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Inca Trail: Environmental Issues

The principle environmental issue facing the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu is the increasingly demanding presence of tourism on the fragile natural environment. Prior to implementation of restrictions on tourism by the Peruvian government in 2001, the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu were getting run-down to a point many feared would soon be beyond repair. The trampling of the shallow dirt, the trail-side deforestation for firewood, human waste and other garbage left on the side of the Inca Trail were major environmental threats facing the famous 'lost city.' It was deteriorating to such a degree that UNESCO repeatedly threatened to add Machu Picchu to the World Heritage in Danger sites.

In 2001 Peru responded by creating a series of restrictions to protect the Inca Trail and began seriously enforcing them in 2003. There is now a limit of about 500 people per day on the trail, including all tourists, guides and porters. This works out to approximately 200 tourists per day. Additionally, all trekkers must be accompanied by a certified guide. The idea is that having guides present with all visitors not only provides employment for many local residents, but also that environmental standards and regulations will be enforced.

All reputable tour agencies promote a 'pack-in, pack-out' policy, meaning that anything taken on the trek will be taken out. Open-fires are prohibited on the trail (deforestation for firewood was out of control), so make sure your company uses gas stoves. Permanent toilets have also been installed to combat the human waste problem.

Before the implementation of the regulations visitors could find bargain-basement tour prices, most often through operators that were skimping on protecting the natural environment that was paying their bills. Prices have increased significantly, but the porters now have a guaranteed daily wage and other standards (maximum carrying weight, sleeping pads, acceptable meals, accident insurance). As the prices have gone up, companies are cutting fewer corners and are able to invest in the preservation and protection of the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. Many of the critical environmental issues the Trail and Machu Picchu were facing--litter, human waste, literal pounding of the trail--have been curbed or eliminated.

So don't sigh and lament about the good ole days when hiking the Inca Trail could be done for under $200. Instead, relish the fact you are contributing to environmentally responsible, sustainable tourism in Peru and helping provide a decent, living wage for those who guide you on your trek.

Recent environmental issues in the area have invovled severe flooding. In January 2010, flooding caused mudslides to wash away and cut off parts of the Inca trail and the trainline leading to Aguas Calientes. As a result, around 2,000 tourists were trapped for up to a week in Aguas Calientes before being resuced by helicopter. Many locals lost their homes and land. Machu Picchu was forced to close for repairs, eventually reopening in April 2010.

19 Apr 2012

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