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Peru: Wonders never cease

Machu Picchu, the enigmatic 15th-century Inca citadel, has been a foundation of Latin American tourism ever since the controversial American historian, Hiram Bingham, laid claim to the site back in 1911. But it wasn’t until 1913 when the National Geographic journal devoted its 25th anniversary edition to the ‘Lost City of the Incas’ that its position as one of the world’s most iconic sites was cemented.

Peru: Wonders never cease

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Last year the intricate stone architectural complex, situated on a hidden mountain ridge above Peru’s Urubamba Valley, celebrated the 100th anniversary of its ‘rediscovery’ with an elaborate show of fireworks, lights and orchestral music for a 700-strong party of VIP guests and dignitaries, from Peruvian president Alan Garcia to Hollywood actor Jim Carrey.

But as impressive as the centennial celebrations looked in the press, no dramatic light show or rousing musical soundtrack on earth can better the already astounding impact of surveying the site at dawn when it welcomes the first rays of sun.

Today the site attracts around 1,800 people a day — amounting to 700,000 a year — with most of the crowds snaking their way through the ruins in the afternoon. But if you’re one of the few backpackers slogging their way along the Inca trail to arrive at the site at dawn — or like me, awaking leisurely from a five-star hotel bedroom at the adjacent Sanctuary Lodge — you can explore this archeological wonder when blissfully free from the masses.

It’s at this time of day, when the sun burns off the early cloud cover within a matter of minutes, that Machu Picchu takes on a breathtaking air of grandeur and deep mystery with dramatic shadows cast over the largely empty citadel complex of sacred temples, sanctuaries, parks and dwellings.

In recent years, however, concerns have been raised that Machu Picchu is suffering under the weight of its own success – literally, as a geology report from Kyoto University’s Disaster Prevention Research Institute suggested the earth beneath the 2,250-metre-high city is moving at a rate of up to one centimetre a month.

UNESCO declared the citadel a World Heritage Site in 1983 but in June last year decided against including it on a list of endangered heritage sites. Instead, it recommended the site be subject to ‘enhanced surveillance’ amid concerns that increasing the number of visitors to the site might compromise the stability of the mountain on which Machu Picchu resides.

Hopefully Peru’s tourism officials will resist the urge to further exploit one of the most valued wonders of the world, responsibly limiting visitor volumes, so that this historic and architectural marvel can be treasured beyond the next 100 years to come.