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Column: Strikers Foil Tourists Near Machu Picchu

  • Protesters march in the Peruvian town of Aguas Calientes during a recent strike. Katrina Wheelan photo

For the Valley News
Published: 12/9/2016 9:00:13 PM
Modified: 12/9/2016 9:00:23 PM

Aguas Calientes, Peru

As I trekked into the Peruvian town of Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu, I felt like I was on the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. I was walking on the only path into town, along a set of train tracks, while hundreds of tourists trudged past me in the opposite direction.

Many of the disgruntled hikers were clearly unprepared for the 6-mile trek along the rocky, uneven tracks. Several men clutched suitcases to their chests, and a few women staggered along in heels and tube tops. The heat made it worse. The tracks were directly in the sun with no hint of shade.

The entire town of Aguas Calientes, normally teeming with visitors to Machu Picchu, was on strike. Every restaurant, hotel and store was closed. Tourists were streaming out of town because they had nowhere to eat or sleep. I was one of only a handful of non-Peruvians walking into what looked and felt like a ghost town.

Handmade signs covered each closed storefront and read Viva el paro (Long live the strike). My family had to sneak into our hotel one by one to avoid drawing attention to a hotel that pretended to be closed. The hotel owner kept the lobby lights off and the front door locked.

The town was on strike to protest what residents consider unfair treatment by PeruRail, a train company with a monopoly on transportation to and from Aguas Calientes. The protesters demanded that PeruRail provide better treatment for locals and more support for the town.

Paradoxically, the strikers’ only weapon against PeruRail was to halt the tourism that normally sustains both the train company and the town. One business owner told me, “The people live from tourism, but they don’t want to be abused by PeruRail.”

Because PeruRail has a monopoly on transportation to one of the most popular tourist sites in the world, it charges exorbitant rates. At $80 for a one-way, 30-mile trip, PeruRail is one of the most expensive trains per mile in the world.

Locals can either pay the unaffordable tourist rate or they can take the few local cars that PeruRail provides. Currently, the local cars run only a few times a day, and locals travel in overcrowded, dirty, cattle-car-like conditions. One protester declared, “We don’t want to be treated like animals.”

On the second day of the 48-hour strike, PeruRail still had not made any concessions. The citizens staged a march to display their discontent. Children, families and couples marched along the main street of Aguas Calientes. They held signs with slogans such as “Enough already” and “We want respect.”

When protesters at the front of the march crossed a police line, national police in riot gear fired tear gas into the crowd. I watched as clouds of tear gas bloomed in the distance and protesters sprinted up the hill covering their faces. Protesters clambered to the public fountain and splashed water in their eyes. A man screamed into a megaphone, “We will act together. Neighbors, we will march.”

The protesters claimed that the protest was completely peaceful. One middle-aged woman who works in Aguas Calientes told me, “There are children here. We don’t want to fight.” At the same time, she told me, “PeruRail doesn’t do anything for us.”

After several more bouts of tear gas, the 48-hour strike period drew to a close. There was still no agreement with PeruRail. Most of the town gathered in the main plaza to listen to the leaders of the rally speak. An angry man with a megaphone declared that the town would vote whether to illegally extend the strike. The town voted to continue the strike indefinitely.

Under Peruvian law, workers who strike must give 20 days of prior notice, and they are not allowed to strike for more than 48 hours. By extending the strike, the protesters were breaking the law in order to gain leverage over PeruRail. It loses tens of thousands of dollars every day that its trains sit idle.

The strikers were also losing business and money, and the cracks began to show. After wandering for hours looking for someone who would sell us food, my family finally found a secretly open restaurant. We had to enter one by one, and we ate on the second floor in the dark. The door downstairs remained locked.

The next morning, my family hiked out of the town along the same train tracks we had followed into town. Neighboring towns had threatened to join the strike and set up roadblocks in solidarity with Aguas Calientes. We started hiking before dawn and managed to catch a van in the neighboring town before they could block the road out.

Later that day, PeruRail and the protesters agreed to a 10-day truce to conduct talks with government officials. Ten days later, they agreed to provide more cars for locals. The parties are still working out the details of the agreement.

As with any labor strike, the protesters were also hurting themselves, hoping that PeruRail would back down first. Strikes are common in Peru, but this strike was unique in its ability to almost completely shut down tourism to Machu Picchu.

I was one of the few tourists who reached Machu Picchu during the strike. Ironically, I had a spectacular visit because there were only a handful of tourists at the World Heritage site. Yet, as a tourist, I was also a pawn in the struggle between the workers and the system.

Katrina Wheelan is a Hanover High graduate who is traveling during a gap year. She is writing about her experiences regularly for the Valley News.

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