MACHU PICCHU, Peru — If it were a normal day, thousands of tourists would be stepping off the train and into this picture-book town high in the Andes, the gateway to the ancient Inca ruins.
They depend on Machu Picchu to survive. They shut it down anyway.
Then a man in the central plaza began banging a large drum. People carrying bright red and white Peruvian flags formed a crowd. And a woman with a megaphone called on neighbors to demand that their country’s government — and the world — listen to them.
“Good morning, neighbors,” shouted Irma Pereyra, 49, who sells artisanal crafts in the market. “Today begins a radical strike!”
Peru has been roiled by weeks of protests demanding the resignation of President Dina Boluarte. After the death toll passed 50 last week, the people who rely on Machu Picchu tourist money to feed their families voted to take a stand.
The town of about 7,000 people, often marketed as Aguas Calientes, agreed last Friday to declare a “total strike,” shutting down all businesses in solidarity with the nationwide demonstrations. They urged the country’s Ministry of Culture to close the ruins to the public, to keep protesters from neighboring towns from invading their ancestral sanctuary. Ministry officials closed the citadel Saturday, citing the safety of tourists.
The UNESCO World Heritage site, which generates tens of millions of dollars for Peru each year, was only just recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. The severing of the rail link had already slowed the flow of tourists to a trickle and cut off the town’s only supply route for food and fuel. Now the strike had brought the local economy to a standstill, indefinitely.
But the sacrifice will be worthwhile, people here say, if it sends a message to a central government that has long benefited from the town but ignored its demands. Under Peruvian law, the municipality of Machu Picchu receives 10 percent of the revenue from the park. But for years, townspeople say, corrupt politicians have allowed big businesses to monopolize tourism here, leaving little to trickle down to the people.
“This democracy is no longer a democracy!” dozens chanted as they marched past shuttered hostels, restaurants and massage parlors toward the entrance of the ruins. They covered the shuttered gate with a black-and-white anti-corruption flag and circled around.
“If there isn’t a solution,” they chanted, “we’ll take over Machu Picchu!”
David Moreno Riveros, a strike leader, said he wouldn’t allow it to go that far. That night, he told the crowd, townspeople would meet with their mayor and decide whether to continue the strike.
He argued that they should. Weeks of protests and at least 56 deaths had not brought down Boluarte. If they could make a statement at the globally beloved marvel, Moreno hoped, governments, organizations and individuals abroad might start paying attention.
“We are here,” Moreno shouted. “But no one is listening to us.”
Without trains, the only way Washington Post journalists could reach the town was on foot.
We traveled at night, to avoid roadblocks. First, our driver, Pit Bull, steered our Toyota SUV around the sharp turns of mountain roads littered with boulders planted by protesters. The following morning, led by a 62-year-old chain-smoking guide, we began our hike: nearly seven miles along the unused train tracks, followed the entire way by a small black stray dog.
We passed empty campsites and restaurants and, occasionally, people with wheelbarrows or burlap bags to carry food and supplies to their town. A trek that normally involves a quick train ride that costs locals about $1 now required a two- to three-hour walk each way.
“Tourism maintains us all,” said Carlos Soncco, 54, who ordinarily runs a small bar in town. “The strike hurts us all.”
Juan Carlos Durán, 39, sells postcards at the entrance to the ruins. On Monday morning, he was hiking hours to buy chicken to sell back home.
After nearly three hours, we arrived in the town of Machu Picchu, its hotels and restaurants densely stacked over narrow streets along the Urubamba River. The municipality, a 20-minute walk from the ruins, was established only a few generations ago, in 1941, 30 years after American explorer Hiram Bingham III brought the site to the world’s attention.
The site soon began to draw tourists, and the town grew. But in recent years, the people have grown frustrated by what they see as a market controlled by the railroad and large hotel owners. Tourists increasingly book their travel through agencies, not local businesses, and many visit and return to Cusco on the same day. Few tourists spend much time in the town, locals say.
The pandemic shut tourism down for seven months. When the citadel reopened, the government capped the number of tourists at 2,244 per day. After the town’s residents protested, the limit was raised to 4,044, but locals say it’s not enough.
Peru’s rural poor believed they finally had their champion in Pedro Castillo, the left-wing former schoolteacher who was elected president in 2021. But once in office, he proved inept, chaotic and allegedly corrupt. When he tried in December to dissolve Congress and rule by decree, Congress impeached him.
Boluarte was his vice president. Since she succeeded him, his supporters say she has been captured by the right wing.
On Tuesday, Boluarte called for a truce with protesters. But she also accused some of having ties to “radical groups that have a political and economic agenda based on drug trafficking, illegal mining and smuggling.”
Hours after she spoke, on the tracks just outside the town of Machu Picchu, residents burned cardboard coffins emblazoned with “DINA” and accused her of murder.
But their protests are coming at a high cost.
With businesses closed, people are struggling to make rent. Some have begun making a communal meal in the town plaza each day to help feed newly needy families. Food scarcity has sent prices soaring. Tomatoes, which cost about 75 cents per kilogram (2.2 pounds), now cost more than $2.50.
Felícitas Vilca Ochoa, a 62-year-old who sells juices in the market, said she has thought about leaving Machu Picchu in search of a new source of income elsewhere.
Yushara Roque, 33, kept her shop open. She felt she didn’t have a choice — she had just used the last of her savings to pay her bills that day. She supported the idea behind the protests, she said, but she didn’t see the point.
“From here, I don’t think we can do anything,” she said, breastfeeding her 6-month-old.
After three days of protests, the people of Machu Picchu packed the town theater Monday night to make a decision: Was it worth continuing the fight?
Mayor Elvis La Torre gave a word of caution. Tourists were canceling plans to visit. The town was in crisis — and the strike was making it worse.
“Our children need to eat,” he said. “We are killing the line of gold, and that will bring serious consequences now and in the months to come.”
But as resident after resident rose to speak, it was clear their minds were made up.
Even if they lifted the strike, Pereyra said, tourism wouldn’t return to normal levels and the town would continue to struggle. This was their chance to demand change.
“Machu Picchu is its people, and the people need to be able to benefit from our marvel,” she said. “It can’t only serve the big ones. Tourism needs to benefit us.”
The vote was unanimous: The strike would continue. The crowd cheered: “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” — “The people, united, will never be defeated.”
The next day, officials said, a humanitarian train would carry residents most of the way to the nearest towns to buy food and supplies. But when the day came, no train arrived. We found an alternative way of getting back: a small wooden rail cart powered by a motorbike. It had transported the mayor earlier that day.