As our van crested the hill, wheezing along the rough dirt road at an altitude of almost 14,000 feet, a dense huddle of squat stone spires came into view—the sacred rock forest of Hatun Machay, a location steeped in history, both ancient and modern. Not long ago, it was considered the premier sport climbing destination in South America with more than 300 bolted routes. These days, it lies abandoned, as utterly devoid of life as the nearby Pre-Incan ruins.
Before embarking on our South American climbing road trip, Hatun Machay had been recommended to me by a friend who’d visited in 2015. This period marked the zenith of popularity for the site, when upwards of 150 visitors could be found among the volcanic spires on any given day during the Andean dry season.
But I’d since read rumors of strife, whispers that Hatun Machay was now a paradise lost. After sifting through garbled and contradictory information on various internet forums and comment sections, I had come no closer to the truth. Whilst in Peru, I decided to investigate for myself, and what I found was interesting to say the least—a tale of greed, theft, arson, half-chopped bolts, and supernatural voices.
The curious case of Hatun Machay begins in 2006, when the local community of Pampas Chico (who collectively own the land on which the crag sits) entered into a contract with Argentine Andrés Saibene. As concessionaire, Saibene had the exclusive right to develop and manage the flow of adventure tourism at the site, and in exchange, had responsibilities which included financially compensating the community and maintaining the conservation and sanitation of the area.
Initially, the project went swimmingly. A beautiful refugio was built and maintained by Saibene, and there was a remarkable uptick in route development and international tourism. Hatun Machay began to attract the attention of the world, promoted in part by prominent Spanish climbers Toti Vales and Edu Marin, and brands such as Adidas and The North Face. Despite bad music, this video of the 2013 The North Face Rock Trip shows the energetic atmosphere of the flourishing climbing destination.
But this prosperity was destined to be shortlived, and Hatun Machay became the center of a series of ugly disputes from which it has never recovered.
The storm began to build in 2014 when the community of Pampas Chico claimed that Saibene had not lived up to his contractual obligations—to wit, he hadn’t paid them. He continued to manage the site until 2015 when the community issued Saibene a 15-day ultimatum to vacate the premises, something he claims never occurred. This ultimatum lapsed without event, but the situation came to a head in 2016 when Saibene filed a complaint against the community for theft of his belongings, and they in turn forcibly ejected the former concessionaire from the refugio.
The question of who might claim rightful ownership of the lodge soon became a major issue. Saibene had invested his own personal funds in building and maintaining the refugio, and naturally asserted that he maintained legal ownership and the right to financial compensation. However, there was a loophole in which possession of the lodge was unspecified following the termination of the contract. The community equally asserted legal ownership, given that the refugio had been built on their land.
Things got vicious from there. Saibene began a campaign of guerrilla warfare, both admitting to and occasionally being observed in the act of chopping bolts under the cover of darkness. Just as with the refugio, he had personally invested in much of the hardware and saw the removal of these bolts as his right. The result was that some 500 bolts were removed from various sectors within Hatun Machay. Various attempts have been made to rebolt these routes, following which Saibene surreptitiously removed them once again.
As if the matter needed further complication, a new player entered the mix in 2017 when Peruvian psychologist and climber Rosario Obregón staked her claim as the latest concessionaire. It’s unclear whether or not she was given a genuine mandate to do so by the Pampas Chico community, but she additionally claimed that she had been commanded to do so by an even higher authority.
“A woman’s voice told me 'Get up and work,'” Obregón claimed. “I then started to connect, to ask people what I could do to help them, how to rent the place. That's how everything began a year ago. That voice, I do not know if it were the mountains, a virgin, or the patroness of the place, but I know it was a woman.”
Divine intervention could not assuage the continued conflict. The refugio was mysteriously burned in January 2017, gutting the property entirely. Although fingers were pointed in every direction, nobody claimed responsibility for the destruction of the lodge. Saibene denied involvement and Obregón denounced it as an act of vandalism and violence. She continued to claim status as concessionaire, but was eventually ousted herself in 2018 having made negligible improvements to the site.
This was the situation as I found it in May 2018, and remarkably, it seemed that the Internet whispers contained some kernels of truth. The refugio was uninhabitable, potentially dangerous. The surrounding grounds were clean but lacking suitable facilities. Many of the routes had been haphazardly chopped or were missing fixed hangers, but this didn’t seem strictly limited to easy or moderate routes as had been reported. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to which routes had been affected, and we climbed those which had been spared.
But David Lazo and Marie Timmermans, the authors of The Huaraz Climbing Guide, remain unconvinced as to the safety of even ostensibly untouched hardware. Given that Saibene’s removal program involved nocturnal antics with various hand tools, the existence of maimed, half-chopped bolts remains a possibility, despite the fact that they may pass a cursory visual inspection.
“Until someone performs a professional audit of the bolts, we can’t recommend Hatun Machay to anyone,” they told me. “We just can’t guarantee the safety of climbers at this point.”
With a new concessionaire on the scene, they are cautiously optimistic that Hatun Machay might be back on the right track. Cristhian Huallpa Bueno has taken the reigns and also expressed guarded enthusiasm toward the reinvigoration of the crag. Whilst his principal role is promotion and marketing, he states that the community is committed to improving the current situation, but admits that this will be a slow process.
“The money that is made from entry fees will be reinvested into bolting,” Bueno says. “It will probably take about 2 or 3 years to repair the damaged routes.”
The process of rebolting is fraught with problems, not least the lack of availability of hardware in Peru and the lack of enthusiasm from local climbers. It’s a case of once bitten, twice shy for the Huaraz climbing community.
“Local climbers have abandoned the idea of improving Hatun Machay,” said Lazo. “They’d much rather bolt somewhere else. Why would they invest their money and time when there is no guarantee that their routes will be there in the future, and where the climbing is not free?”
Bueno confirmed this notion, but also told of an overwhelmingly positive response from the international community. In fact, Pietro Rago and Anibal Maturano, visiting climbers from Italy and Argentina respectively, have very recently rebolted two of Hatun Machay’s most famous sectors, the celebrated Placa Verde and Erotico. This constitutes the first effort at restoration conducted by volunteer climbers, with plans for Rago and others of an international persuasion to return to the site as time, funds, and hardware allow.
Despite the erstwhile problems surrounding Hatun Machay, Bueno unequivocally states that the crag is safe and open for business. Audits and repairs are being conducted, albeit in a piecemeal fashion. Although the refugio is still unserviceable, camping is invited. With scenes of violence and conflict a thing of the past, Hatun Machay is now tranquilo with an atmosphere of serenity that befits its timeless grandeur.
Regardless of the fact that a sizeable number of routes are still MIA, Hatun Machay remains one of the largest sport climbing venue in South America with around 200 routes ready for action. With luck, the situation will continue to improve and the crag will regain its former glory. Let us hope that in the future, Hatun Machay can avoid the miserly clutches of garden-variety greed, because it is certainly a place that deserves to be shared.
Ryan Siacci is on a year-long South American climbing road trip. Follow his travels at zenandtheartofclimbing.com.