“The months January and February in Cusco are known for the rain,” said Raymond Scholten of Chaska Tours, an ecotourism and adventure tour operator – your whl.travel local connection – based in this famous city of southern Peru. “Everybody is prepared for the rain, but this year the amount broke all records. It rained endlessly for almost two days and nights, which caused the rise of all the rivers.”
The result caught everyone by surprise. On 23 January, floods and mudslides destroyed rail and road access to Aguas Calientes, also known as Machupicchu town, stranding more than 2,000 people in the mountains to which travellers flock for a visit of Machu Picchu, the famous pre-Columbian ‘Lost City of the Incas’ and one of South America’s most famous ruins. Due to the high water, the bridge at the entrance to Pisac also collapsed, cutting off access for many to the Sacred Valley, where thousands of homes, several bridges and as many as 40,000 acres of farmland have been destroyed.
“Fifteen years ago was the last time the water level in the rivers reached dangerous levels,” continued Scholten, “but nothing compared to the situation now.”
As soon as the weather allowed it, the Peruvian government began the slow process of airlifting visitors trapped for several days to Ollantaytambo and Cusco. By 6pm local time on 27 January, an announcement from the Ministry of Tourism declared that a total 1,137 people had been evacuated by helicopter and more than 1,200 kilograms of food and drink had been carried in.
A handful of Peruvian helicopters, joined by six from the US, transported people to safety a few at a time, prompting scrummages every time a new one arrived, particularly early in the process when many people were camping in open fields. Fortunately, most of the remaining people have now been flown to safety, including most of those who had set off on multi-day hikes before the mudslides occurred.
“It’s stopped raining like it was before, so the water level has dropped spectacularly,” said Scholten. “However, as February is known for its rain – we call it Febrero loco (crazy February) – we’re still not sure what to expect.”
With the Inca Trail itself closed in February, the railroad is usually the only means of reaching Aguas Calientes, the staging point for further hiking, bus and helicopter travel to the ruins. The recent word from PeruRail, however, is that an experienced team of rail engineers has already begun extensive repair work on the tracks between the hydroelectric power station and Machupicchu. Estimates are the this sector will be operational in the next two weeks.
Work has also commenced on clearing and repairing the tracks between Piscacucho (kilometre 82) and Machupicchu town (kilometre 110), part of the rail line used by tourist trains from Cusco. Work along this segment of track will is scheduled to take seven to eight weeks, dependent on weather and water flow in the Vilcanota River.
This will of course have a tough economic aftereffect. “Right now people are thinking of alternatives to the Inca Trail,” declared Scholten.
Finding Help in a Time of Need
For many, the Aguas Calientes railroad station and carriages became temporary shelter. Anyone stranded was made welcome and every effort was made to keep the facilities running.
The numbers of people relying on railroad generosity may have been added to by reports of price gouging for hotels, food and water price gouging, as local owners may have taken advantage of the captive audience.
This too may have been fed by somewhat reduced resources. “A major problem comes from 15 years during which it didn’t rain like this,” expressed Scholten. “Everybody started building their houses, hotels and restaurant dangerously close to the river. We think lots of places were destroyed by it.”
“If you plan to travel to Peru and have space in your luggage for old clothes or shoes, please do think of bringing them along,” added Pieter Roos, also of Chaska Tours. “You can leave them at the Chaska Tours office, where the team will manage distribution to those in need.”