Américas / March-April 2000
By Larry Luxner
LIMA -- Rio de Janeiro has a cable-car system to ferry tourists up to Corcovado and back. The Great Wall of China has one for the tourists, too, as does the ancient Israeli mountain fortress of Masada.
So why not Machu Picchu, the best-known archaeological site in South America?
Roberto Persivale Rivero, for one, sees no reason why Peru's leading tourist attraction shouldn't have a cable car. Last summer, his company, Peru Hotel S.A., won a 25-year concession from the Fujimori government to build a high-techteleferico that'll whisk tourists from the town of Aguascalientes up to the famous Inca city in only six minutes. That's considerably faster than the 20 to 25 minutes needed to make the winding, exhausting, dusty trip by bus.
"It'll take us two years to build the cable car," said Persivale, general manager of Lima-based Peru Hotel, which plans to invest $8 million in the project. "We should be able to get back our investment in eight or 10 years."
Persivale, 40, is a youthful-looking businessman who got his master's degree in economics from the University of Southern California in 1981. His office sits on the sixth floor of a glass building in suburban San Isidro, the walls covered with framed color panoramas of the hotel properties his company recently bought from the government: the 29-room Hostal Plaza de Armas in Cusco, the 32-room Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, the 48-room Machu Picchu Inn, and -- most impressive -- the 123-room Hotel Monasterio del Cusco, which was once a 17th-century Spanish monastery.
Like the hotels, the cable car would operate as a joint venture between Peru Hotel and the Orient-Express Hotels Ltd. unit of Sea Containers Ltd. In mid-1999, the venture won a government auction to construct the cable car after it offered the lowest bid of four companies that had qualified; eight companies had originally sent in expressions of interest.
"We chose Vonroll, a Swiss manufacturer that has cable cars operating around the world, including Merida (Venezuela), Rio de Janeiro and Masada (Israel)," said Persivale.
Upon completion, tourists will board the cable car at a station in Aguascalientes, then glide silently through the air and step out six minutes later at the entrance to the ruins of Machu Picchu -- traveling exactly two kilometers and paying $11 for the round trip. That compares to $8.50 for a round-trip bus ticket, which covers around nine kilometers and takes 25 minutes because of the complicated, zig-zag route.
Not everyone's happy about the cable-car idea, of course, least of all the bus drivers who stand to lose business. Academics and archaeologists already argue that the crush of visitors to Machu Picchu -- estimated at nearly 340,000 in 1998 -- is putting undue stress on the site, causing erosion and other problems.
Yet Persivale claims that the buses themselves are the cause of many problems.
"Those buses cause a lot of pollution, they generate dust, they're dangerous, and they put stress on the way the trip is done," he said. "I think they do much more damage to the environment than the cable car would. Greece has already stopped buses from going up to the Acropolis. And it's not just pollution. The idea is to control the number and flow of visitors, instead of having everybody visit at the same time and leave at the same time."
At the moment, some 200,000 foreigners visit Peru every year -- staying an average of 14 days and spending $2,400 each. That translates into nearly $500 million a year in tourism revenues. Virtually all of them (plus another 100,000 Peruvians) go to Machu Picchu -- Peru's star tourist attraction -- yet because of the scarcity of affordable lodging at the site and the difficulties of getting there and back by train, most tourists end up visiting the ruins for no more than three or four hours.
To remedy the situation, Peru Hotels not only plans on sprucing up the hotels it recently bought in the government privatization, but also hopes to build a new five-stor resort on the Urubamba River down the mountain from Machu Picchu.
Persivale said the cable-car system could potentially transport 400 people per hour. All this, of course, will be coordinated with the arrival of the tourist train from Cusco, whose 76-mile route the Peru Hotels-Sea Containers partnership also acquired in a government auction. Persivale says his venture plans to spend $20 million over the next five years on the track alone.
"What we're doing isn't detrimental to the environment," he says. "We have a lot of money invested in Machu Picchu. We're not going to let it fall apart."