As the sun rises over the ruins of Machu Picchu, the "Lost City of the Incas," the first backpackers emerge from the dense brush, exhausted from their four-day trek.
"I saw it in a movie and said, 'I have to be here one day,' " says Sean Harrison from San Diego, Calif. "Walking in, I was blown away. Nothing could have prepared me."
Mr. Harrison is just one of what could be as many as 2,500 visitors today to these 500-year-old ruins nestled in Peru's snow-capped Andean mountains, high above the swirling rapids of the Urubamba River. Machu Picchu - 32,000 acres of houses, temples, staircases, and agricultural terraces built using the most advanced construction skills of the time - is the most visited archaeological site in South America. It generates $40 million each year for Peru's economy.
But like popular destinations from the Great Wall of China to the Taj Mahal in India, Machu Picchu's tourist influx is a two-edged sword. With the hordes of visitors come thousands of pounding feet eroding the pathways, seated bottoms weighing down the walls, and sweaty palms leaving eroding salt deposits on the stone structures. Buses bringing in holidaymakers spew exhaust into the air, polluting the ecosystem. Some travelers even use the ruins along the Inca Trail as bathrooms. The problems are so severe that the United Nations is threatening to place this World Heritage Site on its "at-risk" register this year.
The preservation of Machu Picchu "is endangered as more and more people visit the site each year," says Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund (WMF), a conservation group based in New York that added Machu Picchu to its watch list of the 100 most-endangered sites in 2000. "There are major issues that must be dealt with now: how to deliver a sustainable number of tourists without causing damage to the site and disrupting its serenity."
Twenty-seven miles from the ruins, at the beginning of the Inca Trail, porters rush to fill their stomachs with the local watery soup. Porter William Quillahuaman has worked on the trek for more than 10 years, carrying provisions for foreign hikers. Mr. Quillahuaman says the porters are careful not to damage the area as they make the journey.
They are limited to carrying just 55 lbs. of supplies, and he says that they take all their rubbish with them.
But Leo Cusi Loasiza, a local guide, says porters are part of the problem. Because of the weight limit, Mr. Loasiza says that companies simply employ more porters. "All of us workers who enter - guides, cooks, porters, co- owners - we are not well prepared to work in a protected area. Of the 500 people allowed to enter [via the Inca Trail], about 70 percent are workers and 30 percent are tourists," he says. "So the question is, who's damaging the trek more: the tourists or the porters?"
It's a question that UNESCO - the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization - is trying to answer. For two years, UNESCO has warned that Machu Picchu can't cope with such a high level of traffic. It recommends that the number of visitors to the site be halved; that Peru investigates alternative transport up to the site and how to prepare for and prevent natural disasters in the area; and requests that the government work with international lending institutions to establish an integrated scientific, technical, and financial program for conservation. While the "at-risk" designation would carry no legal weight, it would be an embarrassment to the Peruvian government.
In response, the government is proposing a $130 million "master plan" designed to halt and reverse the damage. It is in consultation with UNESCO, which will decide next month if the plan addresses its concerns. But Vladimir Ramírez of Peru's Institute for Natural Resources stresses one point: "There will be no risk to tourism," he says.
Local officials are angry that they weren't consulted for the master plan. Oscar Valiencia, mayor of the pretty town of Machu Picchu, the last stop-off point before the ruins, traveled all the way to the capital, Lima, to voice his feelings.
"We are the richest and the poorest town," says Mr. Valencia, whose town receives just $8,000 a month from the government. Valencia says that is not enough for an area prone to natural disasters. In 2001, Japanese scientists concluded that the area is in danger of an imminent landslide. Valencia wants money for a land-monitoring system. "The world speaks grandly about Machu Picchu, but what do they invest?" he asks.
For now, hundreds of thousands of travelers continue to wander around Machu Picchu each day, with the same awe that American explorer Hiram Bingham probably felt when discovering the Incan site in 1911. While their money is a lifeline to this developing country, their pounding feet could be hastening the ancient city's demise.