Responsible tourism in Peru

When Paddington Bear famously landed at the eponymous station from Peru, he gave people a very hard stare if they upset him. His Peruvian name was Pastuso, by the way, and these famous stories by Michael Bond were critiqued for years to come as a study of immigration and comment on the dominant culture being ignorant of immigrants' needs. So, if you find yourself in Peru, with a metaphorical tag around your neck saying "Please look after me", think of Paddington. Seek help from the right people, inform yourself about their culture, be patient, support them in the best way possible, and you will be most certainly cared for in the best possible way. And hard stares will stay where they belong - in fiction.

People & culture

Mountains to climb for porters' rights

If you are doing some serious trekking in Peru, it is most likely you will be using the services of a porter to carry supplies such as food, sleeping bags, tents, and so on. Luckily, porters' rights are protected by law in Peru; however, there are many companies that find a way of getting around the law, and are still exploiting the local porters, many of whom are farmers who do this work seasonally. The minimum wage for porters is 45 soles a day, working out around $72 US for a four day trek, but reports have suggested that many operators still refuse to pay this. And of course, the minimum wage is not the same as a living wage. A good responsible tourism company will pay two or three times this much. The same goes for the laws about the maximum weight they should carry - the law is 20kg max which includes 5kg for his/her personal possessions. There are weighing stations, but some companies spread the load to get through the stations and then drop the bags after the station for the porters to pick up.

What you can do:
Making sure your porters are fed and clothed properly, are insured and given dry, warm sleeping areas. Be wary, read up on it, and ask your trekking company endless questions about their ethical trekking policies. Some companies have started their own foundations that work with porters, their families and communities to ensure better conditions for them, both on and off the trail. Ensure your main backpack weighs no more than 15kg, leaving the porter 5kg for his own belongings. Even better, keep to 10kg.

Peru's female porters

One hugely positive step that has been taken for the Inca Trail porters is the employment, for the first time, of women. Astonishingly, until 2016, there were no women working on the trail, largely thanks to the more conservative - and often sexist - values of the traditional mountain communities. A local trekking company, that was already working to improve porters' rights along the trail, trained and hired local women, despite many men saying that they would not be able to do such a strenuous job.

Any traveller who has been to the Andes will not be surprised to learn that this was not the case. Quechua women can routinely be seen hauling huge loads on their back, while hiking up and down the mountains, and working the steep terraces; carrying hikers' backpacks to Machu Picchu is just another day's work for them. What's more, the female porters are hugely popular with travellers, so even though regulations state they may only carry 15kg (the men carry up to 20kg), hiring them has proved a wise business decision.

The benefits are many; as well as gaining stable employment, women who work as porters are better able to support their families, and command more respect in their households and communities. In time, it is hoped that the women can combine their work with studies, allowing them to become assistant guides or guides - with the higher pay and better conditions that this offers. Guides also speak with the trekkers, so for the first time, the foreigners hiking the Inca Trail may get to explore this region and its culture from a unique female perspective.

Source: National Geographic

Volunteering - who does it help?

Volunteering holidays are big in Peru. They fall into two general categories: saving the rainforest or saving people. If this sounds a little cynical, it is meant to be, because this hugely growing market is getting a little out of control.

What you can do:
Choose your volunteering holiday carefully. It is important to ensure that your volunteering holiday company adheres to some of the strict guidelines now being recognised as good practice within the industry, and remember to ask yourself the 10 key questions when looking for volunteering. This way, you can check that the work you are doing is actually sustainable and that the needs and expectations of the host community are being well met on every level. If you are looking for wildlife volunteering, be sure that animals aren’t being kept in captivity purely as a way to lure volunteers into paying money to working with them. Yes, really.

At Responsible Travel, we do not promote orphanage volunteering for anything other than fully qualified (and background checked) volunteers. This is for issues of child safety, wellbeing and also to reduce corruption; as the "market" for orphanage placements grows, so too does the number of orphanages.

We also do not promote teaching placements for unqualified teachers; if you would like to teach in Peru we would suggest you will have a much more positive impact by volunteering as a teaching assistant first. This means children's education is less disrupted, you are not doing something you are unqualified to do, and you are also working alongside local teachers, rather than replacing them.
Mark Denega is the producer and director Hope Was Here, a feature film about the phenomenon of volunteering abroad, mostly shot in Peru, released in 2014:

"I think these trips work best when we, the volunteers, stop trying to help. At the public school where we volunteered in Lima, we treated three-year-olds as play things at recess, often disrupted more than assisted in the classrooms, and cobbled together a library renovation that we were ill-prepared to manage and execute. But the cultural exchange and philosophical components were invaluable; I know that the impetus for this kind of travel is to make a difference but, in my view, the biggest difference we made was not from holding children or shovels in our hands. It came when we let go of any agenda - any intention to try to change something for other people - and just observed, listened and exchanged ideas with Peruvians. We learned more by sharing meals, music and dancing together. I really see value in education-based trips over help-based trips. If it were up to me, we would do little to no "volunteer work" in Peru. We would just go meet some Peruvians, spend some quality time with them, and then go home."

H.O.P.E. Was Here: A Volunteer Travel Documentary Trailer from H.O.P.E. Was Here on Vimeo.

Homestays - the way to stay

We gave Paddington a home and now Peru is returning the welcome, with homestays a plenty. And as this country is so vast, and the terrain not always negotiable, this is not only the best way to put money straight into a very local economy, but it also gets you right out onto those hiking trails and remote communities. When you hike into the heart of the mountains, it makes you admire the people who live here all year round even more. You will be greeted warmly in Peru, as local people thrive on sharing their homes with guests. And that is how you are made to feel, especially in the highland villages.

What you can do:
Do try and book a tour which includes a night or two in a homestay, to get a real insight into Peruvian - and Quechua - life. If you are planning on visiting remote villages, gifts from home are always welcome, but ensure they are useful. Don't go too over the top, as reciprocating is part of rural Peruvian culture, or ayni, meaning "today for me, tomorrow for you". Excess gift giving waters down this ethos with time if people feel they can't reciprocate. You can also purchase gifts locally - supporting local traders at the same time.

Wildlife & environment

Quinn Meyer is the founder of Crees-Manu, a pioneering ecotourism initiative based in Manu Biosphere Reserve in the Peruvian Amazon:

"With conservation volunteering, interaction with wildlife is such a myth. If you are going to the Amazon rainforest and being told that you will be able to have a physical interaction with wildlife, then you have to really ask questions. Who is handling these animals? Are they doing it as part of a big study? What is the calibre of research going on or is this just a case of animals being grabbed purely for show? Basically, you should not volunteer with anyone who offers any sort of animal manipulation unless they have a serious academic or medical reason for doing so.
It does happen, and it is destructive and detrimental. Also, watch out for organisations offering the chance to walk with animals. They may say that they are working towards a re-release of the animals, but in many cases, there is no real re-release strategy at all and, at worst, it is pure marketing drivel. So, if you are going to volunteer with wildlife, seek out qualified experts who really know what they are doing. In fact, any responsible wildlife conservation organisation should have at least one external academic body and research that supports what it is doing."

Responsible tourism tips

It is almost impossible to get a quiet day at Machu Picchu, but in order to avoid the tramplefests, which are basically throughout June to August, head there April/May or September/October. It is also wise to keep outside the busy times of 10am-2pm when tourist droves come by train to hit the Inca Trail. Oh, and Sundays are generally quieter. All good reasons for finding a homestay in a local village so that you are nearby and can avoid the worst of the crush. Don't forget, there are many other examples of Inca and pre-Inca ruins in Peru which, on a good day, you might have all to yourself. If you are going to explore way off the beaten path, with expert guides, with specialist experience, this will cost money. You can't really get this on the cheap if you want to be truly responsible. A decent wage for an expert guide is about $80 per day, not $30, and if your big expedition costs $500 or less, it is unlikely to be fair and square. If you are hiking, bring planet safe, paraben-free soaps and detergents with you, as well as eco-friendly sun creams, and biodegradeable bags and tissues for when you need to do what Paddington does best in the woods. Although ideally all waste should be carried out. A good hiking company will provide all of this, so ask in advance so that you can see if they are practising what they preach. Please be respectful when photographing people on your travels. Always ask people if you can take a photo. Not just ask and click, but check that they actually agree to it. If you want to photograph children, ask the parents or adults with them when possible. And if you promise to send them photos, then do follow up on this. Remember to bring something to cover up with when entering churches and monasteries.
Try dabbling in Quechua, the language of the Incas. If you are heading into the Andes, this will bring a smile to local people and an extra welcome into the bargain. Even though many Quechuas will also speak Spanish, a little nod to their culture is a generous gesture. There are many tourist trips to see the endangered giant otters of Manu National Park, but the increase in tourist canoes is now believed to be interfering with the otters' natural behaviour patterns. So opt for less invasive forms of nature watching, such as from an observation tower in Cochas Otorongo and Salvador in the Manu Biosphere Reserve. Go light on the packing because you are going to want to shop in Peru. This puts money straight into local coffers, so leave room for some winter woollies. Alpaca is the big seller, especially in the Sierra, but beware of fakes. Alpaca is expensive, so if you are offered something cheap it is most likely to be acrylic or a mix. Real alpaca feels a little greasy to touch and loses its shape a little if stretched. And if your jumper smells when wet, it's probably llama. If you are offered mahogany, even if it's something as small as a pair of earrings, just pass. Peru is one of the world's biggest exporters of mahogany, or 'red gold' as it is sometimes called, and yet it is the most destructive form of exploitation. Not only raping virgin rainforest with all its ensuing riches, but also stripping many indigenous communities of their homes and their right to survival. For the price of a pair of earrings you could support Survival International with a quick donation instead, a charity which seeks to protect these communities from illegal invasions of loggers. It is illegal to trade pre-Columbian pottery or jewellery and more often than not it is fake. If you do, you risk having it confiscated and, at worst, being questioned and fined. Another big no-no when shopping is anything made from feathers. Think tropical birds, think rainforest - and you will think again before buying. Shoe shining is a popular way for children living in poverty to earn money in Cuzco. There are various views on this, as some children are sent out to work by their parents and actually they are not street children at all. This is a common sense thing. If a child looks like they are in need, then have your shoes shone and give them a few quid. But even better, help a respected Cusco based charity working with street children, such as Yanapay, which also has a restaurant in Ruinas 415, the proceeds of which go towards social projects in Cuzco. The big San Pedro market in Cuzco is brilliant, though it has been tidied up a bit for tourists. If you prefer a more traditional market flavour, a bit rough but totally real round the edges, check out the old school market Rosaspata.
Top shopping tip:
"Steering away from unsustainable woods, you will find people making souvenirs made of balsa - which is a very quickly regenerating wood. The same goes for anything made from Brazil nuts, which encourages people to keep the trees alive."
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: McKay Savage] [Culture image: Christopher Crouzet] [Porters: Chris Feser] [Volunteering with children: Amelia Wells] [Wildlife volunteering: AmazonCARES] [Quechua children: Paulo Philippidis] [Shopping - Brazil nuts: Forest Service Alaska Region, USDA]