On the beaten path
By Lauren Wooldridge Posted Aug 25 2009
Here’s another Machu Picchu story. The lede begs for a grandiose description of peering over the Sun Gate, pushing away the fog and clouds with your own hands to reveal thousands—what looks like millions—of stones, built to fit beside one another in simple but strong perfection on a mountainside that looks to more green, more hills, more splendor.
Minds boggle with the concept that this hidden Incan city appeared in 1430 and was abandoned, not to be discovered again until 1911 by a Yale professor led by a local boy. Stories on Machu Picchu are captivating, but this is a story about the stories already written, the widespread affair with this archeological dream and how this deserved attention is slowly destroying its future.
It seems as if the media and the site’s growing popularity have created such a Machu Picchu clique within the traveling world that tours are too popular, the trip too expensive and the overall effect is tearing down what the world is so anxious to see. It’s a catch-22; here lies this breathtaking, historic site—a place worthy of much recognition, wonder and awe. What’s not for the media to report? The site has as many stories as it has perfectly cut gray stones, but these pull in the tourists that destroy it. Trekking to Machu Picchu or taking a train into its steep surroundings is a dream travel-section story that, because of the different trails and levels of luxury available, can be done time and time again. The concern over its surrounding cloud forest environment and fragile structure address those wanting to preserve, protect and care for the future. Publications can pull hundreds of stories from Machu Picchu concerning Peru’s economy growth in relation to the rise in tourism.
The story ideas that feature Machu Picchu—from visiting it, to preserving it, to learning about it—seem endless, imprinting the name meaning “old mountain” into our brains and onto our list of “must-sees.” The New York Times had 53 stories about the landmark in the past year, and Lima’s El Comercio had nearly double that. Type Machu Picchu into the Google Search Engine and, after Wikipedia, the next Web sites are tourist-related: Book your trek and hotel now! Then come the few links relating to the monument’s history, significance and architectural marvels; here’s to hoping the sites filled with the reasons the archeological playground is so popular might come before the tourist information, but it doesn’t seem that way. Travelers with empty film rolls and passports want to fill both up with the magnificent splendors their daily lives don’t offer and their colleagues will “ooh” and “ahh” at. And it works: entering Machu Picchu now even gains you a stamp on your passport—one in addition to just entering Peru.
In 2007, the New7Wonders Foundation named Machu Picchu as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Rightly so; this archeological haven and historical treasure chest is a wonder to experience, but the recognition from the outer world and supply and demand factor of the tourism industry puts Machu Picchu in a position to need to serve all—from those traveling luxuriously to those with only a day to spare. The options to see the “Wonder” are limitless.
Soaking up this history and getting our heads out of the clouds by climbing into them is an awesome adventure for the adventurer. However, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and World Heritage Committee worry that the media and tourism industry might be overdoing it to the point of destroying Machu Picchu, and the facts support their assertions.
From 2002 to 2008, the number of national and international tourists visiting Machu Picchu jumped from 459,000 to 858,000, according to a 2008 report from the Ministerio de Comercio Exterior y Turismo. In 2007, after Machu Picchu’s “Wonder” title, total tourism increased by more than 100,000 people, where the increase from 2005 to 2006 had only been 12,000 people. Mike Weston of Peru Treks, a tour company, said his company had 4,500 tourists in 2008 and predicts 200 more for this year—the most their company can possibly handle. However, after it was named a “Wonder,” the number of locals visiting the ruins decreased from 2007 to 2008 by 10,000.
Damaging the ruins
With the media’s attention on Machu Picchu and the “Wonder” status, the effects on the site, its surroundings and those descending from its makers are piling up.
Tourists are flying into Cuzco, ignoring adjustments to the altitude and making their way in packs to camp on, litter and photograph the trails and paths of Machu Picchu. It isn’t the easiest site to gain access to with its cliff-drop edges, steep hills and Andean-Amazonian mystique. The way we have pushed these things aside in order for Peru to rake in $2.2 billion through tourism in 2008 (as told by the Minister of Foreign Trade and Tourism Mercedes Araoz to the Andinda news agency), makes our value of historic and ecological conservation seem non-existent. And it is starting to show.
There are concerns about fires (a fire got close to the site in 1997), land slides, deforestation, litter, uncontrolled urban development, illegal access and just too many people coming through such an ancient place without enough planning for the effects they will leave. Instituto Machu Picchu, an NGO trying to fight for preservation, has created a strict outline detailing how the number of tourists stomping through harms the unique fauna, causes erosion and damages the cloud-forest atmosphere.
“We do not want to dampen the euphoria over the honor granted to Machu Picchu,” Albeerto Delgado of the NGO told London’s Daily Telegraph in 2007, “but it comes with immense responsibility.”
Although the trails are still in good shape, the final destination is taking a hit. “Over the last few years, Machu Picchu has reached its saturation point,” Weston says, “and visitor numbers have not been controlled. The Peruvian authorities agreed to set a maximum limit of 2,500 visitors to Machu Picchu each day, but this limit just hasn’t been controlled as they are happy to make as much money as they can.”
In June 2007, the World Monument Fund put the site on its list of endangered monuments. In 2008, the World Heritage Committee requested “reinforced monitoring” at Machu Picchu, a site they put on their World Heritage List in 1983, UNESCO reported. The governing bodies of Peru decided in 2001 to set a limit of 500 people trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu on a daily basis, but with so many tourism companies, it creates the necessity for booking months to years in advance. Prices have gone up as well. Price reports from the park show daily admissions to the site have doubled from 2006 to 2008. Steps are being taken by the government and cultural preservation groups to help the endangered site, but who should do what? The government? The tourists? The tourism industry? Damage has been done already.
Dave Naustin, an American, posted on USA Today’s Web site last year that he started planning his trip to Peru’s major attraction but then read more about it. “Sounded like one big tourist attraction,” he writes. “Might as well go to Disneyland.” Journalism can be a turn-off as well.
Incans priced out
Amidst these problems, there is the concept that those most closely related to the Incans cannot afford to visit Machu Picchu when the attention it is given makes expensive prices acceptable. High-tech performance gear and hundreds of languages infiltrate the trails and trains. It’s not like Machu Picchu is kept a secret from those who live here, it just isn’t as directed at locals. In Cuzco, the main entrance and pit stop for the site, advertisements are practically all in English, not Spanish. Peru depends on the economically affluent to spend dollars upon Euros to boost their economy. For locals, the entrance fee is half of what non-Peruvians pay, but that doesn’t mean it is affordable.
“All the price increases are due to third party increases such as Inca trail entrance fees, Peru Rail train tickets, wages and taxes,” Weston says. “Our profit per person seems to be getting less each year, but we have more groups, so things even themselves out.”
In a village that towers above Cuzco, a village hidden in the Peruvian Andes for years, the weekly wage in the community of Pumamarca is US $1-3, and that money can’t be spent on a trek. It is impossible for most of these people to consider making the sacred trek in their lifetime, hence the importance of nonprofit organizations such as Peru’s Challenge who help locals to afford the journey. In 2007, the organization helped a group of women become the first in their community to do so.
But isn’t there something odd about how hard it is for local Peruvians, those who still live in the mountains and speak Quechua and live by traditional standards, to get to this cherished place of their ancestors?
It seems foreign tour industries and travel writers determine the future for and have more access than the very people who understand the sacredness of it all. The attention given to Machu Picchu has made it all too tempting for agencies to boost prices because, it’s Machu Picchu, and the affluent traveler will still come no matter how high the prices go, leaving the very people who live in its shadow without the funds to trek what is essentially their own backyard.
With the flashing objectives of going green and taking care of our Earth, it will be interesting to see how Machu Picchu fits in. The secret has been discovered: most newspapers and travel agencies have picked up on it, and chances are the government will want to keep the revenue this playground for our senses brings in. Publications can’t un-print their stories. So it will be the wide-eyed tourist who will make the difference in this lost city’s future.