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 Incan site that looks out onto Machu Picchu Mountain and down to the ruins of Choquesuysuy.
It came towards the end of three days of lung-busting hiking in Peru, 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 on one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu. But such bounty may not be so readily available to future travellers.
Machu Picchu, located 2,430 metres above sea level, and the Inca Trail are at the centre of an ongoing environmental battle.
Tourism is burgeoning in Peru and the country’s glorious scenery is worth plenty of dollars to a government recovering from a decade of guerrilla warfare. But the sustainability of the landscape is subject to much debate.
Guides tell me indigenous wildlife, such as the puma and spectacled bear, is rarely seen these days. One said not enough was being done to supply proper toilets. Long gaps between stops persuade walkers to use ‘natural toilets’, creating smells which deter wildlife.
Currently only 500 people per day are allowed on the Inca Trail, but there are discussions to reduce this to 400. Another guide, Julio Cesar Tello, founder of Karikuy Tours, disagreed that wildlife is being frightened away, but seconded the need for improved facilities.
‘Brown bears and Pumas have always been super rare so I do not believe it would affect them’; he said. ‘It is hard to deviate from the Inca Trail. It is a very straightforward trail that should be kept clean. There is no need for basic outhouses which are very unhealthy to wildlife and travellers.’
The situation at Machu Picchu is even more troublesome. Entrance is limited to 2,500 visitors per day but its move into the tourism A list has not been without controversy, with cable cars, hotels, tourist flights and mini-earthquakes creating concern. The latest proposal is for an international airport at nearby Chinchero.
The news prompted Stefaan Poortman, director of international development at the Global Heritage Fund, to urge the Peruvian authorities to protect Machu Picchu. ‘We are interested in how we can diffuse the impact of Machu Picchu to other sites around Peru,’ he said.
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 for a cable car and luxury hotel. Only protests from international community scuppered the plans. And in 2006, Cusco-based company Helicusco attempted to introduce tourist flights over Machu Picchu, even gaining a license before the decision was overturned.
Perhaps the greatest worry is that the site will collapse upon itself. Many fear the unceasing footsteps of thousand of tourists will produce an effect similar to a small-scale earthquake. In June 2001, a report by the Disaster Prevention Institute of
Japan’s Kyoto University included the frightening conclusion: ‘An avalanche could separate the ruins into two parts at any time.’
As long ago as 1983, UNESCO declared Machu Picchu a World Heritage Site. And in July 2008, the World Heritage Committee voiced concerns over deforestation, the risk of landslides, uncontrolled urban development and illegal access to Machu Picchu.
The current entrance rules were introduced in July 2011. But UNESCO remain unsatisfied and last year called on the Peruvian government to further stabilise the site’s buffer zone.
How that fits with a new international airport remains to be seen.