By Alli Sinclair
For a continent that thrives on the tourism archaeology provides, it is almost impossible for me to pick a favorite site in South America. Up until now, I’ve avoided covering the Incan Citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru as the story’s been done to death all over the web, but if I’m entirely honest, even after 42 visits to the site, I am still enthralled by the tightly held secrets between the walls of this once lost city.
I know, 42 is a rather high number in anyone’s book, right? But when I worked as a tour guide I had the pleasure of taking groups up to this amazing site and we would travel via the Inca Trail or by train—either way is impressive.
July 24 last year saw the celebration of 100 years since Hiram Bingham first discovered Machu Picchu. Local farmers knew about the existence of this 15th century Inca city way before the western world, and for hundreds of years, farmers grew their crops along the citadel’s flanks.
Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, Machu Picchu covers 32,500 hectares (80,300 acres) and has 172 dwellings and stepped agricultural terraces. The popularity of this site has grown over the years, and with over 2,000 people visiting every day, measures need to be put in place to keep this pristine example of Incan life intact.
Even after working in tourism for 15 years, I still struggle with the impact tourism has. In my eyes, everyone has a right to visit important sites and have the opportunity to learn first-hand about the heritage of cultures, including our own. But we need to respect the archaeological sites we visit and ensure the place is left the way we found it. Hence, my passion for eco tourism.
I love that archaeology is accessible to anyone who wishes to learn about it, but there are limits. With so many people traipsing across the slopes of Machu Picchu, geologists are worried about a landslide of epic proportions. In 1995, there were two incidents when the land moved and scientists are afraid one major earthquake on the west coast of the country could be enough to send Machu Picchu toppling onto the town of Aguas Calientes directly below.
Even with people doing their best to leave Machu Picchu intact, the buses that drive from the train station up and down the windy road every single day don’t help. Trekking to the site is more eco-friendly these days, but in the past, when trekkers could do the trail on their own, the trail was commonly known as the “Inca Garbage Dump.” A few years back the Peruvian government wised up and now only allow 500 trekkers on the trail per day and they can only travel with a registered trekking company that has gone through a rigid approval system. Finally, people are realizing the negative effects we can have on our archaeological treasures.
But it’s not all bad. Machu Picchu is the main reason people visit the city of Cuzco, the stepping off point to see the archaeological marvel. Tourists bring dollars, and the dollars are used to keep locals in jobs and their children in school. People from all over the world gather to exchange experiences and learn about the local culture. With so many people aware of the archaeological sites throughout South America, it is harder for authorities and individuals to abuse important archaeological sites. And even though I escorted groups to visit Machu Picchu, the company I worked for hired qualified archaeologists to take my clients around the site and expertly explain the history.
Sure, there are people who travel to archaeological sites that don’t care about the impact they make. They break of pieces off rock, leave garbage, and are noisy and disrespectful to the locals. Thankfully, those “people” are in the minority. My experience of living in Cuzco and traveling to Machu Picchu on a regular basis showed me a majority of people, both travelers and locals, give this wonderful lost city the respect it deserves and want to see it preserved for future generations.
Machu Picchu is famous for a reason. Standing at the Sun Gate, the entrance to the ruins for trekkers, watching the sun rise and the expanse of fertile pastures and the grey citadel below, one can’t help be mesmerized by such beauty. In the quiet of the early morning, it’s easy to imagine what life may have been like for the 1,000 inhabitants back in the 15th Century. No one knows for sure what was Machu Picchu’s true purpose was back then, but today, this archaeological marvel brings people together in a world of fascination and wonder.