Hundreds airlifted from Peru site when skies clear
MACHU PICCHU PUEBLO, Peru (AP) – Skies cleared over the fabled Machu Picchu citadel Thursday, speeding the evacuation of stranded tourists, many of whom were left to eat from communal pots and sleep outdoors after weekend flooding and mudslides cut access to the area.
By nightfall, helicopters ferried 1,402 people out of the remote village, the closest to the ancient Inca ruins 8,000 feet up in the Andes mountains. Tourism Minister Martin Perez told Lima’s RPP radio that only 800 tourists remained in town.
Perez said helicopters had evacuated a total of 2,542 tourists since Monday. More than 3,000 travelers were trapped in the town for days, strapping resources and testing travelers’ patience.
“It’s been an adventure, a bit more than we bargained for,” Karel Schultz, 46, of Niagara Falls, N.Y., told the Associated Press as she waited to be flown out.
Authorities said if the weather held, they would be able to evacuate the rest of the tourists – by now all younger travelers – on Friday.
“Right now it is raining heavily in Cuzco, be we believe the weather will be better tomorrow (Friday) to continue evacuations,” Perez said.
The Machu Picchu site will remain closed for weeks, until the government can repair highway and railroad tracks washed out by mudslides and the raging Urubamba River.
Dozens of ragged-looking, middle-aged tourists lined up outside the train station, where they waited to make the walk of a few hundred yards to a makeshift helicopter clearing. Younger backpackers played soccer with locals and lent a hand stacking sandbags and clearing train tracks to pass the time.
The evacuation was being carried out by age, oldest first. The elderly and children were among the 1,131 tourists who were evacuated through Wednesday.
People had grown frustrated over chaotic relief efforts, price-gouging and scarce food, but the mood lightened Thursday as the weather cleared, helicopters descended from the skies and soldiers brought order to the evacuation.
When Sunday mudslides destroyed the railway, the only land transporation into Machu Picchu Pueblo, many hotels and restaurants raised prices exorbitantly – separating wealthier tourists who could afford to pay extra from those who spent days sleeping in train cars and waiting for delayed food shipments.
Dina Sofamontanez, who runs Hostal El Inka, said she dropped prices when tourists ran out of money, while some hotels on the main avenue raised theirs fivefold up to $50 a night.
“The people here are abusive. It’s all about money,” she said.
Many backpackers who ran out of money when ATMs ran dry slept in the central plaza.
“We had to eat what the locals gave us, out of communal pots. There are young people who are having a real rough time because they don’t have money. The last few days I’ve shared beds with other people,” Argentine tourist Sandra Marcheiani, 34, told the AP.
Some 400 Americans were said to be among those stranded when train service stopped Sunday. Schultz said most Americans paid for beds and bought their own food, while those that slept in the streets were typically Argentines and other South American backpackers.
“Young backpackers from our (South American) countries have taken it all in stride … we’ve had a melting pot out here where we share everything, and that’s what we will take away from it,” said Marcheiani.
Stranded tourists quickly outstripped resources in the village of 4,000 people. Wedged between a sheer, verdant mountainside and the raging Urubamba River, difficult terrain and bad weather have slowed rescue efforts.
Rain prevented helicopters from landing in the town until after midday both Tuesday and Wednesday, but clear skies allowed operations Thursday to begin at 8 a.m..
“They are going like clockwork now,” said Schultz.
Evacuation efforts were complicated by the arrival of hundreds more tourists who were walking on the Inca trail hiking path, a popular four-day trek that ends in Machu Picchu.
Some 250 more tourists reached the village Wednesday and more likely came in Thursday, though the head porter of Llama Path tourist agency, Fredy Condori, told the AP that almost all those who set out on the path Monday turned back when they heard the citadel was closed.
Authorities closed the Inca trail Tuesday after a mudslide killed two people.
Also stuck were about 150 local porters who carry tourists’ packs and equipment for as little as $8 a day, said Jose Antonio Gongora, owner of Llama Path tour agency. Authorities were keeping them from returning along a river on foot.
Authorities initially kept them from returning by foot on the train tracks that run next to the river.
“They are always the last considered and they’ll be the last ones to be evacuated if they don’t let them walk. There’s little food there, nothing. It’s rough,” Gongora said.
Condori told the AP that soldiers let the porters pass early Thursday and they reached Cuzco in 14 hours by foot and car.
Associated Press writer Martin Mejia reported this story from Machu Picchu Pueblo and Andrew Whalen from Lima.