The (Im?)Morality of Travel Writing

Choquequirao at SunsetSo 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.

She wrote:

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.

The Trail to ChoquequiraoLet’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.

The Ruins of the Inca City Choquequirao

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.



Filed under Career/Life, Environment, In The News

31 responses to “The (Im?)Morality of Travel Writing

  1. Heather

    Where would we be if Darwin hadn’t ever written about what he saw when he visited Galapagos? Perhaps it is because I was fortunate enough to visit there last September…an experience which genuinely did change how I view many things, but I couldn’t agree more with the last 2 paragraphs of your post. The burden should not be on you to ‘keep secret’ a place that might, (as you so eloquently put it) “expand [the] minds and enrich [the] lives” of others who might be so fortunate as to visit it. Ecuador, while being far from the most ‘developed’ of countries, has done an excellent job of preserving Galapagos as a spectacular ecological area. Over 90% of the islands are national park, which will hopefully preserve them in their relatively natural state for generations to come. The government there, however unstable it may be at times, has committed to keeping the islands as natural as possible, and yet they still find a way for tourism to exist there.

    So while it may be naive, I say the burden should be on the Peruvian government to ensure that ‘smarminess’ and ‘cheapening’ do not take hold in or around Choquequirao. For many people an article such as yours might be the only opportunity they have to even know such a place exists, or it might be the incentive they need to do more research to know more about the place. It would indeed be selfish of you to deprive them of that opportunity.

    I apologize if this comment doesn’t make as much sense as I would like it to, but it is rather late and I fear that I might be quite incoherent at this hour. Anyway, the article in the Times is great as is your defense of it here 🙂

  2. Alexandra

    Unfortunately, I don’t have any illuminating comments on this… but your last sentence here sums it up perfectly. To keep a place one’s idea of “authentic” by keeping it secret from others is a rather selfish endeavor even as it’s cloaked in nobility.

    And, on a less deep side, I’m completely jealous of your world travels starting from an early age!

  3. Thanks, guys. On a certain level, though, I do understand Mary’s point. At the beginning of my career, I took a travel writing course. At one point, the instructor was asked about this very issue and he sort of shrugged it off saying that you couldn’t really deal with that substantively and be in this business. But then he added, “Of course, there are some places I choose not to write about.” Which is, as I described, selfish, but not in a totally bad way. I mean, it is your prerogative to preserve those gems for yourself. But then, people will usually find out about them anyway through some writer or another, so why not you?

  4. Mary is apparently 67 and not familiar with blogs, so she emailed me her response:

    “As I read the responses to my response to you, it seemed I had entered a galaxy of passionate reaction. I saw the word “selfish” appear again and again. I saw people hungry for something…I am tempted to call it authenticity.

    It is ironic that the “ruins” have been shored up by the government. It was only in the last 50+ years that preservationists here in the Southwest stopped the Park Service from shoring up Ancestral Puebloan remnants in the national parks.

    it occurs to me that there is an imperialism in revealing information about cultures other than my own; there is also imperialism in concealing information. In fact, I have heard one Hualapai argue fiercely for recording their ancient Bird Songs; and another say it is better to let them slip away un-recorded.

    We live in enormously rich times, in complexity. Who knows what your travel article, my response, your response…the responses of others, all these mirrors within mirrors within mirrors, will continue to reflect.”

    She’s a little out there, but I heartily agree with her comment about the dual imperialisms.

  5. Mary Sojourner raised some of the things that nagged at me as well about your article, Ethan, so let me try to put those into words.

    We’re all familiar with the mode of tourism that pushes past Lonely Planet, to go beyond the guidebooks; it makes for terrific reading, like your piece, Ethan, but it always operates comparatively. In this case, Choqueqirao is as fantastic as it is because we already have the negative example of Machu Picchu, formerly fantastic but now badly overcrowded.

    How do we keep from doing to all these other places what’s been done to Machu Picchu, or Thailand’s beaches, or villages in the Alps, or what have you? How do we leave room for people and places to exist, without being so totally consumed as they become now? In seeking difference in these places, we leave our sameness to grow in them.

    I don’t see these places as better than where I live, on Canada’s west coast, but they’re different. I’d like to see difference survive.

  6. Kate Torgovnick

    I have to speak as a journalist here…our purpose as a profession is to inform people about people, places, things, actions, phenomenon, etc that they wouldn’t necessarily find out about in their everyday lives. You almost have to bracket the effect telling that story will have. Sometimes it will be good, sometimes it will be bad, sometimes it will have no effect at all. If you think about the result too much in the process, it becomes very difficult to tell the story as it is.

    Reminds me of the Joan Didion adage about how writers are always selling someone out. Are we? I don’t know.

  7. Hi Richard, thanks for posting. Ultimately, I’ve got to put that into the hands of the Peruvian government. They are the descendents of the Inca, they control the lands, and the fate of those ruins are their responsibility. The good news is, I think they’re behaving pretty responsibly (or at least talking a good game). The high level folks I spoke with are more interested in talking about preservation than tourism. They had actually started building a road to the site but stopped because of the environment impact. They envision Choquequirao as an adventurer’s Machu Picchu, with the long hike as a requirement, not an option. That will keep the visitors down somewhat. In the end, it’s not going to be the site I saw. But hopefully it will never be like Machu Picchu either.

  8. To be clear, Ethan, I wouldn’t go as far as Mary Sojourner does: in the interests of all those things you talked about in your defense above of the NYT article, it’s well worth writing about remote places, even ones that could be threatened by the writing.

    And you’re right that it’s up to Peru to make its decisions (though there’s some irony in saying that it’s up to Peru to stop us from coming, when we could instead choose not to go…). I hope that, as you say, Peru manages to keep Choqueqirao from becoming too Machu Picchu.

    What I was responding negatively to, though, was something else:

    “We began climbing stone steps and ducking through ancient doorways like two toddlers on a jungle gym. For a precious few minutes, that ridge top, those 15,000-foot violet hills, those buildings so revered by an extinct civilization, were ours, and our sovereign desire was horseplay.”

    Toddlers on a jungle gym? Sovereign desire? Really? And what about the current civilization, which wants to defend their present way of life and is far from extinct? Your writing usually seems more thoughtful and aware than this, so I got jarred badly a few times in this piece.

    But keep writing — I enjoy reading it!

  9. Ron Martin

    As usual Ethan, your writing paints a canvas where we feel as though we are there with you. Obviously, NPR commentator Mary Sojourner is paying your writing a high compliment indeed by her heartfelt fear that your writing will create a new overrun Machu Picchu.

    However, to believe that “we” can control the future of this site by holding it as a secret is to believe that one or a small group of human beings can in fact, control future events by controlling access to “the secret” . This is delusional at best, and at worst, smacks of paternalism and yes, the imperialistic idea that we know what is best for these ignorant “others”. Sounds familiar? What sounds idealistic is upon deeper review more of us telling the world what it should be doing because we know waht is best for them.

    In the end, freedom of the press, even in it’s new dangerously consolidated corporate group think is better than not hearing at all because it is just too dangerous to be heard.

  10. Yeah, it was a little immature. I admit it. But I stand by it.

    I just found your blog, Richard, and read your post on this.

    In one sense, my actions are a perfect example for why rules need to be set up and enforced. At Machu Picchu, if you get there on the first bus, you can get in before everyone else. You can head down to that glowing green plaza and take clean pictures of llamas on the plaza, casually stepping over the rope lines as you please (everyone does it). Of course, later in the day there are guards around to yell at you if you do it, or if you try to climb a wall, etc. My point is, tourists will do what you let them.

    But Choquequirao has no guards. Avishai and I went up there at sunset, and when we came down the park chief informed us that we were not allowed up there at that time. Mostly because it put us in danger of being attacked by pumas.

    But these sites are to be connected to in the manner in which the tourist wishes–within limits, of course. Is it disrespectful to duck through the arches of the Templo del Sol with glee, to run about and revel in the empty plaza? Maybe. If there were a Peruvian nearby, I would have feared offending him or her and not done it. But if I’m not offending a living Peruvian, and I’m not hurting the place, then all I’m really doing is delving the place as I want to. It is a sort of childish fantasy, an empty Choquequirao at sunset. I reveled in it like a child. A toddlerish glee in newness and freshness and freedom, all with this overwhelming sense of history and power beneath it. If I went back another day, maybe I’d sit on the ceremonial peak and meditate. The point is, at a place like that, the options are open to you.

  11. Hector

    Mi hijo Diego de 18 anos, decidio ir a una conferencia de “Hearth of Healer” in Pisac, a fines de Julio.
    Asi que esta era una buena oportunidad para hacer los caminos del Inca hacia Macchu Picchu.
    Cuando ingrese a la web para busacr informacion, encontre que todos los pases para la fecha que deseaba estaban vendidos, y a pesar que tengo familia en el Cuzco, y que unos anos atras conociendo gente “clave” se puede lograr cosas por lo bajo, decidi explorar otras alternativas en vez de tratar de conseguir tickets para esos dias por otros medios. Mis 20 anos viviendo en USA me han ensenado a respetar las leyes mejor.
    Asi que una alternativa era Choquequirao, pero el pagar 300 o 400 dolares por un tour hasta ahi, me parecia mucho dinero, mas aun cuando soy familiar con el Cuzco, he vivido ahi por 6 meses cuando era nino.
    El articulo que escribiste fue lo mejor que podia encontrar en la web, no solo describias el sitio sino que tambien indicabas como se podia hacer para realizarlo sin agencia e incluso recomiendas un hospedaje. Estare yendo por alla a fines de Julio, por mi cuenta, con mi hijos y su amigo, alquilare las mulas y tomare muchas fotos y vivire unos dias inolvidables de paz y tranquilidad en compania de mi hijo. Sin el articulo que escribiste talvez no hubiese decidido hacerlo.
    Muy bien que compartas estas cosas con la gente normal, nosotros somos la mayoria de los no “lucky” que nos beneficiamos en que no se mantenga el secreto.
    Mary Sojourner puede estar tranquila, porque Choquequirao no es la unica ciudadela que “permanecia secreta” hay muchas mas en el Cuzco, solo debemos encontrar a los Lucky’s ones y ser amigos de ellos si queremos encontrarlas.

  12. Hector,

    Me alegra mucho que leyiste mi articulo y ha decidido de viajar a Choquequirao! Te asegura que no te chasqueare. Verdaderamente son personas como tu y tus hijos que hacen mi trabajo vale la pena. Estoy feliz que has escogido de hacer la viaje sin agencia de turismo porque ellos cobran tanto. Si tienes otros preguntas sobre el viaje o los logisticos, por favor escribeme. Y depues del viaje, escribeme y dime si el ciudad es todavia como describi. Puedes encontrar mi email a

    Un solo advertencia: el camino es muy dificil–mucho mas dificil que el camino Inca. Vale la pena de alquilar caballos (pero los arrieros no te permiten de montar los caballos abajo).

    Suerte con tu viaje!

  13. Trudi Levine

    So, you said that you were really happy with the email you got in Spanish because you really had an impact. So….as a journalist do you take credit for ‘positive’ impact, but not negative?
    At what point are you, as a journalist, responsible for what you put out for discourse and how you put it out.

  14. Going to translate Hector quickly as best I can, for posterity and because his comment made me feel good:

    “My son Diego, 18 years old, decided to go to a “Hearth of the Healer” conference in Pisac (near Cuzco) at the end of July. So there was a good opportunity to do the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. When I went on the web to find information, I found that all the passes for the dates we wanted were sold, and even though I have family in Cuzco who know key people who can get stuff on the down-low, I decided to explore other alternatives instead of trying to get tickets for those days through other ways. My 20 years living in the US has taught me respect for the law.

    So there was an alternative in Choquequirao, but the price of $300 or $400 dollars for a tour there seemed to me a lot of money, more even because I’m familiar with Cuzco, having lived there for 6 months when I was a kid.

    The article that you wrote was the best that I could find on the web. You didn’t just describe the site; you also indicated how someone could make the trip without using an agency, including recommendations for a hostel. I will be going there at the end of July, on my own, with my sons and their friend. I will rent the mules and take lots of photos and I will live some unforgettable days of peace and tranquility in the company of my son. Without the article that you wrote, perhaps, I would not have decided to do it.

    It is very good that you share these things with normal people, we the majority who are not lucky, who benefit from your not maintaining the secrecy.

    Mary Sojourner doesn’t have to worry because Choquequirao is not the only city that remains in secret; there are many more in Cuzco region. You only have to find the lucky ones and become friends with them if you want to find these places.”

    (Emphasis mine)

  15. As a journalist do I take responsibility for the positive impact but not the negative? Depends on the circumstance. Generally, I would say ‘yes.’

    Here’s why. Journalists live and work according to a strict code of ethics. We try to inform the public and represent the truth in the world as best we are able. We adhere to this code because as much as possible, it stops us from doing any harm.

    Now, this line becomes dicey in cases like that of the DC Madam. ABC has decided not to publish the list because the figures are not public enough to be newsworthy (skeptics would say “not public enough to avoid a defamation suit”). Some people clamor for them to publish it on their commitment to the truth. Others clamor for them to keep it silent to protect private individuals.

    In that case, the representation of the truth is weighed against the imperative to cause no undue harm. ABC has decided that the latter wins out. I faced a similar conundrum with my article on Choquequirao. Except in that case, the “harm” I could cause was 1) theoretical, based on the idea that the Choquequirao infrastructure would not be able to handle the visitors my article would drive to the city and 2) balanced in a way the DC Madam case wasn’t by the benefit I would provide for all the Hectors out there. So on the side of doing it I had a theoretical harm vs. an obligation to report to the world and a real benefit to many many people.

    I think I made the right call. That’s why the code of ethics is there. It’s not that we’re not responsible for negative effects, but if I follow the code correctly, my actions should, on balance, be positive. And that’s what I focus on: net impact.

  16. trudi Levine

    Ah the law of unintended consequences!

    The very first exercise they gave us to do when I took a course in the school of journalism at Columbia(remember my first graduate degree was in media) was a staged event in the class. We were then each told to write what had happened. The TRUTH…we learned with great immediacy what an ephemeral concept that is.

    My father, as you know, read approximately 7 newspapers a day because he never trusted the ‘truth’ of what he was getting. During the first Gulf War, he knew, way before anyone else, that the press was being manipulated by the US government and the censorship was extreme because all newspapers had the same news…all reported the same ‘truth’. He actually kept a scrap book waiting for the news of this to break and it finally did. But he knew that because he did read and knew that there was never one truth for any issue.

    I read the Journal and the Times every day. There are so many truths. Sometimes the same issue is dealt with so differently that I can feel the twist in my brain. Personally I think it’s really important to know this is true and to keep reading different papers to confront yourself with the fantasy of objective journalism.

    Do I think you shouldn’t have written the article…I don’t think that that’s the question for me. I guess I wonder how many ways could this have been written to communicate ‘what’. Every article has something it’s trying to communicate. Is this ‘something’ that you should come and see; is it “I’m so cool and do cool things”; is it an ‘environmental impact piece” or is it archeolgical preservation” as just some examples.

    Lotsa love,

  17. Pingback: The (Im?)Morality of Travel Writing–Update at Crucial Minutiae - it’s the little things…

  18. Hello

    Great book. I just want to say what a fantastic thing you are doing! Good luck!


  19. Glenn

    I read your NY Times piece because I just got back from Peru and I’d heard about it several times from travellers there, some of whom were headed to Choquequirao because of it.

    I am rather amused by all this business about the morality of writing the article. Come on. Maybe that’s something for Deep Thinking (and angst-ridden) journalists to agonize over (as they have done in fine fashion here). Fact is, if this place is as awesome as you make it sound (and I believe it is), it is only a matter of time before everybody finds out, it gets “discovered”, “overrun”, whatever. This is simply going to happen whether you wrote the article or not. Just wait until the next edition of Lonely Planet Peru comes out.

    Don’t worry about it. Tell everybody else to lighten up. You can correctly feel good about sharing something precious with somebody like the guy who wrote in Spanish about how he’s taking his kid there.

    As a fellow traveller I understand the thrill of finding (if only for yourself) an amazing place that “nobody knows about”. Isn’t that the Holy Grail of travellers in the first place? Thanks for sharing this one. Maybe I can take *my* kids while the gettin’s good.

    One last 2 cents worth. I visited Machu Picchu in 1966, 1989 and 2007. Yeah, there are a lot of tourists, but it is still a tremendously worthwhile experience. Some places are just like that, no matter the crowds. The Grand Canyon comes to mind. So let’s please not get too down on it.

    Thanks for listening – glenn

  20. Hey Glenn, Thanks. Yeah, I think you’re right about just letting go on some of this stuff, not worrying too much about it. In the end, it’s just a cool place that people should check out. But I think you’d rather have your journalists overthinking on these issues than underthinking, right?

    Also, check out the update I got about new tourists to Choquequirao:

  21. Mary Sojourner

    Wow…I am delighted in the exchange you and I opened. Thank you for responding. I’m working a lot these days with the notions of connecting and disconnecting, just finished a novel, Scylla, specific to bed-rock and the ephemera.

    We are in the middle of it.


  22. Marlene Lopez

    I am more than happy that people get their time to talk about something as important as those ruins, part of my culture and emblematic way of seeing the ability of the Inca Empire.
    We are a country that is not supossed to live on its past, but look for the future and be part of it too.
    I do understand though, the concern about ” destroying a place by writing about it”, but is all part of human history.
    We are part of it too, and we were written about by someone else. If not this man, will be someone else, but at the end, you , all of us, will have the chance to decide wether to go or not to a place that by far is not that violated.
    Is human nature to try to conquer places and visit areas that noone else have done before.
    But is part of our duty to take care of those areas, and help in some way, so the corrupt governments dont sell our souls to strangers for few coins, enough of being greedy and start being more concious about all this, that happens every day in our country.
    I do want the world to know about my country and the things that happen here, and I want to be part of a LIVING CULTURE.

    I think more talks like this should continue, it gives all of us the chance to give our point of view.

  23. Hector

    Hi Ethan, I just got back from my trip to Cuzco, it was 16 unforgettable days that mark my life.

    On July 29 we got to Cachora at 9:30 AM, my 18 years old son Diego and his high school friend Mike were my companion in this trip. We took a Taxi from Diego’s grand mother’s farm in Urubamba to Cachora.The taxi driver recommend us to contact Doris, in one corner of the Cachora main square.

    We rent one mule and two horses from her, we start walking at 10:30 AM the “mule-driver” was coming later to meet us in somewhere in the road. We reach Santa Rosa camping place at 5:30 PM where I meet Julian Covarrubias, he proudly show me your article in the New York Times about Choquequirao, his name was highlighted, he was a little bit disappointed because you didn’t write anything about the National Institute of Culture, Julian still struggling to stay in Santa Rosa, the NIC wants him out of there to update the facilities.Julian has many ideas about remodeling Santa Rosa, but he needs money to do it.

    Next day we reach the ruins at noon, we spend four fantastic hours relaxing, walking, admiring the white stone llamas in the Incan terraces and meeting people, it was fantastic. We spend that night in Marampata.

    The third day we left Marampata at 7:30 AM to reach Cachora at 6:30 PM with the help of the full moon.
    We talked with Doris and her husband, they also showed us your New York Times article, they were happy because tourists are coming to Cachora, they also have ideas about remodeling their house to build some rooms to rent and they also don’t have money to do it. They mention that some people in Cachora don’t care about the flux of tourists visiting the city.

    We wanted to start our next adventure to the national park of Manu, that was the main reason why we did our way back to Cachora in one day, then a taxi to Urubamba – which I have to drive for half the route because the driver was too tired to drive.

    Then next day we were taking a bus to Paucartambo on our way to Pilcapata, a village in the south of Manu park. After spending the night in Paucartambo we took a Taxi to Pilcapata which we reached at noon. Then we got a ride in a small school bus with kids from Atalaya, our next village. I have never seen Peruvians singing the national anthem and Peruvian songs with such passion and love as those kids from Atalaya. After one hour we were taking the boat for a short trip in the Kosnipata river, where we returned the next day at 6:00 AM for another unbelievable and beautiful trip in the Peruvian jungle, watching the sunrise, birds, trees, navigating the river…it was a breathtaking experience compared with our trip to Choquequirao.
    In summary Choquequirao is not as beautiful as Macchu Picchu, Pisac or Sacsay Huaman but to get there, the views and the stone’llamas makes a unique and wonderful experience.

    Julian, Doris and her husband are happy because they see an opportunity of progress, unfortunately they don’t have the capital to invest and get the most of this opportunity.
    There are still remote villages like Pilcopata, Atalaya, Paucartambo where you can enjoy as much as Choquequirao and nobody has writen about them yet. If you can write about them you will be helping to attract tourists to Peru, now is up to Peruvians to conserve our beautiful sites and make that the Julianes and Doris get the benefit of them and not only the people with money.

    I am planning my next year trip to Kuelap in Chacahapoyas – department of Amazonas –

  24. Alex

    I think you did well by writing that article. It will make people know more about Peruvian history and Inca places, and will attract more tourists here…

    By the way, I saw a photographic exhibition and a model of Choquequirao about 2 years ago in Trujillo… So I don’t know why anyone would want it to be a secret. Many people must have known about it, it was just a matter of time that an article like that had to be written somewhere else. But I’m glad with what you did.

  25. Thank you Ethan, really enjoyed your article and this fascinating discussion.

    My mother and I did the Choquequirao walk in June last year on the recommendation of a friend. I had spent 3 months teaching english to tiny kids in Cusco, and had already done the Inca Trail, so wanted a different experience – something a little more challenging and less contrived (nothing romantic about people not letting you walk past them on the Inka Trail, or almost being elbowed off the MP ruins by a pushy tour guide!)

    Choquequirao seemed to be a really important place of national pride for the Peruvians I spoke to after we’d done the walk. As travelled around, whenever we mentioned it, people would get really excited. My favourite comment was from a little old man in a hotel at (the horribly touristy) Agua Calientes. He looked at us with his mouth open, and said simply “respeto” (respect).

    We have watched this discussion with great interest, as we too were a bit dismayed at the idea of making the site more accessible – the sense of achievement from such a difficult walk made the experience that much more special.

    I’d also like to mention here for anyone who does make it to Choquequirao, the lower ruins are worth the half hour walk down. We had a guide who took us down, and it was a magical magical experience. Not entirely sure you’re meant to go down there, but anyway…

    If you want to see photos of the lower ruins, my travelblog on Choquequirao is at

  26. Alex, I think the cover of the NYT Travel section has a special place in “destination ruining” lore. I remember when I was a kid visiting Bali with my parents. It was still relatively untouristed in 1990, but my parents said, “You should have seen it before the Times wrote about it.”

    Kristin, I noticed that too. The majority of the visitors to Choquequirao are Peruvians (ratio of about 2 or 3 to 1), those in the process of discovering this new piece of their heritage. Very nice photos!

  27. Andrew Westoll

    Hi Ethan. Special thanks to you and Mary for opening this important discussion. Too bad I only found this blog this morning, or I would have jumped in sooner.

    I am a Canadian freelancer based in Toronto and have just finished a first draft of a travel memoir set in Suriname, another relatively unknown place. Needless to say, the above questions/paradoxes have been front and centre in my mind for more than two years now. The book comes out next fall, and I am becoming rather anxious to see what the Surinamese response will be. Suriname, as you might well know, is one of the most ecologically blessed nations on earth, with more rainforest cover than any other country, but it is struggling to get its ecotourism sector going again after decades of political upheaval. Hardly any tourists go there. Will they once my book comes out? And if they do, will that be a good thing? And am I overstating the impacts my wee book might have?

    I have also just returned from Peru, where I visited Choquequirao, spurred on in-part by your article and in-part by Peruvian friends who implored my photographer and I to go. In search of a different angle, we decided to hike from Cachora to Choquequirao, and then continue on for six more days through the Andes, eventually ending up at Machu Picchu. It was an incredibly difficult trip (and well-structured considering the above discussion). When I wasn’t hallucinating a horde of wild boars attacking my tent (altitude sickness), I thought about the above questions constantly.

    There seems little doubt that writing about these places makes more people go to them, and I think your contributors have dealt with these concerns admirably, so I won’t add to them. What I do want to add (and I don’t think anyone really mentioned it above) is the importance of letting the Peruvians, in this case, speak for themselves in our work. It is not your story, or my story, but theirs. And so, I wanted to mention that absolutely every Peruvian I spoke with about Choquequirao was excited about the potential for more tourists. This is because (and no secret here), tourism is an incredibly important financial engine for Peru. It provides opportunities for everyday Peruvians that have become bedrock sources of income for them. To say places should be kept a secret, for the sake of our western (and latently imperialist, it’s true) need for pure and pristine places is just immoral when there are millions of struggling people living in these very same places.
    I am not saying we’re doing a noble service here… I’m just saying there is this other side that no one seems to have mentioned.

    There are of course other concerns here: tourism without any regard for preservation is, well, just not sustainable (which is exactly why UNESCO just released a statement on Machu Picchu, suggesting it was in very real danger of being “overrun” and destroyed). And Peruvians or Surinamese people who jump into the tourism industry with the single-minded goal of maximizing tourist turnover will only diminish the pull of their native lands over time. But here’s the good part: we are writers! We can discuss all of these subjects in our articles! And we should do this more, I think. Especially those of us writing about foreign places. We should include local issues as much as possible. I don’t call this overthinking; I call it journalism, pure and simple.

    I guess I just wanted to say this: I am most anxious to see if Surinamese people believe I used their words ENOUGH in my book. I am most worried the book has become too navel-gazing, too much about me, and not enough about the people who live on either side of each and every jungle river I paddled down. So, as I dive into rewrites (and pitch the Choquequirao story around to magazines in the hopes I might by some groceries sometime soon!), I will be singularly focused on this problem. How should we write about a place that has clearly captivated us and given fire to our voice while allowing the people to speak for themselves?

    Again, wish I’d seen this earlier.
    Ciao for now.

  28. Anne Williams

    Hi Ethan,
    When I read your article, I was so interested I e-mailed it to my children. Inspried by it, two of them left this morning from Cusco for Choquequirao. One was so afraid of the difficulties of the hike that her fears kept me awake last night, so I decided to reread your article to calm myself. I noticed again that you did not say the hike was dangerous, and in fact told my husband not to worry because I’m sure you would have mentionned it if it was. I just discovered all of the comments which followed your article, including your own that you had “glossed” over the difficulties of the hike. I believe this too is an ethics issue, and that if you are going to responsibly report on such adventures, you should share more accurately the difficulties as well as the rewards.
    I hope and pray that the difficulties you referred to do not include danger.

  29. Well, I am from Washington State and my daughter who lives in Cusco is trying to talk me into going on this trek. I’m 61 and very out of shape. I would sure like to hear some”you an do it’s” if it is possible. I do not have any major health issues – well not before the trek. Any advice out there?

  30. david benson

    OK Here’s my rant.
    No-one is addressing the real problem, and it is the same in virtually all of our socio-economic-ecological difficulties. Nothing that we are doing would be a problem if there weren’t so many of us doing it.
    The feedback systems of the environment balanced the pressures of religions and cultures to reproduce, until we started washing our hands. Unfortunately, advances in consciousness haven’t matched advances in technology, so here we are in a world that’s fast approaching standing room only making excuses to each other for wanting to do things that don’t really need to be excused.
    Welcome to the 21 st century.