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.

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.


“Crime” in the Andean World




A “crime”, in the minds of the Andean people, is an event or an act that creates an obstacle in the flow of life. To put it bluntly, if one kills someone else, they do something which is wrong and not correct, creating an obstacle in the correct flow of things. Therefore, the notion of sin is the interruption to the correct flow of everything. When an obstacle is created, it is the judge, the person who is responsible for judging in court, who removes the specific obstacle and restores balance and justice. The idea of mistake or sin is very much connected to the notion of justice. In Quechua and Aymara, an obstacle is expressed as a stone in a river, which changes the movement of the water.

“This is a very wise concept for justice. It is wise because justice means removing the obstacles. When you make a mistake you’re adding an obstacle to your life, relationships, or whatever else, and you need to work to remove it. This is very interesting because you don’t have the notion of guilt. In our world, if I kill somebody, I feel guilty. The judge then gives me a sentence, I go through it, and someday I will go back to living my life normally, in the theoretical sense.”

In the Andean world, however, it is not quite like that. For the Andean people, the notion of guilt does not exist. If one does something wrong, it is that person’s duty and responsibility to work and eliminate that obstacle. Therefore, they are required to be active, as they are responsible for the consequences of what they created. Adine made it clear this with an example, claiming that, if an Andean kills somebody, they will have to feed the children of that person until they are independent.

Does this mean that the Andean people do not get punishments in the conventional sense? The answer is that they do. The difference, however, is that it is not considered a punishment, and that is exactly the point. The person who does wrong would have to do something that re-establishes order and, in fact, if one has to feed the children of somebody they killed, then they would have to work double than if they had not killed them. Looking at it from a societal lens, this method is more effective. If someone who commits a crime is put in jail, they become a burden for society, as they are not in any way productive.


Nevertheless, let us imagine this scenario. If someone was to kill another person, what motivates them to take care of the children of the deceased? It is commonly said that the community usually forces the person. Therefore, they do not have a choice or say in the matter. The collective opinion of society is, as mentioned earlier, that if one commits a crime, they have to re-establish order themselves. By not following through with their duties, people who have done wrong could be accused of another – moderate – crime.

“If I eliminate the generator of wealth for somebody, then I become responsible for their children, their heritage. If I kill someone who has a piece of land, then I have to work and use that piece of land, but the result of that piece of land is not mine, it belongs to the land owner that was killed, so I become literally a prisoner of the work or person that I eliminated.”

An interesting fact is that killing another human being is actually very rare in the Andean world because the notion of life is sacred to their culture. It is just not smart to kill somebody. Not only because one needs to work double the amount, but also because in the Andean world there are not many people. There is much more space than people who inhabit it. Moreover, from a societal point of view, people who killed others are viewed as if they did something that only God can do. It is considered too arrogant of an act.

To give this some more context, Adine Gavazzi explained:

“According to the Andean people, they think of it as: how can you possibly do something that only a higher being can do? Now you have the responsibility of taking care of what the person left, so why put that burden on yourself?”

Sixty-five to seventy-five percent of the population in Peru is made by indigenous communities, both rural or forestal, whose mentality is still the same and is not in the process of changing. In fact, it is known that, for these reasons, the Inca did not use to kill their prisoners, but displaced them in other areas in order for them to create new communities. The idea of having an enemy is considered unwise. Andeans would never kill their enemies, but rather use them to do something useful instead.

Overall, the concept of committing a crime is perfectly expressed in this very simple saying by Andean people:

“You make a mistake and you throw a stone in the river and the water doesn’t flow well anymore. So then you have to make the effort to remove the stone that you have thrown in the river. So that the water flows again smoothly.”


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.”