The ruins of Machu Picchu are not only an awe-inspiring relic of 15th-century Inca culture, but also one of the biggest tourist attractions in South America.
Perched like a gem in a crown of lush green Andean peaks, the lost city of the Incas, as the ruins are known, is recognized around the world as one of the finest examples of man's work in perfect harmony with its natural setting.
That is why government plans to build a cable car up to this site have unleashed such a lively protest from people in Peru and abroad, who believe the government is putting the growth of tourism above cultural preservation.
The project is designed to perhaps quadruple the numbers of visitors to this surviving monument of pre-Columbian culture. That would reap huge economic benefits for Peru, which took in only $177 million in tourism last year.
But critics of the project voice complaints similar to ones heard at other ruins around the world - from the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt to the temples of Angkor in Cambodia. How should governments balance the temptation of tourist dollars against preserving historic treasures?
The plan calls for a high-tech cable car to whisk tourists in six minutes from the small town of Aguas Calientes to the top of the mountain. Currently, tourists travel from the nearest city with an airport, Cuzco, to Aguas Calientes on a three-hour train, then take a bus - 1,500 vertical feet - for 25 minutes on an unstable dirt road with 14 switchbacks.
The plans also call for an end terminal to be built just a few hundred yards shy of an unexcavated Inca cemetery.
UNESCO sends a team
This controversial project has prompted UNESCO, which has designated the ruins a natural and cultural world heritage site, to send a mission to Peru for a firsthand look into the planned cable-car project.
Beginning yesterday, the mission is visiting Machu Picchu to gather the information needed for UNESCO to render a formal opinion on the cable-car project.
"The Peruvian government has not turned in the appropriate documents telling us what it is they want to do," says Hernan Crespo, the subdirector of UNESCO's Natural and Cultural World Heritage Committee in Paris. "This has us worried because we haven't been informed about it."
The pros ...
Proponents of the cable car say it will carry more tourists up to the ruins in less time and offer them a condor's eye view of the 81,000-acre site perched 8,000 feet in the clouds among Andean peaks covered with green trees and bright, tropical orchids. The ruins were brought to the attention of the world in 1911, when American explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled upon them buried beneath centuries of jungle growth.
Supporters also say that the electric cable car will be a safer and cleaner option than the buses currently used. The buses emit thick clouds of black smoke. Moreover, the dirt road is prone to mudslides in the rainy season.
"The cable car is a way of conserving the sanctuary," says Juan Carlos Cristobal, who heads the project for the company Machu Picchu Cable Car. "It's the opposite of what everyone is saying."
But archaeologists, academics, congress people, and many concerned citizens complain that this modern-day contraption will not only be intrusive, but will threaten the ruins as well.
"The company told us they'd paint the cables and the cars green to blend in with the mountainside," says David Ugarte, a leader of the National Foundation for the Defense of the Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary. "But that's not really the point."
In September, the New York-based World Monument Fund named Machu Picchu as one of the 100 endangered monuments of the world, citing the proposed cable car as one the threats. And a report issued by the International Council on Monuments and Sites said the new plans will increase the number of tourists to the site from 300,000 per year to 1.5 million.
Critics also point out that two faults run through the sanctuary, and that the land in the area is prone to landslides. They say that the project would jeopardize the stability of the ruins.
Opponents of the project also insist that the auction for the rights to construct and operate the cable car was characterized by an air of backroom dealing, little advance notice, and a number of procedural irregularities.
They also complain that the company that won is a subsidiary of another that is taking over the high-end tourist business in and around the ruins. Machu Picchu Cable Car, the only company to bid at last year's auction, won the rights to be sole operator of the cable car for 25 years in exchange for constructing it at an estimated $8 million to $10 million.
But construction has not yet begun. The government hasn't approved the company's environmental and archaeological impact analysis.
"The whole thing was done in reverse," says Oscar Llerena of the Cuzco office of the governmental National Culture Institute. "Before doing any technical assessment or getting approval for the project, it was auctioned off, and someone won."
Mr. Llerena says the government has since received the company's impact analysis but returned it after reading only to the third page. "It was a hack job. It had no weight and no seriousness," he says. "The company has been told to turn in something more complete, serious, and likely to be approved."
But critics are hoping the project will never get that far. Within the next couple of months the UNESCO mission will analyze its findings and submit a report to the world heritage committee, which will render an opinion on the project.
While the committee's opinion is non-binding, the director of the government committee that held the auction for the cable car has said the project won't go ahead without UNESCO approval.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society