Preserving Peru's history

Why conservation is so important

by John Hurd

Some sites in Peru are over publicised by tour operators and have too many visitors. Machu Picchu is an iconic World Heritage Site and is a ‘must visit’ venue. It is stunningly beautiful and is so accessible it can be visited by anyone. This accessibility is a double-edged sword, as it brings in lots of money while also creating problems, such as damaging footfall, rubbish and so on. Most conservators would prefer sites like Machu Picchu to receive fewer visitors.

There are are many other sites in Peru which are as attractive as Machu Picchu but are much harder to get to. All along the mountains in Ancash and La Libertad, there are wonderful sites that are not often mentioned. For example, there is a huge clock in a flat plain called Chankillo. It is an absolutely awesome place and is known as one of the first astronomical observatories in the Americas.

There has been much improvement in conservation in Peru. Education, especially from archaeological teams, organisations like the Global Heritage Fund, Getty and others has had a gentle but valuable influence on visitors, local communities and Peruvians who are interested in conservation. The government’s management of heritage sites and collaboration with local people needs monitoring, but on the whole, things are positive and much is being achieved.

Pachacamac

Pachacamac near Lima (named for the Peruvian god of creation) is a fine example of the increasing quality of conservation in Peru. When I first worked at Pachacamac twelve years ago or so, they had excellent conservators and management and over the years, through different training courses and training given to conservators overseas, the level of work has improved exponentially. Now, conservation work at Pachacamac is at the leading edge of international standards.

What does conservation involve?

Conservation starts with documentation work, including photography, drawing, measuring and scanning. After documentation, if we need to intervene, we will.

This can be anything from stabilisation and cleaning to scientific reconstruction through a process called anastylosis (repairing a monument using original materials). This work is complemented by talking with local officials and groups about the conservation. This gives people a sense of ownership of heritage sites and why it’s important for them to protect the site, although getting buy-in can be a challenge.

When we’re working on conserving an area, we often need to close it to visitors until we’ve finished. However, people sometimes ignore closures in order to get a good picture or for some other reason. I was once working high up on a ladder conserving a wall when a visitor started shaking it in order to gain my attention. He wanted me to move the ladder because it spoiled his picture. This sort of thing is a surprisingly frequent occurrence, but in general, conservation and tourism work fine together.

How to minimise your impact

Firstly, visitors should keep to the paths provided. All conservators have seen paths metres wide caused by visitors using them in an undisciplined way. Secondly, it is never a good idea to jump onto a monument — even those made of stone — in order to take a picture or for a better view, as it erodes the monument. Most importantly, take your rubbish with you. Always leave a site as you found it. We all know these rules but sadly many people still ignore them.

While tourism can provide revenue for the local population, much of this depends on the input of local authorities, who vary in their approach. This diversity of quality leads to strange situations. In some places, people may not benefit at all from tourism — they may even suffer from it. It’s vital that tourists treat both people and heritage sites with respect. This is the key to creating a good experience for all.

Read the full guide

Historical Peru

Alternatives to Machu Picchu