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Crossing the river before summiting 17,500 Pico Austria. Photo by Ella Williams (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest, 2nd Place), South America Semester.

Finding the sacred amongst selfie sticks


Historically speaking Machu Picchu is one of the most impressive architectural successes in the world. In the present moment Machu Picchu is also one of the most impressive marketing successes in the world. In 2018 alone some 1,578,030 people visited Machu Picchu (that’s a 12% increase from 2017). On June 24th, 1911 Yale university professor Hiram Bingham ¨discovered¨ the ¨lost city of the Incans.¨  Now the number 1 tourist destination in South America, Machu Picchu definitely is no longer ¨lost.¨

In 2003 UNESCO declared a formal warning that Machu Picchu was hosting far beyond its capacity, “Being placed on the list means there has been such a degradation of the site that the very qualities which make it a world heritage site are being damaged, perhaps irrevocably,” a UNESCO spokesman said. In 2003 Machu Picchu saw around 500,000 visitors, a million less than it saw last year.

In 2017 new regulations were put in place to limit the damage done to the sacred ruins. Instead of simply purchasing a ticket for the day and just showing up you had to purchase a ticket for a set time. The goal was to limit the number of people in the park at any one time. With increased security and less crowding the idea was that the local authorities could manage the ruins more efficiently and prevent tourists from damaging the ruins. An advantageous economic result was that since people were limited to a set time you could have more people come in each day, way more people than the UNESCO recommendation of 2,500 per day.

When I came to Machu Picchu first in 2015 it was like the Wild West, with tourists climbing all over sacred ruins to get the perfect selfie, a true display of narcissism and consumerism in one of the most spiritual spots in the world. All the pictures I had been sold of an isolated, untouched sanctuary were a facade. My 2016 and 2017 visits saw little change in this aspect. In 2018 we were limited to 2 entrances (you have to leave the park to use the bathroom/eat). Now here in 2019 I’ve seen even more restrictions put in place. There is a set route one can travel, and you are swept through at a breakneck speed. You get the iconic Machu Picchu shot and a couple selfies with some llamas and then are shuffled out into a chaotic parking lot.

Because of my work and the immense privilege that I was born into I have been able to see many ¨Machu Picchus¨ around the world. Two co-occurring energies have presented themselves in Stonehenge, Angkor Wat, Tikal, the Parthenon, etc. One being one of intense narcissism, consumerism and entitlement on the behalf of the vast majority of the tourists. The other being an incredibly powerful, raw, intense sacredness hiding beneath.

We go with our students to Machu Picchu not to get that perfect selfie or bragging rights. We go so that they can see two very important things. 1. Their role within the modern day imperialism that is referred to as mainstream tourism; 2. The importance of truly connecting with these places, instead of just checking them off their bucket lists.

We hope that our students, and all of you reading this, travel to these famous wonders of the world. Take those selfies, cherish the moments you have there but also use these places to reflect. What does it signify when the signs in Machu Picchu are first in English, then Spanish (and completely lacking Quechua or other indigenous languages of Peru)? Why is there a McDonalds, KFC and a Starbucks in the Central Plaza of Cusco, the historical capital of the Incan Empire before it was destroyed by the Spanish invaders? Why is the Catholic church in that plaza built on the foundation of an Incan temple?

Tourism accounted for 9.8% of Peru´s 2017 GDP. The tourism sector employs 10’s of thousands of people throughout Peru. I´m not saying that people should stop going to Machu Picchu or any of the many, many other insanely beautiful/powerful tourist attractions that Peru has to offer. Come. But with the deepest level of respect and humility, places like Machu Picchu should be seen for what they are, sacred places. You would not climb on a Catholic church wearing booty shorts while shouting at the top of your lungs, do the same for all religious sites. Study some basic Spanish and Quechua phrases before your trip. Give your hard earned dollars to local restaurants and businesses. Learn the history of Peru, not just the Incans and Spanish conquistadors but current events as well. Instead of trying to see ¨everything, ¨ slow down and really connect to each place. Find a quiet spot in Machu Picchu and meditate. Reflect on your role within the whole tourism industry. It may be hard to do but trust me, when you slow down and really connect/fully understand a place, then, and only then, does it truly become an unforgettably beautiful adventure.

What is a sacred place?