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."
Famous Inca Trail Is Closed
Bluedorn added however, that given the weather, it would be a while before he, his friend and the other 2,000 tourists made it out. "The river is still raging and the roads are totally out, still raining (too)."
Perez said four people were killed in the mudslides, including and Argentine tourist, a Peruvian guide, and a Peruvian woman and her infant.
Aguas Calientes, about 6 kilometres (3.7 miles) from the sacred Incan city, serves as a terminal for PeruRail transporting locals and tourists arriving from Cusco and Ollantaytambo to visit Machu Picchu.
Victoria Legg, spokeswoman for Orient-Express, the British parent company for PeruRail, told ABC News that the company does not yet have a definitive date for when their trains will be operational.
"There is still a significant amount of mud and rocks covering the tracks at this time and it is still raining," Legg said. "We are hopeful it will be soon, but it will likely take quite a few days before we are up and running again."
PeruRail and the Transport Ministry are working together to clear the tracks and are transporting other tourists to the town of Ollantaytambo, Legg said. PeruRail has advised any passengers planning to travel within the next seven days should contact the company first.
Perez said that Machu Picchu had sustained little or no damage as a result of the floods and mudslides.
"I am happy to say that the Citadel is in perfect condition," he said.
However, the historic landmark as well as the famous Inca trail leading up to the site will remain closed for the next three days, he said.
The overflowing Vilcanota and Rio Blanco rivers in the area have also flooded hundreds of acres of corn crop, a main ingredient for local food.
Local authorities have declared a 60-day state of emergency in Machu Picchu and Cusco as well as all its surrounding departments and provinces where police say nearly 3,000 people have lost their homes.
According to news reports, the historical city of Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca Empire, also sustained damage as a result of heavy rains.