Updated: Dec 28, 2020
The so-called Lost City of the Inca’s, Machu Picchu (MP) is so indisputably Peru’s most iconic attraction that suggesting anything to the contrary is simply argumentative. I have actually sat in meetings discussing tourism legislation (which remarkably, does not really exist in Cusco) where ‘de-Machu Picchuisation’ was actually discussed as a way of furthering tourism in the region. Of course, the discussion was really about integrating tourism services, developing new products and proper a regional brand, however removing Machu Picchu as Peru’s icon will be about as successful as re-branding France without Paris.
My friend, David Quispe, the Quechua-speaking mayor of Ccorca (near Cusco) standing at 4300 meters, on Mama Simona – a mountain visable from Cusco!
MP is economically extremely important and draws around 4 million tourists to Peru each year. And it is worth the effort. The archaeological site is at least as impressive as the ubiquitous photos we have all seen and the lush, mountainous setting is spectacular. The humid, high jungle is often cloudy, but that just adds to the mystic feel of the place – certainly more than the new-age types sitting around meditating! For those who walk the famous
The humid, high jungle is often cloudy, but that just adds to the mystic feel of the place – certainly more than the new-age types sitting around meditating! For those who walk the famous Inca Trail the site’s lower elevation offers a much-appreciated oxygen boost for the weary trekker.
MP may be the number 1 bucket-list destination in this bucket-list generation and some visitors travel to Peru for as little as four days – Lima-Cusco-MP-home. In fact over 50% of visitors to the Cusco region come on pre-packaged tours, making the MP circuit one of the most formal tourism markets in the world (meaning visitation is managed and predictable).
MP is so integrated into our collective imagination that I hope everyone has the opportunity to visit one day. Despite the rip-off town of Aguas Calientes down in the valley (by the way, when restaurants put ‘tax’ on your bill, it doesn’t actually exist – this is stealing), the sanctuary is well maintained and managed. I also want to resist ranting about the hassle of securing tickets to MP and the overpriced (but good) Peru Rail train ‘service’. Even surviving the mismanagement and shamefully inflated prices of Lima’s airport – probably the single most significant beneficiary of MP’s renown – can be tolerated and even preferred over the 20-hour bus ride up into the highlands. (WIFI in Lima’s airport is only available in a couple of cafes and prices triple in the international departures area – so eat before going through security).
On top of Huayna Picchu, looking back to Machu Picchu
My first visit to Cusco and MP was over 15 years ago and since then I have become almost compulsive about finding ancient and still-used mountain terraces and trails.
Upon arriving in Peru for my 2013-2014 contract, I was given some excellent advice; “Be careful not to call historic or archaeological sites ruins.” This made some sense to me as the Inca’s are still the absolute majority in the Andes, but upon further
This made some sense to me as the Inca’s (Quechua people) are still the absolute majority in the Andes, but upon further reflection, it is because the lush and diverse land remains remarkably productive. Cultivation continues to use the terracing established long, long before Europeans arrived. Some sites, such as Machu Picchu may be abandoned, but the Andean people live in and around so many dramatic archaeological sites that suggesting ruination of their existence is simply false.
Travelling throughout the southern highlands of Peru and Bolivia, the mountains are terraced to preserve soil and manage water. With distinct wet and dry seasons (although now changing) pre-Incan peoples learned to manage water so successfully as to make the Dutch jealous. As a walking – or running – society, trails of the Inca sort, connected huge distances across mountainous terrain. All roads lead to Cusco!
The famous four-day trek to MP is impressive, but that was simply a side road to an exclusive settlement. The real Inca Trails went out in all directions and one struggles to understand how the modern Peruvian road system can so entirely fail the needs of a people who built roads for two millennia!
Mountain terracing near Pisac in The Sacred Valley
During my all too limited travels through the region, I gaze in awe at paths and roads winding their way up, down and through impossible valleys. In many remote regions, people still walk to market. Even at the highest of elevations there is cultivation, and grazing.
Playing with statistics and factoring out child mortality, highland life expectancy rivals that of the richer world and I dare say quality of life may even be higher. Even within the boundaries of Cusco province are communities of Quechua-speaking people, who walk to market and are reestablishing high-altitude cultivation on terraces established hundreds of years ago. Less than ten kilometres from the centre of Cusco you can actually walk on the real
Less than ten kilometres from the centre of Cusco you can actually walk on the real Inca Trail, a sort of pre-Colombian Pan-American Highway that connected Cusco to the coast. Although magnificent, almost no foreign tourists have walked on this trail – I feel deeply honoured to have walked on these roads.
The municipality of Ccorca – a valley consisting of 5300 people spread between seven small communities – is living proof Inca (Quechua) culture is alive and well. And I want you to visit the area, spend money, enjoy the sites and learn Quechua! BUT, the road is terrible with no signs, there are no services and the route takes visitors past (and through) Cusco´s particularly unmanaged and disgusting garbage tip.
With great pleasure, I had the opportunity to offer a little consulting to the mayor and municipal government of Ccorca, particularly with regard to tourism development. At every turn I encountered incredible views, progressive land management and delicious guinea pigs (cuy). In fact, my experience in Ccorca led to my article and continued research about Quechua women and pre-Hispanic gender relations. In fact, since beginning to explore gender issues, I have learned of the continued practice of servanacuy – a trial period for a new couple to live together to see if it works out. Take that Catholic gender morality!
The little information available about the municipality paints a dire picture of poverty and misery, but that is not what I experienced in Ccorca. Ccorca is poor, but much of Peru is poor. These are Quechua people, living Quechua lives in a beautiful environment. They use the terraces of their forbearers and respect the memories of their history, without thinking of their world as ruined. With some more planning and a little effective government (something I discovered in Ccorca, but less-so in Cusco) you may soon be able to add a day in Ccorca before heading off to MP …
… but for now I will tempt you with a few photos…
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