The Inca Gods Think We're Crazy: Saving Machu Picchu From Extinction
Holy grail for the gringo tourist. Where the most industrious of ancient civilisations meets crass commercialism.
In the year 1450, tens of thousands of heavy granite stones, carted by thousands of workers for nearly 900 kilometres from the Peruvian coast, eventually reached one of the most treacherous regions of the Andes for thousands more workers to ingeniously construct a venerable miracle. No tracks to transport the granite, armies of Incan slaves held at the mercy of dens of poisonous snakes, repeatedly trudged to altitudes as high as 3,000 metres, under the zealous eye of Inca ruler, Pachacuti.
Swathes of earth, carved out of Huayna Picchu, the mystical Mother forever resolute in her nursing of the once mighty Inca city, cascade down her fragile slopes to form the banks of the Urubamba River. Dedicated men are still buried here, somewhere, deep within Mother Huayna's bosom, doomed to an afterlife of eternal damnation at the feet of greedy, high-heeled tourists. Most fail to see the architectural ingenuity of the ruins' structure; not one granule of mortar was used to build the ancient city. Solely a series of Rubickian interlocked stone, as dry as time is old, constructed so majestically, that one fails to even slip a blade through any perceived cracks.
For close to five centuries she stood proud, untouched by ruin, perfectly preserved in her natural birth state. A symbol of dominance over her neighbouring pre-Columbian enemies, Tiwanaku and Kuelap. A century ago, her siren called, beckoning man to spread the word of her many tales. And he did. Now, on this day, she sits bloodied, wounded and heartbroken.
Corporate greed, spearheaded by commercial tourism, is killing one of mankind's greatest engineering marvels. Close to one-million tourists per year visit Machu Picchu, seduced by veiled, cheaply packaged deals from money grubbing airlines, hotels and tour companies, who possess enough financial clout to lure prospective customers to the region with the key inducement of heavily discounted accomodation at one of the many luxury resorts near the site. Self-appointed tour guides hound the overwhelmed but cashed-up visitors for their custom, spruiking promises of llama petting, end of tour discounts on food and beverages, and the opportunity for as many selfies as you like in areas of the site that are completely off-limits to ecotourists doing the right thing.
The inane culture of the selfie is carving out its own little niche into the destruction of Machu Picchu. Narcissistic tourists, seemingly visiting the site because of the need to update their Facebook profiles, are forever climbing onto increasingly fragile monoliths and ornamental statues in lame attempts to capture the perfect headshot. The arrogance of the selfie hunter is unsurpassed. Why anyone would want to put their ugly head in the way of a historical wonder just to prove to their friends that they were actually there, is completely beyond comprehension. It's selfish, ignorant and damaging behaviour.
I may be coming off as all high and mighty, but I am most ashamed that I am not to be excluded from this growing list of fair-weather Earth rapists. But if I knew then what I know now, I would happily forgo any opportunity to ever see Machu Picchu, just to have the wonderland rightfully outlive the human race.
It was on my return trip to Cusco, the following day of visiting the once lost city, that I was educated in the most unexpected and at times intimidating of manners, on the pitfalls and brutal effects of crass tourism.
The trouble started once I returned to Ollantaytambo, the rustic mountain village which is the launching point for the tourist train that ploughs up the mountain to Machu Picchu's nearest town, Aguas Calientes. There seemed to be a large amount of stationery vans (colectivos) parked in the village's main street and car park. The mass of parked vans was nothing unusual, what was unusual was the fact that the unionised drivers were refusing to take on passengers. It was an eerie site. A dust storm tunnelled waves of grit and pollen straight through the village's guts, creating a sepia effect over the hundreds of zombie-like travellers that stalked the streets wondering what to do next. What was going on?
There was trouble further down the line. All the way from neighbouring town, Maras, right through to the provincial capital, Cusco, indigenous Quechuans, direct ancestors of the ancient Incas, were protesting the mistreatment of their forefather's masterpiece creation. All roads back into Cusco were blocked, and the protestors stated that this would be the case for the next 48 hours. Great.
If you've ever seen a fiery Peruvian protest, you'll know full well that this is not your run of the mill, dreadlocked, sign holding hippies shouting out buzz slogans, type affair. A Peruvian, and to a broader extent, Latin American, protest means blocking all roads in, out and around the location by any means necessary; boulders, rocks, burning tyres, giant cactus spikes, whatever can be utilised. It means machetes, tyre slashings, and slaughtered animals as a symbol of intimidation. It means that the police won't help you; they either don't want to be caught in the crossfire or, more often than not, have been paid a hefty bribe to stay away. More often than I'd care to mention, the human death toll from these types of situations is quite significant. As I was about to find out, being trapped in the middle of a Peruvian protest is not for the faint hearted.
I zombied around Ollantaytambo for about three Inca Kolas and a couple of Cusquenas worth before I finally found my man; Jorge. He was the only colectivo driver ballsy and desperate enough to attempt to run the gauntlet all the way into Cusco. I deliberately singled him out of a pack of squabbling drivers because he seemed the most irritated with the situation. As beautiful as Ollantaytambo is, I'll be damned if I was going to hang around there for 48 hours; I had a dorm bed booked in Cusco for that night and a bus ticket already reserved for Puno for the day after.
Jorge was my new best friend. I weeded him out by waving a stack of Nuevo Soles (Peruvian currency) above my head like a madman. He approached me with a nervous grin and we negotiated a fee. 60 soles; about $20 (USD).
Jorge directed me to his van and I took a seat. We were to head off in thirty minutes which I instantly deduced to mean two hours. Peruvians seem to live on an entirely different time structure to the rest of the world; their watches are installed with extra large sprockets.
For three hours I sat, mostly by myself, but I was eventually joined by a few other brave, or stupid, backpackers. A bogan Aussie, a know-it-all Italian, two arrogant Frenchmen and a loudmouth American. I immediately dubbed our little group 'The Doomed Cliches'. As we had already cast a 'bogan' Aussie, I played the part of 'drunk tourist' Aussie.
Finally, the gritted sliding door slammed shut and Jorge, along with his petrified team of naivetes, were off to seal their respective fates.
The beginning of the journey was absolutely incredible; a rare gringo treat. Sweeping mountain views from narrow dirt trails, reserved mostly for donkey and cart, and ninety degree sheer drops off the face of the Earth, just millimetres away from our left tyres; have these guys not heard of a safety rail?! It was breathtaking. Jorge had it in his mind that he could outsmart the protestors by taking these rarely used backroads and skirting around the town of Maras and into Cusco the very slow and bumpy back way. Oh, how wrong he was.
At one stage, Jorge pulled over to the side of the trail as far as he could (not much) to avoid an oncoming Cholita (a slightly derogatory term for a tough Peruvian or Bolivian Quechuan) who was herding goats, cows, pigs, chickens, three dogs and something that kind of looked like a buffalo. As soon as she saw us, she frantically signalled for Jorge to step out of the van. What ensued was one of the most animated discussions I have ever witnessed. Between the Italian guy running his mouth off and the denseness of the van walls, I couldn't quite decipher what was being said, however, body language can be quite loud sometimes and it was pretty obvious that Jorge was copping a berating from Mamacita for foolishly attempting to drag gringos through a potentially dangerous blockade. In hindsight, I guess it is akin to bringing a knife to a gun fight. The consensus of one, was that Jorge should not transport these gringos any further. He probably should have listened to her.
We continued regardless and eventually found our way to Maras. What a privilege to witness such a remote Andean village. Multi-levelled with rustic Chakra huts, no cars, and an abundance of donkeys, this was one place that not too many "packaged deal" travellers would have ever heard of. This was the real Peru. So much more value than Machu Picchu could ever provide and an education that one will never forget. We were certainly getting our money's worth.
I smashed my head on the back of the driver's seat as Jorge ferociously crushed the brake pedal in utter desperation. We were just beginning to pick up speed as we left Maras behind, and the trail of dust and tyre marks crafted by the sudden screech must have rendered a vision most unnatural to the gathering locals. We'd hit a road block. Boulders. Big ones. I have no idea where they came from; the cliffs were a few kilometres away. Up ahead, in the very near distance, was what I estimated to be around one-hundred agitated, machete wielding Quechuans. Things were about to get interesting.
Thus began my education and eventual attitude transformation.
Jorge took a deep breath and stepped out of the van. He pushed his worried face to the window and forcefully directed one word; espera. Wait. We immediately clambered within an inch of the windscreen and peered through like a group of randy teenagers leering into a peep show. Night was falling as Jorge board-walked towards the angry mob. For nearly one hour he negotiated with them, telling them that his passengers are muy simpatico. He begged with them to let us through. At one stage, we witnessed Jorge hand over some money to what appeared to be the ringleader. This, as we found out later, turned out to be one-hundred soles and a "leaving town tax" to ensure our safe passage. In other words, pay up and we won't cut you. Jorge gave us the thumbs up and all was good once more.
We all jumped out to shift the boulders out of the way of our van; a feat that was as labour intensive as it sounds. We piled back in and Jorge gunned the engine. Vamos! Then, out of nowhere, as we pulled away from the edge of the dirt track and headed off, an impetuous white hatchback pulled up beside us honking its horn repeatedly. This instantly riled the protestors into a fearsome lather and once again, the machetes were above their heads and pointed to the sky. The hatchback driver had screwed us. Because of his belligerence, we were going nowhere.
The Aussie and the American, repeatedly frustrated at the situation, decided that it was time to make a beer run. A dangerous and futile exercise. They climbed a nearby hill and were gone. We never saw them again, despite our concentrated scouring of the region. Whether they made it back to Cusco again, who knows?
I wasn't about to go anywhere. I was petrified, but I needed to see what exactly might unfold. We sat in the van for another two hours in what was the equivalent of a Mexican stand-off; a Peruvian stand-off, if you will. Suddenly, without warning, a pistol shot cracked the air and like Usain Bolt at the Olympics, the protestors were off. They were all sprinting towards us! Machete wielding Quechuans, chanting obscenities, surrounded our van and proceeded to let the air out of all our tyres. For reasons that I still cannot explain to this day, the Italian and I upon seeing this, jumped out of the van in a vain, macho attempt to protect our transport or principles or something? As a result of this instinctive and idiotic act, we were promptly circled by these crazies; machetes and sticks just centimetres away from our faces. It was more an act of intimidation rather than actual violence, though damn scary nonetheless. Valiantly, Jorge jumped out of the van and thrust himself into the centre of the vicious circle.
Things were getting pretty heated but we very quickly found our saviour in the stocky shape of our Cholita shepherd friend. She ribcaged her way through the lynch mob and pulled us to safety. Just as this was going on, the protestors became dog-like distracted and ran off, slashing the tyres on the white hatchback behind us. Instant karma.
It was at the side of this surreal mountain trail that our new friend explained to us why the locals were so angry. It was about Machu Picchu, but it was about so much more. Parts of the nearby Moray archaeological site were in decay from the recent over-influx of tourists and the much cherished Sacred Valley of the Incas had become not so sacred. Adding insult to injury, was the fact that sections of the Machu Picchu site had recently become damaged during the making of a beer commercial. The indigenous people of Peru was losing their cherished history. I'd be annoyed too.
Now I really was muy simpatico. We were told that hordes of tour groups go stampeding through these ruins by the thousands per day. We heard that clusters of wealthy women regularly visit these sites while wearing high-heeled shoes and that the heels dig into the dirt, causing erosion and the occasional irreparable imprint into the once pristine stone paths and grassed areas. But it was what Jorge said to us that disturbed us most of all. There was once a proposal to close Machu Picchu for ten years for restoration purposes with the backing of much worldwide support. But there was also plenty of opposition, mostly from international tour companies and sponsors. The proposal was all set to be rubber stamped, but these companies, fearful of the money they might lose, kicked up such a stink that it was unanimously decided to keep the site open. Someone had induced the appropriate people in charge of the proposal with a sizeable kickback. Despite much speculation and conjecture, it has never been revealed who exactly perpetrated this atrocity.
Even though we could still hear their haunting bellows, the protestors had completely disappeared from our sight. We said our thanks and goodbyes to our shepherd angel, scrambled into the van and scarpered before the mob returned. We had made it about 200 metres up the road before a policeman flagged us down. Poor Jorge cut the engine again and once more stepped out of the stuttering van. We slid all of the windows open to eavesdrop. "Por favor señor! Por favor señor!" Those were the only words we could hear as Jorge pled with the policeman. But the cop was having none of it. "No pase. No pase." He wasn't about to let us through. Jorge pulled out some more money, this time 20 soles, and handed it over to the nonchalant policeman. Again, with little expectation, we were on our way.
Down 120 soles, Jorge expertly handled the dark, foggy conditions with Senna-esque capabilities. We wound up through mountain passes, ran over a goat, got sprayed with water pistols by children standing guard in vain attempts to not let anyone through, had rocks and beer bottle thrown at us and, through the abuse, we learnt some pretty neat Spanish and Quechuan swear words.
A girlish shriek of glee pierced the vans interior as we finally hit bitumen. But, figuratively speaking, we were not out of the woods yet. It was like viewing the process of evolution; primal mountain simplicity made way for a smattering of rustic huts, some with paved walkways that actually led to front doors. In turn, the huts gave way to rendered houses made of brick or stone, some with driveways and even the occasional garden. It was a welcoming sight. That was until another rock hit the side of the van. It seemed that the protestors were really going to stretch all the way into Cusco.
The road snaked down the mountain. It was such an eerie feeling as the pitch darkness of night and the rolling fog was interrupted only by broken-up boulder roadblocks, multitudes of tyre and rubbish fires strategically set alight in the middle of the narrow road, and the occasional rock, beer can or squirt of water thumping the side windows where our heads lay.
By now, Jorge's nose was bleeding profusely. He didn't break stride though, continuing to descend at breakneck speed down the hill and into Cusco. He had shoved a twisted tissue up both nostrils to stem the flow. He was a damn hero; a gladiator amongst men. His sterling efforts combined machismo, negotiation skills, logistical planning, driving prowess, wisdom imparting and two payoffs out of his own pocket for our freedom. 120 soles is the equivalent of $40 (USD). This may not seem like such a hefty price to pay for one's freedom, but for Jorge, who rarely made that much in a week, it was bank-busting. So, the four of us did what was the only right thing to do. We each pitched in an additional 100 soles to the price of the unforgettable journey. At first, he refused to take it; he seemed embarrassed and ashamed. As if he had failed us. But to us, the complete opposite was true. He saved us from only Pachamama knows what, and taught us several valuable lessons in the process.
Finally, at eleven o'clock at night, we hit the outskirts of Cusco. What would normally be a regulation two hour trip from Ollantaytambo, took nine complicated hours. Still several kilometres from our respective accomodations, Jorge switched off the van and instructed us that we were to walk the rest of the way into Cusco's centre. No vehicles were allowed in or out. A small price to pay for what Jorge had done for us. With chivalry and class, he lifted our backpacks onto our backs and strapped them to our shoulders. A gentleman to the very end. As we shook hands, the Italian asked him where he would be staying until the protests were over. His chilling response was that he was driving back to Ollantaytambo tonight to be with his family on the exact same roads we struggled down. I felt like crying for the poor guy. But this was his life. One got the feeling that he had been through similar situations many times before. As he drove back up the winding hill and into the distance, we huddled in a tight-knit group and stared at the diminishing van in admiration. Like baby birds kicked out of Mother's nest, our self-appointed guardian and hero had left us to fend for ourselves. It was time.
All was peaceful as we approached Cusco Centro. We headed our seperate ways; I'm assuming, all with the identical thought; let's never see each other again.
Machu Picchu is a wonderful, almost spiritual ancient city. As humans, we call such archeological sites ruins, but in truth, the marvel has only become ruins since commercial tourism forced its way through the gates in the 1970's. Don't get me wrong, it's a fabulous place to visit, but extreme measures must be taken if this world wonder has any chance of surviving. If, for financial reasons, it can't be closed for restoration, then we should at least be pushing for the numbers of tourists to be limited to the low hundreds per day. To make up for lost revenue, charge a license fee for entry. Fortunately, that proposal is already on the table, with a similar scheme working wonders for the nearby Inca trail. Stuff the tour companies; they'll nominate somewhere else in the world to destroy. But do spare a thought for the hundreds of independent tour operators working out of Cusco if this necessary proposal is pushed through. They will be severely chastised financially as a result. The Peruvian government must step up and do the right thing by ways of an implemented compensation program. Let's put all that corruption money to good use shall we? Karmic alignment shall be restored if the bucketloads of bribery money the government receives every single year from these soulless, gluttonous organisations are spent on the people and the things that matter most.
Pachamama deserves it.
*If you enjoy the writing of Benjamin Munday, why not subscribe to The Low Road for a free download of his award winning short story, 'The Ashtray'.