Machu Picchu’s Undiscovered Tea Plantation



You may be asking yourself, why is the Chief of the Machu Picchu Archaeological Park posing in front of a broken wall in the middle of a field? Well, what may seem like a funny shot is actually a picture a very intricate and meaningful story.

In July 1987, Fernando begins excavation work in a defined area of the site called muralla de Mandor. As you may be able to tell from the picture above, on one side of the wall trees are cut and the ground is not as fertile, while on the other side vegetation is thriving. This is exactly what Fernando noticed when he first got to the area, urging him to investigate the plants on each side further. Surprisingly, he found that the greener leaves on the right side of the wall belonged to huge tea plants, which measured from two to three meters in height. These plants were in fact planted in 1937 by the Maldonado family, who decided they would really like to have their own tea plantation. This may sound absurd, but at the time, there was no law prohibiting the act of planting vegetal species which were endemic to the area.

Around the same time, a German scientist found himself in the area for explorative purposes. His attention was suddenly caught by this specific wall and he decided to take some pictures, which were later inserted in a book reporting on the site. However, his writings were later burnt by the Nazis because of his Jewish heritage. Adine Gavazzi explained:

“As you may imagine, it became very difficult to find a copy of those pictures and that text, even though many people knew they existed. There are actually many individuals who are still determined to find his book and his original pictures. It’s almost like a treasure hunt!”

However, someone had provided an even earlier visual representation of the site. Augusto Berns, a German engineer, visited Machu Picchu in 1861 and made drawings and sketches of the same wall, together with a very big stairway in the same area. For the same reason, scientists and adventurers got interested in his productions as well, which were the only resources available to the public. Now this is exactly what Fernando saw. Berns’ drawings. He knew they looked the same as the long lost German books, and decided to excavate right where the sketches were made, in hopes to find the original wall and stairway.

Not only does Fernando find the wall, but he also finds these very interesting tea plants. Soon enough, he also realizes that there are many other areas around the excavation that were cultivated in ways that were not supposed to be used for the endemic soil. This left him pretty shocked, as by the time the eighties came around, laws had been put into place for the protection of the Machu Picchu forest. 

“Even though it was an unusual discovery, the team definitely made the most of it. Fernando actually used some of the tea for the excavation workers’ breakfast. They were around two-hundred, and needed something to drink after all that time working under the sun.” 

However, Fernando was caught by surprise even more when he came back to the same area following the rain season, during which excavations were not allowed. When returned, the area of la gran caverna and its terraces (picture below on the right) had entirely been cultivated with plants like corn and coffee. This is an intrinsically Andean way of cultivating food, which made Fernando suspect that the were families who lived on the park’s grounds and who were still growing their own food, even if not native to the park’s natural landscape.

“There was this one family who, during excavation time, was very happy to notice that some unknown people were ‘regularly cleaning their terraces’. Not for one second did they think it was wrong to cultivate on archaeological Inca terraces! It was their way of doing agriculture and would not easily see the difference between what was theirs and what was the Incas’.”

Now, this became quite a difficult task for Fernando, as he could not convince local inhabitants that they could not implement this specific way of growing crops. The paradox was: Machu Picchu is a national monument and should not be violated, while at the same time local people have every right to cultivate their own land.

How are endemic species of the forest protected in Machu Picchu, then? Generally, locals have the right to run their own farms, however, they have to do so in a way that corresponds to the traditional Inca technique of doing agriculture. These people were doing exactly that, but, unfortunately, majority of the plants still had to be eradicated. This is because they interfered with the excavation, which was going to benefit the archaeological park as whole, deemed as more important heritage to the community.

“This is what happens when material heritage meets with immaterial heritage. As an anthropologist, Fernando would not have removed those plants, but as an archaeologist, he had to intervene, for the sake of the excavation itself.”

The fight to eradicate non-endemic species in the Machu Picchu forest and the Cusco region still goes on, with the hope of seeing a more sustainable and healthy natural surrounding in the future.



Heinz Plenge’s Photography



The unique bond between humans and wildlife in Peru



Image taken by Heinz Plenge

The image you see above is the most reproduced ever picture of Machu Picchu, and it was taken by none other than Heinz Plenge, Peru’s most prominent nature and wildlife photographer. It was taken in 1993, just a year after the arrest of Sendero Luminoso‘s leader, a subversive communist group in Peru. This meant that tourism was on the way of expansion, as the fear of visiting the country due to dangerous subversions was slowly abating. Interestingly, an aviation magazine contacted Plenge to accompany the first group of tourists visiting Machu Picchu after the revolution, who were interested in walking through the site’s Inca path. Heinz, who lives on the windy oceanic coast of Peru, had actually contracted a very strong cold about a week before the excursion, and tried to call off the event, but the magazine found no other available photographer of his same caliber.

“I had no other choice but to go. When I saw the group of tourists that I had to photograph, I realized that they were all in their seventies, and thought I would have no issues following them through the Inca path. However, I soon discovered that they had just come back from a hiking tour of Nepal and had extensive training in trekking. At some point along the journey, I really thought I would not be able to make it. I had to carry my own backpack, camera, and all my other equipment.”

Thankfully, Heinz made it through the hike and reached the fourth day of excursion, which ended in Machu Picchu. As he was walking alongside the porteadores (Huayruros Quechua community members from Ollatanytambo), he noticed that the sky had quickly changed color due to the appearance of clouds. Two of the Huayruros therefore started to get interested in the breathtaking view of the Llaqta and quickly sat down to admire it from the hill.

“They were speaking Quechua (the indigenous language of the Andes) and I do not understand a word of it. However, I noticed them pointing at different areas of the mountain in front of us, and I understood that they were talking about the fact that there were almost no tourists. They were talking about their mountain, their ancestors, their site. They were caught in a moment of contemplation of their own past, a moment of connection that was truly sublime.”

Heinz therefore decided to take some photographs while the two men were conversing and, soon after, those same pictures were used by the Peruvian government in a campaign to name Machu Picchu as one of the seven Wonders of the World, which was eventually successful. Additionally, one of the photos from the same series (the one included in this story) was published in an uncountable number of photography and travel books and was specifically recognized as “The Best Picture of the Americas”.

Adine Gavazzi, a colleague and friend of both Fernando Astete and Heinz Plenge, commented that:

“What I find the most peculiar about this whole story, is how Heinz himself did not understand Quechua at all, but was able to perceive what the men were talking about solely thanks to the deep spiritual and emotional connection they had with the site.”

Image taken by Heinz Plenge

Heinz Plenge is, in fact, no stranger to historical and cultural sites. Although he is the father of nature photography in Peru, he has an archive of over one million pictures, which include all sorts of subjects, specializing specifically in archaeology, nature, and anthropology. It was actually because of the creation of his open archive in the 1970s that people started to look more interestingly into the photography of humans and animals in nature and heritage settings. Plenge’s way of portraying heritage is in fact very unique, Adine explained:

“He looks at the living part of heritage. Often, in the archaeological pictures of Heinz, you see people. Not tourists, the people to which that heritage belongs. This is to show that heritage is alive.”

Plenge continuously collaborates with indigenous communities of Peruvian heritage. He was responsible for the creation of the first Peruvian private conservation area of 34,000 hectares, while also inaugurating the first ever project for sustainable tourism in Peru almost twenty years ago.  As of today, there are around 120 conservation areas in the country, with Plenge as a leader of the conservation of natural and cultural heritage movement.

“I was born in Peru and I feel that, both intangible and tangible, natural and cultural heritage cannot be separated from one another. I feel them as one. To me the profession of photographer can certainly transmit not only knowledge, but also emotions. This can be extremely useful in the safeguard of national patrimony, especially in a country like Peru. There is so much to admire and photograph here that three consecutive lives would not be enough to see it all. Many professional photographers sometimes see their job as a shop. I had the opportunity to publish my work in the most recognized media worldwide, and I also know that pictures do have an economic value, but I think every photograph is a historical document, which needs to be preserved.”

Central to the professional ethic of Heinz is his work at the Chaparri Ecological Reserve, a natural reserve with which he collaborates for the preservation of various endemic animals and plants. Plenge holds, in fact, the record of having produced the highest amount of wildlife pictures in Peru, with the peculiarity that he is able to get extremely close to a lot of different feral species. He even managed to photograph a jaguar at less than six meters away without any protection, which represents a unique and extremely rare achievement for a professional like him. 

Adine said of his photography:

“There is a very special way animals look at Heinz. That is why he is so different from all other nature photographers I have met. The creatures look at the camera feeling the presence of the photographer, with their eyes looking at him vividly and profoundly. All sorts of animals do that with him.”

When asked about how he manages to produce such genuine shots, Heinz claimed that they are a combination of coincidental events and preparation. He started to photograph animals very early, at only 20 years old, when he attempted to take pictures of condors, with his first analogical camera, on a beach next to where he lived.

“The condor is a very shy animal and, in order to get close to one, I would have to lay down next to the corpse of a sea lion, faking to be dead, and having to stay still for hours hoping that it would approach me. Some of the best pictures I have ever taken just happened, without the need for planning in advance. However, when I go to a specific place, I go with an idea of what I can photograph and how. Biodiversity is so extended in Chaparri and in Peru more generally, that I often end up photographing more than I expected, or sometimes something even more interesting than what I had planned.”

Image taken by Heinz Plenge

The true secret behind Plenge’s shots, however, is his respect towards nature and animals. Creating a place of mutual respect and coexistence between nature and humans is at the base of sustainable tourism, and it is exactly the lesson that Chaparri gives to the rest of the world. Thirty years ago, the area on which the park is today was almost deserted, with little to no vegetation and a very small amount of fauna. Thanks to a project of habitat reconstitution, in which Plenge took part, the reserve is now the home of an uncountable number of diverse species, hosting the highest concentration of South American Bears in their distribution range. Among those, one became especially famous for often attempting to escape from the reserve: her name is Lola, and is the favorite subject of Heinz at the park.

Image taken by Heinz Plenge

What happened in Chaparri, in the Lambayeque region of Peru, is an incredible example of how the determination of the local population has not only helped nature regrow and regenerate, but also caused their community to benefit and grow from nature itself, for example thanks to the sudden re-appearance of medicinal plants in the forest.

The Legacy of Inca Landscape Planning




The entire landscape of Machu Picchu was carefully planned by the Incas, leading to an uninterrupted tradition of hydrating soil. Even Fernando Astete himself once wrote a special thesis on hydraulic systems in Peru during his youth. Why did he care about soil in Machu Picchu? And why should we care?

The picture above was taken in the seventies, before the same area was completely built upon and exploited for urbanization. On the left side, near the area of Puca Pucara of Machu Picchu, a road is clearly visibile, from which a path, an Inca path to be precise, departs towards the right side of the frame. This area of the picture presents a couple of interesting circles marked on the ground. These are, in fact, hydraulic systems, which are nowadays scarcely visible, as the entire surrounding site has been constructed and covered by houses. The whole area also pullulated with canals, water reservoirs, and other types of systems developed by the Incas for the hydration of soil.

“Nowadays”, explained Adine, “you would never see something like this. Systems of irrigation have changed and the soil is not being given any priority. All there is on that ground is buildings.”

The reason why the Incas were so concerned with the health of the soil in the valley of Cusco is the presence of eucalyptus trees in the upper part of the picture above. These trees, which are commonly referred to in the area as the sharks of the forest, assimilate so much water from the soil, that the flora in the lower part of the picture struggles to have enough to survive.

Therefore, the Incas would have never removed the other species of trees of the forest which are visible in the upper part of the frame. If one was to destroy all the trees there, in fact, all animals would disappear from the area, including big predators, while interrupting the food chain. It is no wonder that, due to recent deforestation and construction activities, condors do not appear in the Cusco valley anymore.

Nowadays, through a very slow process, we have deforested majority of the area for both construction and agricultural purposes, causing an ecological clash. The Incas, however, were able to combine the use of both the biosphere and construction, through an incredibly elaborated process called agroforestry. The Inca population knew, in fact, that separating environments would alter the ability of nature to regenerate itself. The combination of both forest trees and fields, instead of separation, was also useful to create shadow.

“No plant grows alone, including the very wild ones, the semi-domesticated and the domesticated. Even giant trees that only live in extremely wild, such as the cedro, which are very tall and big and live thousands of years, have a network of mushrooms to speed up the amount of nutrients that they assimilate. If trees’ roots cannot germinate in non-forest areas, mushrooms or other organisms decide what kinds of forests grow. Many trees therefore need shadows.”

Agroforestry is just one of the many examples of sustainable agriculture and construction by the Incas, whose legacy teaches us that nature must be respected and shows us that tourism in Machu Picchu is not only about visiting an archeological park, but having an overall unique and sustainable experience.