Tourism Overtaking Machu Picchu's Mystical Appeal

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Archaeologists still aren't sure exactly when Machu Picchu was built, but the consensus seems to be that the city is at least 600 years old. It appears to have been home to about 1,000 people, perhaps the Inca elite, who may have lived there during part of the year to conduct religious ceremonies. The city features several temples that align with the sun at certain times of the year, demonstrating the Incas' remarkable grasp of astronomy—not to mention their construction skills. Stone walls on the finer buildings were laid without mortar; blocks of granite weighing several tons are fitted so precisely that a piece of paper will hardly fit into the joints.

The city was mysteriously abandoned around the time of the Spanish conquest, in the 1500s. It was rediscovered in 1911 by American explorer Hiram Bingham, whose articles and photographs about it captivated millions.

A road to the site was built in 1948, and reconstruction opened the way for tourists. UNESCO named the city a World Heritage Site in 1983. But for decades, only the hardiest made the journey.

Even today, reaching Machu Picchu is something of an ordeal. Most foreign visitors fly first to the Peruvian capital of Lima, then catch a one-hour flight to Cusco, the Incan capital. Tourists then make their way to the tiny town of Aguas Calientes, either by an expensive 30-minute helicopter flight or by a three-hour train ride through picturesque farmland and deep gorges between towering mountain peaks. From there they board shuttle buses that climb a rutted road that switches back up the steep mountain face. Other visitors depart the train before reaching Aguas Calientes and take a four-day hike.

Many visitors say the site still appears well managed, with clearly defined trails, ropes surrounding a few precious relics and guides overseeing large groups. "It was great," said Jerry Bisig of Dunwoody, Georgia, who visited recently with an alumni group from Georgia Tech. "It was completely peaceful up there, and I thought the Peruvians are doing a great job of protecting it."

Despite the hardships, the number of visitors has climbed steadily, with 66,000 taking to the Inca Trail in 1998, compared with 6,000 in 1984. The total number of visitors has mushroomed fourfold in the past decade.

"Without Machu Picchu, this town would be dust and dung," said Carlos Sanchez, who runs a small souvenir shop in Cusco. "We need the tourists."

A sign of the importance of tourism came last month when several hundred residents of Aguas Calientes shut down access to Machu Picchu for a day, demanding that Peruvian officials give their city more money to upgrade services.

While locals seem to want more visitors, others worry that too much tourism will inevitably erode Machu Picchu's physical structures, not to mention its mystical appeal.

Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori proposed installing a cable car to bring more visitors up the mountain, but the plan was roundly criticized by preservationists and appears to have been shelved.

Peruvian authorities have taken steps to manage the impact of tourism, limiting the number of backpackers on the Inca Trail and doubling admission prices to Machu Picchu to $20 a day to provide more resources.

"We are also conducting capacity studies to see how many tourists it can handle," Fujita said. "This will allow us more control. We can't close off tourism, but we have to preserve it. We know we need a balance."

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