Land is being cleared in Peru’s Sacred Valley to construct an international airport near Machu Picchu.

Despite protests, the Peruvian government is moving forward with plans to build a massive airport in the Sacred Valley that will connect international travelers to the UNESCO World Heritage site.

Perched on a peak protected by sweeping gorges in Peru’s Sacred Valley, the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu once required an arduous journey to reach. Over the years, however, roads, railways, and improved walking trails have made the Incan fortification more accessible to travelers. Now, the archaeological site will likely become easier than ever to set eyes upon, as work has reportedly begun on a $5 billion international airport that’s intended to connect Machu Picchu more directly with the rest of the world.

According to a statement from the Peruvian government, land is being cleared at the town of Chinchero in the Sacred Valley, a 37-mile stretch in the south of Peru—once the center of the Inca empire—that currently serves as the gateway to Machu Picchu from the city of Cuzco. Although Cuzco already has its own airport, it only contains one runway that receives domestic flights as well as some international (from nearby cities such as La Paz, Bolivia, for example). According to officials’ current plans for the Chinchero International Airport, the facility will be capable of handling large planes from a wide variety of international destinations.

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Conservationists have voiced extreme concern over the impact this airport will have on both the UNESCO World Heritage site and the surrounding area, claiming that the project “endangers the conservation of one of the most important historical and archaeological sites in the world.” Opponents of the airport, who started an online petition addressed to Peru’s president, Martín Vizcarra, say that low-flying planes may damage the miles of paths, terraces, and other fragile archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley; they add that the environmental ramifications of the international airport would be hugely detrimental—specifically to local water sources, such as Laguna Piuray, a lake near the proposed site that serves as one of the main sources of water for nearby Cuzco. The petition (which at the time of writing had 48,549 signatures) calls on Vizcarra to cancel the project or at least reconsider the airport’s location.

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Over the past few years, Machu Picchu has experienced a growing problem with overcrowding due to an inundation of tourists to the World Heritage site. After UNESCO reportedly threatened to place Machu Picchu on a list of World Heritage sites in danger, Cuzco’s Ministry of Culture introduced a stricter ticketing system that now requires travelers to prepurchase tickets not just for entry to Machu Picchu on a specific date but also at a specific hour. The new system, implemented on January 1, 2019, also maintains that maximum stay times at the site must be limited to four hours or fewer. Re-entry is not allowed.

Despite concerns about overtourism causing damage to Peru’s historic archaeological sites, Peruvian officials say construction will continue as planned.

Still, a timeline for the project has not been confirmed.

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Great ways to visit Machu Picchu from Cuzco

Currently, travelers can visit Machu Picchu in a number of ways from Cuzco—and many of the available options focus as much on the journey to Machu Picchu as they do on the site itself. Those seeking comfort over adventure can take a scenic train ride through the Sacred Valley on rail services such as Inca Rail or PeruRail, both of which offer routes to Machu Picchu from Cuzco (at varying levels of luxury).

Anyone who wants to reach the ancient Andean citadel as the Incas did—by foot—can embark on a trek along the Inca Trail. Many operators offer tours directly from Cuzco, including G Adventures, named “Best Inca Trail Tour Operator” by the Regional Direction of Foreign Trade and Tourism of Cusco. Each purchase of this seven-day adventure (which includes a four-day trek on the Inca Trail) helps employ hundreds of local guides, porters, cooks, drivers, and office staff.

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Another option is to head for less-frequently visited (but equally worthy) locations around Peru that also display the country’s unique heritage.

>> Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Peru