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The Owners of Machu Picchu

ISSUE:  Fall 2007
Family Portrait
The Abrill family and documentation of ownership (photo-illustration by Martín Arias, courtesy Etiqueta Negra.)

When I met Roxanna Abrill, she hadn’t returned to Machu Picchu in years because, she explained, each visit caused her such pain and resentment. It meant having to remember the many things she and her family had lost. It was the summer of 2006 in the southern hemisphere, and the morning she agreed to return, the sun shone intensely in the Andes. We arrived at the end of the line, at the train station of Aguas Calientes, a small tourist town just below Machu Picchu, built in a narrow valley along the flood-prone banks of the Vilcanota River. We walked toward an office not far from the town square, to buy our tickets to Machu Picchu. Or, as Abrill noted, the tickets that would allow her to enter the land she considered to be her own property. She’d never told her story to a journalist before. It just sounded so preposterous.

Abrill claims to be the rightful owner of the land on which Machu Picchu rests—undoubtedly some of the most valuable real estate in the Americas. She was about fifty years old, had never married or had children, in part because she’d been responsible for her family’s finances since her father’s death in June of 1976. He had a heart attack in Lima, while filing a petition to recover a portion of the land that had been expropriated from him. Not long after his passing, Abrill had been awarded a Fulbright to study history in the United States, an opportunity she turned down. Her mother said she would die of sadness if Roxanna left her alone in Cusco, and so she stayed, and has spent much of her adult life caring for her mother. If there is any resentment, she does not voice it. Abrill had worked for years as a curator and historian at the museum at the University of San Antonio Abad in Cusco. In recent years though, her energies have increasingly been focused on collecting all the pieces of evidence that support her family’s claim to its improbable inheritance.

Este artículo también está disponible en español, cortesía de Etiqueta Negra, como un PDF (1 MB).

That day in 2006, her small eyes grew whenever she spoke of her ancestors, and periodically she broke into a wide smile that I imagine had served her well over the years, a kind of protection against the fruitless and frustrating work of the last decade: traveling between Cusco and Lima, gathering old papers, attending tedious hearings, sitting in waiting rooms at the offices of various government bureaucrats, spending hours on the phone, collecting documents in silence.

For all her efforts, outside of Cusco, almost no one knew she existed.

We waited for the bus together, chatting. Eventually it came, filling quickly with tourists, and after a thirty minute drive along the twisting dirt road that ran up the steep face of the mountain, we arrived at the Inca sanctuary. Roxanna Abrill walked silently toward the control post. She entered Machu Picchu, following the long line of tourists as if by inertia, and then suddenly stopped to observe the ruins. A minute passed in silence. If you are seeing it for the first time or for the hundredth, Machu Picchu is always impressive. Breathtaking, is how the American explorer Hiram Bingham described it in 1911. Could this marvel really be private property?

* * * * *

Machu Picchu, or old mountain in Quechua, the primary indigenous language of Peru, has only been a tourist destination for about seventy years. Before it was a postcard, before it was one of the most recognizable archeological sites in the world, reaching the Inca sanctuary took days by mule. The roads were remote and the forest ridge was imposing, even for the most intrepid explorers. The inaccessible land changed hands many times in the colonial period, and were eventually donated to an order of Bethlemite monks, who held onto the property for many decades. The monks left during the 19th century, and a family of Cusco landowners, the Nadals, took over the land as their own through the recently inaugurated Public Registry of Cusco. When, in 1905, Roxanna Abrill’s great-grandfather bought the land from the Nadals, no one suspected he had also gained a priceless treasure. This new owner was a lucky man. His name was Mariano Ignacio Ferro, and when the explorer Hiram Bingham arrived in Cusco in 1911, it was Ferro who offered the American help.

The following year, Bingham published the most celebrated of his many books, Machu Picchu: Lost City of the Incas, and became famous worldwide for his exploits. Back in Cusco, life on Mariano Ignacio Ferro’s land changed dramatically as well. Groups of researchers from Yale University and the National Geographic Society, who had financed Bingham’s expedition, began coming in increasing numbers. Roxanna Abrill’s great grandfather lent the researchers many of his own employees to help with the cleaning and restoration of Machu Picchu. This went on for weeks, months, years. In fact, it continues to this day. According to what Roxana Abrill would later read in her grandfather’s letters, bit by bit, Ferro lost control over his own property. A calm, isolated plot of land had become a sort of mecca for archaeologists from all over the world. His home was an ad-hoc museum, and Machu Picchu itself a discovery comparable only to that of Tutankamon’s tomb in Egypt. Eventually, Ferro’s daughter Tomasa became the sole owner of the property, an estate which included more that twenty thousand hectares of land within the Machu Picchu archeological area, or nearly two-thirds of the site’s thirty two thousand total hectares. Her husband, Emilio Abrill, a Cusco lawyer, began managing the land in 1921, and then it truly began to slip out of the family’s hands. When Mariano Ignacio Ferro died in 1934, he likely had no idea that sorting out control of his family’s property would bedevil three generations of his heirs.

Sixteen years after Bingham’s arrival, the visits to the estate continued. After serving as mayor of Cuzco and later as a senator, Emilio Abrill knew that the time had come to let the state take responsibility for Machu Picchu. In 1928, he suggested the government in Lima expropriate the land, the first such request, as his granddaughter Roxana Abrill would discover in one of his letters. By then Machu Picchu had been rummaged through by dozens of academics, as well as looters, and it was logical that Abrill hardly felt owner of his land. At that time there was no patrimony law that specified what to do in such a case. As might be expected, nothing happened.

It had been less than fifty years since Peru emerged from the worst wars in its history, fought against Chile, and the country had been independent only a century. Emilio Abrill sent various requests to the state asking it to manage the Citadel of Machu Picchu. It was a huge gesture; no one voluntarily sells a millionaire’s treasure and lets the buyer fix the price. Of course Machu Picchu then was not the theme-park it is today, but only some impressive but inaccessible ruins that would still require decades of restoration. Thanks to the insistence of the Abrills, a law was passed in the fall of 1929 with which the state declared all archaeological remains pertained to the property where it was found. Since Machu Picchu was within a private estate, the state recognized that it should purchase it; that it should pay and otherwise indemnify its owners for the obligatory sale. Six years would pass before Senator Emilio Abrill received the envelope he’d been waiting for. Inside was the Supreme Resolution that stated, according to the Council of Ministers, the request for appropriation of his lands had been accepted.

How much could the Abrills be paid for Machu Picchu? How much could a treasure that was already being distinguished as Patrimony of Humanity cost? Many people attempted to calculate the price. The national board sent an engineer named Ugarte to evaluate the property. One can still read his findings in another of the letters Roxana Abrill has collected. “It is impossible to put a price on the site,” Ugarte writes. “The forests alone would be enough to provide income for four generations of this family.” When he received the assessment, Senator Abrill himself proposed a form of payment, which today seems absurd for both its strangeness and its generous enthusiasm. In one of the letters Abrill said he would accept in exchange of his land for an area of like size on the Pacific cost—perhaps he hoped to capitalize on the export boom happening at the time. In any case, he also proposed another alternative: that the state buy wood from his forest land to manufacture the seats of trains that would eventually run through the area. Not a bad idea, but it still amounts to trading a gram of gold for a gram of sand.

The state didn’t respond. It was the beginning of the 1940s, and Senator Emilio Abrill had been waiting for a response for fifteen years. He decided to sell eighty percent of the estate to a local farmer named Julio Zavaleta. The senator still believed that one day the Peruvian government would respond, and so he left the five archaeological complexes that had already been found on his property out of this sale. Among them was Machu Picchu. Meanwhile, the Zavaletas became owners of the large part of the properties Q’ente and Santa Rita de Q’ente, an area full of Inca trails, terraces, and aqueducts. Six months before his death in 1944, Senator Abrill received the letter he’d been waiting for. The state would expropriate Machu Picchu that year, it said. His hopes were not misplaced after all. Though he wouldn’t see the money, his children would. But of course, they were never paid anything either.

* * * * *

The Abrill family has chosen to be discreet, and so the press has only told one person’s version of this story. Julio Carlos Zavaleta is a sexagenarian that one day turned up saying that he had the titles to the land where Machu Picchu rests. In March of 2005, Zavaleta became the protagonist of a bona fide media circus. He renounced Peru and its ingratitude, claimed he was looking to obtain another nationality. He told reporters he would’ve preferred to be born in Chile—a particularly incendiary comment in the context of Peru’s historic rivalry with its southern neighbor—and that he was happy his children had emigrated to the United States. At least this way, he wouldn’t have to watch them fail in their own country. Most shockingly, Zavaleta declared that there were multinational businesses interested in buying his holdings and that, once the state returned the property to him, he’d be ready to sell. As it was reported in the press, Mr. Zavaleta had no compunctions about selling Machu Picchu.

“The never paid me a cent for them, they just took them away and that was it,” Zavaleta declared. If the state never paid him for his lands, could the appropriation be deemed valid? His lawyer, who now represents the Abrill’s claim as well, said no, and in fact, the Public Registry seemed to corroborate his statements. Zavaleta has seven documents from this office confirming the validity of his titles. In case this wasn’t sufficient proof, Zavaleta had also asked the Superintendent of Public Registry to locate records from when the state said it obtained the property of the Inca sanctuary.

The unexpected response came in legalese: According to the Superintendent, the search “corroborates the inexistence of the said record.”

Or, to put it another way: the Peruvian state could neither disprove Zavaleta’s claim of ownership, nor substantiate its own.

* * * * *

Elias Carreño is the state lawyer in the Machu Picchu case. He says he is happy to respond to questions and will be in his office at the National Institute of Culture all morning. The Institute is three streets off Cusco’s Plaza of Arms, in a colonial residence like dozens of those throughout the city, a house of spacious rooms around a central patio, surrounded by balconies above, and arches on the ground floor. The office is on a second floor balcony, facing a city street. The buses that pass below make the floor vibrate. Paintings of saints are hung on the walls in gilt frames. The door opens, and there appears a corpulent middle-aged man in a brown suit and a bright tie.

According to Carreño, neither the Zavaleta claim, nor that of the Abrills, has the slightest legal foundation. He maintains that in 1995 Machu Picchu was registered as property of the state.

“Machu Picchu belongs to all Peruvians,” Carreño explains. “The land was expropriated years ago.”

Carreño admits that the Peruvian state has disputes with the owners of property containing archaeological remains. He stretches his arms and points outside the window to a mountain covered in rustic houses. He begins to tell a new story. “For example, those over there,” he says. “They’ve built their houses on land that pertains to the Sacsayhuamán sanctuary.”

He’s referring to a community called Fortaleza, whose inhabitants have lived in an archeological zone for three generations, perhaps before the area was declared untouchable. There are figures that explain the state’s plight. In Peru there are calculated to be five thousand zones that have been declared national patrimony, and more than three thousand archaeological monuments. The state has property titles to only a percentage of this number, says Carreño. And that explains the origins of the problem: while the National Institute of Culture declared a certain area reserved, other state organisms were handing out titles to that same property. Some expropriated, others conceded. And although the state admits that private property has become a mess, Carreño doesn’t seem inclined to give any credit whatsoever to the demands of the Abrill and Zavaleta families.

A few weeks before our meeting, Carreño participated in a live debate with Fausto Salinas, the lawyer representing the Abrill and Zavaleta claim. It was carried live on local Cusco television and radio. According to Carreño, he won the debate. The Abrills deny it.

Carreño stands, as if to indicate we are finished. Before he leaves, he tells me he ran into a relative of Julio Carlos Zavaleta the other day, while walking the streets of Cusco.

And what did he say, I ask.

“He said, ‘Don’t pay attention to my cousin. He’s a little crazy.’”

* * * * *

Isn’t it curious that a pair of families with European last names are making claims on an Inca treasure? If we are to speak of origins, who really has a right to claim ownership of Machu Picchu: some estate owners who bought the property at the beginning of the 20th century or the last descendants of the Incas?

When I asked Abrill this very question, she responded: “If your family is from Cusco, then you are part Inca. All of us here have at least some indigenous blood. Some more than others, but we are all descended from them.”

No researcher has yet identified the real family, or panaca, who was in charge of the ritual center of Machu Picchu five hundred years ago. It likely could have been Iñaca panaca, the first family to posses this stone treasure. The Incas, however, contrary to popular belief, were not a “people,” but a dozen distinct families, and what it meant to have charge of and to be owner of were two very different distinctions. For the Children of the Sun, the land was for those who used it; it was common property. The Mother Earth, or Pachamama, couldn’t have an owner. And so Machu Picchu might have been an area reserved for the actual panacas, but not the exclusive property of any one of them.

But then the Spanish arrive and conquer the Incas. And the centuries pass, and their descendants become owners of the land and the Inca temples. Later an American, officially discovers Machu Picchu, and makes his name and reputation on it. But this American takes away seventy-four boxes of excavated material to Yale University, on the condition that he will return it all within eighteen months. These boxes are never returned. The state appropriates the land that had belonged to the estate owners, and this is what they call the sweep of history: someone takes the land and the property that once belonged to someone else. The Spanish over the Incas; the estate owners over the local population; the nation-state over the estate owners; Yale University over the nation-state.

I speak to Roxanna Abrill one night, five months after our visit to Machu Picchu. Her voice is very animated on the other end of the line. She’d just gone back to classes for her master’s. She tells me that after months of waiting, she’s been granted a new hearing in the tribunal. This is good news, but I can hear a certain skepticism in her voice. The newest development is that they’ve finally decided on the sum they’ll ask for the lands expropriated from her family, if in the end the state doesn’t want to return them.

How much will they ask for Machu Picchu?

“100 million dollars,” says Abrill plainly. “What the National Institute of Culture earns in less than three years of entrance fees.”

She admits that she prefers to fantasize about recovering her inheritance and not so much about the money. She says she already has a plan to restore the Inca citadel, that she will contract the best European specialists care for the sanctuary’s rapidly degrading stones. That, moreover, she will get rid of the five star hotel next to the entrance to the ruins because it has nothing to do with the landscape. Abrill says that she herself will be dedicated to park administration and will make it the most celebrated in the world. She believes herself to be prepared. Maybe she knows what she says sounds like a dream, and she has a right not to want to wake up.

“And what will you do with the money if they don’t return Machu Picchu to you?”

Her voice fades over the telephone. Silence. No one aspires to riches they can’t imagine, and she doesn’t seem to imagine herself a millionaire. Abrill was a child during the years of the Agrarian Reform, when her father was stripped of the last three hectares he hadn’t sold. Ever since, she tells me, she has been accustomed to having nothing. It was the second time in less than fifty years that the Peruvian state had evicted her family. The Abrills were left with a small piece of land in the city of Cusco, where they could appreciate their past as large and powerful landowners from within the comfort of the four walls of a tiny house.

Now, on the other end of the telephone line Roxana Abrill returns from the silence. “No, I don’t know what I would do if they gave me the money,” she says. “Clearly I wouldn’t have Machu Picchu anymore. Because of that, I don’t know.”

* * * * *

It’s been said before: if Machu Picchu were in another country, no one would visit Peru. In July 2007, this seemed especially true. In most developed countries, little was made of the internet-based poll selecting the New Seven Wonders, but elsewhere the contest was taken very seriously. In the case of Peru, it’s almost impossible to overstate the fever that shook the country in anticipation of the announcement. It was Swiss filmmaker and explorer Bernard Weber who came up with the odd and highly profitable idea of naming the new Seven Wonders of the World via a global internet-based voting system. Whether it was a scam, a popularity contest, or a cultural milestone is up for discussion, but in any case, since Weber’s first visit to Cusco in February 2007, airlines, public companies, municipalities, television and radio stations, banks, ministries and ordinary people turned the New Seven Wonders into a matter of national pride. The president went on national television imploring ordinary citizens to vote for Machu Picchu. It was considered unpatriotic not to have link on your webpage directing visitors to the appropriate webpage, and it became politically incorrect to say you hadn’t voted for the Inca sanctuary, and a high-minded obligation to ask tourists to do the right thing and leave their vote behind when passing through the country. Actress Cameron Diaz visited Machu Picchu only two weeks before the results were announced, and was one of the thousands of tourists who voted at one of the computers that had been set up at the entrance to the sanctuary. Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates also paid a visit to the sanctuary around this time, though no one recalled seeing him cast his vote.

The Minister of Tourism ordered computers installed at all Peru’s airports, and during the final days of voting, the mayor of Cusco had twenty-five computers placed out on the streets, in a main city square, so that all city residents could cast their vote via internet. Hundreds of locals and foreigners lined up to use the computers; peasants came down from the far-flung corners of the province to vote, and many brought with them their national identity cards in hand, having mistakenly assumed that this was an official state election. Of course, they needed an email account to vote, which, considering most lived without electricity, was hardly realistic.

National pride was at stake, but for Roxanna Abrill, the voting was much more personal—she returned to Machu Picchu in July, to receive the news of the Seven Wonders at the sanctuary itself. An hour before the results were announced in Lisbon, in the middle of the Andes, Abrill was looking for a television where she could watch the results come in. She skipped quickly up a steep path, stopping to catch her breath in the thin mountain air. Abrill wore a blue hat decorated with an embroidered profile of Machu Picchu. None of the tourists she passed had any notion of who she was. Someone had informed her that a television crew had set up at the summit of the mountain with a panoramic view of Huayna Picchu, which shades the immense Inca sanctuary. The crew, they’d assured her, must have a monitor where she’d be able to see if Machu Picchu will be selected as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World or not.

Atop the green mountain, Roxanna Abrill found the reporter and her cameraman next to an ancient Inca watchtower from which one could appreciate the vast and treacherous mountain range that kept this sanctuary hidden from the Spanish and all outsiders for so long. The tourists below were like water-bottle-carrying ants caught in a sharp granite maze. The television crew waited for the signal to go on the air, but there was no news yet. In the distance one could hear the noise of an electric generator. The transmission antenna was hidden several yards away behind a long stone wall, and next to it, a technician tended to the equipment and sat next to the only television in the entire area.

Abrill greeted the three other people watching—conservation workers at Machu Picchu—and all eyes were glued to the tiny screen, the size of a pack of cigarettes. The only thing visible in the picture was a man in a suit introducing another singer. It was nearly five in the afternoon and time for the park to close. Few tourists remained, and the Andean sky was darkening. A voice called out over a radio, telling the technician and the rest of the television crew it would be a good idea to record additional footage now, in case the light disappeared before they went on the air. Abrill covered her mouth with her hands, stood paralyzed before the monitor. A wind chilled the afternoon. The man in the suit had reappeared on the screen, but this time he held an envelope in his hand. In Lisbon, the naming of the new Wonders of the World had begun, and in Machu Picchu, the reporter was told to get ready.

Now, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, appeared on the screen holding an envelope in his hand. Roxanna Abrill nudged the two other people next to her, and then froze. An image of the Great Wall of China appears on the monitor.

“Of course,” Abrill said. “How could the Wall not win.” The Chinese have had an unfair advantage, she explained with great certainty, given that there are so many of them.

Eventually, the photographs of the first three Wonders appear on the screen. The Great Wall in China. Petra in Jordan. Christ the Redeemer in Brazil.

“I can’t believe they elected the Christ! It can’t be,” said an agitated Roxanna Abrill. To her mind, if the giant statue of Corcovado had won, Machu Picchu might be eliminated.

Peruvians always seem to feel more comfortable predicting defeat. If the voting was done by internet, many had reasoned in the run-up to the announcement, the countries with the most people and the most computers would win. Peru, the poorest of the contestants, had little chance. Hours earlier, the Minister of Tourism had encouraged Peruvians to have faith. And in a sense, Peru’s relative poverty was an advantage: the countries with the most computers—wealthy countries like the United States—had barely noticed that the voting was even taking place. They were too rich to care.

Finally, Portuguese soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo appeared on the screen. He opened the fourth envelope in Lisbon, and Machu Picchu erupted in shouts and applause.

The pre-announcement panic vanished.

Roxanna Abrill let out a cry of happiness along with the rest of us gathered at Machu Picchu. Her eyes seemed about to well up with tears, but she contained herself.

At that moment the image of a crowd jumping for joy fills one half of the screen: live shots from Cusco’s main square, where the celebration has begun. In the other half of the screen, the mayor of Machu Picchu, Edgar Miranda, dressed as Inca Pachacuti himself, mounts the stage at the Estadio Da Luz in Lisbon. He is given a black plaque with gold lettering, which he raises up to the sky with both hands as, as he will later explain to the press, an offering to the Sun god. Here, atop the mountain, everyone is heading toward the reporter. Some forty people materialize out of all directions and gather around the television camera. The manager of Machu Picchu’s hotel appears, out of breath and carrying with him a gaggle of red and white balloons. A group of Mexican tourists snap photographs, pausing only to ask if Chichen-Itzá has been selected. The conservation workers employed at the sanctuary hug and forecast a brighter future. A guide shouts hurrahs for Machu Picchu, encouraging everyone to follow him. Roxanna Abrill, balloons in both hands, appears to be happy – happy even though Machu Picchu is now one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, even though the likelihood of the State returning the lands bequeathed to her by her great-grandfather is now more remote than ever. Tonight, the entire country will celebrate. Alan García, the president of Peru, will open the gates to the courtyard of the Government Palace and read a poem by Pablo Neruda in honor of Machu Picchu. Fireworks will light up the sky over central Lima, while celebrants gather in the main square of Cusco drink until dawn.

* * * * *

Not even a week later, in Cusco, hundreds of people took to the streets in protest, blocking the railroad tracks that lead to the Inca fortress, laying rocks between the rails. When the coaches full of tourists approached, the protesters hurled stones at the windows of the trains. What began as a national schoolteacher’s strike, became in some southern cities violent general disturbances, paralyzing transportation throughout the region, bringing the economy to a standstill. Hundreds of tourists were left stranded only a few miles from Machu Picchu; the locomotive pulling the rail cars derailed, and nearly tipped over. Farther back down the tracks, just thirty-seven miles or so from Cusco, another mob hurled stones at the most luxurious of the trains, the Hiram Bingham, for which foreign passengers had paid five hundred dollars a seat.

The president, only hours before, had decreed that Machu Picchu would have a national holiday in its honor.

Translated by Kevin Krell and Annie Murphy. Additional research by Yamileth Latorre.


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