MACHU PICCHU PUEBLO, Peru – Helicopters ferried out the last tourists stranded near Machu Picchu on Friday, leaving the country to contemplate a prolonged shutdown of its top tourist site.
A total of 3,900 tourists and local people were flown out of the tiny mountain village of Machu Picchu Pueblo this week after mudslides and torrential rains on Sunday destroyed sections of the railway that is the only form of transit in and out of the village below the Machu Picchu citadel.
The remaining 1,277 travelers were evacuated Friday as authorities raced to complete the job against darkening skies, police Col. Santiago Vizcarra told The Associated Press.
Although the evacuation operation ended, rail operator Perurail said it will take months for workers to repair the railway that leads to the fabled Inca citadel.
Authorities said Machu Picchu will remain closed for weeks until the government can repair roads and railroad tracks washed out by mudslides and the raging Urubamba River.
Tourists mostly in their 20s and 30s were the ones still waiting for a helicopter ride Friday from this village outside the famous ruins that are perched on an Andean mountain ridge at 8,000 feet. Flights began as the sun rose to a clear sky over the shaggy, green Andean peaks.
The hordes of outsiders caught in Machu Picchu Pueblo, a town of 4,000 people, strained food and water supplies.
Hotels overflowed, and travelers grew frustrated over chaotic relief efforts, price-gouging and scarce food. Many were left to eat from communal pots and bed down in train cars, outdoors and wherever they could find space.
Sofie Mag, a 19-year-old from Frederiksberg, Denmark, said a manager at the Sanctuary Lodge, right next to the ruins and a 45-minute bus ride from Machu Picchu Pueblo, let her and other tourists sleep on the floor of the building's restaurant.
"It was free and we got food also," Mag said. "We were very lucky to be up there. ... The first day was chaos."
Authorities closed the Inca trail, a popular four-day trek that ends in Machu Picchu, after a mudslide killed two people Tuesday. The trail also is likely to remain closed for weeks, although it has seldom been used at the height of the area's rainy season in February.
Rescue efforts weren complicated by bad weather and terrain — the village is wedged between a sheer, verdant mountainside and the Urubamba River. Rain prevented helicopters from landing in the town until after midday both Tuesday and Wednesday, but the skies stayed clear Thursday and much of Friday.
Evacuations were conducted by age — oldest and youngest first. The last middle-aged tourists left Thursday from a makeshift helicopter clearing, while younger backpackers played football with locals and lent a hand stacking sandbags and clearing train tracks.
When mudslides Sunday destroyed the railway, many hotels and restaurants raised prices exorbitantly. Tourists who could afford to do so paid the higher rates, while others spent days sleeping in train cars and waiting for delayed food shipments.
Dina Sofamontanez, who runs Hostal El Inka, said she dropped prices when tourists ran out of money, while some hotels on the main avenue raised theirs fivefold up to $50 a night.
"It's all about money," she said.
When ATMs ran dry, many backpackers slept in the central plaza.
"We had to eat what the locals gave us, out of communal pots," 34-year-old Argentine tourist Sandra Marcheiani said.
Some 400 Americans were said to be among those stranded when train service initially stopped.
Karel Schultz, 46, of Niagara Falls, New York, said before being flown out Thursday that most Americans paid for beds and bought their own food, while those who slept in the streets were mostly backpackers from Argentina and other South American countries.