In the decades since American historian Hiram Bingham first stumbled upon the Lost City of the Incas in 1911, Machu Picchu has become the most popular archaeological site in South America. It also remains, against all odds, one of the world's premier adventure-travel destinations. If you're not averse to some hard trekking, you turn your nose up at the bus from Aguas Calientes and hike the 25-mile Inca Trail across three passes higher than 12,000 feet, arriving on day four at the 8,202-foot site. Despite a daily influx of some 1,000 tourists, the ruins retain a haunting and powerful sense of spiritual isolation that can instantly transport footweary pilgrims into the distant past. But an incongruous intrusion of modern transportation may soon transform the place: Sometime early this year, a Peruvian company hopes to build a visually intrusive cable car that will zip sightseers up the mountain and directly into the citadel.
The scheme was kicked off in November 1998, when the Peruvian government auctioned off the rights to build the $10 million system to a subsidiary of Peru Hotels Inc., which already controls most tourist concessions around Machu Picchu.Advocates of the plan—who are eager to see tourism assume a greater status within Peru's economy—say the project would enhance convenience and revenue by whisking more visitors to Machu Picchu in less time. But archaeologists, academics, and concerned citizens argue that it would violate the city's status as a UN World Heritage site because construction could destabilize the ruins, which are perched on fault-ridden, landslide-prone slopes. "This cable car would be a crime," says David Ugarte, a director of the National Foundation for the Defense of the Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary. "It's the cultural equivalent of driving stakes into the Wailing Wall."
For now, one of the opponents' best hopes of stopping the scheme lies with UNESCO, which is considering a resolution opposing the project. "We are very worried," says Hernan Crespo, the Ecuadoran subdirector of UNESCO's Natural and Cultural World Heritage Committee. "Machu Picchu was loaned to us by history so that we can preserve it and pass it on to future generations. We cannot allow tourism to threaten it."