Machu Picchu Under Threat From Pressures of Tourism

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
April 15, 2002

In 1911, an innkeeper from the Peruvian town of Aguas Calientes led Hiram Bingham on a scramble up a steep, jungle-tangled embankment to the extensive ruins of an Inca settlement that was named Machu Picchu for the neighboring mountain.

Bingham, a professor from Yale University who was exploring in the region, later wondered in his book, Lost City of the Incas, whether anyone would believe what he had found.

Today, there's no question about the site's significance. More than 300,000 people a year make the trek to Machu Picchu to marvel at the 500-year-old structures built from blocks of granite chiseled from the mountainside.

They come by helicopter, train, and foot. They snap photos, meditate, and lounge in the sun. They come for a variety of reasons—to fulfill a romantic dream, tap into the energy of the Inca soul, or simply tick off a box on the list of the world's must-see sights.

"It certainly has appeal to everyone, whether they are interested in the history, or the magic, or just the stupendous beauty," said Carolyn Bointon, who formerly managed the Cusco clubhouse of the South American Explorers club and is now based in Quito, Ecuador.

Possible Landslide Risk

As a result of the overwhelming interest, Machu Picchu may be at risk.

Amid the growing concerns about the impact of tourism, some geologists also warned that a massive landslide could send the stone ruins crashing into the Urubamba River below.

Last year, New Scientist magazine reported on research conducted by geologists at Kyoto University in Japan that concluded Machu Picchu is at risk. The lead scientist, Kyoji Sassa, downplayed the urgency of the issue but said the landslide risk should be seriously assessed and stabilization projects undertaken to shore up the site.

The risk of a major landslide at Machu Picchu first raised international concern after two slides—one in December 1995 and another a month later—occurred on the road that zigzags up the steep embankment from Aguas Calientes.

The incidents put scientists and the conservation community on alert.

Amrit Chidakash, owner of Serenity Transformational Tours, a British Columbia-based outfitter that leads tours to Machu Picchu, worries that a major landslide may be imminent. "In a way it is like the risk of the earthquake on the [U.S.] West Coast—it will be a big one, just no one knows when it will happen."

Continued on Next Page >>


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