Friday, January 29, 2010

MACHU PICCHU PUEBLO, Peru | The last young backpackers flew away from Machu Picchu as clouds closed in again Friday, leaving Peru to grapple with flood damage that will close its top tourist site for weeks, or even months.

Torrential rains caused mudslides and swelled the Urubamba River on Sunday, stripping away long sections of the railway that is the only transportation in and out of the area around the Inca citadel. The road to the ruins from this village at the end of the train line also washed away.

Thousands of tourists were stranded, hotels overflowed and travelers grew frustrated as weather hampered evacuation helicopters, shopkeepers jumped prices and food and water ran short. Many visitors had to eat from communal pots and bed down in train cars, outdoors or wherever they could find space.

After a helicopter flew out the final group at 5:15 p.m., the streets of this village of 4,000 people were empty and forlorn. Gone were football games, and restaurant owners were turning down stragglers who sought to buy food.

Most villagers were packing up to head back to the nearby city of Cuzco, faced with a shutdown of Machu Picchu that some Peruvian officials said could stretch to two months — a big blow for a local economy dependent on tourism.

“There are no travelers here now and we have nothing to do. Everyone is leaving because there’s no work. Without tourism there’s no reason to be here,” said Jadira Mendez, 29, a maid who had just been laid off at the Pirwa Hostel.

She plans to look for work in Cuzco — the ancient capital of the Inca empire — once helicopters return to ferry out village residents who want to leave.

Cuzco Gov. Hugo Gonzales told The Associated Press that floods and mudslides destroyed 4,689 houses and 39,909 acres of crops and damaged nine bridges in the region.

The roiling Urubamba River, which runs through a narrow gorge past Machu Picchu Pueblo, flowed at its highest rate ever registered — 1,100 cubic meters (30,000 cubic feet) a second, compared to the previous high of 850 cubic meters (23,000 cubic feet) a second, according to rail operator Perurail.

Before the full extent of damage had become clear, Perurail had said only that slides covered the tracks with mud and rock Sunday and train service could resume by Tuesday. The company soon discovered the river stripped away entire sections of rail and the shore below it.

Perurail said in a statement late Thursday that it will take at least eight weeks to complete repairs. The company did not estimate the cost.

Juan Garcia, director of the regional National Culture Institute, which administers the Machu Picchu park, told the AP that the site will stay closed until train service resumes. But he added that officials will consider opening the park to travelers who hike in after the first rail section is repaired in three weeks.

Garcia said the citadel itself was not damaged by rains.

Tourism Minister Martin Perez told the AP that officials had not yet calculated potential losses from the shutdown of the park. In 2008, the most recent year for which figures are available, 858,211 tourists visited the citadel, where foreigners pay $43 just to enter.

Hundreds of hotel reservations have been canceled, according to Peru’s National Chamber of Tourism, costing the country some $500,000 a day.

“It’s going to be rough, because our hotel targets high-end tourists, not backpackers,” said Gustavo De Leon, manager of Machu Picchu’s Sanctuary Lodge. Visitors who ride the swank Hiram Bingham train all the way to Machu Picchu Pueblo from Cuzco pay $965 a night at the lodge for a room with a view of the citadel.

Authorities were also forced to close the Inca trail, a popular four-day hiking route that ends in Machu Picchu, a week early after mudslides killed two people Tuesday. The trail is closed in February each year for maintenance during the rainy season.

Bad weather held down rescue flights the first several days, leaving hordes of tourists crowded in the village. But skies cleared Thursday and helicopters began whisking away the stranded travelers in a steady stream, taking the oldest and youngest first.

On Friday, backpackers and other tourists lined up outside the train station before 7 a.m. to board helicopters that descended like clockwork from a clear, sunny sky all morning.

By late afternoon, choppers were racing against darkening skies to complete the task, taking the last foreigner out at 5:15 p.m., said police Col. Santiago Vizcarra, who coordinated the evacuation. Peru flew out 1,460 foreign tourists Friday, bringing the total for the week to 4,005 foreigners and Peruvians.

Sofie Mag, a 19-year-old from Frederiksberg, Denmark, was one of 200 people who hiked down to the village Friday from the Sanctuary Lodge, next to the ruins and a 45-minute bus ride until the road was washed out.

She said a manager had let her and other tourists sleep on the floor of the lodge’s restaurant.

“It was free and we got food also,” Mag said. “We were very lucky to be up there.”


Associated Press writer Martin Mejia reported this story from Machu Picchu Pueblo and Andrew Whalen from Lima.

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