The pandemic is causing changes in Machu Picchu, some of which may last long after the global outbreak ends.
The 15th century Inca archaeological site has been a flagship of excessive tourism for years. Visitors report that the site’s citadel was destroyed by crowds.
Perhaps the pandemic contributed to this. New rules now regulate how many people can be admitted and what they can do inside, said Jose Miguel Bastante, director of Peru’s Machupicchu Archaeological National Park, in an interview with CNBC.
Like other monuments around the world, Machu Picchu was closed to visitors in March 2020.
Visitors to Machu Picchu must wear masks at all times, including when taking photos.
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It reopened in November, but with new safety protocols like the compulsory wearing of masks, restrictions on group size – no more than nine people, including a guide – and a requirement that groups stay at least 20 meters apart.
Over the past five years, Machu Picchu has received an average of up to 4,800 visitors a day. In principle, everyone who arrived was allowed to enter, according to a report by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee from 2017.
Machu Picchu’s ticketing website sold 3,700 tickets per day, but it did not include the 500 daily visitors who visited the website, according to the report. Additionally, the report states that additional tickets are being sold by tour operators and on the website itself.
We open at six in the morning and there were hundreds and hundreds of people wanting to enter …
Jose M. Bastante
In July 2020, the Peruvian authorities limited the number of visitors to Machu Picchu to 2,244 per day. But even this change did not solve the problem of people who preferred to visit at the same time of day, especially at sunrise.
“Everyone wanted to be the first in Machu Picchu,” he said. “We open at six in the morning and there were hundreds and hundreds of people wanting to enter, with queues that will be two hours.”
It was like thinking that “the sun will come up super early and light up Machu Picchu like in a movie,” he said, adding that the best time to visit is actually the afternoon after the morning mist clears .
The park is still open 365 days a year from 6 a.m. to 5.30 p.m., but tickets are now being sold for certain times of the day.
Matthew Williams-Ellis | Universal picture group | Getty Images
Before the website reopened, the way tickets were issued changed. In the past, tickets were issued for half-day blocks – either in the morning or in the afternoon. Now visitors buy tickets for certain hours.
“If you have a 10am ticket, you have to enter between 10am and 11am,” Bastante said, adding that if travelers arrive outside of their time frame, they “cannot enter”.
The new rules have sparked emotional reactions from tourists, some of whom may have crossed continents to see Peru’s most famous tourist attraction.
“We had people off the premises complaining and crying,” Bastante said in an interview with the Getty Conservation Institute published in the spring. “But we cannot go against our established capacities.”
Machu Picchu was built to accommodate about 400 residents with about 1,200 additional people during the festivals, according to archaeologist Jose Miguel Bastante.
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Visitors now also spend a little less time on the website. The older half-day rule allowed them to explore the site for four hours, although it was not strictly enforced. Now they are allowed to stay until they have finished their chosen route, which can take anywhere from one to three hours, said Bastante.
The hourly quota system will remain – even after the pandemic subsides – because it has made crowd management more efficient, Bastante said.
“No more last-minute destination”
Planning a trip to Machu Picchu has also changed. Visitors can no longer expect to buy tickets on site or even a few days in advance as they sell out quickly.
Bastante recommends booking tickets a month or two in advance. He also suggests booking tickets before booking flights and hotels, adding that Machu Picchu “is no longer a last-minute destination”.
“There were people who came to Cusco and then they realized that … there are no tickets to Machu Picchu,” he said, referring to the Peruvian city about 80 kilometers from the site.
The authorities launched a new ticketing website in 2018. On it, travelers can see how many free slots are available for each hour. Most of the dates in the next two months are already fully booked, but tickets were more readily available after that.
Less trekkers on the Inca Trail
Authorities have also restricted the number of trekkers on the Inca Trail. The four-day trek from Cusco to the entrance of Machu Picchu is a popular way to get to the site, although most visitors travel by rail in a 3.5-hour train ride.
The Inca Trail can now only accommodate half of its previous limit, or about 250 hikers a day, said Fernando Rodriguez, operations manager of Intrepid Travel in Peru.
Like visitors to Machu Picchu, the number of hikers on the Inca Trail has also been restricted.
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Once the porters are captured, there will be 100-110 permits per day left for visitors, he said.
“We recommend that travelers book at least a few months in advance,” he said, “or longer if possible.”
The Inca Trail is subject to similar Covid-19 restrictions as Machu Picchu – group sizes of eight plus a guide, wearing a mask if social distancing is not an option – even when hiking and camping, Rodriguez said.
In 2019, four circuits or fixed routes were set up in the citadel to ensure better control of the crowd and better location management. Previously, these routes were only recommended, and people could go back and explore more than one. Well, none of that is allowed.
There are four walking tours or routes in the Citadel, the most depicted in photos of Machu Picchu.
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The racetracks disperse the crowds and keep people moving, Bastante explained. The given paths mean that tourists cannot explore the entire site in one visit.
Bastante recommends doing an upper loop on the first day, staying overnight in Cusco, and returning the next day to visit one of the lower routes.
More tourists in the future?
Despite the new rules that limit the number of tourists, the site authorities plan to increase the capacity for Machu Picchu in the future.
A new visitor center, due to begin construction later this year, could allow around 6,000 daily visitors to tour Machu Picchu, Bastante said.
Machu Picchu is one of only eight mixed UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Latin America and the Caribbean, which means it has both cultural and natural significance.
Ernesto Benavides | AFP | Getty Images
The visitor center will be the starting point for new routes and will house a new museum and botanical garden, which Bastante said will more than double the current capacity of the site.
The center will have information on how visitors “should behave in a sacred space,” he said.
“Tourists … don’t understand that this was a sacred place for the Incas and the Peruvians,” he said. “You should behave exactly as you would in any sacred place of any other religion in the world.”