Hundreds airlifted from Peru site when skies clear

Skies cleared over the fabled Machu Picchu citadel Thursday, speeding the evacuation of thousands of stranded tourists, many of whom were left to eat from communal pots and sleep outdoors after flooding and mudslides cut access to the area.

Helicopters had taken 700 people by mid-afternoon from the remote village, the closest to the ancient Inca ruins 8,000 feet up in the Andes mountains.

About 2,000 travelers were trapped in the town for days, strapping resources and testing travelers' patience.

"It's been an adventure, a bit more than we bargained for," Karel Schultz, 46, of Niagara Falls, N.Y., told the Associated Press as she waited to be airlifted out.

Authorities say if the weather holds, they may be able to have all tourists out by Saturday. The Machu Picchu site is closed and will remain so for weeks until the government can repair highway and railroad tracks washed out by mudslides and the raging Urubamba River.

Dozens of ragged-looking, middle-aged tourists lined up outside the train station, where they waited to make the walk of a few hundred yards to a makeshift helicopter clearing. Younger backpackers played soccer with locals and lent a hand stacking sandbags and clearing train tracks to pass the time.

The evacuation was being carried out by age, oldest first. The elderly and children were among the 1,131 tourists evacuated through Wednesday.

Tourists grew frustrated in recent days over chaotic relief efforts, price-gouging and scarce food, but the mood lightened Thursday as the weather cleared, helicopters descended from the skies and soldiers brought order to the evacuation.

When Sunday mudslides destroyed the railway, the only form of transit into Machu Picchu Pueblo, many hotels and restaurants hiked prices exorbitantly - separating wealthier tourists who could afford to pay extra from those who 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.

"The people here are abusive. It's all about money," she said.

Many backpackers who ran out of money when ATMs ran dry slept in the central plaza.

"We had to eat what the locals gave us, out of communal pots. There are young people who are having a real rough time because they don't have money. The last few days I've shared beds with other people," Argentine tourist Sandra Marcheiani, 34, told The Associated Press.

Sme 400 Americans were said to be among those stranded. Schultz said most Americans paid for beds and bought their own food, while those that slept in the streets were typically Argentines and other South American backpackers.

"Young backpackers from our (South American) countries have taken it all in strie ... we've had a melting pot out here where we share everything, and that's what we will take away from it," said Marcheiani.

Stranded tourists quickly outstripped resources in the village of 4,000 people.Wedged between a sheer, verdant mountainside and the raging Urubamba River, difficult terrain and ba weather have slowed rescue efforts.

Rain prevented helicopters from landing in the town until after midday both Tuesday and Wednesday, but clear skies allowed operations to begin at 8 a.m. local time on Thursday.

"They are going like clockwork now," said Schultz.

U.S. Embassy spokesman James Fenell told the AP that helicopters had ferried out 700 tourists by 2 p.m., including 53 Americans. At least 1,500 tourists were still stranded Wednesday night.

Evacuation efforts have been complicated by the arrival of hundreds more tourists on the Inca trail hiking path, a popular four-day trek that ends i Machu Picchu.

Some 250 more tourists reached the village on Wednesday and more could arrive on Thursday, though the head porter of Llama Path tourist agency, Fredy Condori, told the AP that almost all those who set out on the path on Monday turned back when they heard the citadel was closed.

Authorites closed the Inca trail Tuesday after a mudslide killed two people.

Also stuck were 150 local porters who carry tourists' packs and equipment for as little as $8 a day, said Jose Antonio Gongora, owner of tour agency Llama Path. Authorities were keeping them from returning along a river on foot.

"They are always the last considered and they'll be the last ones to be evacuated if they don't let them walk. There's little food there, nothing. It's rough," Gongora said.