CHINCHERO, Peru — Machu Picchu, it is often said, is a place everyone should see before they die.
Soon, it may feel as though that’s actually happening now that the Peruvian government has inked a deal to build a major new airport down the valley from the legendary Inca citadel.
Located beside the picturesque colonial village of Chinchero, the airport could quadruple the number of visitors to the Sacred Valley, the verdant, mystical Andean corridor littered with pre-Columbian ruins and lined by snowcapped peaks that runs from Machu Picchu to Cuzco, once the capital of the Inca empire.
That has many here excited about the greater prosperity that extra tourist dollars will bring to an area where many still live in extreme poverty.
But it has also aroused concerns that the flood of visitors will harm the ruins, trigger encroaching development in the surrounding magical countryside, and throttle the unique local culture — all of which are what attracted the tourists in the first place.
These processes are already underway, but now they’re likely to accelerate dramatically. Over the last decade or so, an explosion of hotels and travel agencies offering everything from trekking and mountain biking to bungee jumping and yoga retreats has begun taking over the Sacred Valley.
“Our traditions are disappearing. This airport will be the final straw.”
But the current airport, within the city of Cuzco, has a limit of 2 million passengers a year. Its replacement, to be built by an Argentine-Peruvian consortium, will be able to handle 5 million travelers when it opens in 2020 and eventually 8 million.
The announcement in April that the concession had been awarded caused widespread euphoria — and not a little heavy drinking.
“This project will change the life of the people of Cuzco because it opens the door to tourism, commercial and economic development,” Cuzco’s regional president, Rene Concha, said triumphantly.
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But not everyone is happy.
As someone who makes a living selling handmade traditional textiles to tourists, Marleny Callanaupa might be expected to rejoice over the new airport. Instead, she sounds like she is in mourning.
“Our traditions are disappearing,” says Callanaupa, a member of a Chinchero women’s weaving collective. “This airport will be the final straw, not just for us but for our children and the ‘Pachamama,’” she adds, using the indigenous Quechua word for “Mother Earth.”
Marleny Callanaupa is worried her vibrant local customs will fade. (Simeon Tegel/GlobalPost)
As she talks, Callanaupa, 40, washes a bundle of alpaca wool to prepare it for dyeing and weaving.
She shows me a veritable rainbow of pigments. All are made from natural ingredients used for millennia before the Spaniards arrived nearly 500 years ago.
Employing local leaves, she can create five different shades of green. A dark strain of corn provides three distinct tones of purple, and so on.
The detergent she’s using is also natural, made by simply grating a local root, sacha paraqay, into water, where it instantly foams up.
In 2012, UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural and scientific agency, recommended that the Peruvian government take “emergency measures” to protect Machu Picchu from tourism pressures.
That followed a previous successful UNESCO request to ban the helicopter overflights enjoyed by rich tourists that marred the once-in-a-lifetime experiences of other visitors to the site.
Meanwhile, Aguascalientes, the chaotic town that’s sprung up below Machu Picchu to service tourists, is widely regarded as an eyesore where locals never miss a chance to rip off visitors.
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And several other villages along the valley are also quickly turning into tourist traps, with the authorities unable or unwilling to regulate the anarchic mushrooming — often violating planning laws — of cheap pizzerias, tacky souvenir shops and unruly nightclubs that throb into the night. Local mayors did not respond to requests for comment.
At one village, Ollantaytambo — scene of a famous but fleeting Inca victory over the conquering Spaniards — outsize tourist buses crowd the narrow cobbled streets, causing gridlock that can last hours.
“It is the Wild West,” says Jose Canziani, an expert in management of archaeological sites at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. “We are letting anyone who feels like it install themselves in the Sacred Valley and set up their business, without any thought to preserving the culture or natural environment. It is sacrilege.”
Even some of the new airport’s advocates agree that the valley will lose its unique identity.
“Prosperity will bring changes. It’s inevitable,” says Fausto Salinas, a lawyer and former president of the Cuzco chamber of commerce.
Two and a half acres of corn yields just 16,000 Peruvian sols (nearly $6,000) a year in sales, he says. That’s a tiny fraction of the cash that can be generated from the equivalent area by the luxury hotel complexes springing up along the valley.
That means farmers, many of whom still speak Quechua, the language of the Incas, will increasingly be displaced by foreign retirees and wealthy Lima residents making the most of the new airport.
Salinas blames the valley’s chaotic development on the authorities’ “ineptitude” rather than the actual number of visitors.
In fact, he believes that the current 1 million visitors to Machu Picchu each year could increase tenfold — a proposal that would likely give UNESCO’s experts a panic attack.
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That would require better management, Salinas says, including multiple entrances to the site, more train links rather than roads, and short visitor shifts of two or three hours.
It would also require measures to protect the citadel, such as wooden walkways to prevent wearing of the original stone paving.
“It is up to us, Peruvians, to manage and control these issues,” Salinas adds. “There is no reason why the region cannot develop sustainable, modern tourism that benefits local people and the investors who build the infrastructure. We just need to be more audacious.”
Yet the changes are already proving painful.
“It makes me want to cry,” Hugo Aucacusi says as he surveys the rubble that was once his extended family’s home in the fields outside Chinchero.
This used to be Hugo Aucacusi's home. (Simeon Tegel/GlobalPost)
A few yards behind him, workers are putting up the perimeter fencing that will keep outsiders away from the new airport construction.
“I was born here and so was my father,” he goes on. “We had everything we needed: sheep, chickens, pigs, corn, quinoa, potatoes. We barely needed money.”
But Aucacusi, 38, who was paid generously for his land and rehoused in Chinchero, is also a supporter of the airport, believing it will bring work for local people.
Yet, as we chat, he suddenly seems less sure, reasoning that many locals might not be qualified for the new jobs.
Behind us, the sun — the Incas’ ultimate deity — sets behind jagged Andean peaks, and the mountain air starts to chill.
Half a millennium after the Spaniards made their violent entrance, Aucacusi is just one of many with mixed feelings about the latest influx of outsiders into Peru’s Sacred Valley.