LONDON, Jan. 26, 2010 — -- Hundreds of tourists, including about 500 Americans, are trapped in the historic Peruvian city of Machu Picchu following three days of heavy rains and mudslides.
Authorities have begun an airlift rescue operation involving 10 helicopters to pick up the estimated 2,000 tourists stranded in the neighboring town of Aguas Calientes.
Landslides were triggered after the Vilcanota and Urubamba rivers in the Andean province of Cusco burst their banks over the weekend, triggering dozens of landslides and severing the only rail line linking the city of Cusco with Machu Picchu, train operator PeruRail said in a statement today.
The government has declared a state of emergency in Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca walled city that is a favorite tourist destination, and the surrounding areas.
Peru's Tourism Minister Martin Perez told ABC News today that 71 tourists had been airlifted out with priority given to the elderly, people with health issues, pregnant women and small children. Another 300 were evacuated from the Inca Trail and driven by bus to Ollantaytambo.
The helicopters, including four U.S. military helicopters on loan from the American Embassy in Lima, are landing at the Aguas Calientes stadium, the only place where a chopper can land in the area. Continuing rains have complicated the landings, however.
Arriving helicopters are unloading food and tents to accommodate tourists over the next couple of days.
Samuel Chavez of the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel located next to the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu, told ABC News that most of the tourists stranded in Aguas Calientes have been sleeping in tents in and around the train station. "Machu Picchu is empty, but the hotels in Aguas Calientes are full so are that many tourists have been forced to camp out along the town's streets."
PeruRail and local restaurants have promised to provide free meals to anyone visiting the area for the for three days.
"Our focus now is to ensure the security of all visitors and to make them as comfortable as possible given the circumstances," Perez said.
Perez said the ministry was "hopeful that all 1,900 tourists will be evacuated by Wednesday or Thursday at the very latest."
One American tourist stranded in the area said people were a little concerned but that there were no signs of panic just yet. "There seems to be enough supplies here for a while and no price gouging yet," Scott Bluedorn said. "Money was out at the ATMs, but is now available again, so that's a better sign."