9.2 | Peru: Machu Picchu and the Privilege Travel

Tourism and its impact have been a consistent topic of discussion that come up frequently in our travels. A recent article also sparked a debate amongst a few of us. It’s not uncommon to hear people not wanting to participate or go somewhere because it’s too touristic. Machu Picchu was a great example. The debate of whether to visit or not loomed over us the months prior to our arrival to Peru. Some wanted the full Inca Trail experience. Others said the Inca Trail was saturated with travelers. Some thought the Machu Picchu was over-visited. Others wanted to do it for the gram.

What I’ve noticed recently is that the more we travel, the easier it is for us to lose sight of our privilege to travel. We complain about being tired of traveling or annoyed when there isn’t potable water from the tap or the inconvenience of a place that doesn’t have Uber or Amazon.

From comments about Asian tourists’ behaviours to the trash and why local governments haven’t done anything about the problem to our judgement of overly crowded touristic attractions, when we’ve been privileged enough to be well travelled and able to make informed choices, we lose sight that travel is not as accessible to a lot of other people.

We begin to judge other people for their selfie sticks and their juvenile poses and lame behaviour. We forget that some tourists may not have the same privilege as we do as English speakers walking into a local establishments.We forget that their trip may be the only European trip they can afford in their lifetime. And sometimes, all they wanted out of that trip is a silly picture leaning against the Leaning Tower of Pisa that they’ve seen once online. For them, that is their first exposure to travel, and it’s perfectly okay.

Additionally, a recent trend in the travelsphere, there’s been a lingo change that people feel the need to use to differentiate themselves from other lesser travelled tourists. There’s now emphasis in identifying oneself as a ‘traveler’ instead of ‘tourist’ or that we only participate in ‘local experiences’ instead of ‘tourist attractions’ or that we only want to visit non-charted territory. It is almost always said with a flare of arrogance. But at the end of the day, even as travelers, we’re contributing to the growth and consequences of tourism in many developing countries. Being a tourist shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing and a disrespectful traveler can also be a thing. A nomenclature change doesn’t make our impact less significant or make us better.

While one may argue, there is a difference in attitude and behaviour of a ‘tourist’ compared to a ‘traveler’, ignorance shouldn’t be condescended upon. We were all amateur travelers at one point or another. Social media nowadays only make it easier to document and shame those who have yet to graduate to the level of ‘travelers’ society deem as the superior jetsetters. Instead, I encourage us to take the opportunity as ambassadors of responsible tourism to educate those devoid of the education of travel etiquette. Responsible tourism is on both tourists and travelers. When finger pointing and classism become a norm, tourism as a whole will only get uglier.

But back to Machu Picchu, one of the seven wonders of the world. Something as commonly visited, to the point the government is limiting daily visitors, as Machu Picchu is still a very valuable experience. More importantly, it is never the locals, the Peruvians, that will tell you Machu Picchu is too touristic. It is always us as travelers, tourists, and foreigners that deem it to be too overrated and that we’re too good to be visiting such a popular destination.

Regardless of how many people have already seen it, Instagrammed it, checked in on Facebook about it, a monument such as Machu Picchu still holds a very valuable part of the Peruvian history and Inca heritage. It is worthwhile to see and learn about the accidental discovery of the great Incas’ summer palace, to learn about how it was built but only be lived in for 80 years, to learn about the fleeing of the Incas during the Spanish colonization. Additionally, it is also an experience the locals are eager to share as a way to introduce us to their culture and history. It also an integral part of their changing economy. Why are we trying to class-up that?

Travel is supposed to keep us open minded, and that includes the the touristic parts as well as places less travelled. That also includes embracing those who travel often and those who have just begun to travel. It is a growing attitude I’m noticing in my travels and it is an attitude I’m hoping to see changed.

As for my experience in particular, a group of six of us decided to do a 2-day 1-night hike on the Inca Trail. We began our trip with a couple days in Cusco as to allow our bodies to acclimate to the altitude change. We often found ourselves short of breathe, even when we’re walking from our bedrooms to the washroom. It was a strange but expected feeling.

Two days later, right before the break of dawn, our tour picked us up at our AirBnB and dropped us off at the 104 km mark of the Inca Trail. Six hours and thirteen kilometres later, our arrival to Machu Picchu was very rewarding and I was taken back by how big the structure really was. Our guide was wonderful and knowledgable. He treated us to many stories of Inca traditions and culture from every rock and ruin we visited. What I found most surprising was how proud Peruvians are of their native Inca heritage. Contrary to many other colonized countries, the Peruvians maintained much of their native past and were eager share with any foreigners willing to hear about it.

In short, the experience was inspiring and worthwhile. It’s been a highlight of this year. All I can say is, go do it. By train, by bus, by foot. 4 days, 7 days, 2 days. It’s irrelevant. Go visit Machu Picchu and absorb its rich history. Even if all your friends have already done it.