Machu Picchu – The environmental battle behind the picture postcard
I almost expected the credits to start rolling as I stared out over the valley.
Surely so many different shades of green could not be possible without visual enhancement?
But this was not the end of a Hollywood feature film, simply nature’s bounty visualised from the top of Intipata, the mesmeric Incan site that looks out onto Machu Picchu Mountain and down to the ruins of Choquesuysuy.
For me it came towards the end of three days of lung-busting hiking, optic nerve pleasing Andean scenery and poncho drenching rain.
A couple of hours later and every weary step would be worth it as I gazed down from a delightfully hot Sun Gate on one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu.
But such bounty may not be so readily available to travellers in the future.
Machu Picchu, located 2,430 metres above sea level and the most famous relic of one of the world’s most powerful empires, and the Inca Trail itself are at the centre of an ongoing environmental battle.
Tourism is burgeoning in Peru and the country’s glorious scenery and incredible history are worth plenty of dollars to a government recovering from a decade of guerrilla warfare in the 1980s and early 1990s.
But the sustainability of the landscape and the sites themselves, not least Machu Picchu, is the subject of much debate.
Guides on the trail tell me that indigenous wildlife, such as the puma and spectacled bear – Peru’s real like Paddingtons – is rarely seen these days.
These shy creatures are scared further up the mountains by the presence of hikers and, in particular, by the use of natural toilets.
One guide told me not enough was being done by the Peruvian government to supply proper toilet facilities. Long gaps between stops often persuade walkers to use natural toilets – creating smells which deter wildlife from setting paw in that area.
Currently only 500 people per day are allowed on the Inca Trail, but there are discussions to reduce this to 400.
My guide was dubious about this idea, preferring to concentrate on the need for better facilities.
A reduction in the number of hikers would also have deep implications on the lives of the genius porters who help hikers pass over the mountains, pitching their tents, lugging unfeasibly heavy bags and producing three course culinary delights from the food they can carry and a stove.
“Many of them would lose their jobs,” the guide said.
Another guide, Julio Cesar Tello, the CEO and founder of Karikuy Tours which runs expeditions on the Inca Trail, disagreed that wildlife is being frightened away – but seconded the need for improved facilities.
“Brown bears and Pumas have always been super rare to see in the area in the first place so I do not believe it would affect them,” he said.
“Although there has been a rise in tourism the last couple years, the same people living in the areas have had more an impact on local wildlife for many decades through farming and fishing, as well as construction and growth of Aguas Calientes.
“To be honest I didn’t even know there were pumas in the area or that they were of special interest to the tourists.
“If they are there they should be protected of course, and I am sure are already inside Machu Picchu National Park.
“In your experience you would have seen that it is hard to deviate or wander away from the Inca Trail. It is a very straightforward trail that should be kept clean.
“Natural toilets should be improved, this is an internationally popular trek. There is no need for basic outhouses which are very unhealthy to the local wildlife and for travellers.”
The situation at Machu Picchu is even more troublesome.
Built for Incan emperor Pachauti around 1450, it was rediscovered by real life Indiana Jones, Hiram Bingham, in 1911.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Machu Picchu is Peru’s most visited tourist site and a major revenue generator.
Entrance is limited to 2,500 visitors per day and hikers are barred from eating food within the facility.
But its recent move into the tourism A list has not been without controversy, with cable cars, hotels, tourist flights, ‘mini-earthquakes’ and, most recently, plans for a new airport creating concern.
The latest proposal is for an international airport at nearby Chinchero, to be built with government investment of $460m.
In August last year, Peru’s president Ollanta Humala revealed the plans, saying the airport would create more tourism, more jobs and more money.
That announcement prompted Stefaan Poortman, the director of international development at the Global Heritage Fund, to urge the Peruvian authorities to protect Machu Picchu.
His plan revolved around promoting other Incan sites throughout the country, taking pressure of its most famous one.
“It’s iconic and well known,” he said, “but at Global Heritage Fund, we are interested in how we can diffuse the impact of Machu Picchu to other sites around Peru.”
It is not the first time the desire to increase tourism has threatened the ‘City of the Incas’.
In the late 1990s the government granted concessions to allow the construction of a cable car and the development of a luxury hotel. Only protests from the public and the international community scuppered the plans.
And in 2006, Cusco-based company Helicusco attempted to introduce tourist flights over Machu Picchu, It even gained a license to do so, before the decision was overturned.
But perhaps the greatest worry is that the site will quite simply collapse upon itself.
Many fear the unceasing footsteps of thousand of tourists over the ruins will produce an effect similar to a small-scale earthquake, while the shifting of rocks could make the site unstable.
In June 2001, these concerns were summed up in a report by the Disaster Prevention Institute of Japan’s Kyoto University, which included the frightening conclusion: “An avalanche could separate the ruins into two parts at any time.”
As long ago as 1983, UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation – declared Machu Picchu a World Heritage Site.
In October 2003, then heritage director, Francesco Bandarin, warned that unrelenting tourist traffic could severely damage the stone buildings, agricultural terraces, plazas and temples.
He added that fires and landslides pose a constant threat, and criticised the unrestricted expansion of nearby Aguas Calientes.
And in July 2008, the World Heritage Committee asked for ‘reinforced monitoring’ to take place at the site, voicing its grave concern over deforestation, the risk of landslides, uncontrolled urban development and illegal access to Machu Picchu.
The current entrance rules, limiting visitor numbers to 2,500 per day and entrance to Huayna Picchu within the citadel to just 400 people a day, were introduced in July 2011.
But UNESCO remain unsatisfied and last year conservation experts called on the Peruvian government to further stabilise the site’s buffer zone and address the ongoing issue of Aguas Calientes.
How that fits with the introduction of a new international airport remains to be seen.
Discussions continue over the possible further reduction of visitor numbers or the introduction of ‘no go’ areas in parts deemed more unstable.
Julio Tello told me that some parts of the citadel suffer because of ‘weaker infrastructure’ and should be ‘sectioned off’.
But he did not think a reduction in visitors numbers was necessary – and even cast doubt on how much the site was wearing away.
“I think having a limit to the number of people who access Machu Picchu should be avoided,” he said.
“My own personal opinion would be to keep the number the same, lowering the number will not keep up with demand and could cause prices to increase.
“Visiting the site should also not be for the super rich. There should be alternatives to see the site, perhaps via hot air balloon or limit accessible areas within the site.
“Whether the site is really being worn out is debatable. From your own visit you can agree that it is a very large site with minimal foot traffic in some areas over others.
“I would be more concerned on the impact of the site due to the changing environment, heavier rains and winds which would affect the site more than foot traffic.
“As the owner of Karikuy Tours it is in my best interest to have more travellers at Machu Picchu. However, as a Peruvian I feel that this relic of our collective history should be preserved.
“As it stands Machu Picchu is already not visited by the general Peruvian population as it is considered an expensive trip. I would encourage keeping the same limit and creating footpaths at Machu Picchu where the structural integrity of the ruins is not compromised.
“Although Machu Picchu is a great tourist site because it has full access, there are clearly some areas in the citadel with weaker infrastructure that should be better preserved or sectioned off.”
Whatever conclusions the authorities in charge of Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail come to it is important that the sanctity of the site is foremost in people’s minds.
After all, that would be quite a picture to ruin.