The Peruvian government has initiated a controversial proposal to construct a new road to the famed “lost city” of the Incas, Machu Picchu. Opponents of the idea fear it would destroy the character of the site by making access too easy.

The proposed road would connect Aguas Calientes, the tourist town that accesses the ruins, with Santa Teresa, which is 12 miles to the northwest along the Urubamba River. An additional proposal call for a paved road connecting Santa Teresa to Santa Maria ten miles to the north, a town on Peru's national highway system.

Currently, the only link between Aguas Calientes and Cusco—the nearest city with a commercial airport, 80 km from the ruins—is a single railroad line that was washed out earlier this year by torrential floods.

Map by C.J. Schexnayder/ENR

The Carretera Machu Picchu-Santa Teresa-Santa María proposal  passed its first legislative hurdle when it was unanimously passed by Peru’s congressional budget committee on Sept. 16. Committee Chairman José Carrasco said the route was necessary due to the disruption of access to Machu Picchu by the flooding. No price tag or design for the road has been put forward.

Machu Picchu is the most popular tourist destination in South America. More than 580,000 foreigners traveled to see it in 2009, according to Peru’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism. At the peak of the tourist season, about 2,500 vacationers descend on Machu Picchu daily—a number believed to be about the maximum the ruins can withstand. Officials are concerned about an expected spike in interest in 2011, the 100th anniversary of explorer Hiram Bingham III’s first expedition to the ruins. News accounts of the American’s discovery made the Incan ruins a worldwide phenomenon.

On Jan. 24, heavy rains pushed the Urubamba River out of its banks. The adjacent rail line washed out, stranding thousands of tourists. A fleet of helicopters evacuated more than 3,500 people back to Cusco over four days and Machu Picchu was closed to visitors. Access to the site was not restored until April. Since access to the ruins reopened, visitors have had to make a circuitous road journey to reach the last railway station before Aguas Calientes. 

The 10-week closure and subsequent limited access is estimated to have cost the country more than $200 million in tourism revenue. The road proposal is expected to rekindle controversy over access to the site that flared in 2007 over a rebuilt Urubama River bridge that offered additional access to Machu Picchu. Officials in Santa Teresa pushed for reconstruction of the bridge, which had washed away in the late 1990s. The Peruvian government resisted rebuilding because of concerns over access to Machu Picchu. 

In response to the concerns, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization sent a mission to examine the site’s condition and to assess the expected effects of the bridge on the visitor totals. Two months after the bridge was opened, UNESCO removed Machu Picchu from its list of endangered world heritage sites, after Peru vowed to regulate tourism on the mountaintop.

The expected surge in tourism from the new route never materialized, with just a handful of backpackers choosing to use it each year.