As regular 3p readers may remember, I recently returned from an ecotourism adventure in Peru's Sacred Valley. For those unfamiliar with the area, the Sacred Valley is a region in Peru's Andean highlands that served as a key settlement for Incan and pre-Incan societies. The fertile farming region includes the famed city of Machu Picchu, smaller villages like Pisac, Chinchero and Ollantaytambo, and the ancient city of Cusco, which served as the capital of the Incan empire.
The region still serves as a vital agricultural hub, supplying a host of vegetables and grains to Cusco, which has experienced unprecedented growth in recent years. In the 1970s, the ancient city's population hovered around 60,000 people. Today, it's home to more than 500,000 -- thanks, in large part, to a boom in the tourism sector, said Ernesto Ore, a Cusco resident and lead guide for Sacred Valley tours with REI Adventures -- the adventure travel company that hosted me on my trip.
It's no wonder Peru attracts so much attention from tourists. Apart from the awe-inspiring Incan and pre-Incan ruins of the Sacred Valley, the South American country is home to unparalleled natural beauty and a vast diversity in climates and landscapes. Of the 104 types of weather and climate patterns found on Earth, 48 can be found in Peru, said Del Miro Portillo, also a Cusco resident, who serves as a lead guide for REI Adventures' lodge-to-lodge treks on Peru's Mount Salkantay.
It's basically impossible not to be humbled by the natural beauty of Peru (just look at that photo!). But, as tourism continues to rise in the region, this brings to mind a vital question: How can we ensure tourists tread lightly -- leaving no negative footprint on the region or, ideally, making a positive impact on the communities they visit?
REI Adventures is one tour company that does this right. With a hearty emphasis on outdoor experiences, REI Adventures brings travelers face-to-face with some of Peru's most stunning landscapes. Along the way, the company's Peru itineraries invite adventurers to visit local businesses and learn more about customs and culture directly from those who know it best: the locals.
This case study in ecotourism and positive travel is the perfect example of how travelers can visit some of the world's most beautiful places, while doing their part to keep them that way. Read on to learn more about how ecotourism can make a difference.
This is a win-win-win for travelers, locals and REI Adventures as a company: Travelers ditch cookie-cutter tourism in favor of an authentic experience; locals get to share their culture -- something Peruvians love to do -- while earning extra income; and REI Adventures has the opportunity to nurture the next generation of ecotourism guides and partners. “We believe in supporting local communities, local economies,” Cynthia Dunbar, general manager of REI Adventures, told TriplePundit. “We want to see our colleagues in the outdoor industry really thrive as well and be great partners for REI.” And this isn't just lip service. Attention to local economies is clearly visible in all of the company's Peruvian adventure itineraries.
On the second day of our visit to the Sacred Valley, our tour group hiked through Pisac -- stopping to learn about the ancient ruins from our two local guides. At the end of the three-hour hike, we were invited to shop for local handmade wares at the famed Pisac market, where venders from the village sell everything from woven blankets to handmade wood carvings as a way to support their families.
The following day, we visited Chinchero -- where we hiked through terraced salt mines and learned more about local weaving: a tradition that has been passed down for generations and is a revered pastime of women in the Sacred Valley.
The women, known simply as "the Chinchero weavers," lined up to greet us and explained local traditions like creating natural dyes from indigenous plants, spinning llama and alpaca fibers into yarn, and weaving them to create colorful textiles. Most adventurers left with not only an appreciation for this ancient tradition, but also plenty of handmade items like sweaters, blankets and bags -- providing income that's essential for these women to continue their work.
Another example of leveraging tourism dollars to create positive impact on local economies is the work of Mountain Lodges of Peru, which partners with REI Adventures for the company's lodge-to-lodge treks through the Peruvian Andes. Mountain Lodges created a nonprofit arm, Yanapana Peru, at its inception, in order to make sure the influx of tourism left a positive mark on mountain villages.
Before setting out on their treks, lodge-to-lodge adventurers first visit the Mollepata district of Cusco -- where Yanapana has worked for years to empower local women through traditional artistry. Unlike in Chinchero, women in Mollepata mostly practice weaving as a hobby, not an income-generator, and spend most of their time in the home. After working with locals for nearly a decade, Yanapana created and nurtured communities of women working in local traditions like textile-weaving and jam-making. The groups now reach 60 local women, who are given the opportunity to do something they love outside of the home, while creating a better future for their families.
As Gilda, a member of the Mollepata textile community, put it: "Thanks to this project, we can earn income for our families, and our children can also be helped -- not just stay here, but move on to Cusco and bigger places. We have to give thanks to Mountain Lodges, because our life is not the same as before. It is different."
Marco Antonio Chacon Delgado, mayor of the Mollepata district, also praised the project as a vehicle for sustainable tourism that "builds the village up, rather than destroying it."
It partners exclusively with in-country operators and local guides, patronizes locally-owned hotels and restaurants, and works with nonprofit groups to truly make a difference on the ground. Its latest project is a greenhouse in Mollepata, in partnership with Yanapana, through which it hopes to inspire reforestation using indigenous trees (more on this later in the series).
Of course, you don't have to travel with REI Adventures to make sure your trips have a positive impact. But if you're looking for an authentic travel experience that bolsters local communities, take the extra time to search out responsible travel companies that care about the communities in which they operate. Trust me, you'll be glad you did.
Image credits: Mary Mazzoni
Ed Note: Accommodations, travel and guidance in Peru were courtesy of REI Adventures. Neither the author nor TriplePundit was required to write about the experience. Opinions are our own.