Peru evacuates last tourists from Machu Picchu

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.

Helicopters ferried outthe last tourists stranded near Machu Picchu on Friday, leaving thecountry to contemplate a prolonged shutdown of its top tourist site.

Atotal of 3,900 tourists and local people were flown out of the tinymountain village of Machu Picchu Pueblo this week after mudslides andtorrential rains on Sunday destroyed sections of the railway that isthe only form of transit in and out of the village below the MachuPicchu citadel.

The remaining 1,277 travelers were evacuatedFriday as authorities raced to complete the job against darkeningskies, police Col. Santiago Vizcarra told The Associated Press.

Althoughthe evacuation operation ended, rail operator Perurail said it willtake months for workers to repair the railway that leads to the fabledInca citadel.

Authorities said Machu Picchu will remain closedfor weeks until the government can repair roads and railroad trackswashed out by mudslides and the raging Urubamba River.

Touristsmostly in their 20s and 30s were the ones still waiting for ahelicopter ride Friday from this village outside the famous ruins thatare perched on an Andean mountain ridge at 8,000 feet (2,400 meters).Flights began as the sun rose to a clear sky over the shaggy, greenAndean peaks.

The hordes of outsiders caught in Machu Picchu Pueblo, a town of 4,000 people, strained food and water supplies.

Hotelsoverflowed, and travelers grew frustrated over chaotic relief efforts,price-gouging and scarce food. Many were left to eat from communal potsand bed down in train cars, outdoors and wherever they could find space.

SofieMag, a 19-year-old from Frederiksberg, Denmark, said a manager at theSanctuary Lodge, right next to the ruins and a 45-minute bus ride fromMachu Picchu Pueblo, let her and other tourists sleep on the floor ofthe 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."

Authoritiesclosed the Inca trail, a popular four-day trek that ends in MachuPicchu, after a mudslide killed two people Tuesday. The trail also islikely to remain closed for weeks, although it has seldom been used atthe height of the area's rainy season in February.

Rescue effortswere complicated by bad weather and terrain — the village is wedgedbetween a sheer, verdant mountainside and the Urubamba River. Rainprevented helicopters from landing in the town until after midday bothTuesday and Wednesday, but the skies stayed clear Thursday and much ofFriday.

Evacuations were conducted by age — oldest and youngestfirst. The last middle-aged tourists left Thursday from a makeshifthelicopter clearing, while younger backpackers played football withlocals and lent a hand stacking sandbags and clearing train tracks.

Whenmudslides Sunday destroyed the railway, many hotels and restaurantsraised prices exorbitantly. Tourists who could afford to do so paid thehigher rates, while others spent days sleeping in train cars andwaiting for delayed food shipments.

Dina Sofamontanez, who runsHostal 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 anight.

"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.

KarelSchultz, 46, of Niagara Falls, New York, said before being flown outThursday that most Americans paid for beds and bought their own food,while those who slept in the streets were mostly backpackers fromArgentina and other South American countries.