Machu Picchu update

South America's most popular attraction -- the 15th-century Incan site known as Machu Picchu -- was hit by a mudslide in January that killed several tourists (updated from 'a few' thanks to comments; official statistics are hard to come by), stranded hundreds of others, destroyed the homes of many more locals, and caused some US$185 million in damages in the region.

Machu Picchu reopened to visitors a month ago -- after washed-away roads and some of the train tracks were fixed -- with actress Susan Sarandon presiding over the ceremonies, a plan to help attract more attention (local columnist Juan Paredes Castro  joked 'how many Susan Sarandons do we need?').

One local guide based in Cuzco Leo Garcia told me by email that it's the worst disaster he's seen in the decade he's worked there. But that 'every day more visitors are coming.' The trains have started to work again in some parts, but not completely. 'The workers on the tracks told me they think they'll finish their work in July or maybe sooner,' he said. 'We hope sooner.' Of course, for some, getting there by foot on the Inca Trail is the real attraction.

The nation has certainly put a lot of effort into re-opening its top drawing card, with a 'Cusco Pone' campaign including hotel/air discounts geared to domestic tourists.

That effort is good, yet problematic. Tourism numbers of the site have always caused some environmentalists to worry. The annual visitor numbers tripled from 1980 to 2000, then doubled again in the years since -- with nearly one million visitors coming a year. In 2009, the site was included on the World Monuments Fund's top 100 most endangered sites.

But, one positive of Machu Picchu's temporary closure is how many visitors are starting to look at alternative sites in Peru. And there are many.

Delphine Chomiol, of Chaskiventura tours in Cuzco, told me that tourism is 'pretty close to normal' but that interest in 'alternative treks' other than Machu Picchu is up this year. Choquequirau, a jungle-covered ruin some call the 'mini-Machu Picchu,' is reached by a tough four-day hike.

Another great one is Kuélap in northern Peru, an off-the-radar stone-fortified city atop a craggy limestone reached in a two- or three-hour trek.


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