Monday, February 19, 2007

New Bridge to be Opened to Machu Picchu

Good day fellow travelers. As I am sure some of you already aware, a new bridge is about to be opened near the base of Machu Picchu. I thought I’d address this issue in my latest blog entry and ask what exactly it is this bridge will do for the region, what implications the bridge has for Peru’s most sacred site, and what can we do about it?

Sometime back I heard that the mayor (now former mayor) of Santa Teresa – a small town less than a stone’s throw away from Machu Picchu – was planning to have a bridge built crossing the Vilcanota River. This bridge will be inaugurated in February. As I began to wonder about the implications this bridge might have on Machu Picchu and tourism in the region, a storm of arguments arose in the international media regarding the issue. On the one hand people argue that the bridge has the potential of so over-crowding Machu Picchu with tourists that both the hallowed ruins and regional ecology will be destroyed; on the other hand people are arguing that the residents of Santa Teresa – long cut off from the rest of the world – deserve a bridge with which they can more easily reach Cusco and make a living. In Peru the dispute over the bridge is very heated, and so with this blog entry I thought I’d attempt to tackle the problem in order to hopefully shed more light on it for those of you who are interested.

Traditionally there has only been one way to reach Machu Picchu, that being by taking the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, the town closest to Machu Picchu. In reality there is another way – through Santa Teresa – but in order to get there one has to travel over a network of very nasty roads. The 20 or so hour drive from Cusco to Santa Teresa leads through jungle swamps and over cliff faces with drops so unimaginably high that sky diving aerialists would shudder in fear. This route has been the only road the residents of Santa Teresa have been able to use to take their produce to Cusco. One does however need to take into account the wider repercussions the bridge could have on the ruins, the region, and even the country as a whole.

The base concern presented against building the bridge is that it will bring in such an influx of tourists that both the ruins and ecology of the region could be badly damaged. Remember that one of the major sources of Peruvian income is tourism, and a that the major source of Peruvian tourism is Machu Picchu.

The price of crossing this bridge on a bus from Cusco is estimated to cost somewhere in the region of four US dollars. Anyone who has ever been to Machu Picchu will know how much of a price cut this is on the train ticket. The amount of people traveling to the ruins is estimated to shoot through the roof with figures this low. The development of a new tourist infrastructure needed to cope with such an influx of tourists in the area would of course also be hugely detrimental for the ecology of the surrounding area, as well as for the ruins themselves. And so understandably many environmentalists/cultural activists are calling for the bridge to be closed – perhaps even destroyed.

Machu Picchu currently receives over 4000 tourists a day, that’s just shy of 1,500 000 tourists a year. It is hardly a wonder that UNESCO is currently in the process of changing their classification of Machu Picchu to an Endangered World Heritage site. The UN group is in fact at the moment engaged in talks with the government that would have them drop the number of tourists permitted to enter the site from 4,000 to 2,500. If anything this shows how dire the problem already is. With the new bridge however, the number of visitors could likely so overly surpass the current levels of tourists visiting Machu Picchu that the ruins may quite likely disappear, making the many efforts that people have made towards their preservation futile.

Another argument against the construction of the bridge is that it provides a much shorter route for local Coca Farmers to transport both coca paste and cocaine to urban areas, from where it is transported and shipped overseas. Still, some people argue that a more accessible road to open up this region would hardly make the transport of drugs easier, but would more likely make it harder as police and military would be able to make their presence more felt in the area.

And so this is how it stands. On the one hand we have a national treasure that is under threat, and on the other we have a group of people who are effectively being denied the right to an easier way of life. It’s a tough argument and both sides have their points. I would of course choose to preserve Machu Picchu at all costs, but there’s also the real need of a community trying to develop itself in order to better the lifestyle of its people. So I guess a compromise between the two arguments would be the best result of this dilemma – a compromise I have heard a few people talking about already.

One feasible solution would be to open the bridge and disallow tourists the right to cross it. This would benefit both the people of Santa Teresa and the majestic ruins themselves. This approach would however also deny those who would be otherwise unable to afford getting to the ruins a chance to see them.

Obviously losing Machu Picchu is a nightmare Peru will never actually allow – the country relies too much upon it economically. What is worrying however, is how long it will take to put the effective wheels into place that will advert this tragedy. If it takes too long, how much of an impact will have already been made?

It is a complex situation with many differing arguments and points of view. Please take my points of view and opinions as they are – a means with which to more clearly envision the depth of what could be a difficult situation for Peruvians and travelers alike. For those interested in finding out more I suggest you look into the following websites:

I hope that some of you may have found this helpful and interesting. If anyone out there has a point of view regarding the situation please feel free to post a comment and we can further discuss it.

To all you travelers out there – Keep on discovering!



Maggie said...

Hi Bart,
I want to thank you for this excellent and thought provoking
article. I have never visited Peru or Machu Picchu but always wanted
to, so for me it was fascinating to read.

What a dilemma! I feel, as I think you do yourself, that the great
ruins should be preserved at almost all costs. Yet it is sad to
realise that the people of St Theresa neither benefit from tourism
nor are able to easily transport their goods or themselves. Life is
obviously a truggle for survival for them and in this day and age
that has to be acknowledged.

The solution you mention sounds so reasonable but I think there might
possibly be enormous opposition to it. Perhaps a compromise might
eventually be reached wherein the numbers of tourists are limited and
then only on certain days...on both routes...for the sake of the
ecology and the preservation of the ruins. As has been done I
believe in places like Costa Rica.

As you mention the necessity of preventing violations would mean an
additional police presence, and other authorities, and might inhibit
the easy passage of drugs.

Do let us know how things progress and I shall now access some of the
web sites you have given us.

Again many thanks.

Maggie, Canada

Ed said...

I found your posted message very interesting.
I traveled to Peru last September and it was indeed a wonderful
My wife and I traveled to Arequipa and the Colca Valley, Cusco and
the Sacred Valley as well as Machu Picchu.
I have many ideas on the Peruvian economy and how they could benefit
from eco-friendly tourism.

If the Council of Santa Teresa develops a touristic circuit around
some of the other mountains and Coquequirao, I would think that
would relieve some traffic from Machu Picchu.
Some tourists will spend more time in these other areas as well as
allow the locals to benefit from some trade.
I would like to see the town of Aguas Calientes to develop into a
nicer more "visitor friendly" place and some competition from another
town would not be a bad thing.
It may push Aguas Calientes to become a nicer, cleaner town as
opposed to being the frontier town it is.
Machu Picchu is already a very difficult place to reach and I don't
think that the opening of a new route - which may take longer to
transit than the 3 1/2 hour train ride - would really increase the
number of visitors that much.
If anything it would relieve some pressure from the Inca trail and
take some passengers away from Peru Rail.
Just in case, I would like to see the government of Peru regulate the
number of foreign visitors traveling on this road.
We can't deny the people of this region this vital connection.

Thank you...

Rcon Franchesca Pascua said...

I have always been fascinated with Peru. Aside from my mounting interest in Morocco and other exotic destinations, I really find Peru a great place to explore. Your entry is absolutely well-written. I love your way of describing Machu Picchu and pointing out how important it is to the Peruvian tourism.

Llusan said...

Es increible saber cuantos extranjeros (turistas) han conocido Machu Picchu.
Ese es un sueño que los mismos peruanos deseamos conocer.

Muy buen article!