Destination Watch: Machu Picchu Hopes to Reopen Soon
After massive flooding struck the area around Machu Picchu this January, the country has been struggling to get its tourism back online. Andrew Berg gives us an update on where things currently stand.
By the end of January, after days of unremitting rain, deadly mudslides, and flash floods, the swollen Urubamba River eased its rampage through the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Roads, bridges, and nearly 18 miles of railway–including the sole link to Aguas Calientes, the riverside pueblo at the base of the Machu Picchu sanctuary–had been damaged or destroyed. At Machu Picchu itself, where the grounds of the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel had been commandeered as a makeshift heliport, a four-day airlift had successfully evacuated some 4,500 stranded tourists and residents. Armed soldiers patrolled the valley. A 60-day State of Emergency was in effect.
Until April 1st, according to Tourism Minister Martin Perez, the highlands of Peru–from the city of Cusco to the Inca’s famed 8,000-foot citadel–would be effectively closed for business.
While travelers may have experienced a major inconvenience, local people had suffered a calamity. Twenty-six deaths were reported nationwide, with five fatalities in the Sacred Valley. More than 20,000 residents were left homeless, and damage to crops and farms was put at $200 million. But with the region losing nearly a million tourism dollars every day, the authorities have clearly prioritized their response.
“The rail line repairs are moving at a fast pace,” said Claire Andre de Cerff, Research & Development Manager for Inkaterra, which operates an eco-lodge in Cusco as well as Machu Picchu. “Neither our properties nor the sanctuary and ruins suffered any damage. But in the Sacred Valley, where many houses are made of adobe, people will have to rebuild. And those who live exclusively on tourism are at a stand still.”
Six weeks after the storm, PeruRail was reporting that more than half the damaged train tracks had been repaired, and intimated that the line could be fully operational before April 1st. The imminent reopening of Peru’s crown jewel, a site that receives more than 800,000 visitors a year, will be welcome news to both locals and travelers. But the disaster highlights the country’s somewhat awkward reliance on a singular national treasure with limited access routes.
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In an effort to widen its allure beyond just the Sacred Valley, Peru’s national travel board, PromPeru, has scrambled to promote alternatives to Machu Picchu–volcano treks, pre-Incan geoglyphs, gastronomic tours in Lima–steeply discounting travel packages through the end of May. In addition, the American Institute of Archaeology recently named Peru its 2010 Country of the Year, committing resources to fund site preservation and to promote responsible travel throughout the country. “Peru,” said AIA Executive Director Teresa M. Keller, “is often rated in the top three to five archaeological destinations in the world.”
Improved infrastructure for both visitors and local people may yet be the upside of this temporary down time. “The Inca’s were great planners and builders,” said de Cerff, noting how easily their works withstood the weather. It remains to be seen whether the country’s modern masters are equal to the task.
Photograph by Martin Gray