The ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru are overrun by visitors. Our reporter looked for new ways to reach the Inca legacy.
Panpipe music is everywhere, even pouring out of loudspeakers at Cusco Airport. Actors in Inca costumes hand out coca leaves, “only three or you get the runs!” Now I see the same photo that was on my lunchbox in the airplane plastered on the walls, poster-sized, sometimes with, sometimes without a llama: Machu Picchu at sunrise, utterly deserted. And yet the world’s most famous ruin is, in fact, in danger of crumbling away beneath the feet of at least 2500 visitors a day. Long lines, garbage and congested hiking trails, guides on strike and overcrowded trains; the UNESCO Heritage Site attracts hordes of people and all of the drawbacks that come with them. Preservationists and archeologists are now sounding the alarm, but the Peruvian tourism industry plays down the dangers. Roughly 90 percent of its revenues come from business with the landmark, and admission charges alone pour over 20 million euros into the coffers of the South American developing country.
Everyone has at some point dreamed of visiting Machu Picchu. Me, too. But I wanted to do it with as little disturbance as possible. I was there 18 years ago when I was 21, broke, but had no grand expectations. I didn’t mind waiting in line as long as the price of a bed at the backpacker hostel was less than five euros a night. I shared a room with an Argentinean girl I’d met on the bus. At the time, Machu Picchu wasn’t so important to me, it just happened to be along the way as I made the long journey from Chile to Texas. The adventure of traveling alone in Peru and meeting an Argentinean girl completely overshadowed the ruins. Today, I do care about Machu Picchu – and how I get there. Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP) promises to take me and 14 others there in five days without having to tread the beaten backpacker highway, the Inca Trail. On the lesser-known Lares Trek, we will encounter the Inca legacy, not Japanese with selfie sticks. Booked!
Challwaccasa Pass, 4300 meters up. “Ama sua, ama llulla, ama quella! The people of the sun do not lie, do not cheat and are not lazy!” says our mountain guide, recalling an ancient Inca law. He takes a reproachful look at his watch – we are behind schedule. But what does it matter how fast we walk up here, amid the snow-white Andean peaks? A gentle breeze wafts through the Sacred Valley, alpacas chew on pampas grass, stone huts are dotted about the hills. Farmers sow corn and plant potatoes, which really is an art this far up. The quinoa and amaranth fields lie spread out like splashes of color in the brownish-green of the plateau. Wild orchids grow beside the footpath. The landscape forces us to take lots of breathers and even more photos.
In Quechua, the language of the Incas and the indigenous peoples of the Andes, Cusco means “the navel of the world.” Every journey to the site of myth and legend starts in Cusco, once the capital of the Inca Empire. Around 1450, the Incas built Machu Picchu , which means “Old Mountain,” at an altitude of 2430 meters on a ridge in the middle of the jungle, some 110 kilometers northwest of Cusco. Quite why they did it, no one knows for sure. Was it a place of pilgrimage, a royal summer residence, an astronomical center or the administration center of the gigantic empire, which in its heyday extended 4000 kilometers from Ecuador to Chile? The next puzzle: Within only 100 years or so of its completion, the Incas abandoned the stone city once more. Many relics from their advanced civilization still dominate the scenery around the Río Urubamba river: old grain stores, silhouettes of rulers chiseled into mountain faces, military bases – and hundreds of stone steps and terraces on the slopes that are still used for growing crops today.
Except for us, there are no tourists in sight – and we can see a very long way. Even the Indio women are carrying small kids (the four-hoofed variety) for tourists to pose with for cash. Our group is a little breathless in the thin air, but it is cool, clear and absolutely still. Up here, you really can get a great sense of how it must have been 500 years ago, when the Incas trod this path. Time stands still.
The price of deceleration is 2400 dollars. For that sum, we have a mule called 911 to carry our water and provisions and Angela, who’s driving it. Angela is wearing a broad-brimmed hat that would make any sombrero look tiny. The colors and patterns of her clothes tell us which community she lives in and that she is not married, but single. We meet no one on our path who might be interested in that information. When we have to cross a stream or steep rocky ground, Angela shoulders the mule’s burden and continues on her way, breathing as easily as if she were out for a stroll. I admire her calves, which really don’t live up to her angelic name.
I can feel my own calves in the evening. Going to bed with a hot-water bottle on my feet helps. Before that, soaking in my own Jacuzzi outside on the balcony while surveying the cloud-covered mountains also helped. I’m replete with chicken soup, skewered brook trout fillet, little vegetable towers and an excellent quinoa apple crumble pie, and drowsy from the Chilean red wine. But best of all, I won’t be waking up with my nose pressed against a damp tent wall; I’ll be in a bed, in a room, in a hotel.
The government granted MLP permission to build luxurious lodges along the Lares Trek, but in return, a share of the takings must go to the village communities. Some of the indígenas are trained and employed in the lodges, others as construction workers. They were able to use any material superfluous to requirements to repair village roofs. The local development aid works and even the indigenous people benefit. Beside the simple corrugated iron huts across the landscape, some of the hotels built into the slope look as though they were put there by aliens. Modern architecture, lots of glass, expensive timber, ceilings as high as a cathedral. “I am too old to go to bed without taking a hot shower after an eight-hour hike,” says Gale Change, a Manhattan lawyer, summing up our group’s needs: Adventure and nature, yes, but with creature comforts, please. If you want to go to Machu Picchu on foot, you normally have to sleep in a tent. Not us.
At lunchtime, we hear three young cooks calling “Pachamanca, Pachamanca.” Everything is done very swiftly. The earth is steaming and there are stones in the fire. The cooks throw potatoes, yucca roots and corn into the embers, all wrapped in banana leaves. We applaud. Pachamanca is a Peruvian national dish, a feast cooked in a pachamanca, or earth oven. One of the main ingredients is cuy, which is Spanish for guinea pig. At his office in Melbourne, veterinarian Doug Renton regularly saves the lives of guinea pigs, but now he’s nibbling on one. “You can love animals and still eat them,” he says, pulling a thin bone out of his mouth. It tastes like chicken, but is perhaps a bit tougher. There are fast-food restaurants here with only cuy dishes on the menu. Roughly 65 million guinea pigs are eaten every year in Peru. Up to 20 live in the kitchen, the heart of a traditional house in the country, and preferably close to the warm oven. But not every guest tucks in as heartily as our group’s veterinarian. Most people try not to show the mild revulsion they feel at the sight of the rodents’ claws. It looks as though these little animals are clinging to the side of the clay cook pot.
Maria, the elder of a weavers’ collective, has invited us to her mountain village, Choquecancha. Rarely do tourists find their way here. A small woman with weathered skin and warm eyes, she welcomes us with a kiss and showers us with flowers. The “center of the Inca Empire’s textile industry” is here, in a 15-square-meter room with clay walls, a thatched roof and no windows. After our meal of cuy, we watch the women weave there and sell their wares. All the guests are eager to buy their wooly hats, blankets, ponchos and scarves, but the women drive as hard a bargain as their baby alpaca wool is soft. One woman names her price: “150 soles.” “And what would your final offer be?” – “150 soles.” – “And if I buy two?” – “300 soles!” What the five women earn from us today is sufficient to feed the “señoras’” 15 families for two weeks, Maria tells us later. Poverty is rife in Peru; the average wage is 850 soles a month, that’s roughly 220 euros. An Australian woman buys a carpet for her summerhouse that costs her half a monthly Peruvian wage.
Aguas Calientes – the name means “hot springs” – is 1.5 kilometers from Machu Picchu. “I’m going to shoot my towel up there with a bazooka to bag a spot,” yells an English guy from our group. The solitude of the past few days has come to an end in Aguas Calientes, which is also know as Machu Picchu Pueblo. We rose early with the aim of succeeding where the Spanish conquistadors failed: to discover the ruined city – in the first light of dawn, of course. We stumbled off at half past three, still half asleep, to catch the first bus before everyone else. But everyone else was already there. Nowhere is the curse and blessing of a UNESCO listing more apparent than here, at this bus stop: The line is several hundred meters long.
When the Yale professor Hiram Bingham arrived in Machu Picchu on July 24, 1911, he was not alone, either. Four families lived close to the overgrown remains of the city’s walls, and they showed him its hidden temples. He received funding from the National Geographic Society and from his wife, a Tiffany heiress, but Bingham did not discover Machu Picchu. In his search for Eldorado, the German gold prospector and timber merchant Rudolph August “Augusto Rodolfo” Berns got there before him, in 1867. But it was Bingham, who in 1913 made the site world famous overnight with his 186-page Geographic article and 234 photos.
Fame has since become a problem. Although no more than 2500 visitors a day are permitted, in the high season from June to October, they number closer to 4000. Everyone with a ticket has the right to admission; no one is turned away. UNESCO wants to limit the number to 800 per day and is threatening to strip the site of its title.
At sunrise, the masses suffocate the mystique. It wasn’t like that 18 years ago. Today, there are women striking yoga poses on the edge of the precipice, Chinese people getting themselves tangled up with their selfie sticks, Russians jostling to get the best spot to take a photo, a young couple holding hands and jumping into the air. A special favorite: pictures with llamas. The animals have tags in their ears and are grazing on the pastures outside the ruins for snapshot purposes. Scientists suspect that 300 people at most would once have lived in Machu Picchu. Some 60 percent of the walls are still the originals and the rest have been restored. In spite of the rubber mats on the paths, high heels and hiking boots are wearing down the stones and tourists are scratching their names in the granite. Nothing lasts forever. The sundial, an attraction, is cracked at the edge. During the shoot for a beer ad with the monument, a camera crane collided with it. Our guide, Helen Reinoo, has 15 years of experience and recommended we go against the flow and come for a few hours in the afternoon, shortly before “closing time.” Luckily, we followed her advice.
In the early evening, the ruins are all but deserted. Rays of late sunshine break through the clouds clinging to the peaks, bathing the site in white light. Now our time for awe begins: May this place reveal its magic! I sit down in front of what remains of a temple and make out three animals depicted on a wall. The condor stands for the connection between life and death; the puma is the life force, and the serpent embodies wisdom, Helen explains. But even she doesn’t know how the Inca heaved these ton weights of granite blocks up here through the jungle, or how, with only simple tools at their disposal, they could hew the stones so smoothly and so precisely that they even withstood earthquakes. The “dancing stones,” set one on top of another with no mortar in between, simply gave instead of breaking – and then fell right back into place. Andrew Mackintosh, the Australian engineer in our group, has only one answer: “Aliens. Just like with the pyramids. Feel free to quote me.”
The guardians of the ruins blow their whistles. The final whistle – time to go. At the exit, we get another stamp in our passport: Machu Picchu. Been there, done that! The Incas had no checklists, no written language and no word for goodbye. For them, everything flowed, began and ended in Pachamama, Mother Earth. Instead, we say, “Paqarin tupaspa takisunman!” – see you tomorrow. And then we sing.