Machu Picchu: world wonder or over-touristed?
How about both? Shortly after we decided to go, we read an internet article, something like, “10 Places NOT to travel to,” where they talked about places that have become over-touristed and that responsible travellers should avoid. Alas, we went anyway.
A friend told me about his visit to Machu Picchu in the 1970s: “I remember Machu Picchu as a very beautiful mystical place with clouds floating below in the canyon. We weren’t prepared with any special knowledge of the significance of various parts of the ruins. There were only four or five of us up there wandering around. I thought it would be a perfect venue for magic mushrooms but we didn’t have any. We were warned not to sleep on the ground up there because of the slim risk of sharing your sleeping bag with a small but deadly heat seeking snake. We walked down the hill to the river at and slept on a bamboo stave platform in a primitive hut, the hippie hotel.”
It’s quite a different experience in 2018. While I wish I could have visited decades ago, I’m still glad we went.
Yes, Cusco has a ton of tourist shops — travel agents, outfitters, trinket sales, llama and alpaca scarves and sweaters, restaurants and bars with hawkers out in front promising you a free drink. But Cusco has been a city since Inca times. There are ruins. There is lovely architecture. It’s a real city with a life of its own, although tourism plays a huge part. The city is growing up the surrounding mountains, with clear signs of ongoing construction and expansion.
Closer to Machu Picchu are the towns in the Sacred Valley. They too, seem like real towns with active plazas and lives of their town — albeit with a lot of tourist restaurants, hostels, hotels, and shops.
Closer still is Machu Picchu Town (changing its name from Aguascalientes, evidently), accessible only by train or hike. From my observation, this is a completely tourist-focused place. It appears to have sprung up and grown almost solely to service the zillion people who visit Machu Picchu. Hotel after hostel after hotel, tourist restaurants and bars (4 for 1 happy hour!), trinket stores. I may be wrong, but the town square, church and futbol field look like more recent additions, added to provide comfort for the workers who likely move there from elsewhere for jobs. Unlike Cusco, Ollayntaytambo and other Sacred Valley towns, it is not a place I would want to linger. It’s a place to have food, drink, sleep and showers before or after visiting the archaeological site.
Given the hordes of people cycling through the site, Machu Picchu was surprisingly uncrowded-seeming. They do an excellent job of managing the buses up to the site and it seems that not too many people are admitted at once. I have also heard there is a daily visitor limit now. We had a fine guided tour through the ruins and then hiked to the Inca Bridge on our own. Thoroughly enjoyed our visit!
A world wonder! The Inca people were fascinating and talented and what remains of their structures (those that weren’t looted by the Spanish to build churches or simply destroyed to oppress and conquer) are truly works of art. The stone work is like no other I’ve seen in my travels through Native American, Mexican, Greek, and Roman ruins — the huge boulders fitted perfectly to natural stone formations and to each other. Those stone masons were the real deal. And all of the Inca stuff that wasn’t destroyed by the Colonists has survived earthquake after earthquake while modern structures have crumbled.
Thank you, Peru!