What exactly is responsible tourism? For many, this means “leave no trace” or a hot debate about the difference between a “traveller” and a “tourist”.
For me, neither quite gets to the heart of the matter; instead, responsible tourism is about being conscious of your impact when you travel and striving for a deep, meaningful and authentic cultural exchange along the way.
Responsible travel in Peru – and the world, for that matter – hinges on some basic principles and ones that we all should consider next time we plan a trip to this vast South American country. On my recent visit, where I had the fortune to lesser-known parts of the north with Better Places Travel, I saw first-hand how there are more than enough ways to experience Peru in a sustainable and truly unique way. Here are four of them.
Venture beyond the “gringo trail”
You may have heard the news that last year, the Peruvian government introduced a ticketing system for Machu Picchu, forcing visitors to pay for either a morning or an afternoon slot and requiring all to visit with a registered guide. It spelled the end of the days when you could wander unrestrictedly between the expertly carved stone walls of the city, charmed by its magic and sense of being far from civilisation.
I couldn’t welcome the move enough. In 2016, Machu Picchu was added to UNESCO’s list of “at risk” sites, a warning to the Peruvian government about the impact of the roughly 4,000 daily tourists allowed into the site. Ultimately, it’s better that access is restricted than there’s no access at all.
But what we can learn from this is how, as travellers, we’re as responsible for where we go, as we are for the impact we have when we arrive. An easy way of being a truly responsible traveller in Peru is diverging from what’s been dubbed the “gringo trail” and venturing to other parts of the country.
In the Amazonas region, I travelled to Chachapoyas, a city located an hour and a half’s drive from one of Peru’s most rapidly growing tourist destinations. Elevated to must-see status by its inclusion in the 52 Places to Visit in 2018 list by the New York Times, the mountain-top citadel of Kuélap has become the main reason why tourists travel to the Uctubamba Valley.
With good reason, locals are concerned about the impact of this new rise in tourism. I was told how visitors to the stone fortress of the “Cloud Warriors” are expected to reach almost two thousand in June and July, bolstered by a cable car system built last year that has transformed a 90-minute bus ride or four-hour trek into a 20-minute journey. As numbers surge, there’s a real worry that this once barely-visited site will soon be overrun with thousands of tourists, like its archeological sister in southern Peru
Luckily, the region is no one trick pony – nor one ruin valley. Starting at Milpuj, a private nature reserve just seven kilometres from Nuevo Tingo, the access point for Kuélap, I saw how it’s easy enough to visit the larger, tourist-drawing monuments while supporting local projects along the way.
Owners Perito and Lola have spearheaded a movement of opening private nature reserves in the Amazonas region, having recently expanded their home to include guest bedrooms for visitors. Those who stay here can enjoy the serene tranquillity of the forest, explore it through a series of hiking trails, help out in the organic vegetable garden or use it as a base for visiting Kuélap and other nearby archeological ruins – all while supporting a truly unique and sustainable ecotourism initiative.
A few hour’s drive further north and practically within spitting distance of the striking 771 metre Gocta Falls, the modern boutique cabins at Gocta Natura provide as a similar base for responsible travellers. Here, it’s not just a place to relax and absorb the incredible front-seat views of the waterfalls from their doorstep; guests can also learn about the reforestation and education initiatives established in the local village by the hotel’s owners, Rocio and Augusto, or take a weaving or cooking class too.
Seek out responsible tours
Another crucial way of being a responsible traveller is choosing the tour operators who have a real vested interest in the local communities with whom they work. In Tarapoto, a city on the fringes of the Amazon Rainforest, I was taken by my Peuvian guide Daniel to the nearby indigenous community Chunchiwi and the home of Doña Petrona. Now in her late 60s, she is one of the final people in the village who knows how to make clay using traditional methods.
She showed me her secrets, guiding me to tread the clay with my bare feet to prepare it for being shaped, and chatting in a mix of Quechua and Spanish about welcoming tourists into her home to learn this skill – an act that has both held to preserve this traditional craft and generated a sustainable source of income for women like her.
Consider your plastic impact – and support others leading the change
Throughout my time exploring Peru, the pressing need to rethink my relationship with plastic followed me like a dark shadow; it’s hard to escape the piles of plastic bottles lining the roads like snow drifts here. While I realised that working to reduce my reliance on plastic during my stay was easier than I had thought, it was refreshing to visit projects where local people are not only facing up to this issue, but leading the way on change.
Near Chiclayo, a little-known city 700km north of Lima, lie the vast adobe mud temples at Túcume. Built by the Sicán culture, they date back to anywhere between 800 and 1100 AD, a good few centuries before the Inca began expanding their empire further south.
As I trotted around the spectacular ruins of Huaca Balsas in the company of resident archaeologist Manuel, he talked to me about the work that the award-winning on-site museum has been conducting. The museum itself does an excellent job of charting the history of the ancient cultures that existed in the region, but next door in their workrooms are where most of the magic happens. They now play host to workshops where Manuel and his colleagues show young people from the community how to recycle plastic to make almost any type of object, including everything from handbags to animal-shaped planters.
Buy locally and support local craftspeople
A final way of travelling responsibly in Peru is to support local craftsmanship by buying local products. Just 14km away from the Túcume pyramids, the Santuario Histórico Bosque de Pomac, a nature reserve protecting threatened algarrobo trees, showed me how crucial a role we can play in supporting the work of local Peruvian artisans.
At the Visitor’s Centre, I met Betty and Esmerelda, two women from a weaving collective based in their village on the outskirts of reserve. Through explanation and a demonstration, they showed me how they turn the wild cotton harvested from the forest (which grows naturally in colours from dark brown through a lime green colour) into thread and then stitch it into beautiful purses, hats and even more delicate items of clothing.
Thanks to the assistance of those the reserve and a number of international NGOs, villages like theirs are now able to sell their wares at craft fairs, as well as within the Visitor’s Centre, where tourists can show support to the weavers by buying a beautiful souvenir.
Travelling responsibly in Peru is easier than you might think
What these tours through northern Peru showed me is that there’s so much more to Peru than its most famous sites; ultimately, responsible travel is as much about the destinations you choose as the way you engage with communities on the ground. You only have to look at Fodor’s No Go List to get a sense of how it’s truly our responsibility to act with our feet, as well as our wallets.
It’s not feasible for us to all continue piling into the same destinations and expect them to retain that beguiling sense of being untouched by modern man that first drew tourists there. But magical, hidden and practically unexplored places still exist and they’re the ones where our money – and our support – can go a long way.
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About Steph Dyson – Worldly Traveller
Steph Dyson is a British travel journalist based in Santiago, Chile. She’s updated and authored a number of guidebooks for Rough Guides and Moon, and writes about beyond-the-beaten-trail adventures and experiences in South America on her website Worldly Adventurer and online for publications such as World Nomads, Go Overseas and Transitions Abroad.