Tourism, Conservation Do Battle at 8,000 Feet
America: Groups square off over a plan to build a cable car that would
carry visitors up to
Peru's increasingly popular Machu Picchu.
By SEBASTIAN ROTELLA, Times Staff Writer
MACHU PICCHU, Peru--After visitors behold the splendors of this mountaintop
they pile back into the tourist bus with its aroma of sunscreen and automotive exhaust, the goodbye
As the aging bus rumbles and grumbles down a steep dirt road with 14 switchbacks, an indigenous
boy races the vehicle down the mountainside. The boy gives a tribal whoop and plunges into the
underbrush. He dashes periodically across the road during the half-hour ride, then climbs aboard the
bus at the end. With a final triumphant whoop displaying the stamina of his Inca ancestors, he collects
money from the amused passengers.
The youthful bus racers are thriving these days: Visits to Machu Picchu, one of Latin America's top
tourist destinations, almost quadrupled during the past decade. As a result, however, the 500-year-old
Inca city in southeastern Peru has become the scene of a battle over its future, another clash in a
recurring international struggle between the forces of commerce and conservation.
Conservationists have squared off against the government and tourism operators over a proposed
cable car that would transport visitors from the village of Aguas Calientes to the ruins, which are 8,000
feet above sea level. Opponents warn that the project and other planned tourist facilities could ruin the
mystical appeal of the sacred citadel, turning it into a commercialized "McPicchu."
The investors, meanwhile, say they want to help protect a historic and cultural treasure that is
choking on its own success. The cable car would improve and regulate access to Machu Picchu,
which last year withstood 300,000 visitors and the resulting toll on the environment and the stone
The dispute poses big questions: How do you balance a poor country's hunger for tourist dollars
with worries about history and heritage? And how much access do you allow to an attraction whose
mystique is based largely on its remoteness?
The answers seem clear to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known as
UNESCO. In 1983, the agency put Machu Picchu on its list of World Heritage sites, designating the
ruins and surrounding natural reserve a cultural and geographical treasure.
This year, UNESCO waded into the long-running debate over the cable car plan. The proposal is
part of a larger initiative by the government and businesspeople, including Swiss and British investors,
to privatize and modernize the tourist infrastructure with amenities such as a five-star hotel in the valley
below the citadel, or Ciudadela. The U.N. experts gave the plan an emphatic thumbs-down.
"The cable car system . . . would very seriously affect the World Heritage values, authenticity and
integrity of the Ciudadela and its surrounding landscape," a report by the agency's inspection mission
concluded in February. "The mission recommends that no new construction of infrastructure be
introduced in the area and that, on the contrary, a reorganization and reduction of facilities should be
The UNESCO statement raised the implicit threat that the World Heritage status--and the prestige
that accompanies the designation--could be in jeopardy if the Peruvian government doesn't heed the
recommendation. That encouraged defenders of Machu Picchu, who hail from as far as the United
States and Europe.
In March, Belgium's Senate introduced a motion expressing opposition to the $8-million cable car
plan. A Canada-based Web site dedicated to the controversy recently asked readers to "draw on the
power of your own compassion and love, using whatever methods of prayer and meditation you are
comfortable with," to resist the threat.
Such zeal is misguided, according to Juan Carlos Cristobal, the Peruvian engineer who designed
the cable car. Cristobal says his project would reduce the pollution and geological damage inflicted by
a rather motley fleet of two dozen tourist buses that toil up the mountainside.
"The idea is to preserve, not to destroy," Cristobal said. "This will be a new form of appreciating
the ecological and cultural richness of Machu Picchu."
The high-tech transport would better handle the flow of visitors, the engineer said, carrying loads of
45 passengers on a 1.2-mile trip in about six minutes. Proponents of the plan also accuse the bus
companies of having financial links to the project's detractors; the critics say the vehicle pollution can
be mitigated but that the "visual pollution" of a cable car cannot.
Many visitors believe that Machu Picchu has a spiritual aura. The stone citadel, whose name means
"old peak" in the Quechua language, dominates the Andes at a remote spot where rocky highlands
meld with verdant jungle. Ever since U.S. explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled onto the site in 1911,
scholars have studied its sophisticated construction methods and enigmatic origins. They are still trying
to determine why the sanctuary was abruptly abandoned by the Inca priests and nobles who inhabited
To reach the ruins, most visitors take a 3 1/2-hour ride on a lumbering train from Cuzco, a colonial
jewel of a city about 75 miles away. A limited number arrive in helicopters that land on the valley floor
outside Aguas Calientes, a narrow and congested hamlet whose economy depends on the souvenir
trade and modest hotels. In addition, legions of backpackers hire indigenous guides to accompany
them on the picturesque four-day hike from Cuzco on the historic route known as the Inca Trail.
The natural and man-made beauties of the citadel have already faced the encroachment of
modernity. For example, a majestic view from one of the temples is marred by the squat form of a
hydroelectric plant in the distance.
As the two sides bicker, construction of the cable car project has been delayed several times. Even
the people whose livelihoods depend on tourism have mixed feelings.
Miguel, a guide at the citadel, points out that the controversy results from peace and relative
prosperity. The number of visitors has grown because the government defeated a violent guerrilla
group and improved Peru's infrastructure and image in the mid-1990s.
Miguel welcomes the business but said he has doubts about the cable car. Already, the number of
visitors during peak season reaches 2,200 a day. Miguel said he fears that the sheer volume of the
crowds could overwhelm Peru's most cherished monument.
"We are happy that people want to visit us," Miguel said. "We want to share Machu Picchu with
the world. But there has to be a limit to everything."