In June, my wife (also named June) and I toured Machu Picchu, the mysterious Incan temple built high in the Andes in Peru. Being one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, I thought I would relate my experience of visiting such a profound and mysterious place from the perspective of a visitor as well as someone who promotes tourism.
My first impression of Machu Picchu was not the temple itself but of the town of Aguas Calientas, (“hot waters” in Spanish), the town that acts as the jumping-off point for Machu Picchu.
One gets to Aguas Calientas, among other ways, by train. Getting to Machu Picchu is another adventure in itself. Being in Aguas Claientas, we had to sample the healing waters of the hot springs for which the town was named. In order to get there, we had to walk past dozens of cheap, unappetizing restaurants, consecutively lined up next to each other, each with its own “hawker” armed with a menu, asking you if you were hungry and trying to muscle you into their shop.
With loud music blaring from many of these establishments, cars and motorcycles speeding and weaving in every direction, it was a noisy mess and seemed almost post-apocalyptic. “Tourism gone bad,” is all I could think. Durango will never become like this. I promise.
To get to Machu Picchu, one must either hike 6 miles up 1,500 vertical feet (3 hours) or take a hair-raising bus ride for 25 minutes up a two-way winding road that is single lane most of the way. Think Red Mountain Pass 25 times worse. In the dark.
People begin lining up for the bus start every morning at 3 a.m. (that’s no typo) and the line stretches for a mile to ultimately get to Machu Picchu by the 7 a.m. opening time. At 5,000 people per day, there are lines for the bus, lines to get in, lines to tour, all roped off and all one way. The tour lines resemble an ant trail. There are no restrooms inside the park. I suppose it’s their way of keeping the tours brief.
Members of the Peru National Parks delegation came to the United States last year, visited Mesa Verde and visited some of us here in Durango to discuss the negative impact tourism has had on their natural resources, coupled with the positive impact it has had on its economy.
I remember being in Aspen last summer for a tourism conference and observing the traffic and parking challenges, coupled with the huge number of upscale, designer shops catering to the elite classes. Where the median price of a single-family home is $1.5 million, and most of the employees get bused in from Carbondale, Aspen is also coping with the downside of its own success. It is no longer the sleepy mountain hamlet made famous by John Denver and Jack Kerouac.
With tourism comprising only 25 percent of our economy, we are a much more balanced city and county than either Machu Picchu or Aspen. Tourism dollars support a richer experience for both locals and visitors. There are few towns our size that include the number of choices we have for food, entertainment or outdoor activity.
It is that rustic, small-town feel that we must preserve that brings those same visitors here year after year. It is a delicate balance that must be safeguarded at all times.
Contact Durango Area Tourism Office Executive Director Frank Lockwood at email@example.com.