So my article on Choquequirao, the Other Machu Picchu is on the cover of tomorrow’s New York Times Travel section. People seem to like the idea of an important ancient ruin that no one knows about yet (it’s at #2 on the most emailed list as I write), but others have found it upsetting. Not upsetting that it exists—upsetting that I wrote about it. Author and NPR commentator Mary Sojourner sent me a thoughtful email that I want to respond to here, as it asks about the morality and value of what I do as a travel writer. Simply put, she wants to know how I could have written about Choquequirao, knowing the impact that my article would have on the site.
I open a conversation about deeper exploration. I just read your travel piece on Choquequirao. My first reaction was “There goes the neighborhood.” … It is clear from your writing that you are a savvy guy. You must know that your article has destroyed the tranquility and cultural fibre of that place as thoroughly as plastique. It will be illuminating to discover the tourism figures from June 2, 2007 on. It will be horrifying to catalogue the changes…the smarminess, the cheapening.
But what struck me as inconsistent with your obvious intelligence and awareness was the last sentence of the piece. Why would it matter to you to be anywhere “first”? I’ve worked in Sacred Land issues for twenty-two years. I am not some starry-eyed wannabe. The first rule for those of us lucky to have access to certain wonders is: Keep the secret.
I considered writing the Times, but there was a subtext in your writing that hinted at a deeper curiousity, a deeper hunger. I decided to extend an invitation to teach each other.
Let me respond first, specifically, about Choquequirao. I know it’s glossed over a bit in the actual article, but it was a really nasty hike to get there. In fact, until a climb to a glacier at 16,500 feet we did a few weeks later, it was the hardest hike my girlfriend and I had ever done. Sure, you can rent mules, but they’re wildly uncomfortable and the overprotective arrieros won’t let you ride them downhill. Moreover, I was there in the coolest month of the year, and it was miserably hot. The government might build a funicular to get there, but right now it’s all protected narrow land and that doesn’t seem like it will be happening anytime soon. In short, I don’t think many people are going to punish themselves as much as is required to see the place. And those that do, well, they deserve it.
But Mary’s objection to my article brings up a number of larger issues. To whom does Choquequirao belong? What is its value? How should that value be distributed? It is true that my article will have an impact on Choquequirao. More tourists will go there, while other, previous visitors to Peru might go back to see what they missed. It will inevitably lose some of the tourism innocence I witnessed and may in time become as crowded and unpalatable as Machu Picchu.
Let’s go back and think about her first question: why would anyone want to be there “first”? Well, I think that’s really at the heart of a lot of travel, at least the off-the-beaten-path stuff. I’ve been going to such countries since I was four–Panama, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, Botswana, Ecuador, etc. And when I came back from such places, whether I was 5 or 25, I would always get the most interest for statements like “they had only seen three tourists before” and “they wouldn’t let us videotape them because they thought it stole their souls.” The fact is, if you’re traveling to a place like that, generally, you’re seeking authenticity. Authentic people, culture, places, untouched by the modern world.
Mary thinks I should have kept Choquequirao a secret. That my article will cheapen the place, destroy its authentic character. But over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that this concept of authenticity is…inauthentic. Is Choquequirao real? The Peruvian government reconstructed the majority of those buildings. Most of your ancient wonders, your beautiful, pristine ruins are falsely reconstructed to make them seem real. But even, as in some rare cases, if we had the ancient site preserved exactly as it was, that would merely be an authentic connection with a civilization that is dead and gone.
True “authenticity” is not about connecting to the Peru of the past. It’s about understanding the Peru of today. How their current president, Alan Garcia, made such stupendously bad decisions that they call him El Caballo Loco, or crazy horse. Or how their next president may be a guy who is waiting out the statute of limitations in Chile on crimes he committed the last time he was president (he leads popularity polls). Or how the INC and COPESCO, two governmental archaeology/tourism associations, are fighting it out on how to best preserve and exploit Choquequirao. Or how Julian Covarrubbias, a 26-year-old with polio who lives in Santa Rosa, close to Choquequirao, complains that the government is like “a mafia with the tourism money” and is trying to push his family off the land so they can have it for themselves.
Those are the authentic struggles of Peru, happening today in real time. And tourism is part of that. Tourism is Peru’s largest industry, and sites like Machu Picchu account for a substantial portion with nearly 800,000 visitors a year. Choquequirao can offer Peru a one-two punch (really, one-two-three as they envision an eventual tourism triad that includes the final Incan stronghold at Vilcabamba), a reason for some people to return to the country and for others to visit for the first time.
I thought long and hard about these issues as I was writing the article, considering my impact. I weighed the economic against the cultural, and realized that I wasn’t weighing against the Peruvian valuation of the cultural aspect, but my own. Do the descendants of the Inca want their history hidden, hoarded by abortive travel writers and sacred land advocates? No. They want to share it, in a way that both preserves their culture and develops their economy. They are using their past to make their way forward. And, what right do I have to keep such information a secret? It is my job, in the end, to tell people about trips that may expand their minds and enrich their lives.
So why did I write about Choquequirao? Because I’m not selfish enough not to.