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.)


An incredible coincidence, 30 years apart




On one Sunday of October 2015, the Prime Ministers of Peru and Italy were visiting Machu Picchu and Adine Gavazzi, together with José Bastante, José Bastante, the head of the Archaeological Park of Machu Picchu, was asked to accompany them on a helicopter flight to view the site. This was permitted because requested on behalf of Fernando Astete, as helicopters are usually forbidden from flying in Machu Picchu, as they tend to scare animals. The journey began and Adine vividly recalls how she got her camera ready and took a picture for every second that she was up in the air. According to Adine, she was trying to see if there was a visual connection between Mountain Machu Picchu and Salkantay, a big glacier to the south of the site.

The Machu Picchu mountain corresponds to the very last geological outpost of the glacier. In fact, it is geologically connected to Salkantay and the Inca knew that. Adine had wanted to verify this fact and also understand if the visual line that connects the tip of Machu Picchu to the tip of the Wayna Picchu was the same as the line that connects the Salkantay to Machu Picchu. It was only recently, however, that she made a connection between one of the images that she took that day and one that had been taken by Fernando Astete thirty years before. Adine was ecstatic.

“While I was going through Fernando’s pictures, incredibly I found the same picture, except for the fact that his was much better, because the day I took the picture it was clouded, so you couldn’t see the Salkantay. You could see the axis connecting Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu but you couldn’t see the Salkantay. Fernando had taken exactly the same picture thirty years before, exactly in the same spot. And the most incredible thing is that, how can you do it when you’re on a helicopter? I didn’t even know Fernando had taken the picture. So there is something very special in the story of that photo. Thirty years later I got the exact same picture in the air with the helicopter. What’s amazing is that, there you can be ten meters right or left, or even up or down and the picture would turn out different. But I took exactly the same picture and it’s truly extraordinary.”

Adine believes that the most likely explanation to this coincidence was that they were both looking for the same thing, with their eyes looking in the same direction. Adine was able to pass through the same location that Fernando had traveled by with the helicopter thirty years back. What was even more astonishing is that they both inclined the camera to be able to see the exact flat surface of the open square. According to Adine, in order to be able to capture that scenery, one must incline the camera in a certain way. It is an incredible coincidence indeed.

This is something Adine would have never discovered if she had not gone through and classified Fernando’s photos for this project. This account becomes even more significant as it tells a story far deeper than just a mere coincidence. In fact, it shows Inca’s and Fernando’s way of looking at the mountains. He was looking for one of those visual lines that the Inca were observing when they would go on top of the mountains before planning a city, an urban area, or a Yakhta. The incredible thing is that this coincidence is proof that it still works like that to this day. It is an element of the living culture that still exists. Adine learnt it from the workers. Even though she had learnt about this process from chronicles, she could not understand it properly.






“The chronicles kind of knew that the incas would align the points but they didn’t know how; so they didn’t explain it very well. The workers in Machu Picchu do it every day so you kind of inherit this knowledge, and what we understood is the peculiar way in which the incas had to plan. They plan from the top, they look at things from the top. However, they don’t just look at things from one top, they go all around. So they went all around these eighteen mountains, went on top of each and every mountain, and they looked at the site where they would plan Machu Picchu. They kind of drew imaginary lines to connect orientations, and when they did all of that, they went to the highest top of the biggest stone, or the biggest emerging rock, and on the very top of that they carved the Intiwatana. And in the Intiwatana you had the exact orientation, miniaturizing the entire plan. If you understand this notion, you understand the Intiwatana.”

Image taken by Fernando Astete 30 years ago

The Intiwatana is an altar on top of an emerging rock, which was usually operated for solar observations. That was its use indeed, but there was also more to it. It is, in fact, a miniature plan of all the lines of the city. Therefore, if one is not sure where to look, the Intiwatana will help them understand the planning, with a fan that from the center of the stone radiates lines in many directions.

At the Intiwatana, there are also places where one can sit next to or in front of and be positioned exactly to see something. Like the top of the Machu Picchu or Wayna Picchu, you are able to see specific parts of the site.

Image taken by Adine Gavazzi on October 2015

The route of the river



This river was channeled in Inca times and definitely left its mark. The path starts from Aqokqasa hill, and right above the road, the site of Tunasmoqo can be seen. 

This particular image is really interesting, as it clearly shows the original movement/route of the river. Over time, the river bed was moved by the Incas, so that they could use the remaining surface for blossoming vegetation and growing their food. The river bed was designed to create a special type of environment and to allow for the growth of plants, while also being able to design terraces. This can clearly be seen on the left side of this picture, which is truly significant as far as landscape planning goes. On the right side of the image, however, the terraces have different levels.

In order for viewers to better visualize the initial direction of the river, Adine explained: 

“You can see the river, which runs straight, but you also see, on both the right and left sides, a sort of curve. It’s as if you were looking at a bottle shape and the water was running in the middle. The round part of the water flow is an artificial modification made by the Incas. It is not natural. What is natural in the picture above is what is seen on the top of the frame. The river moves right-left, right-left, and then it goes right. It is kind of more disturbed. That is the river that was not modified. In fact, the rest is a landscape design, as the entire area was altered by the Incas.”


When asked about the possible reasons for all the modifications, Adine explained that there could not be a single answer. For example, why would the Inca make alterations to this particular area and not somewhere else? There are, in fact, a variety of reasons that lead to landscape design. First and foremost, the amount of surface available. Because this is a  mountainous environment, the optimal goal is to search for a flat surface. Therefore, whenever the Incas would find a flat surface, they would use it and if they could not find one, they would then create a new one. The main reason for this is that the Inca liked to have very flat terraces, and this is just because their way of modifying the environment had a very strong aesthetic value to them. According to Adine:

“They would never do something that was visually counter-intuitive or that would look strange to the eyes. This is why we don’t immediately see the modification of the landscape.” 

For someone from the Andean culture, or even just from Peru, modifications are easily distinguishable. However, for a Western individual, the change is not easy to point out, no matter how obvious. Using this picture by Fernando Astete as an example, Adine explained:

“Look how straight the river is at its lowest part, and the look at the upper part, notice how uneven the river is. So the upper part is natural whereas the lower part is modified. You know this because the behavior of the river is not naturally like that. However, it is not the natural flow of the river that’s changed, it’s somebody else who has altered it. In this case, the Inca.”

An Inca could notice modifications right away. Even today, a student from Cusco who’s never dived into this question could see it immediately. Even a little kid could show it, without even knowing the word landscape. 



Another interesting element detectable in this image is the paths created by those who lived in and traveled through the area.

“You see the river, and left to it you see a trail that kind of follows its path. In the lower part of the picture, you have the river first, the terraces, and then finally the trail. There is a space. When the terraces end, the trail gets closer to the river and moves up. The point where it gets kind narrower and closer to the river is on the left side, where you kind of see a zigzag line – That is not Inca. That is the modern trail.”

Adine further explained that no Inca would ever build a zigzag line unless there was no other space left. The reason behind this is that the Inca believed that one’s body had to be directed to what can be seen in front of them. If one moves their body too much to the sides, they can easily get dizzy or even become sick. The body had its own GPS and the Inca were aware of it.

Therefore, in order to experience Machu Picchu in its full authenticity, it is very important to follow the Inca trails as much as possible. Those trails have been planned not only to connect sites, but to also clearly show things that could possible go unnoticed. To walk on a pre-Hispanic trail of any kind, means walking on a landscape that has been designed prior to its opening. The connections are several and it is never random. In fact, there are paths created by the Inca for priests, militaries and other travelers, who were actually not allowed to go through their territories. Why? Adine answered:

“This is because you will see a landscape that you’re not trained to see. It’s like you’re a five year old taken to the Opera. You would not understand, it is too complex. So there are landscapes that have been designed to give you a specific perception of them or to connect you with what you see in a very special way. This is because images have the power to influence your mind and, of course, we have thousands of years of art production supporting this concept. Similarly, the sceneries are pieces of art, and therefore some paths and trails or walks are not for everybody. There is a hierarchy. For the Western mind that is very difficult to grasp, because to us, a path is a path, you just choose the most convenient way. We also only think about the functional aspect of conquering the mountains. To an Inca mind, however, this is completely incomprehensible, because you didn’t conquer nature, they honored it. In fact, they didn’t believe in conquering anybody or any place, they simply respect them.”


Conceiving Time and Space from and Andean Perspective






These images show the southern area of ​​the Ushnu. While today this part of the site presents a lot of vegetation, it is clear that this construction had not been completed by the Inca, as during excavations it lost much of its visibility.  

One of the images portrays the specific shadow relationship between the Huchuypicchu and Huaynapicchu. The big terrace seen in the image looks quite disordered, since the work on its construction was left unfinished. All these parts are usually covered by vegetation in most images of the Ushnu, which literally translates into “throne” and was a place where the Inca used to sit, do administrative work, and receive people. It was usually in the main square, but in this case, since there was no available space, it was put on the edge of the area. However, it still has a special connection to the Wanka, which was originally in the middle square, but cannot be seen today. A very interesting fact is that there is not a lot of vegetation surrounding it and that all the buildings of the Wayna Picchu are visible. In fact, this is because the image was taken right after an extensive fire.

Understanding the architecture of Machu Picchu means understanding its relevance to the sun and the shadows it creates over the buildings of the sanctuary. In this image, the Huchuy Picchu is shown, reflecting very low on the illuminated facade of the Wayna Picchu, meaning that the sun behind the Huchuy Picchu was lowering, but was still very high, as the shadow is not as high to cover most of the site’s facade. Therefore, the sunset was just about to begin in this picture. When asked if it would be possible to climb up the Wayna Picchu, Adine Gavazzi confirmed.

“Oh yes, there is a special time to go there. Very, very beautiful,very powerful, and very dangerous as well. Tourists are allowed to go, but a very reduced number of tourists, and they have to be visually controlled by the Hilantes, because in many parts, you can fall. If you fall from there, there is no possibility that you will survive the fall from the Wayna Picchu. More than three hundred people have died since we know Machu Picchu. Three hundred is a big number, I mean, Machu Picchu has been open to the public for only the last hundred years and we have three hundred people who died. That’s like three people each year. It’s scary. The most dangerous thing to do is hiking up the Wayna Picchu and so everybody wants to do that.”


Another interesting story that was told about this picture was the one regarding the significance of the little ninety degree angle that is visible at the top of the mountain next to Wayna Picch. It is not just an ordinary space, but a very special site, where indigenous people still get married. It is not something that many people are aware of and climbing that area is not possible, as it is not open to the public.

Now, is there a specific reason why? As a matter of facts, yes. That specific place at the top is one of the points where it is possible to see the areas where people were buried. According to Adine, Andean people believe that: “When you are looking at dead people, you are looking at your future and at your past as well.” Therefore, for them it is very important to have the opportunity to be looking at their ancestors. This is also one reason why deceased people are buried high up in the mountains, as looking down on them signifies looking higher to one’s future. Adine also explained that ancestors are considered those who are ahead of us, not behind us, because we are all heading towards where they already are. This is not a very easy concept for the Western mind to grasp.

“To understand how they conceive time and space, think of a procession with music. For instance, there is a festivity and there are musicians: the oldest ones go first with their instruments and the kids are at the end because kids follow older people. We walk in the footsteps of our grandparents, so time goes backwards. This is very difficult to grasp. It took me many many years to think like that. Because in our Western mind we go forward, our time has a beginning and we go forward. But then when you hear old sayings like ‘we walk in the footsteps of our grandfathers’ you realize our ancestors are literally those who are in front of us. So we also have a tiny winy memory of this ancestral way of thinking. This is why it is so important to make peace with your past. Because if you don’t make peace with your past, your path is wrong, it’s going to be broken, your life will not be happy…You have to make peace with your past, it’s literally compulsory. When you have a natural catastrophe, the first thing you do is you make peace with the event as if you don’t want to be quarreling with the forces of nature. So you make peace with the past. This is why this area for marriages and burials is located right over here.”


Moutain Yanantin and the skyline


Significance behind the images 


This image of mount Yanatin was taken in front of the site’s keep, probably sometime during August.

This specific skyline is very special and much appreciated all over the world. In fact, it is used in pictures anywhere, from advertising materials to mere websites, and so on. One interesting reason why it is so special is that all workers of Machu Picchu can tell the exact date that the picture was taken on, only by looking at the sky. By using the skyline, the workers can determine exactly the day and the year, as the sun goes along the skyline like a clock, between one limit to the other limit, almost “oscillating” from one side to the other.

Another reason why this picture is so unique is that the skyline is never straight. It has a hundred thousand very small points, making it very easy to measure the position of the rising sun. So whenever there are not any clouds, which is at least seventy to eighty percent of days in a year, all the workers can tell the date, which is determined only by looking at the area to the east.


This special skyline is also the reason why the majority of the windows in the sanctuary are facing east. Moreover, the time can be determined by looking at the lower part of the skyline. Thus, when looking at Wayna Picchu, a watch is not needed.

Comparing different pictures, it is possible to see how the mountains are projected on the skyline, thus in the morning the effect is reversed. The sun comes out from the skyline in the back and, in the afternoon, shadows can be visible. Looking at the west side gives exactly the same effect, but upside down. Therefore, the skyline literally is an astronomical theater at every moment of the day. Any skilled person can tell the day and the time, taking into consideration that this can be done almost everywhere with mountains. Andean people had this ability, which is still greatly used in the current Andean culture.