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Tourists: Where do we fit in?

31st July 2015

Held high in the Cordillera Blanca, you feel a strong sense of everything being linked.  People and animals living in harmony with the living earth, surrounded by the ancient mountains.  Cavernous valleys envelop you with equal parts of foreboding and peace.  It’s easy to see why in many cultures, mountains are revered as Gods.  

We arrived in the rainy season and everyday provided a smorgasbord of weather. Frosty mornings gave way to strong, burning sun followed by doom-laced clouds culminating in afternoons of torrential, window-shaking thunderstorms.  Even the thunderstorms offered rays of sunshine, often illuminating a distant peak.  Five days in, the range was still revealing more of its undulating beauty.

I felt fortunate to be there. However, as a tourist, I often struggle with where I fit in.  Clad in my technical outdoor gear, shining like a bearded, florescent beacon, what right do I have to stomp my waterproof, lightweight boots over a timeless landscape? I feel in stark contrast to the local people and wildlife whose very beings seem to be etched into the weather and mountains.  As tourists we are lucky to travel to these far off places and we take home incredible photographs and memories, but we rarely stop to think of the impact we have on the places we visit.

For the local people, life has not altered much for many generations and on hikes high above the city, we saw the men tending the fields and the women, children and scrappy dogs caring for their sheep and cattle.  

Living above 3500m in a mountain range is tough.  Tough on the plants, tough on the rocks, tough on the crops, tough on the animals and humans that share the range.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.  I’m not sure if it makes you stronger but I think it makes you more humble.  Speaking to the locals, it’s impossible not to be struck by their humility, warmth and kind eyes.  Old ladies faces are drawn by the thin air and almost mirror the valleys and mountains that surround them.

As I looked across the valley high above Huaraz, the human scars that continue to be made on the mountains by the international mining operations are all too obvious. I ask locals whether they benefit from the mining.  Their responses were resoundingly no and they point to their potholed roads and flat tires as examples of their frustration. It’s hard not to think of the massive profit made by mining companies across the world and how that contrasts to the standard of local services in the communities where they pull their resources from the earth.

Tourists, perhaps not as obviously as Mining Companies, have a large impact on the local people and environment, too. Visit the famous surf town of Mancora in Peru and speak to the locals. There has been massive beach erosion and destruction of any local industry outside the cocaine, surf and tourist trade.  Tourists have fun, but at what cost?

The city of Cusco, UNESCO World Heritage Site, provided a painful awakening for me.  The ancient grace of its cobbled streets, stone buildings and deep spirituality is undeniable.  Also undeniable is the overt tourism industry and offers of tours, massages or pictures with llamas literally every few seconds. Although these offers became wearing, what really shocked me was the state of disrepair on the outskirts of the city.  It seemed that as soon as we left the ‘tourist’ area, everything was falling to pieces.  2500 people visit Machu Picchu every day and Cusco is heaving with well-healed tourists yet it seems much of the population fails to benefit from the invasion.

Thankfully, there are people involved in tourism who are conscious of their wider environment.  

Home for the next few days was an ecolodge high above the city of Huaraz, From there we were able to get out into the national parks and we enjoyed spectacular and unspoiled trekking with excellent, knowledgeable local guides from the nearby village.

The owners run their operation with an emphasis on sustainability for the environment and the local people. Through their grassroots organisation, Andean Alliance, they provide work, construction, small business development and education to the local people. Village life was intertwined with the lodge and its guests and this provides a positive sense of growth and development.

Their commitment to sustainability is deep.  Much of the delicious food they serve is grown on site.  Local people built the Lodge’s buildings using adobe (earth) bricks in a traditional manner.  No electricity or machinery was used in the construction. What a peaceful building site it must have been!

Through composting toilets, they also produce zero wastewater and zero sewerage. Not bad at an altitude of 3500m. This support of the local community is inherent to what they are doing.   As a tourist, I felt very happy to be staying in a place that was aware of our potential negative impact.

Organisations like Project Cordillera and Andean Alliance are doing tourism the right way.  Many of us do not consider the impact we make as we travel to see our dream vistas and I would implore you to consider this when you are planning your next trip abroad or close to home. And, as we all know, you should be planning that as soon as you get home! 

By Ben Bomford, July 2015

Project Cordillera and Andean Alliance, together with La Casa del Escalador, support the Guias Locales Programme, providing outdoor education as a force for community development in the Cordillera Blanca.  

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