Friday, October 5, 2007

IN MEMORIAM: MACHU PICCHU (circa 1430 - 2007)

On July 7, 2007, Machu Picchu officially became one of the “New 7 Wonders of the World.” Machu Picchu is deserving of the title. It truly is an archeological wonder amidst natural beauty. If you are one of the fortunate few who have experienced Machu Picchu, then proudly point to your feet and tell all your friends how those feet, attached to your legs, once led you through those mystical Inca ruins.

If you have always dreamed of experiencing Machu Picchu but have not yet had the opportunity, then I’m sorry to inform you that you may be too late. On July 7, 2007, more than 100 million voters (with good intentions) accidentally killed Machu Picchu when they selected it as one of the "New Wonders of the World." It's true, Machu Picchu is dead. I know this because a few weeks ago I saw – in person – its withering remains.

Physically, Machu Picchu is still there. That incredible sanctuary tucked deep within the high ridges of the beautiful Peruvian Andes is still there. And, the stones that make up that sanctuary are still firmly in place (thankfully).

So, what exactly is dead? The answer: the visitor experience. The visitor experience is dead because the solitude is gone. It was the solitude that made Machu Picchu truly special. Solitude allowed the visitor to contemplate one of the most amazing structures built by one of the most amazing societies the western hemisphere has ever known. The Incas left no written history, so what we think we know is based primarily on speculation. Solitude permits speculation and personalizes the experience. At Machu Picchu, solitude and speculation could grab your soul and open a window to the past.

When I made my first visit to Machu Picchu (eight years ago), solitude was still possible. It was possible to stroll quietly through Inca doorways into Inca built homes and temples. The only sounds came from the flowing Urubamba River and a morning chorus of rainforest birds. I used to place my hand on a stone and wonder what life may have been like for the person who put that stone there. The experience was incredible.

Today, with over 2,000 visitors each day (compared to an average of 25 people per day in the early 1990’s), that solitude is mostly gone and so is the mystique. It is difficult to hear your local guide because right next to you is another local guide who is barking information to their group. After each local guide finishes their commentary it is a struggle to move from one point of interest to the next because the corridors are small, too small for large groups walking in opposite directions. At best this is irritating and detracts from the experience; at worst it is intolerable.

Now that Machu Picchu is a “New Wonder of the World,” concerned citizens and foreign officials predict that this new designation will attract even more visitors. They fear that Machu Picchu might become an “Incan Disneyland.” These prognosticators will not have to wait very long. I’ve experienced Machu Picchu and I’ve experienced Disney. A few weeks ago, I didn’t notice that much of a difference. In both places tourists must purchase tickets, wait in lines, and enter through turnstiles. Both places are crowded and both places have hours of operation. At 6:00pm, dozens of uniformed workers at Machu Picchu begin blowing their whistles – a not so subtle way for them to say, “you’ve overstayed your welcome.”

Machu Picchu has long been popular with hikers and backpackers. Today, however, nobody searching for a genuine hiking experience treks the Inca Trail. It is soiled with human excrement, garbage, and in places, the trail is choked with lines of hikers. Today, this hike is only for the uninformed or those looking for a new feather in their cap.

Recently, I bumped into Ernesto (a long-time friend) and we had lunch together. He has been guiding in Machu Picchu for years. He told me he just returned from a hike to Wayna Picchu (the adjacent mountain overlooking Machu Picchu). He said it was disheartening and claimed that he would never take another client there again. Apparently, a train of 200 people hiking in formation ruined the experience. Throw in a hiker who slipped and broke her hip and the day was a bust.

I sometimes wonder how the builders of Machu Picchu would feel if they could see their sanctuary today: the circus of a steady stream of buses coming and going, lunchtime buffet lines, guards constantly blowing coach’s whistles, and the occasional buzzing of a weed whacker keeping the non-native grass to a proper height. I wonder how Machu Picchu’s builders would react when told that one of their most important shrines – the Intihuantana – was damaged by a falling camera during the filming of an unauthorized beer commercial.

It is worth noting that Machu Picchu is not dead to everyone. Machu Picchu is not dead to the guests of the Sanctuary Lodge – the only lodge situated adjacent to the ruins. In the early morning (before the migrating masses accumulate at the top of the mountain) and in the late afternoon (after the migrating masses leave the ruins in order to spend the night in Aguas Calientes or catch the train back to Cusco), guests of the Sanctuary Lodge can still experience Machu Picchu in its solitude. They can still hear the flowing Urubamba River and rufous-collared sparrows singing from the nearby trees. This privilege, however, does not come cheap. The Lodge’s 31 rooms average around $1,000 per night. Spending this kind of money to achieve "full" access to one of our planet's most cherished World Heritage Sites hardly seems fair. But, such is the world we live in.

The point is, ones impression of Machu Picchu is heavily influenced by whether or not they have access to a room at the Sanctuary Lodge. Unfortunately, only 2% of Machu Picchu's visitors are guests at the Sanctuary Lodge. The other 98% of Machu Picchu's visitors are treated to long lines, the cacophony of large crowds, and a sanctuary without solitude.

Machu Picchu is not dead to Peru’s president Alan Garcia, either. On the contrary Machu Picchu is the giver of life. More tourists bring more money and this is supporting the burgeoning population of Aguas Calientes. Recently, President Garcia belittled any talk of capping tourism. He called those attitudes, “alarmist and catastrophic.” If I was a politician searching for votes (and jobs and income obviously win votes) – rather than a citizen concerned about the experience – I would probably say the same thing.

It is clear that government regulations are not going to protect Machu Picchu or the visitor experience any time soon. Ultimately, breathing life back into Machu Picchu will likely come as a result of self-regulation. In other words, if the visitor experience continues to diminsh then perhaps word will spread and fewer people will make the effort to see Machu Picchu.

In the meantime, if you care about Machu Picchu - one of our planet's most treasured cultural and natural wonders - you may want to take a moment to grieve. It has recently been killed because it has been overly loved.