|This article originally appeared in
|Fire, drought damage worse than predicted
|By ERIC J. LYMAN
Special to the Chronicle
|AGUAS CALIENTES, Peru -- The ancient city of Machu Picchu withstood the fall of the Inca Empire, the Spanish conquest that reshaped
the region's culture-- and centuries later -- the onslaught of hundreds of tourists each day.
And at first, it seemed the ruins had escaped severe damage from wildfires worsened by unusual drought conditions brought about by
the El Niño weather phenomenon. Now it seems the damage may have been worse than previously thought.
In September, fires raged in the area surrounding Machu Picchu for six days. The normally humid jungle area that surrounds the ruins
was dry because of the changes El Niño can make in temperature and rain levels. A flame from a nearby hydroelectric plant is believed
to be the source of the fire that threatened the ruins.
"At first, it looked like we stopped the fire soon enough to save the ruins, but now it seems like the damage came closer than we
believed," said Mario Mamani, an archeologist with the University of Cusco.
When the fire started, about 400 tourists who were in the ruins, 1,300 locals and about 100 hikers on the famous Inca trail that ends in
Machu Picchu were evacuated. Nearly a thousand firefighters, military personnel and local volunteers fought ferociously to protect
Machu Picchu itself. Original reports indicated the effort was a success.
Machu Picchu is considered one of the man-made wonders of the world, built in the 1300s, likely as a secret religious center for Inca
kings and priests.
Locals say the site has its own energy field that can cure illnesses. Tens of thousands of travelers from around the world have been
entranced by the breathtaking scenery.
Fine Inca stonework is set against the steep green mountains of the Sacred Valley of the Incas and the white-water rapids of the
The attraction is partly due to its remote location. The site was not visited by Westerners until 1911.
Archeologists now say that the intense heat from the fire has cracked many of the finely-cut stones that make up the base of some of
the more than 300 buildings at the site. Carbon residue from the fire has permanently blackened some low-lying structures.
So much foliage was burned away that the rains triggered unusually severe erosion, making some walkways and buildings unstable.
The well-known lush greenery that had always crept up from the Amazon rain forest to surround the ruins is now stark and black. As a
result, state botanists say they fear that some of the more than 30 plant species that live only in the Machu Picchu area may now be
"It's no exaggeration to say Machu Picchu may never be the same after this," said Alberto Gerrero, an environmental expert with the
Peruvian government, who works in the region. "People who visit the site will now see only a fraction of what they would have seen a
few months ago."
Part of that is because of restricted access to the ruins. The potentially unstable walkways have been closed. The steep trail up to
Huayna Picchu -- the picturesque and unique rise in the background of most pictures of Machu Picchu -- also has been closed.
Because of structural damage, the Huayna Picchu trail is expected to be closed until at least 2001, and maybe much longer.
"As much as we hate to restrict access, we have to do what's best for the ruins and for the tourists," said Javier Quispe, one of the
directors at the site. "That trail is high up, and if it gives way with people on it, they could fall a hundred meters or more. We have to
make sure the area is sound before we open access."
The ruins were closed to tourists for four days while the fire was being controlled. When the site was reopened, more than 3,000
visitors arrived at Machu Pichu, setting a one-day record.
Still, many fear the impact the damage could have on the overall Peruvian tourism industry.
"The number of people here has dropped off some (from last year's levels), and those who come definitely see something less
impressive than they did before," said Judy Ramirez-Torres, who works in a restaurant in Aguas Calientes, a small village in the valley
that most visitors use as a base to explore the ruins. "People seem to spend less time than they did before."
It's unclear if the ruins were made more vulnerable as a result of the development of the area for tourist access. The dam that sparked
the blaze is obviously a symptom of development, but El Niño is an natural phenomenon that dried the area enough that a fire started
by natural means could have had the same effect.
But many observers say man has played a part in the near disaster.
"People definitely played a part in this and not just because of the way the fire started," said Mamani, the archeologist. "We have
diverted water supplies, trimmed back tree lines and paved parts of the jungle. Who can say how that has upset the balance of things?"
But others were more philosophical.
"I see Machu Picchu today as different than it was but not necessarily worse," said Sarah Ferguson, an employee of the U.S. Bureau of
Land Management who was visiting Machu Picchu for the third time. "Fires are part of the evolution of a forest and these, thankfully,
spared most of the ruins. Things could have been much worse."
Eric Lyman is a free-lance journalist based in Lima.
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