The Cultural Air Up There

Construction begins on massive Machu Picchu airport despite protests

The stepped citadel of Machu Picchu is nestled among the Peruvian mountaintops. (Jeremiah Berman/Unsplash)

Ground has been broken on a $5 billion airport meant to connect Peru’s mountainous Machu Picchu more easily with the outside world, but conservationists are up in arms over the impact the facility will have on the fragile world heritage site.

Machu Picchu is one of the most famous Incan archeological sites in the world but is currently strained past capacity with tourists. According to The Guardian, 1.5 million visited the fortress in 2017, twice the amount recommended by UNESCO.

Currently, the site is only accessible through a single runway airport in the nearby city of Cusco, and to ameliorate crowding and provide easier access to the fragile mountaintop, land is already being cleared at the town of Chinchero—between Machu Picchu and Cusco—for a major international airport that would receive direct flights. Machu Picchu sits in the 37-mile-long Sacred Valley, once the heart of the ancient Incan empire, and activists are worried that the airport (and increased tourism) would despoil the miles of paths, terraces, and other vulnerable sites in the valley.

Opponents of the airport claim that the environmental ramifications would be huge, and that runoff from the construction would pollute the nearby Lake Piuray, which provides nearly half of Cusco’s water supply. Additionally, the low-flying planes and influx of tourists may damage the sensitive archeological campus.

Peruvian art historian Natalia Majluf has started a petition in opposition to the airport, that at the time of writing, has 48,000 signatures. In it, Majluf cites the potential damage to the area’s canals, ritual lines, and agricultural heritage, which is a direct continuation of the Incan traditions and knowledge that originated in the valley. Majluf is appealing directly to Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra to at least reconsider the airport’s location, but according to The Guardian, the government seems committed to the project.

“This airport will be built as soon as possible because it’s very necessary for the city of Cusco,” Finance Minister Carlos Oliva said last month. “There’s a series of technical studies which support this airport’s construction.”

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