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Saving Machu Picchu

Will the opening of a bridge give new life to the surrounding community or further encroach upon the World Heritage Site?

"A group of experts is studying how many visitors the site can exactly support without causing damage to the structure," says Jorge Zegarra Balcazar, director of the Institute of Culture. "Right now, the experts feel that more than 2,500 could contribute to the deterioration of the site."

A few miles from Machu Picchu sits Santa Teresa. Isolated by the surrounding mountains, the town has not benefited from tourism as much as Cuzco and Aguas Calientas. The community, instead, relies on its produce to bring in money. In the past, locals loaded their wares in Santa Teresa on a train that traveled to Cuzco. In 1998, a flood washed away the bridge that connected the train to the town. The government refused to rebuild it because of its close proximity to Machu Picchu. This forced some locals to travel to Cuzco on a badly worn road around mountains, in all, nearly a 15-hour trip. Others crossed the Vilcanota River using a makeshift bridge made of a metal cable and pulley system, where they pulled themselves across while sitting in what amounts to a human-sized bucket. From there, they took their goods to a train stationed at a hydroelectric power plant located within the sanctuary of Machu Picchu.

In 2006, Felia Castro, then mayor of the province, authorized the construction of a new bridge. She felt it would bring tourism to the area and also break the monopoly of Perurail, one of the only motorized routes to the foot of Machu Picchu's hill. The railway, which has operated since 1999, charges anywhere between $41 and $476, depending on how luxurious the ride, for roundtrip tickets from Cuzco to Machu Picchu.

More importantly, the bridge, which Castro planned to open to automobile traffic, reduces the drive to Cuzco significantly, and it also provides a quicker connection to the train at the hydroelectric plant. The bridge was so important to Castro that she ignored warnings and orders from the government and other organizations, who feared the new outlet for tourists, automobiles, and trucks would further harm the health of Machu Picchu. She even told press she would was willing to go to jail for its construction.

"We are dead set against it," says Chavez, who adds that automobile traffic has threatened other World Heritage Sites in the area. His group sought an injunction against the bridge, stalling construction for some time. Now that it has opened, the World Bank project staff hopes to restrict automobile traffic on the bridge, and they are working on alternatives such as pedestrian bridges for the locals in the area.

Balcazar at Peru's Institute of Culture endorses the bridge, but not its location, which sits inside the buffer zone of Machu Picchu. "Originally the bridge was for pedestrians only," says Balcazar. "Mayor Felia Castro opened the bridge to vehicle use. We are concerned about the conservation of Machu Picchu."

Others find the construction of the bridge a little less black and white. "This is a very complicated issue," says Norma Barbacci, Director of Field Projects at the World Monument Fund in New York. She understands that there is a local need, but still remains concerned for the health of Machu Picchu. "Every time you open a road or a railway, it's not just the bridge, it's all of the potential development."

Now that the bridge is complete—it opened March 24th to no protests—,the different organizations involved have resolved to work together. "All the different parties have joined forces with the Institute of Culture and World Heritage to bring a compromise to restrict the use of public transportation and private vehicles on the bridge," says Balcazar.

UNESCO is sending a team in late April and May to evaluate what impact, if any, the bridge has had on Machu Picchu. Chavez anticipates that UNESCO may once again threaten to put Machu Picchu on the endangered sites list. If this happens, he says, "it would be a black eye for the government, especially a government that relies on tourism."

Whitney Dangerfield is a regular contributor to Smithsonian.com.

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