Machu Picchu tourism - a warning in 1964 by Mark Howell

Tony Morrison writes [2015] As the daily flow of tourists at this famed Inca site reaches a critical point maybe it is worth reflecting on these comments by Mark Howell. We were following news of a recently discovered 'Lost City' for an Adventure series on BBCTV and it was our third journey to Peru. Mark was writing short features for the Press

On the first visit in 1961 the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu had been quiet and apart from a small group of Spanish mountaineers we were alone. Now in 2015 the place is bursting and a system of morning and afternoon tickets was introduced last November - watch Nonesuch News for changes. Mark died in 2002 and since 1964 the age old and inaccurate name 'Indian' has been replaced by Quechua as the name for the people.

Bristol Evening Post, Thursday, October 29 1964

One of the most questionable maxims I know, is that travel broadens the mind. As well as the disquieting evidence of my own experience, I have been able to observe the attitudes of diverse other wanderers.

From the infinite spectrum of travelling human-kind which divides the explorer from the tourist, about the only generalisation I have been able to draw is that people who travel mostly do so from the haziest of motives.

For example, the English horseman we met in Cuzco who had just ridden two thousand miles across South America through territory justly considered almost impenetrable, seemed slightly alarmed by what he had done, and admitted only to a mild ambition to "write about it sometime."

It is mainly among the more deplorable travellers - and these account for only a small proportion of the tourists one meets - that one encounters drive and initiative of the kind that gets things done.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that the machinery which has been devised, almost everywhere in the world for getting tourists around, seems to have been designed specifically with the deplorable tourist in mind.

And the machinery in Cuzco is no exception. It might even serve as the epitome. But I'll return to that later.

One of the World's most absorbing cities

Cuzco must be one of the most absorbing cities in the world. It is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas. Because the Incas made such an excellent ground plan for it, and also because the walls they built are so incredibly difficult to knock down, the centre of the modern city rests almost exclusively upon Inca foundations and the streets and the alleyways are those they designed.

Sitting in a café, over your lomo montado, you are as likely to be enclosed by Inca masonry as by hardboard or plaster, and not even the super-imposed Coca-Cola signs can detract from its alien formidability. (Its tendency under these conditions to inhibit the appetite can, and must be forgiven).


I need hardly add that whenever there has been an earthquake in Cuzco it has been necessary only to rebuild the upper, modern levels; the lower Inca walls have remain unmoved.

But because it was the Incas capital, Cuzco is now inevitably the tourist centre of Peru. Which is a pity, for the points of view of tourist and Inca are irreconcilable. Whereas the tourist is essentially a hasty individual, the Inca, one conjectures, must have been as solid and painstaking as his walls. He was concerned only with precision, with massive masonic conformity with the rugged Andes which surrounded him

And the tourist skipping across the mountains by air in forty minutes is as likely to be assailed by mental indigestion, as by wonder, at the Stone Empire.


There is a tendency, too, for the Cuzquenos to be interested in their Incaic forbears mainly as a tourist attraction, and the consequence is that Cuzco is curiously patchy;- in appearance Kodachrome adverts and Inca walls; and in spirit - priceless antiquity overlaid by conspicuous opportunism. In the shops one can encounter bored indifference and it is not difficult to find rudeness.

In the streets one is pursued by children's cries of "money! money!", the only English word many of them know; it's all part of the price paid for intensive tourism. Even less appetising is the spectacle of the tourists themselves, in action, but here there often creeps in a compensating element of humour.

Each Sunday morning, very early, the Indian proprietors of the Cuzco market close down their little stalls and adjourn to the village of Pisac in the nearby Urubamba valley. All through the week they have been offering their wares within a hundred yards of the tourist hotel, though largely neglected by the visitors.


Not long after the Indians' departure, the tourists receive their carefully prearranged early calls, gulp hasty breakfasts, and set off for Pisac in hot but unwitting pursuit of them. For the Pisac market, with its Incaic associations, is an event all are adjured not to miss.

Last Sunday, Tony and I joined some Indians, a few pigs, a box of chickens and a harp in the back of a small truck and made our way across to Pisac with the first wave. Pisac is well worth visiting, but only if you have time and energy to spare for its magnificent Inca ruins are perched five hundred feet up the precipitous valley side and can only be reached by an exhausting and rather dangerous path.

In the valley bottom the village square is half occupied by country Indians who come in from remote villages to sell their wares to each other, and half by the contingent that has made the trip from Cuzco. On one side are the lovely, subdued colours of the country Indian homespun and dyed clothes, and on the other, the garish aniline of the Cuzco traders.


Presently the tourists arrived and while Tony was taking pictures I strolled around to see what was on sale. Interestingly, prices were quoted, and accepted, in dollars; I heard no mention of Peruvian soles.

The prices were higher, of course, much higher than in Cuzco. Still, twenty miles, in the Peruvian Andes, is twenty miles; not a journey lightly or cheaply to be undertaken.

I watched for a while a thickset middle-aged American woman in luminous purple jeans and a bilious sweater being charged double the priced I had been asked in Cuzco, for a fine black and red poncho I had much admired there. Then the stout Indian trader attending her, in a dumb show of great power, invited me over her shoulder to make myself scarce.

This, it was no great effort to do. To anyone as reactionary-minded as myself, the hanging ruins, the growing Urubamba, the all-pervading atmosphere of the great Indian civilisation, did not afford a suitable context for Bermuda shorts, even less for the transistor radio whose maniacal bleat eventually inevitably wandered on to the scene.

My feeling, despite a couple of compensating horse-laughs, is that the ghosts of Pisac should do something drastic about it.


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