In this blog, I asked Peru travel guide of nearly 15 years, Fernando Figueroa, for a local perspective on how things have changed at Machu Picchu and what those changes mean to the community.
There is no question that Machu Picchu is facing extreme overtourism, but what can be done to allow travellers to continue to see this incredible ancient city – and take care of this precious site for generations to come? We also talked about the impacts tourism has had on local communities. I first met Fernando while he was leading a guided tour with G Adventures and I was on assignment with the Toronto Star.
When it comes to travel with purpose, it’s important to understand the country and its people. Read on to hear more about Fernando’s experiences growing up in the Cusco region and working as a guide in Machu Picchu.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Cusco city from parents that were from different places – my father was from a small town in the cloud forest near the Amazon, and my mom is from a charming town called Ollantaytambo located in the Sacred Valley. Both towns are in Cusco region.
My mom was working as a teacher in a primary school and my dad was a manager in a black tea factory (the main resource in the area), I had lived in this beautiful and peaceful town for 16 years where I had learned so much of how to live in harmony with Mother Nature or Pachamama, because everything we do and get is from Pachamama.
How did you become a tour guide?
I was 16 years old, and I was just finishing high school, and in my mind, I wanted to be an electrical engineer. I qualified for university, but during those days on a weekend before I went to school, my uncle took me for a hike and rock climbing. He was already working as a rock and ice climbing guide in Huaraz (a popular city for mountain climbing).
During this weekend I had so much fun and this had opened my eyes that I would like to work outdoors as a trekking guide or tour guide.
I later learned from my mom that working as a tour guide was a family tradition because my grandfather had worked as a trekking chef and guide with one of the first travel agencies along the Inca Trail. My granddad would bring his sons and daughter to work with him during these expeditions, so my mom had worked on different treks for about five years.
One of the last times she worked on the Inca Trail hike, she was pregnant with me. She did a trek again when I was three months old.
I went to university to obtain my tourism and management degree. After almost five years, I became a guide. My grandfather was happy and he would always wait for me to have some coffee and talk about our treks – him in the early years of the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, and me in the new millennium, talking of how much things had changed from the beginning to those days.
What are your early memories of Machu Picchu?
Since my mom was a teacher in a primary school in our hometown, located two hours from Machu Picchu, she used to organize school trips every year to Machu Picchu, and of course, I would always go with them.
I have photos in Machu Picchu since I was so little, and I have memories when the main entrance was in the opposite direction of the actual entrance. We didn’t have as many restrictions to explore the area as today.
I remember trips when we would have a picnic at the main terraces in Machu Picchu, with blankets on the ground and all the kids seated around to have some food.
These days, we have over 3,000 visitors a day in Machu Picchu and the time to visit is scheduled by hours. Back in time, I remember we could get in and out as many times as we wanted. Obviously, the number of visitors was not even 10% of what it is these days.
At one point were tourists camping on the ruins? Were you aware then of the potential impact that was having on the environment? How can people better travel with purpose in Machu Picchu?
After I had learned more and more about our history, I started to respect and try to protect whatever we had left from our ancestors so than our kids and future generations can see and learn about evolutions of us as human being.
How, for example, our ancestors were more respectful of Mother Nature than we respect now. They did not have as much pollution or they tried to adapt their lives to the environment, but now we try to adapt the environment to the way we want in our lives. They were so thankful for what they could get from nature. Paying respect with offerings to mountains to the vital element water, to Mother Earth. When I saw people setting a campsite in this sacred place, I was so upset because it wasn’t just that they have the tents to sleep, but they left their garbage around. This definitely had an impact because others would start doing the same.
Many were people that travel just to have a nice picture, not caring about the importance of the place. People were climbing walls to have a great photo – that should not be the way we travel. Travel is to learn more than just take pictures because at the end of the trip the best pictures are in your mind.
What do you think of the protection measures around Machu Picchu? Is it enough?
I think that over the years the Peruvian government has been working better to protect Machu Picchu through its Ministry of Culture (with the inspection of UNESCO, since Machu Picchu is a World Heritage site). It has created new regulations – but some travelers get annoyed with the regulations. For example, some people would like to climb the walls to get good pictures even knowing that they are damaging the remains of an ancient society. As guides, we have to help our travelers get the message that Machu Picchu is an old city that needs careful protection so future generations can have the opportunity to see and understand the evolution of Andean cultures.
We also have to understand that Machu Picchu city was built for a certain amount and people and crops, and not to support thousands of people, and that is why it is important to have regulations around the number of people going there.
From a personal perspective, how has an increase in tourism in Cusco affected your family or your communities?
Personally, I can say that tourism has helped the city of Cusco. It has created different job opportunities for those, directly and indirectly, involved, such as guides, chefs, taxi drivers, farmers etc. Our local economy has increased in the past 25 years around Cusco city, however, there is the other side of the coin. With people living in the remote villages that we hike through, these people are surviving the day-by-day with their local products, living in precarious stone houses. Most travel agencies do not make them part of tourism, even though we hike on their lands.
Tourism has helped my family because there are many guides and cooks in our family, so we are directly benefiting from working in tourism. But, some members of my family do not have anything to do with tourism and they tell us that the cost of living has been increasing gradually because of tourism. One of many examples is that one kilogram of quinoa used to be $1USD, and now it is $4. All because products like these now have a high level of demand by touristic restaurants.
To rent an apartment, it has increased a lot in the city because people from other countries are coming to invest in the city in restaurants, hotels, etc, and they can afford to pay more money for rent than someone from Cusco because of the currency difference.
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