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Back To Machu Picchu : After years of staying away, visitors are returning to Peru and one of the world's peak experiences. : Destination: Peru

February 19, 1995|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | Times Travel Writer

MACHU PICCHU, Peru — It's noon on a gray South American summer day, and some of the oddest rocks in the world are again playing to an awe-struck audience.

These stones weigh tons, yet they've been lugged up a mountain and fit snugly together with unearthly precision. They point as accurately as a compass needle and line up with the sun and moon. Rare orchids curl from their crevices. Jungle mists cling to their flanks. Llamas nibble at their fringes. And now someone with a crude flute is blowing that old Andean folk song "El Condor Pasa."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 5, 1995 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Peru--Due to a technical error, the photograph of Machu Picchu on the cover of the Feb. 19 Travel section was inadvertently reversed.

This is a remarkable scene, no question. But not just for the rocks. Those, after all, have been here for at least five centuries. The freshest marvel on this mountaintop, given Peru's more recent history, is the company standing among the stones.

Here is Augusta Barreda, Peruvian-born and once a regular visitor here, picking her way along these paths for the first time in this decade. After seven years of staying away and worrying about the terrorists of the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) movement, she has returned with two Venezuelan friends in tow.

Here is Despina Mallios of Albany, N.Y. For six years an old college classmate has been inviting her to visit, and for six years Mallios read U.S. State Department warnings and various headlines about bombs and rifles, and waited. Now she is in the third week of her exploration of Peru, a veteran of power outages in Lima and weak water pressure in Cuzco, but merry and unscathed.

Here is Marion Bentley, a grandmother from Muskego, Wis., accepting the hospitality of a Peruvian family friend despite her kids' misgivings about the security of the place.

"We haven't had any trouble so far in a week," she volunteers. "And we walk down those spooky streets in Cuzco at night by ourselves!"

After several years of rampant terrorism verging on civil war, Peru's reputation is under repair, and the archeological and natural wonders of Cuzco and Machu Picchu are again points of pilgrimage for adventurous travelers. Since the worst days of 1991, 1992 and 1993, when the entire nation of Peru averaged a paltry 2,500 foreign arrivals per month, the volume of international visitors has tripled. Once in the country, most of them fly to the ancient city of Cuzco and take a train to nearby Machu Picchu.

At the Machu Picchu ranger station, administrator Abel Martinez recalls a day in 1991 when the most famous architectural site in all of South America recorded just one visitor from sunrise to sundown. By last year, the ruins were averaging about 400 visitors a day, up 150 from the year before. This year, rangers say the figure may be closer to 600--about as many as were arriving daily when I first visited the ruins in 1987.

I went back last month to see what was changed and what wasn't.

On that first trip, having persuaded ourselves that all the trouble with terrorists was in other parts of the country, a friend and I spent two nearly flawless weeks in Peru, including several days in Cuzco and Machu Picchu, marveling at the natural landscape, the visible history, the exotic train ride through the jungle, the ruins. In our indestructible twentysomethinghood, we overlooked the fact that the year before, guerrillas had blown up the same train, killing seven and wounding at least 38.

But over the next few years, I read about Peru's runaway inflation; the 27,000 deaths and $25 billion in damage attributed to the Sendero; the bizarre ascendance of an unknown named Alberto Fujimori to the presidency in 1990; and then in April of 1992, Fujimori's widely condemned move to dissolve the Peruvian Congress and suspend constitutional rights in many parts of the country, all in the name of fighting terrorism and corruption.

Then a strange thing happened. In September, 1992, Peruvian authorities captured the Sendero Luminoso leader Abimael Guzman and jailed him for life. Incidents of terrorism fell off substantially. Top Sendero lieutenants were televised appealing from jail for peace talks and an end to violence.

Around the same time, the Peruvian economy stabilized. Riding those successes, Fujimori was a favorite for reelection this year even before the January eruption of a border confrontation with Ecuador boosted his popularity further. (The disputed Peru-Ecuadorean borderlands lie roughly 800 miles northwest of Machu Picchu and roughly 500 miles from Lima. No incidents outside the border region have been reported.)

The tourists started coming back last July. That month, the government tourism agency's figures show, more than 10,000 visitors found their way here from nations around the globe--the highest one-month figure in four years. Even through the traditionally slower months of the rainy South American summer, the accelerated pace has continued.

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