THE FRIENDLY GHOST
MACHU PICCHU PUEBLO, Peru – Buoyed by the return of good weather, authorities are hoping to evacuate on Friday the last tourists stranded near Machu Picchu, the fabled Inca citadel that is likely to stay closed for weeks even if the region dries out.
Peruvian Tourism Minister Martin Perez said only about 800 tourists — mostly younger travelers — were still in Machu Picchu Pueblo, the closest village to the ruins that stand on an Andean mountain ridge 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) up.
Clear skies Thursday allowed helicopters to fly 1,402 people out of the town, and Perez said the rest could be evacuated in another day if the weather held.
"Right now it is raining heavily in Cuzco, but we believe the weather will be better tomorrow (Friday) to continue evacuations," Perez told Lima's RPP radio late Thursday.
He said 2,542 tourists in all had been evacuated since Monday, a day after heavy rains caused mudslides that blocked the only land route in and out of the Machu Picchu area.
The hordes of outsiders caught in the town of 4,000 people strained food and water supplies and there weren't enough hotel rooms, testing tourists' patience. Many were left to eat from communal pots and sleep outdoors.
"It's been an adventure, a bit more than we bargained for," Karel Schultz, 46, of Niagara Falls, N.Y., told The Associated Press as she waited to be flown out Thursday.
Even with the end of the evacuation operation close, authorities said Machu Picchu will remain closed for weeks, until the government can repair highway and railroad tracks washed out by mudslides and the raging Urubamba River. Authorities closed the Inca trail, a popular four-day trek that ends in Machu Picchu, after a mudslide killed two people Tuesday.
Evacuations were conducted by age — oldest and youngest first. Elderly travelers and children were among the 1,131 tourists who were taken out through Wednesday.
Rain prevented helicopters from landing in the town until after midday both Tuesday and Wednesday, but clear skies allowed Thursday's flights to begin at 8 a.m.
Dozens of ragged-looking, middle-aged tourists lined up outside the train station, where they waited to walk the few hundred yards to a makeshift helicopter clearing. Younger backpackers played soccer with locals and lent a hand stacking sandbags and clearing train tracks to pass the time.
People had grown frustrated over chaotic relief efforts, price-gouging and scarce food, but the mood lightened as the weather cleared, helicopters descended from the skies and soldiers brought order to the evacuation.
When mudslides Sunday destroyed the railway, the only land transportation to Machu Picchu Pueblo, many hotels and restaurants raised prices exorbitantly — separating wealthier tourists who could afford to pay extra from those who spent days sleeping in train cars and waiting for delayed food shipments.
Dina Sofamontanez, who runs Hostal El Inka, said she dropped prices when tourists ran out of money, while some hotels on the main avenue raised theirs fivefold up to $50 a night.
"The people here are abusive. It's all about money," she said.
Many backpackers found themselves out of money when ATMs ran dry and they slept in the central plaza.
"We had to eat what the locals gave us, out of communal pots. There are young people who are having a real rough time because they don't have money. The last few days I've shared beds with other people," 34-year-old Argentine tourist Sandra Marcheiani told the AP.
Some 400 Americans were said to be among those stranded when train service stopped Sunday. Schultz, the New Yorker, said most Americans paid for beds and bought their own food, while those who slept in the streets were typically Argentines and other South American backpackers.
"Young backpackers from our (South American) countries have taken it all in stride ... we've had a melting pot out here where we share everything, and that's what we will take away from it," Marcheiani said.
Rescue efforts were complicated by bad weather and terrain — the village is wedged between a sheer, verdant mountainside and the Urubamba River.
Another complication was the arrival of hundreds more tourists who were walking on the Inca trail hiking path when the train line was cut off.
Some 250 more tourists reached the village Wednesday and more likely came in on Thursday, though the head porter of Llama Path tourist agency, Fredy Condori, told the AP that almost all those who set out on the path Monday turned back when they heard the citadel was closed.
Also stuck were about 150 local porters who carry tourists' packs and equipment for as little as $8 a day, said Jose Antonio Gongora, owner of Llama Path tour agency.
Authorities initially kept them from returning by foot on the train tracks that run next to the river.
"They are always the last considered and they'll be the last ones to be evacuated if they don't let them walk. There's little food there, nothing. It's rough," Gongora said.
Condori told the AP that soldiers let the porters pass early Thursday and they reached Cuzco in 14 hours by foot and car.