The ruins of an Incan royal estate in Chinchero, Peru.

Felix Lipov/Alamy Stock Photo

Airport construction threatens unexplored archaeological sites in Peru

Last month, a phalanx of bulldozers and trucks arrived in Chinchero, Peru, to begin to clear land for a 40-year-old dream: an international airport in the heart of the country’s tourist region high in the Andes. Once it is completed in 2023, authorities say 6 million visitors a year will have an easier, more direct route to nearby Incan sites, including the famed royal estate of Machu Picchu. But archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, and others say the airport and the resulting surge in development and tourism will destroy archaeological sites and some of the very cultural riches the visitors come to see. Nearly 200 Peruvian and international experts have signed a letter to Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra asking him to suspend construction and consider relocating the project. More than 2000 people have signed an accompanying petition.

Chinchero overlooks Peru’s Sacred Valley, one of the first areas conquered by the Incas in the 1300s as they began to expand their empire from their capital of Cuzco, 29 kilometers southeast of Chinchero. The Sacred Valley provided maize and other crops to Incan rulers, and several emperors built their private estates there. Incan agricultural terraces still cover the hillsides around Chinchero and are used by local farmers. “It’s one of Peru’s most archaeological and historically complex places,” says Natalia Majluf, a Peruvian art historian at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, former director of the Lima Museum of Art, and one of the petition’s organizers. “You put an airport in the middle of that landscape and it’s a disaster.”

Topa Inca, who ruled from 1471 to 1493, built a royal estate at Chinchero, similar to Machu Picchu (built by his father, Pachacuti), and others nearby including Ollantaytambo and Písac. Unlike those, Chinchero has remained largely untouched. Its preservation is “phenomenal,” says Stella Nair, an architectural historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, who spent a year in Chinchero measuring and mapping the Incan imperial buildings and landscaping that still dot the town and the farmland around it. “The key for studying the architecture is finding sites that haven’t been altered for tourist consumption. And that is incredibly hard,” she says.

Alan Covey, an archaeologist at the University of Texas in Austin, led a survey of the region in 2004 and 2005. He found that, unlike the heart of the estate, which is in a protected archaeological zone, the airport site had little evidence of pre-Columbian occupation, as measured by visible ceramics and architecture. But archaeologists have conducted no excavations there. “We don’t know what’s underneath,” says Abel Traslaviña Arias, a Peruvian archaeologist and doctoral student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. And once airport construction begins, “you’ll never get [those sites] back,” worries Thomas Cummins, an art historian at Harvard University who has worked in Chinchero.

Since the 1970s, the regional government has dreamed of replacing the current Cuzco airport, which can handle only short-hop flights, with an international hub that could receive jets from Miami, Florida, and other distant cities. That would greatly ease a foreign tourist’s trip to Machu Picchu, which now involves at least two flights and can take several days. Vizcarra, who visited the construction site this week, has called the airport “a necessity for Cuzco and for Peru.” Officials have promised it will bring increased economic opportunities, and at least some area residents are eager for the potential boom. One of Chinchero’s three Indigenous communities sold its land to the government for the project.

A controversy takes off

A new airport in Chinchero, Peru, would ferry tourists to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. Researchers fear it will spur a building boom.

0 125 Km SPAIN PORT. FRANCE PERU IR. ITALY Atlantic Ocean Atlantic Ocean Bilbao Madrid Lima Cuzco Písac Chinchero (airport) Ollantaytambo Machu Picchu Andes Mountains Sacred Valley
N. Desai/Science

But Traslaviña Arias, Covey, and others fear the airport will fuel unregulated development. Businesses will race to build luxury hotels and restaurants, they say, drawing workers who will also need housing. New apartment complexes have already sprouted up along a main highway to house one community displaced by the project. Because most of the new infrastructure will be aimed at wealthy foreigners, Traslaviña Arias calls it “the gentrification of cultural patrimony.” (Peru’s Ministry of Culture did not respond to a request for comment.)

Some researchers also wonder whether the development will end up making the region less appealing to visitors, not more. “The kind of degradation that [the airport] will bring … is going to be such that the tourists are going to be going somewhere else,” says Gabriela Ramos, a Peruvian historian at Cambridge and an organizer of the petition. They also note that Machu Picchu can’t accommodate more tourists, as it already receives well over the limit of 2500 daily visitors agreed to by Peru and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which includes Machu Picchu on its list of World Heritage Sites.

So far, the experts opposed to the airport have not received a response to their letter. And the Peruvian government is promising to complete the airport’s initial land clearing phase by September. If the project moves ahead, it would be “a tragedy,” says Mónica Ricketts, a Peruvian historian at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (and an organizer of the petition). “We run the risk of destroying what the Spanish could not destroy.”