On Thursday 28 September 2023, Peru’s Culture Ministry announced that it will limit tourist access to Machu Picchu after measuring an alarming increase in erosion caused by high footfall in recent years. Although Machu Picchu provides a large portion of tourism income in Peru, its preservation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important archeological sites on Earth is the country’s top priority. While this decision is completely understood and supported by all, it has left people questioning what it means for the future of Machu Picchu as a heritage site and a travel destination.
As a company that has been providing luxury trips to Peru and Machu Picchu for more than a decade, Totally Latin America has on-the-ground specialist insight into the recent news and how it might affect tourism. In this article, we will share our insights into the updated Machu Picchu tourism measures to answer your questions and ease your concerns.
Why is it important to limit Machu Picchu access in 2023?
Between 1438 and 1472, Machu Picchu was constructed with painstaking precision for the Inca emperor Pachacuti. At the time, the Inca Empire was South America’s largest and most powerful empire. The Incas had rich cultural, spiritual, and social practices that were unusually more akin to ancient civilizations than a then-modern society. Their beliefs that man, nature, and the cosmos were divinely intertwined dictated everything about their way of life, from astrological lineages in their architecture to ritualistic human sacrifices.
Although Cusco was the capital and economic center of the Inca Empire, Machu Picchu was their Mecca. The Incas mysteriously fled Machu Picchu just 100 years after it was built and the empire fell to Colonial Spain shortly after. Now, all that remains of this fascinating indigenous empire are the buildings they left behind. As the former citadel of Emperor Pachacuty, Machu Picchu is the most historically and culturally significant Inca site of them all. If Peru loses Machu Picchu, an integral part of their indigenous heritage will be completely erased.
How is Machu Picchu eroding?
Although the weather factors into Machu Picchu’s erosion, the majority is caused by tourism. It’s thought that the citadel would have housed around 750 people when it was built during the Inca Empire and now, it has been receiving almost 4,000 visitors per day for the past few decades. Although the citadel was constructed with granite found in the local mountain ridge and it is one of the most dense and durable materials used in construction, it’s not durable enough to withstand constant heavy footfall over such a long period.
By restricting access to the citadel, its continued erosion will be drastically minimized. If it weren’t, defining features including the Temple of the Condor’s head and neck would become reduced until they were almost unrecognizable. As a result, its structures would lose their symbolic and spiritual significance as well as their structural integrity.
What does limited tourist access to Machu Picchu mean?
The Culture Ministry’s announcement to limit tourist access to Machu Picchu sounds like a drastic change that will make it harder for tourists to visit Machu Picchu. However, this is not the case at all. The ministry is simply restricting access to some parts of the citadel that are at risk of being eroded beyond recognition. This is done by roping off the structures so that visitors are not able to touch or step on/in them. It is common practice in historic protected sites like Machu Picchu.
Which areas of Machu Picchu have been restricted?
Access to Machu Picchu has only been partially limited, which means only three areas of the citadel have been closed to the public. The first is the Temple of the Condor, a sacrificial altar and burial site where an Inca mummy was excavated. The second is the Temple of the Sun, the burial site of Emperor Pachacuti and a spiritual space where the Incas would give offerings to their god, the Sun. The ritual stone named Intihuatana is the final area now closed to the public. It features the Inca astronomical calendar and a sundial that allowed the Incas to measure time and predict the solstices.
It was important to close off these three parts of Machu Picchu because they hold such great historical and cultural significance to the Inca Empire and modern-day Peru, especially because they’re the only ones of their kind. Their architecture, design, and undeniable energy cannot be replicated or replaced.
Can I still see the sites that have been restricted?
Yes! Despite parts of Machu Picchu closing, they can still be viewed by visitors. The structures have been roped off to stop visitors from climbing inside, around, and on top of them but they can be approached and admired from a safe distance. Since Machu Picchu is built on a stepped mountainside, these structures can also be seen from various advantageous angles when walking around the citadel.
Just because they have been cordoned off, it doesn’t mean they have been erased from the Machu Picchu experience. During guided tours, the structures will continue to be included in a way that respects the new boundaries. Their history and spiritual significance are too interesting and important to be left out of it, after all!
Will this make it harder to visit Machu Picchu?
There is no need to fear your chances of visiting Machu Picchu becoming slimmer with the new rules in place. Machu Picchu’s partial closure will not affect access to the citadel for current ticket holders or anyone wishing to obtain tickets in the future as there are no changes to how it is operated. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is still admitting the same number of visitors per day between nine available time slots between 6:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.
The aim of closing off some of the site’s structures is to protect Machu Picchu from erosion and damage without creating barriers to tourism. Peru’s Culture Ministry wants everybody to be able to visit Machu Picchu and feel its magic for themselves.
What can I see at Machu Picchu if I visit now?
The Temple of the Condor, the Temple of the Sun, and Intihuatana are just three of many fascinating sights and structures that make up Machu Picchu. While they are now off-limits to visitors, there are still many parts of the citadel waiting to be explored. Between them, you will still get a well-rounded and fulfilling insight into the citadel’s historical and cultural significance.
Here are some of the things you can still expect to see up close in Machu Picchu:
Sun Gate (Inti Punku) – those traveling to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail will enter through the Sun Gate, the fortress’s original entrance point
Temple of the Moon – a sacred temple built within a cave in Machu Picchu featuring a throne (can be closed for maintenance)
Huayna Picchu – climb up the peak that famously towers over Machu Picchu for exceptional views of the citadel
Watchman’s Hut – this hut offers breathtaking views over the citadel without much extra physical exertion
The Royal Tomb – one of Machu Picchu’s most architecturally impressive structures
Sacred Plaza – a hub in the citadel featuring the Temple of Three Windows, the Principle Temple, and the House of the High Priest
Central Plaza – a grassy open space separating the industrial and residential parts of Machu Picchu
The Sacred Rock – a mysterious rock mimicking the shape of Putucusi Mountain which sits directly behind it
Will restricted parts of Machu Picchu reopen in the future?
Officially, access to the Temple of the Moon, the Temple of the Sun, and Intihuatana has been suspended and not permanently closed. This indicates the areas may reopen sometime in the future although there is no information as to when this might happen if at all. Since erosion is hard to manage and impossible to reverse, it’s unlikely visitors will ever get full access to these three Machu Picchu sites again.
Why is it a good thing Machu Picchu has been restricted?
Whilst the news is disappointing for those who have not yet had the pleasure to see the Temple of the Moon, the Temple of the Sun, and Intihuatana up close, it’s important to remember that the preservation of the prodigious Inca Empire’s heritage is at stake. Without it, Machu Picchu would no longer hold significance as the most impressive structure of the Inca Empire. Peru has made the right decision to take greater steps towards preserving Machu Picchu and making tourism to the New Wonder of the World more sustainable.
Find out more about traveling to Machu Picchu
If you’d like to know more about traveling to Machu Picchu with the new restrictions in place, get in touch with TLA here or call toll-free on +1 855 217 9045. We have been organizing world-class trips to Machu Picchu for over a decade which gives us the edge on creating magical Machu Picchu moments. There may now be more restrictions for visitors but the experience is as magical as ever.