The ancient city of Machu Picchu is indisputably the most well-known South American archaeological landmark.
Built in 1450 BC in the Chilean mountains, the city is a symbol of the surpassing innovation of the Incans; its situation at high-altitude (it is one of the highest of South America’s ancient cities) makes the importance it had to the Incan economy all the more impressive.
So it is natural that Macchu Picchu has become the destination of choice for discerning middle class tourists who want to broaden their horizons; experiencing both the wonder of an ancient city in ruins, as well as the pristine jungle – complete with rare wildflower species and critters that are too large for their own good – on the three-hour long trek up to the site.
So it is hard to imagine such a place as this should be sullied by the tendrils of Western travel, but it has.
While I was there I spoke to a local, our sherpa for the trek up to the site, who told me (after some hesitation: the economy heavily relies on tourism, and it is a cardinal rule to make tourists feel as welcome as possible) that over the last decade or so the site has been increasingly beset by pollution from tourists.
The trail, on which he lugged my gear as we spoke, for example had been eroded by the sheer number of trekkers; though quotas had been enforced by the Chilean government, this trail is partly made of stone which is as old as the city itself. Parts of it had, indeed, been eroded – I began to feel guilty about even walking it.
The trail itself is fringed by an iridescent array of wildflowers. They smelt fantastic, had large drooping petals and with hues from pink, to blue, to green and even black. But - related my sherpa – they were apparently too beautiful for tourists to resist picking them along the trail, and we walked treading strewn wildflowers underfoot.
Surely tourists are not all that bad? – I asked my sherpa, who asked to remain anonymous, somewhat hopefully. He replied that for the local city of Cuzco, at which he lives and most tourists stay to get to Macchu Picchu, they have been an economic boon. New hotels, including a Hilton, have been sprouting there and local traders’ pockets have been steadily swelling over the last decade: red Alpaca wool coats in native striped patterns in particular sell very well, as do an assortment of brass trinkets including jugs, and ceramics.
But every silver lining has a cloud. New hotels with sleeker operations are bringing jobs, but are pricing local bed & breakfasts and family-run inns out of business. The luxury hotels also impair the once rugged and more authentic experience of tourism in the area, he said, and bring a sense of entitlement which feeds back into his job. Expecting to have every whim catered for, and more besides, tourists expect him to lug more and more items of baggage up the trail, packed with heavy equipment. My sherpa is impressively robust, and seems oblivious to the weight he carries which often exceeds 15kg, but I offer to carry a couple of bags after he tells me this.
Besides Cuzco and the jungle trail, Macchu Picchu is also feeling the strain of tourist numbers. Once we arrive – our attention immediately captured by the soaring peak of limestone rock jutting out North of the site, and the wraith-like clouds encircling it – I notice both visual and aural pollution. Children and tweens chase each other around the site and down the narrow alleys which comprise its old streets. Despite having recently been enjoined by the local tourist board to wear clothing in muted colours, I still spot raincoats in shocking colours. The sheer number of people - of which, make no mistake, I was one – all but ruins the serenity of the site. An older Canadian tourist who visited the site when its popularity was burgeoning in the seventies says that back then you could traipse around Macchu Picchu while it was almost deserted, hearing nothing but the whispering breeze and call of songbirds. This had been replaced by the din of camera shutters and chatter.
The site is still beautiful, and took my breath away. The local people were lovely, and forthcoming. My sherpa especially so - their only expectation is a meagre wage and that tourists appreciate the majesty of a site they've known since they began work hauling luggage as children. But my trip home was still tinged with melancholy - not only because I was leaving, but because I would hesitate to return and know I'd contributed to infrastructural strain.
Having arrived back in England, I heard of a new £28 million plan to rescue Macchu Picchu from excess tourist numbers. Measures include security cameras to cope with stealing, which is rife, ten minute visiting slots and a more stringent quota.
I was slightly relieved. It could only be for the best.