A NIGHT HIKE in the Amazon forest is incredibly deceptive. Your vision is limited to the narrow light of your headlamp, with stark blackness beyond. Cecropia leaves the size of serving trays reflect light back into your eyes, adding to the mystery of what lies around, above and even below you. But with the right expertise in tow, this dense and claustrophobic world comes to life with tarantulas calmly strutting along buttress roots and glimmering ants diligently working through the night.
Such an excursion may sound typical of ecotourism. But ecotourism is anything but typical. It is a messy, ambiguous and often misunderstood industry, but it is growing nonetheless. Its explosive popularity in the past two decades has created innumerable definitions and resulted in confusion over its meaning (and frustration akin to nailing jelly to a wall).
You need best practices to implement theoretical ideas, yet variations in environmental and socioeconomic conditions can make them difficult to realize. This causes problems for operators who want to distinguish themselves and consumers seeking genuine ecotourism experiences. All stakeholders would likely agree that ecotourism needs to be nature-based, purposefully educational, operationally sustainable and, most importantly, responsive to the specific conditions, contexts and people it engages.
In Peru, rapid growth has fostered a sense of economic stability, which encourages Western baby boomers to explore beyond their comfort zones. According to Lonely Planet, visitors to Peru doubled between 2003 and 2008, and ecotourism was a big draw. And despite the enormous institutional effort to grow and guide ecotourism globally, in Peru it appears to be sprouting almost accidentally.
Every other year, I bring 15 university students to Peru for a month-long ecotourism field school. I choose Peru because ecotourism is just taking hold, and the places we visit rely on it heavily. It is imprinting the physical, economic, social and cultural environment that we see around us there, creating a living text book of its pros and cons.
An important part of our curriculum hinges on the experiences of Ryse Huamani, a 30-year-old Peruvian who founded and manages Bonanza Tours. The company runs jungle excursions in the Manu Park region of the Amazon, teaching adventurous visitors about the area’s teeming flora and fauna.
Ryse’s father, Serapio, is a quiet, powerful man who hails from the high Andes near Cusco. He speaks only Quechua and some jungle dialects. In the 1970s, before Ryse and his five siblings were born, Serapio staked a claim to 12,500 hectares of jungle forest, located along the Alto Madre de Dios River. Like everyone around him at the time, Serapio had plans to clear most of his land and grow commercial crops, such as coffee and soybeans. But to do that, he needed the help of grown children.
Serapio cleared enough land to bring his wife Rufina down from the mountains to live a subsistence lifestyle and start a family. In time, Serapio and Rufina raised five children and, with help from missionaries, gave them an education. Ryse and his younger brother, William, went to Cusco for post-secondary schooling in their late teens, but not before convincing their father to postpone his slash-and-burn plan.
Ryse wanted to become a doctor and William an engineer, but those goals didn’t materialize. Instead, they both got business training in turismo alternativo, or sustainable tourism, and they were inspired by their ecological studies. “I loved ecology because it allowed me to explain my world to others, to tourists,” Ryse says.
In 2001, they completed their training and spent the next two years, along with their older brother Boris, working as guides and drivers for tour companies in the Cusco area. They honed their English and guiding skills, and learned more about how to run a business. By 2003, their sister, Lourdes, had also enrolled in sustainable tourism, and they realized there was no one offering tours of Manu Park that brought tourists up close to nature and its indigenous keepers. They recognized an opportunity to change their father’s business plan. “My father knew nothing about ecotourism, but we were able to convince him to give it a try,” says Ryse. “I think he never liked the idea of slash-and-burn, but that was all he knew.”
During the early years, Ryse could barely arrange a handful of Bonanza Tours. But he learned to promote the company online and on the streets of Cusco, which is a treacherous two-day trip by van and boat from their jungle lodge. Meanwhile, the Manu Park region grew in popularity, mostly because of new tour companies run by European ex-pats.
Bonanza now employs the Huamani family and many friends on a mostly full-time basis. Their lodge at Manu Park is modest and made from local materials, and operated with solar- and gas-powered electricity for only about four hours each day. They use locally grown foods and supplies, including vegetables and chickens from the old family homestead just a 10-minute walk away.
Their unwavering commitment to education is evident in the way they explain every conceivable nuance of the jungle to guests. Ryse understands the need to continually improve, yet Bonanza Tours already reflects the best principles of ecotourism. The most remarkable and often unstated part of the Huamani story is that there are now 12,500 more hectares of diverse and diligently protected Amazon forest that supports local families. Serapio and Rufino now proudly run the lodge, and they seldom talk about the old plan to log and farm the forest.
I first met Ryse in Huacachina, a small desert village about a five-hour drive south of Lima, and a couple of days’ drive from Manu Park. I was having breakfast at his wife’s café, and our small talk slowly turned into a plan to work together. I had no idea of the Huamanis’ story at the time, but I did have a good feeling about Ryse. I have since suggested that he tell his family story more often.
Similarly, my first encounter with the Huari family was accidental. No guidebooks, websites or references brought us together. In fact, the Huari family lives with no telephone, Internet, electricity or running water. While doing unguided preparation for an ecotourism field school on the Salcantay Trail to Machu Picchu, my colleague Elena Carabajal and I literally stumbled onto their homestead with a torrential rainstorm on our heels. They took us in, fed us, and we talked and drank mate de coca. The small talk continued for two days – as did the rain – before we discussed their situation and tourism goals.
Antonio and Felipe Huari are brothers in their early forties. They farm potatoes and beans on small, arid tracts of sloped land with their seven other brothers and their families, working about 10 kilometers from the village of Mollepata in the Peruvian Andes. Mollepata is the start of the Salcantay Trail, which is being recognized as the overflow trail into Machu Picchu (the primary trek is the iconic Inca Trail). The historic site’s increased popularity has meant that tourists are seeking other routes, and five days on the stunning Salcantay works nicely.
The Huaris are used to seeing tourists trekking by. Felipe explains that they hosted the odd hiker in the 1980s and 90s. “We liked it because we exchanged ideas and we would cook and guide for them, and make some money too.” With increased popularity came the larger guiding companies, which kept clients away from locals and hired the Huari brothers only as arrieros, or horse-pack men. This role left them on the margins of the ecotourism industry, with little control over the growing trekking business that literally passes their front door.
Almost finishing each other’s sentences, the brothers explain that they had wanted to be guides, to run their own small business. But this was not a simple proposition. “The famous National Institute of Culture was trying to come into the area and make the Salcantay the second official Inca Trail,” explains Antonio, meaning trekkers would have to travel with licensed companies. “They keep insisting on it. Our association of horsemen does not accept their direction and does not agree with them.”
The brothers feared that the licenses would go to the same companies that were already bypassing trailside families such as theirs. The difference in daily income is substantial: Asarrieros they earn about $20 per day, but as self-employed guides they could earn five times that amount. The Huaris and other families along the trail have already set up a loose association of arrieros to organize who gets jobs, and to lobby for more say in how the trail is operated.
The Huaris do plan to run their own company, and share what they call “the spirit of the mountain Salcantay” with conscientious trekkers. They especially enjoy explaining the way the landscape factors into their daily life. “Before we do any work, we ask the mountains to help us, keep us healthy and safe as we travel,” says Antonio. “The mountains can give us strength.”
Indeed, the mountains have also given the Huaris visitors. Their story is one of ecotourism at its most basic, and represents the broader role it can play in supporting social and economic livelihoods around the world. If it is protected as a local enterprise, ecotourism is a way for the Huari family to gain control of their land, add to their income and remain a relevant part of their ecosystem’s future.
Since 2008, my ecotourism field studies have given 28 students from Mount Royal University in Calgary the opportunity to stay with and learn from the Huamani and Huari families, and to get to know their simple but effective brand of ecotourism. Those students have witnessed different ways of connecting to the land and gathered first-hand perspectives on what it means to depend on it for survival. There are more excursions planned, including projects that directly support the arrieros association’s efforts to run their own guiding companies and rely less on existing outfitters.
While my encounters with the Huamanis and Huaris were certainly serendipitous, maybe the accidental joining of these families with ecotourism is not so accidental. Above all else, both families have a simple and unwavering trust in the land. They rely on their natural surroundings for the necessities of daily life, which manifests as a simple, organic form of ecotourism, where the twin goals of sharing and preserving the land are balanced with earning a living.