Thu, Dec 28, 2006 - Page 6 News List

New crossing stokes Machu Picchu fears

A BRIDGE TOO FAR Ignoring concerns from the Peruvian government and the UN that there are already too many visitors, a local mayor has built a new 80m crossing

THE GUARDIAN , CUSCO, PERU

A Peruvian mayor has built a bridge leading to Machu Picchu, Peru's Inca citadel, despite warnings it will wreck the archaeological gem and open a route for drug smugglers. The 80m long bridge over the Vilcanota river is due to open this week in defiance of a court order and protests from the government, which fears hordes of backpackers will swamp the site.

The UN conservation agency UNESCO is due next February to inspect the mountaintop ruins, a world heritage site deep in the Andean jungle, amid concern that there are already too many visitors. But Fedia Castro, mayor of Convencion province, said the bridge would bring to an end her community's isolation and give tourists a cheaper option than a train which, until now, had a monopoly on transport through the Sacred Valley.

"It's almost ready, so they can't stop it," she said.

Locals have welcomed the bridge for opening their remote province to commerce and tourism. Instead of a treacherous 15-hour drive over mountain passes farmers can truck coffee and fruit to Cusco in just three hours.

The bridge, 20km from Machu Picchu at the town of Santa Theresa, replaces one washed away in a 1998 flood but which the government refused to rebuild.

"We begged and shouted but they ignored us," said Castro.

The municipal and provincial authorities of Convencion started building last January, using US$1.115 million of public funds. The final touches are being put in place.

The National Institute of Natural Resources filed a criminal complaint against Castro last month after she ignored a court injunction demanding a halt to construction. Deputy tourism minister Alfonso Salcedo called the mayor reckless.

"This we will not allow," he said.

Officials also expressed alarm that Convencion, which is under a state of emergency because of its coca production, could smuggle cocaine in the fruit and coffee trucks crossing the bridge. Peru is the world's second largest cocaine producer after Colombia.

The tourism ministry did not reply to queries last week about what, if anything, would be done to stop the bridge.

Since Peru's guerrilla war ended in the 1990s the number of visitors to Machu Picchu, 500km south of Lima, has soared to more than 4,000 tramping around the stone citadel daily.

Conservationists warned that the ruins were under stress and that wildlife along the Inca trail was disappearing, prompting the government to limit the number of visitors to 2,500 daily. UNESCO is reportedly considering naming it an endangered heritage site.

Castro said other Inca sites nearby could draw many of the tourists and relieve pressure on Machu Picchu, a secret city missed by the conquistadors and unknown to the outside world until an explorer stumbled across it in 1911.

Conservation concern, she said, was a red herring to protect the monopoly of PeruRail, part of Orient Express Hotels, which has operated the line since 1999. Every day hundreds of foreigners pay from US$65 to US$450, depending on how much luxury they want, for a return trip. With the bridge backpackers can take a US$4.50 bus ride to the foot of the site.

Castro lost her post in elections last month. The new mayor has also supported the bridge.

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