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Machu Picchu Ruminations from the Sacred Valley

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The majority of businesses in Ollantaytambo were closed for a few days, about a month ago. They tried to shut down the entire town, but some tourists remained behind and some businesses opted to serve them. It didn’t surprise me or disappoint me, because neither party did anything wrong. But I was really looking forward to watching this whole town band together in protest of something that none of them want to happen: the privatization of Machu Picchu. Well, even more than it already is, what with the trains and all that.

The town of Aguas Calientes, where you will stay if you’re headed to Machu Picchu.

Privatizing Machu Picchu?

They’re calling these protests individually El Paro, this one being El Paro de Ollanta, and on December 2nd there will be one in Cusco. Technically privatization would no longer be possible. But Peruvians want to make it very clear that it will never again be made even a remote possibility. There was a big gathering in the main plaza during the first afternoon, but during the second afternoon everything got bigger, and the people marched all over town, making their stance very clear and keeping all the businesses as closed as possible. Some people even went around to the hostels to try to throw out any remaining guests.

This was all I could see from my hideout in the store on the second day; they were very unhappy.

Though the law would technically not applied to the grandest of the archaeological sites, Peruvians saw the law for the foot-in-the-door policy that governments are famous for. So they immediately balked and hit back. Their livelihoods and legacies depended upon it, because they largely depend upon one site in particular.

Machu Picchu is Latin America’s biggest tourist attraction, and it is beautiful.

An estimated one million people visit it each year, and those stomping feet show in the constant restoration all over the park. It’s still grand and impressive, but it’s very touristy and staged, in the opinion of the friends I went with. The train there and back costs over $100 roundtrip + a $45 entrance fee, if you can even get the government’s site to work. Otherwise you’re looking at $65+ through a third party site. This revenue from tourists largely leaves Peru, due to non-Peruvian ownership of companies, though many enterprising Peruvians have come up with less-expensive methods of travel for backpackers.

Archaeological parks like this one in Ollantaytambo are in danger.

Archaeological parks like this one in Ollantaytambo are in danger.

Tourists Traveling to Machu Picchu

As a non-Peruvian who works in a town which is a common stopover on the way to Machu Picchu, occasionally people still try to give me the 5-10 times higher “tourist price.” This is instead of the local Peruvian price, or at least a low price, as I would receive if there weren’t so many people willing to pay more, jacking up the prices as a result. This willingness to spend a good chunk of their savings for the opportunity to go on vacation and see MP, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, leads Peruvians to think that everyone who goes there is rich.

They assume by proxy that every American is rich (because compared to most Peruvians we are), and as a result the difference in price for the things we willingly accept is astounding— my s/.6 meal versus the usual s/.30 tourist meal in Ollantaytambo. These richer-than-thou people are those with whom the Peruvians in my village and in Aguascalientes have constant contact. They then think that this is how everyone is, so they try to get as much money out of us as possible— because really, what else are we bringing to the table? We don’t really interact with them, tell them stories and joke with them like friends would. The majority of the people I meet traveling in Cusco can’t even speak any Spanish, and seem more interested in being able to say that they went, they saw & they conquered than actually seeing something astounding.

The site itself.

The sacred site itself.

What’s the Problem?

The problems here seem to arise largely as a result of clashing expectations: tourists tend to expect things to be very cheap compared to their home country, and the people catering to the tourists expect that they will be willing to pay exorbitant prices for good food & spoon-fed “culture.” And many people do pay an arm and a leg for this kind of experience, creating a reputation for all future visitors which both precedes them and is unbeknownst to them. Local prices can be anywhere from three to ten times cheaper than the visitors’.

But high prices may still seem inexpensive to some people, meaning that they’re willing to pay those prices. Unless you have an “in” somehow, you will be on the losing end of that dichotomy, a fact which frustrates me to no end on a daily basis. I’m lucky to be here, and grateful to live in such a beautiful country, but my internship isn’t exactly raking in the big bucks.

The allure of Machu Picchu is simply a conduit for such behavior to continue, and although it is a beautiful sight to behold, be aware of your impact upon the local community, as well as their impact upon you. Don’t get jaded just because people try to sell you some things at a bad price; try to understand both sides, and don’t add to the problem by always undercutting prices or always accepting things at the initial price. There is a middle ground, and it would behoove everyone to at least look for it.

This probably sums up MP more than anything.

This probably sums up MP more than anything.

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