Machu Picchu, its past and future: the Peruvian government’s project

The pros and cons of a construction project for a new airport close to the archaeological site

It is the world’s third largest archaeological site after the excavations at Pompei and Ostia Antica. Globally renowned, it was chosen as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Machu Picchu, the famous archaeological site which dominates Peru’s Urubamba valley, never ceases to fascinate the entire world.

There are many factors that excite the curiosity of visitors: its enormous historic value, obviously, but also other aspects, like its stupendous position (Machu Picchu lies at an altitude of 7,970 feet above sea level), the majesty of its ruins and the many secrets that this city may still conceal. Indeed, there are many mysteries surrounding Machu Picchu: lots of unexplored paths branch out from this site at extremely high altitude and lead through dense jungle, perhaps to other potential treasures. For years it was thought that Machu Picchu was the famous “lost city” of the Incas but it is believed that the latter lay in the middle of the forest, fifty miles to the west. It was the special anti-seismic construction method used by the Incas, which allowed the stones to “bounce”, that enabled this site to survive.

These are just some of the many mysteries of Machu Picchu (which literally means “old mountain”) that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to the site every year. In 2003, there were 400,000 visits but five years later that number had risen to a million and a half, much to the alarm of UNESCO. The flow of tourists in recent years has driven the Peruvian government to promote a project for a new airport at Machu Picchu but the initiative has been the source of great controversy.

The current route to Machu Picchu

The Peruvian government’s initiative was no surprise, due to two different factors. Firstly, the flow of tourists is enormous and constantly increasing; secondly, the current route to Machu Picchu is far from easy.

Some might think that the difficulty in reaching the archaeological site is one of its most successful features but that is not the view in Lima. Currently, there are two options for reaching Machu Picchu, neither of which is particularly quick. The Inca city can be reached after a hike of several days or by starting at the city of Cusco – which has an airport – and taking a train from there to a tourist town on the slopes of the mountain. From there the ruins can be reached on foot in little more than an hour, or by bus.

To streamline and speed up this approach route, the Peruvian government decided to build a new airport close to the Inca city, a decision that drove UNESCO to explicitly voice its opposition.

The clash between Peru and UNESCO

The main reason for the confrontation is simple: the government of Lima wants to build the new airport to maintain the current flow of visitors to Machu Picchu and, potentially, to increase it even further.

But UNESCO, which designated Machu Picchu a World Heritage site in 1983, in recent years has repeatedly stated that the quantity of tourists visiting the archaeological site every day is already unsustainable. Specifically, in 2017, the United Nations agency made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the flow of visitors was more than double the recommended limit for the protection of the remains of the Inca city.

Notwithstanding this advice, Peru has not reduced the flow and, on the contrary, has started the planning and construction of the new airport. On the announcement of this structural upgrade of the Machu Picchu area, UNESCO sent Lima a letter of concern about the fate, not only of the archaeological site, but also the surrounding area.

The new airport of Machu Picchu

The new airport of Machu Picchu in Peru is under construction at Chinchero: the completion date is currently set for 2024 (although initially the Peruvian president Martin Vizcarra had indicated 2023 as the year the airport would open). The town where this important new structure will be built lies a few dozen miles from the archaeological site: given the way the area is laid out, it was impossible to find a closer location.

Nevertheless, from the point of view of accessibility, it will be a huge step forward: the airport that is currently the gateway to Machu Picchu is, as mentioned, the one at Cusco, but it only has one runway and is not connected to any road leading to Machu Picchu.

The new airport will be able to accommodate a greater number of aircraft and larger planes from all the major airports in North and South America: from there, tourists will be able to take a bus directly to the ancient Inca city. Among the supporters of Machu Picchu’s new airport are those who argue that this construction is essential to safeguard Cusco, a city with 300,000 inhabitants that can no longer bear the burden of the continuous flow of tourists arriving at the tiny airport to visit the “nearby” archaeological site and then depart.

Chinchero, where Machu Picchu’s new airport will be built

Chinchero, where Machu Picchu’s airport is about to be built, is not a city like the others. This is a typical Andean village that the Incas called “the place where the rainbow is born” and lies right in the middle of an upland plain at an extraordinary altitude: in fact, it is 12,244 feet above sea level, around 1,300 feet higher than Cusco and around 4,200 feet higher than Machu Picchu. Renowned in its turn for its Inca ruins, the little town lies at the start of the Valle Sagrado, the Sacred Valley, and is very popular among visitors thanks to its typical market.