued downriver to the town of Quillabamba.  A bridge traversed the cranky, fast-flowing Urubamba River, which is known locally as the Vilcanota.  To climb the steep switchback road to Machu Picchu most visitors opted for the public bus that departed from the far side of the steel span, but adventurous tripsters often utilized a different option, climbing a near vertical, vine-entangled path that began at the river and ended at the upper parking area near the entrance to the archeological site.

I chose the latter means of ascent, despite the hillside’s reputation as home to swarms of bushmasters, South America’s  notorious venomous snake. These reptiles are not native to the area; archeologists and anthropologists speculate that the Incas or other residents of Machu Picchu may have imported the critters as a means of discouraging unwanted guests from clambering to their princely resort, haven for virgins, or whatever use the original inhabitants made of the complex.  Fortunately none of these unfriendly guardians molested me during the climb.

I reached the parking lot adjacent to the site’s entrance at the same time as the bus, out of breath but heaving with adrenaline and wonder.  This place had a spiritual and topographical power to it that far surpassed any other locale in Peru.  With few visitors about, I was able to stand on the Intihuatana, The Hitching Post of the Sun, climb Huayna Picchu and get myself trapped at the apex of a cliff with a 3000 ft. drop on either side.

The crumbling buildings had two distinct levels of stonework – some structures were assembled from massive interlocking stone blocks, others were constructed with less precision and looked like the remains of humble workers’ huts. I remembered that the ruins had never really been lost; they are located on a 19th century Italian map, and when Hiram Bingham first arrived shepherds tended flocks of sheep and llamas within the confines of the city.

The Incas had occupied Machu Picchu but no one knew with certainty who built the citadel.  Bingham removed the pre-Columbian artifacts he found to Yale University where they still languish; few other physical relics of the great puzzle remain on-site.  To this day no archeologist can state with real confidence who constructed the city.

But none of these enigmas now matter.  Machu Picchu has been destroyed by the same governments and other agencies that brought it to the world’s attention.  The site is on every must-visit list for world travelers, who add locales to their resumes like bird watchers list obscure species.  I revisited Machu Picchu in April of 2009 and was astonished at the environmental degradation in the river valley, the hordes of tour groups trampling inside the ruins, the underpaid guards blasting whistles at hapless tourists who dared to scramble out-of-bounds, the vast entrance fee required to enter the site, and the brand new town in the river valley, named after the original hot springs of Aguas Calientes.

3) Peruvian honky-tonk: Davarian in front of our favorite Aguas Calientes hotel, 1999.  The restaurant in the background was owned by an interesting man who believed that most tourists would indulge in illegal drugs if offered

4) The hot springs: a pool beside a cow field in 1978; today another beer commercial

When I first journeyed to Machu Picchu I took a local train that cost two or three dollars for the journey that continued to Quillabamba.  This train no longer exists; landslides closed the tracks to the town in the late 1990’s and now residents downriver from Machu Picchu must travel many, many hours by public bus over treacherous roads bordered by mind-numbing precipices.

These days tourists have two options to get to Machu Picchu.  There is a “backpacker” train, a sterile modern collection of comfortable wagons, or  the “Hiram Bingham Express”, a luxury train that costs $600 for foreign tourists and $400 for Peruvians, absurd sums for both groups. Flimsy hotels that charge $100 per night line the honky-tonk streets of Aguas Calientes. Coffee shops, internet cafes, and pizzerias do their best make tourists feel at home.  At every turn somebody is making a profit – the trip from town up to the ruins, a twenty minute ride,  costs a much as an all-day public bus from Cusco to Puno.

5) Aguas Calientes: doesn’t look too bad from above

The gigantic quantities of money now generated by various one-day tourists, overnight guests, and the hardy individuals who walk the Inca Trail (after paying dearly for the privilege) do little for the poor local people who work the tourist trade.  Rather, a consortium of private and public entities fleece the tourists as surely as hucksters work the crowd at the handicraft markets in downtown Lima.  Who receives these rewards is anybody’s guess.  Machu Picchu is the only Inca gold mine still producing a profit, although precious metals have nothing to do with its current riches.

If you are still determined to visit a lost city in Peru, try Kuelap near Chachapoyas in Amazonas Department.  Or Tucume near Chiclayo.  The Nasca Lines are an outstanding sight from the air, and both Colca and Cotahuasi Canyons offer geologic vistas unparalleled in any country.  As an alternative, you can follow the Urubamba River and travel through the Pongo of Manaique, the Andes ultimate gateway to the lowland jungles.

So stay away from Machu Picchu unless you wish to support both government and private corruption, the severe poverty of the Peruvians who work hard to keep the site functioning, and the questionable motives of government officials who prefer to keep the gravy train rolling.  There is even talk of installing a cable car to hoist visitors to the mountain top ever faster, presuming the whole mess doesn’t melt into the valley of the Urubamba and wash down the Amazon River into the Atlantic Ocean, where it can join Atlantis as another truly “lost” city.

6) Room with a view – but whose?  Note the inferior, reconstructed stonework: Photo by Shawn Herring

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. senorsisi permalink
    December 15, 2009 8:35 pm

    Excellent post, very compelling contrast between past and present trips to Machu Picchu. in a similar vein, I have recently written about how to avoid the Orient Express monopoly and the high costs that are inflicted upon foreign and national tourists alike who travel to Machu Picchu.

    With regard to travel snobbery, your observations are correct, but I dont think people should have to avoid Machu Picchu; it is a once in a lifetime learning experience. At the very least, the route i have described indicates how to help to unlock this, and to give your money to local transport companies.

    I certainly agree about Kuelap, that is a wonderful ruin that has barely been cleared, and we had the place to ourselves between 5am and 9am … felt like exploring our own lost city at sunrise. Remarkable.

    • December 15, 2009 9:08 pm

      Hi, and thanks for reading my little piece. The travel agency I used to co-own does in fact recommend walking from the Hydro-Electric plant to Aguas Calientes for those who wish to save money or who can’t get a seat on one of the trains (a frequent occurrence around Peruvian holidays). But it’s always good to spread the information further.

  2. November 7, 2009 9:34 pm

    While I think your article is largely detailed and excellent, I do think there is a touch of ‘travelers snobbery’ creeping in. You seem to tar all modern visitors with the same brush, and seem to think that one person visiting (or not visiting as you advise) will help the situation.

    Sadly, neither are the case. I respect the difficulty you went through to reach Machu Picchu, but even now it’s not a walk in the park. A small minority of people have the resources (especially in the current climate to travel to Peru). Not all those that can want to flirt with altitude sickness by rising as far as Cusco, and even for those that make it that far, Machu Picchu is a 4 hour train ride away, and a one hour commute from the town. Even at this stage, walking the expansive ruins (and all of the uphill climbing that involves) is not for everyone.

    During my visit, I didn’t think visitor numbers were so bad. Yes, the place is overrun compared with your first visit in 1978, but so is everywhere. One person deciding to go elsewhere will make no difference. It is the same as people flying. The plane will still fly regardless of whether one individual decides to. You can’t really blame the majority of tourists who visit.

    Unlike what you say, many travelers aren’t so cynical and clinical in merely going to a place such as this to add it to a ‘travel resume’ they supposedly have. Many are young, and never previously had the chance to visit such wonders before. The absolute majority have saved for the dream trip for many years. I, myself, have no regrets about visiting. I worked hard to get there and respected the surroundings completely once I did.

    The problem lies not with the visitors, but those permitting them to visit. Peru, being a country in need of money, are unlikely to put a limit on visitor numbers any time soon – but this is what’s really required, and the only tactic that will help. A self-imposed ban by prospective lone visitors is pointless.

    • November 7, 2009 11:33 pm

      Hi Michael, Thank your for perspective. If I exhibit a trace of traveler snobbery, I plead guilty as charged. However, and this is a big caveat, I worked for many years as a travel agent selling trips to Machu Picchu and became aware that the destination was becoming a place to “list” for tourists who engage in this sort of thing. Dozens and dozens of people admitted as much to me. And tons of my clients used to throw the costs of the trip onto credit cards they probably couldn’t afford in the first place. But that does not mean to say other folks don’t save money for years to make the trip. I do not wish to group all tourists into one category.

      Now, for your other points. Altitude sickness is almost never a problem for visitors to Cusco. Of the hundreds of clients I sent there over the years, I believe only one ever experienced difficulty. For reasons that are still poorly understood, younger people seem more susceptible to the affliction. Usually a nice hot cup of coca tea is the best remedy, and maybe a first day or so taking things easy around town.

      As for getting around the ruins themselves, I am in my mid-fifties and not an fitness freak, but I have never had trouble climbing around the site. My last visit was during April of this year. Any reasonably healthy person can experience the full scope of the location. The issue of general health is outside the scope of my discussion.

      Considering the numbers of people with the resources to visit Machu Picchu, I can assure you that untold thousands still possess the means. My friends in the Peru travel business tell me that the trade still thrives. The problem here is that the Peruvian officials and business people who control access are artificially raising the prices for transportation and entrance fees, in order to line their pockets and personal bank accounts. I know some of them and I am not making this up. These greedy individuals give almost nothing back to the workers who service the tourist trade and the archeological site itself.

      The government is unlikely to limit visitors any time soon since the skim is so profitable. Governments, like individuals, are primarily driven by economic motives. The solution to the dilemma will have to come “from the ground up,” so to speak. I do understand that I am being impossibly optimistic when I propose this idea.

      In conclusion, I want to reiterate that because Peru boasts wonders far more spectacular than Machu Picchu, visitors should consider these other destinations. For example Kuelap, the country’s best archeological site, receives perhaps a couple of thousand visitors per year, less than Machu Picchu sees in a single day. The entrance fee at Kuelap costs about a tenth of the admission charges at Machu Picchu, and locally-owned hotels near Kuelap are desperate for tourist dollars. Dollars that stay where they are spent.

      But if a traveler is set on visiting Machu Picchu, then I say go ahead. Just be aware of what other experiences you will miss, what you are paying for and, most of all, to whom you are paying it.

      POST SCRIPT: I was too polite in the original article to describe the place downstream from Aguas Calientes where local authorities use bulldozers to push all the tourist hotels’ garbage directly into the Urubamba River. If you ever go back, hike the old rail tracks downhill for a few kilometers. The smell will inform you when you’re getting close to the disposal area. But we’ll save that particular issue for a later discussion.

      All the best, and travel on!
      Kit

  3. May 18, 2009 7:48 am

    That’s what happens when you promote a place as a tourist spot.. I love Machu Picchu dearly hope it won’t crumble down!

  4. May 14, 2009 9:18 am

    Lovely blog! Thanks for the useful information.

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