By Dan Collyns
Among the Inca archeological sites that abound in Peru, none draw nearly as many tourists as the famed citadel of Machu Picchu. There were more than 1.5 million visitors in 2017, almost double the limit recommended by Unesco, putting a huge strain on the fragile ruins and local ecology.
Now, in a move that has drawn a mixture of horror and outrage from archaeologists, historians and locals, work has begun on clearing ground for a multibillion-dollar international airport, intended to jet tourists much closer to Machu Picchu.
Bulldozers are already scraping clear millions of tonnes of earth in Chinchero, a picturesque Inca town about 3,800 metres above sea level that is the gateway to the Sacred Valley. This area was once was the heartland of a civilization that stretched from modern-day Colombia to Argentina, and in the 15th century was the world’s largest empire.
“This is a built landscape; there are terraces and routes which were designed by the Incas,” says Natalia Majluf, a Peruvian art historian at Cambridge University who has organized a petition against the new airport. “Putting an airport here would destroy it.”
At present most visitors to the valley come through Cusco airport, which has only one short runway and is limited to taking narrow-bodied aircraft on stopover flights from Peru’s capital, Lima, and nearby cities such as La Paz, Bolivia.
But the new airport, which construction companies from South Korea and Canada are queueing up to bid on, would allow direct flights from major cities across Latin America and the U.S.
Critics say planes would pass low over nearby Ollantaytambo and its 134 sq. mile (348 sq km) archeological park, causing potentially incalculable damages to the Inca ruins. Others worry that construction would deplete the watershed of Lake Piuray, which Cusco city relies on for almost half its water supply.
“It seems ironic and in a way contradictory that here, just 20 minutes from the Sacred Valley, the nucleus of the Inca culture, they want to build an airport – right on top of exactly what the tourists have come here to see,” said the Cusco-based anthropologist Pablo Del Valle.The petition asks the Peruvian president, Martín Vizcarra, to reconsider or relocate the airport from Chinchero. “I don’t think there’s any significant archeologist or historian working in the Cusco area who hasn’t signed the petition,” says Majluf.
Chinchero was built six centuries ago as a royal estate for the Inca ruler Túpac Inca Yupanqui, and is incredibly well-preserved. The local economy is based on farming and tourism, but even those who rely on visitors are wary of the plans.