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.

Valuable Lessons from the Forest of Machu Picchu




The first thing that comes to mind when discussing Machu Picchu is its Historic Sanctuary, or the Yakhta. Because of this part of the site, which holds a lot of cultural significance, hardly anyone takes into consideration visiting the forest of Machu Picchu, which carefully hides the site’s most important secrets and teachings to our present.

The most significantly relevant place in Machu Picchu, in fact, is not the Yakhta. It has always been the forest, the one that nobody wants to visit. The world knows all about the stories of how Hirgahm Bingham discovered Machu Picchu, but what did he do when he went to the forest? He burned it. The Inca knew better. They also cut the forest to open up space, but they had a way of restoring its habitat, which shows they had expert knowledge of the complexity of the woods themselves. The Incas would have never thought that a single human being could more intelligent than the forest. In fact, the reason why the landscaping of the site is so elaborated and sophisticated is because they always believed that the network created by those plants was more intelligent than their own planimetric planning. The Inca, the Chacha, and all communities who worked or lived in the forest never looked at it as wilderness, but as a complex network from which they could learn about life.

The forest of Machu Picchu, just like any other, is home to millions of living species, from huge trees to small plants, wild animals and small insects. The whole build up of the forest creates one huge network that runs so deep that a mere human could not begin to comprehend. For example, let’s consider the Chiwawako tree in the Machu Picchu forest. A single one of these has roots that grow and expand through a radium of roughly 40km under the earth. The roots of the Chiwawako decide what the balance of the nutrients of all the other plants’ roots is. Considering that these trees live for thousands of years, a single Chiwawako has the ability to plan, through its roots, the balance of all other near inhabitants.


Therefore, when one decides to cut one of these trees, they are potentially cutting 40km of nutritional balance for the forest. Can you just believe it?

The sad truth however, is that today, with the advanced technologies that we have developed, the destruction of these trees, along with millions of other living species, is continuously happening, disrupting the balance of life in the site, and on Earth. Instead of evolving forward, we as humans are moving backwards. This is why Machu Picchu is so important as a Heritage Site. It conveys the message that there is a different approach to this, a way of treating the forest with intelligent and positive outcomes.

“I don’t believe in people doing marches on the street, saying ‘Save the Chiwawako’, because nobody knows it. This is why it is important to create awareness.” (Adine)

Machu Picchu still teaches us today, in the 21st century, to pay respect to the intelligence of life and its ability to create a network of that combine species in a way that is healthy for everyone. We are currently living in a time when humans have pretty much depleted our planet’s resources, as we always considered them as an endless stream of something that has no intelligence or goal of its own. However, the truth is, it was never there for us. Nature has its own order and, by not paying attention to the cycle of life of these natural resources, we run a very big risk today.


Machu Picchu, seen through the eyes of Fernando Astete


Seen through the eyes of Fernando Astete 

Fernando Astete is a Peruvian anthropologist, who dedicated more than thirty years of his life to the investigation, conservation, and protection of Machu Picchu, and who recently shared with us what the sanctuary means to him through some exclusive pictures he took during the years at the site. This project therefore aims to bring light to the unique stories behind his invaluable pictures and the significant events that have affected the site through the various years of Astete’s work.

According to Fernando, visiting Machu Picchu is in itself an experience one must have in order to understand the beauty and meaning that it holds. The first time he set foot in Machu Picchu, he was only a young boy scout, on a school excursion with a group of other students. His first experience was in fact memorable for both him and his friends, who were warned to stay alert of deadly snakes and insects as they packed up their tents and prepared for the adventure.

After reaching the site and setting up their tents, the kids were forced to run to the river in order to get wet and avoid mosquito bites. Astete recalls them as “children of the mountain”, who were not used to the environment of the sanctuary, but for him that experience was beautiful. He not only got to do something new with a group of friends, but also got to see all the monuments in the Llaqta, which were barely visible at the time, and managed to go all the way up to the Intihuatana, the astronomic clock of the Inca, whose literal meaning is “sun clock”.

Fernando’s second visit to Machu Picchu, was during his high school years, when his group of friends was very sportive. In fact, as they were climbing up and down mountains, he recalls getting the most beautiful view of the sanctuary, right by the Intipunku, which in Quechua means “sun door”. Years later, after his studies in 1961, his university professor Manuel Chavez Ballon would call him to take charge of the citadel for a season. He accepted the offer and even decided to stay, and rest, as you say, was history.

After a few years of service, Fernando had developed his own personal relationship with the mountains. He was able to see things that a simple tourist in Machu Picchu perhaps could not, and he had the opportunity to live by the door of the sanctuary, which meant that, after the tourists would leave, the citadel would become a place solely for him. “It was a very nice location, positioned on the back of the Tres Portadas sector, made of small buildings and a large carved rock. It was a place that led to meditation and rest. It made you think, when you were there, you would have a spectacular view of the river from the Llaqta”, he recalls.

Photo – Adine Gavazzi

The various observation points are a fundamental feature of Machu Picchu. Where you are, what you see, what your horizon is, how many people can be with you and why you are there, are all vital questions, which need to be answered, in order to understand what perspective of the site one is experiencing. There are paths that everyone can take, while there are others that nobody is able to notice at first. When you take those rustic paths, you become invisible, and that allows you to develop your own individual relationship with the mountains and skyline in a very special and unique way.

The exceptionality of Machu Picchu does not only result from the place itself, but also from its people. Fernando describes Andean people as a communal cooperative union. Everyone knows and cares for each other’s well-being, for example by sharing food between neighbors and aiding with construction work. Acts of friendship and gatherings are also common. In fact, they are so common that when a couple is getting married, their neighbors and families will usually help to build a house for them.


Photo – Adine Gavazzi

Photo – Adine Gavazzi

To Astete, the sense of community that he observed made him wonder how Macchu Picchu was built. He knows that, during the Inca times, there was a reciprocity in working, as the state was responsible to provide people with basic needs even during scarcity of resources, while they would pay back with labor. “When people were not hungry, they were always capable of thinking”, he claims.

“For us it is the maximum expression of Andean architecture, it is the symbiosis between human work and nature, how to work without affecting the environment.”

The Inca collaboration mechanism involved horizontal and vertical cooperation among the people and followed a single shared goal. Many centuries later, the common will of the Andean people still remains and lives in Machu Picchu. In a certain way, everyone who is currently involved in the preservation of the site, still uses their means and capabilities to collaborate with others in the process.

Another Inca legacy to the site would be the very special relationship they had with the sun. Their technique was making sure the mountains would receive sunlight, instead of the bottom of the valley, as they believed light could give them energy, purify them and make them able to do greater things. Sunlight was essentially what made them better people.


In 2013, the Mexican Orchid Society named a new species of the flower in honor of Fernando, Epidendrum Astetei, in recognition of his work for the site and for Peru as a whole. Although he may be retired now, Fernando is still recognized as the older brother of the site.

“It wasn’t just a tribute to me, it was in the name of all of us who worked. I would not have had any recognition if it had not been for the effort of all the people involved, from the humblest worker to the more advanced one. Everyone supported the conservation work, because we decided to study Machu Picchu to contribute to the scientific knowledge of what it represents to Peruvians.”

The fire in Machu Picchu, which led to the discovery of a lost Inca Trail


And the discovery of the lost Inca Trail 

It was in August 1988, while Fernando was working in the Cadastral office, that a fire started in Santa Rita de Q’ente. At the time, he was a young man, who often used to walk through the mountains and forests of the sacred valley of the Incas, which led him to be present during this incident.

As Astete describes, the fire had ignited and spread rapidly along the railway line connecting Ollantaytambo to the site and had been caused by the clearance of a piece of land for cultivation. He says that farmers, especially in densely forested territories, tended to get rid of higher trees by practicing controlled burnings in the area. However, this particular incident could not be contained, as the fire was able to expand quickly and uncontrollably, due to the weeds that had been cut and dried for a long period of time.

 “The fire originated in the middle of the mountain and began to spread rapidly, due to the wind moving up and down, reaching 3600 meters up and almost hitting the bottom of the valley.”

Fernando recalls the tragic time in the Pacaymayo Alto sector fighting the fire with the help of armed forces and firefighters. Despite the help of helicopters, it was hard to reach the steep mountain areas and dump the water in exactly the right places, therefore the local people also started giving a hand out of their own will, using buckets of water to extinguish the fires in those areas.

“We had no idea how to fight a fire, it was all pure will.”

Astete claims that the fire continued for many days and that even those small fires which had seemingly burnt out, reignited again. It was then that a fifteen year old teenager, who was a member of the local community, unexpectedly came up with an idea from an original pre-Hispanic method. He knew how to read bio indicators and how to orientate through the slopes of the mountains and, therefore, started guiding people to build a canal to bring water from the higher Andean lagoon. Through this method, they managed to get the water to reach the devastated zone of Pacaymayo, and successfully stop the fires.

“The idea was that there should be a continuous flow of water. Even when we had already been extinguishing the fire all day, while we would have dinner, the treetops would be burning again.”

Regarding the Porters

Interview with Fernando Astete

Regarding the teenager

Interview with Fernando Astete

The fire lasted for about fifty days and was incredibly difficult to contain. This meant that there were numerous logistical difficulties that arose with it.

While recalling one of the main issues that the people had faced, which had been a shortage of food supplies, Fernando claimed: 

“We had to bring food from the bottom of the valley. Logistical problems were present because it was the first time we had to deal with a fire of this magnitude.”


However, due to the lost vegetation, the workers slowly began to see the presence of some low walls and terraces. It was just a matter of discovering if they were part of a path and if they reached another site. The Inca trail around the sanctuary had in fact been hidden by the bushes for all those years.

“That was important, it helped us show that it was not only an archaeological group but that it was connected through a large road network.”

This kind of event served as a lesson to provide Machu Picchu with its own team of firefighters, trained and specialized in solving similar situations, who would understand how to react in a more practical and less time-consuming way. The involvement of various external actors, such as private and public companies, NGOs, and the Peruvian population, contributed to a gradual reduction of fires in the area.

Did you know that the Inca site of Machu Picchu has been a place where numerous fire emergencies have occurred? One of the biggest incidents of wildfire occurred in 1988, which resulted in the discovery of new Inca routes connecting the archeological sites of the sanctuary. Fernando Astete, former head of the sanctuary, was present during this tragic event and shared with us his experience.

Machu Picchu – From an uncontaminated Paradise to a Mass Tourism place


From an Uncontaminated Paradise to a Mass Tourism Site

In order to understand the phenomenon of tourism in Machu Picchu, one must first look back at how tourism arrived and developed in Cusco. We spoke to Miguel Miguel Zamora-Salas, manager of the National Archeological Park of Machu Picchu (PANM), to get a better understanding of the tourism industry in Peru, how it has evolved through the years and how it affects Machu Picchu today.

In the aftermath of the 1950 earthquake, which left most of the buildings of Cusco in ruins, the reconstructions did not only alter the character of the city, but also acted as a catalyst for a greater change in the region. This included the contributions made by the state for the development of infrastructure for transport and accommodation, and its provision of legal and economic support as well as promotion of international aid, which then led to aiding tourism in Machu Picchu later on.

Tourism has greatly developed over the years in Machu Picchu. In fact, it has grown so much that it has become the synonymous of travelling to Peru (Elizabeth Matsangou, 2019). However, the increasing popularity of the site over the years has also become its greatest weakness. Each day, thousands of visitors stream through this archaeological site, most of whom do not understand its importance, significance and structures in its entirety, and thus fail to think about their unsustainable visits, which constantly cause irreversible damage.

“There is a great variety of tourists and, if we divide them by their motivations, we have visitors who are very eager to know the past and history of the site, others who are adventure lovers, some who like nature and biodiversity, and then we have the others, that are motivated by the fashion of visiting famous places.”

Given the immense popularity of the site, it is vital to consider the long term consequences that a site of this magnificence may endure due to tourism. That brings us to the topic of sustainability. According to Miguel, the country of Peru has yet to achieve sustainable development in terms of tourism. The reputation of Machu Picchu drives so many visitors to the country that they often neglect other remarkable attractions in the region. Moreover, making the management of the site even more difficult, only certain parts of the sanctuary are open to tourists, which increases the traffic in specific areas instead of dispersing the crowd in different locations.

“I believe that in our country in general we have not yet managed to achieve these objectives in an integral way. In Machu Picchu, where services have grown without any planning or control, we can affirm that tourism is not entirely sustainable, mainly in terms of its environmental effects.”

Even though Machu Picchu cannot be classified as an example of sustainable tourism, Miguel believes that the management of the site has been abiding by the rules of UNESCO and has been doing quite well in trying to preserve the site and maintaining its authenticity and integrity: 

“…By assigning a specific quota of maximum number of visitors, the citadel or llaqta of Machu Picchu is the first destination in the country with this type of tourist management, and consequently serves as an example of sustainable management of tourist flows.”

Nevertheless, the unplanned growth of tourism has been an ongoing issue for the management of the town of Machu Picchu. This could be counteracted through further policies and regulations. For instance, Miguel believes that the current situation and the circumstances the world is now facing definitely have a silver lining: 

“I consider the COVID-19 pandemic, which paralyzed Machu Picchu, Cusco, Peru and the whole world, to be a great opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past and re-emerge with better management schemes.”

Understanding tourism segments can be very helpful in solving issues of sustainability, creating policies, and strengthening the existing regulations to protect the site further. Sustainability does not only imply environmental efforts, but also includes the betterment of the local people and community as a whole. This is an important fact to reflect on, especially when categorizing tourists based on their motivations to visit. In fact, introducing policies to help involve locals in the tourism sector would also be very effective and sustainable.

It is also essential, however, to educate foreign tourists and emphasize Machu Picchu’s history and spiritual significance, in order to allow visitors to reflect on their actions and foster a more responsible behavior when traveling.



“The tourist who arrives in Machu Picchu visits the most emblematic place of the Inca Culture, the symbol of the empire, an archaeological site that has been hidden in the vegetation for 400 years.”

The unforeseen occurrences that led to the lockdown of various countries and their popular tourism attractions has been deemed beneficial for Machu Picchu in a certain way, as this “alone” time has allowed for the site to undergo conservation and renovation work, which would otherwise not be possible with the visitors wandering around.

Nevertheless, even though time and accessibility are no longer issues, the COVID19 pandemic has left the site with less than minimal staff to guarantee the care and preservation of the site. Moreover, as the town of Machu Picchu developed its main services around the tourism sector (hotels, restaurants, guides, sale of handcrafts, etc.), the standstill in these activities has a terrible economic impact on the community. The uncertainty of the future would only result in a very slow recovery, as the number of people willing to travel will most probably be lower than required, at least for a long while.

(Miguel is a Peruvian Tourism Planning and Management specialist, with 40 years of experience in regional tourism development in Cusco. This field of expertise has widely developed since 1975. From 1996 to 1998, as Regional Director of Tourism of Cusco, he created a unified policy towards economic development. As National Director of Tourism for the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism from 2002 to 2006, he extended the principles applied in Cusco to a general planning strategy. In 2011, he directed the most successful Intiraymi Festival, inviting over 650 artist to the event and receiving the widest press coverage ever recorded for this occurrence. Since 2014, he has been Head of the Visitor Services Office and Tourist Services in the National Archaeological Park of Machupucchu / OAVST-PANM and has been integrating this experience with Tourism Planning courses in Japan and Poland, as well as academic activity at the University of San Marcos Lima and Cenfotur in Cusco.)