Wifi and human excrement: how tourism is changing life in Peru’s Andes Mountains

Adventure tourism is affecting Peru’s indigenous communities in dramatic ways.

Nestled in the flat space between two steep granite mountains in the Andes lies the remote community of Huallhuaray, Peru. The stone houses with mossy thatched roofs almost blend in with the hillside, as if they simply grew out of the hill to house the hardy people who came here in the 16th century fleeing the advancing Spanish armies.

Angelyn Otteson Fairchild
Homes in Huallhuaray.

Huallhuaray is only accessible on foot — the nearest road dead-ends after winding its way down the side of a very steep cliff, two and a half hours downhill from the village. By 2018, that road should reach the village, and Huallhuaray’s residents hope that the road brings tourists.

No one in Huallhuaray is quite sure what life will be like when the road arrives and when tourists begin to trek through the valley. But experience in similar towns suggests that road access combined with adventure tourism can have an enormous impact on a town’s economy, its culture, and its environment.

The trekking economy

Each year, hundreds of thousands of trekkers pass through Peru’s Andes Mountains. The trekking industry has created thousands of jobs, from trail guides to porters to the cashier outside the trailside toilet, and it brings millions of dollars in tourism revenue to Peru.

Tourists trekking along the Inca Trail in Peru.

At one time, the trekking trails were used to connect remote mountain villages like Huallhuaray with larger towns on the valley floors. Residents would walk the four hours over the mountains with a crop of potatoes in cloths on their backs, following footpaths that wind up sheer hillsides and through valleys decorated with lakes that reflect the mountains like mirrors. They would return to the village with staples like oil and salt.

Now hundreds of tourists trek through those trails each day to admire the natural beauty and to get a glimpse of what life is like in these rugged valleys. Some tour operators emphasize the opportunity to witness traditional ways of life as a key part of the trekking itinerary.

They take time to visit farms, schools, and weaving cooperatives, and encourage trekkers to bring small gifts for the village children. For many visitors, observing indigenous cultures is just as remarkable as viewing crystalline mountain lakes or exploring trailside Incan ruins.

The presence of so many tourists brings opportunities for work that would not otherwise exist. Huacahuasi, located a few valleys away from Huallhuaray, has seen immense growth over the past 15 years, due in part to its strategic location as a major stopping point on the Lares trek route.

Modesto, age 48, was born in Huacahuasi and has worked for several years as a porter on the Inca Trail. Now he is taking a year off to transform his family’s land on the outskirts of Huacahuasi into a trekking campsite, just like the ones he frequented while working on the Inca trail. He is building tent-size terraces into the hillside, and his major selling point is the private bathrooms currently under construction.

Similar opportunities exist in other trekking towns. Chaullay, for example, is carved into the granite cliffside and surrounded by cloud forests in the middle of the Salkantay Trek, not far from Machu Picchu.

Enterprising residents have built terraced campsites here as well, complete with shops that sell soft drinks and beer to the sound of American pop music. For a fee, weary trekkers can also enjoy a hot bath.

Both Chaullay and Huacahuasi are home to recently built luxury trekking lodges. Huacahuasi’s lodge, completed in 2014, employs locals to maintain the lodge and cook in the restaurant. It also includes spaces for locals to sell their handicrafts, like knit hats or traditional woven tapestries made from local alpaca hair.

And while most of the lodge’s profit goes to the owners living in larger cities, 20 percent is shared with the town. The lodge is so new that the impact of this money is still uncertain.

 Angelyn Otteson Fairchild
Huacahuasi with lodge in background.

This kind of opportunity is not available in Huallhuaray or other towns that are not on trekking routes. However, trekking has still had an impact in these towns because so many residents can find work on the trails.

Many of the men in Huallhuaray work as porters on the Inca Trail, carrying a 50-pound pack over the mountains surrounding Machu Picchu. The porters carry the camping and cooking supplies ahead of the group, climbing the ancient stone steps fast enough to arrive at each stopping point in time to set up camp and cook a four-course meal before the tourists arrive.

Photo/Andrew Whalem

It is difficult and tiring work, but many people from remote high mountain communities welcome the reliable, regular pay they get from tour agencies. Traditionally, people living high in the Andes farmed potatoes and kept alpacas for textiles and meat.

Farming at 12,500 feet above sea level feet is unreliable business — pests or an unseasonal wet or dry spell can ruin a year’s worth of income in just a few days, few crops can even survive at that altitude, and the short growing season makes it difficult to grow enough to sell after feeding the family. When there is no road, it is also difficult to transport crops to market.

Roads and the life of a town

The road to Huacahuasi was completed in 2009. It winds its way up one wall of the valley, and tiny trekkers are visible making their way up the trail on the other side. The valley floor is picturesque, with little stone homes and grazing llamas, alpacas, and sheep.

But the valley does not look frozen in time the way Huallhuaray does. With the road came access to the modern world, and this access has changed daily life in town. The first thing most residents will point to is the construction. In the past few years, the town has nearly doubled in size, and new homes have been built using imported materials.

Nearly half of the buildings have visible metal roofs, while only a small handful of structures in Huallhuaray were built this way. Bridges made of rebar and cement have replaced the old wood walkways, and the roads are wider to accommodate cars. There is a brand new school, completed in 2014, and a wifi tower that came with the lodge that sits on top of a ridge. The town simply looks different because of the road.

Spiegl/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Road in the Andes, Peru.

The road also makes it easier to get products to and from larger towns. Before the road, residents would walk three to six hours over the mountains with whatever they could carry on their backs. Now trucks arrive each week full of everything from underwear to tomatoes to natural gas canisters.

Residents can easily buy fresh fruits and vegetables to supplement their usual diet of alpaca, guinea pig, and potatoes, and they can cook these foods on imported gas stoves rather than the traditional open fires.

Curiously, many residents say they aren’t farming more potatoes than they used to, despite the trucks. They say that changes in weather have made harvests weaker, and many families have found that with the income from other opportunities, they don’t rely so much on selling potatoes.

There is a complicated relationship between the roads, the trekkers, and the changes in Huacahuasi. Trekkers passed by with their money, and the men left town to work as guides and porters and cooks on the tourist routes before the road came.

 Brent Stirton/Getty Images
Photo/Andrew Whalem
Porters walk along a path during an Inca Trail expedition in Cuzco, Peru.

But the road brought about widespread changes in the way the valley looks and the way its people live on a daily basis, and it enabled private investments like the lodge, which in turn brought more trekkers and more jobs to Huacahuasi.

Locals don’t agree on whether the road would have come so quickly if tourism had not put the town on the map. Huacahuasi resident Ricardo Castillo, age 25, felt that the government only pays attention to Huacahuasi because of the influx of trekkers. Eder Taboada, a trail guide, believes the government builds roads based on local politics, without giving priority to tourist needs beyond basic access to trailheads.

After all, the government is building a road to Huallhuaray, a place with no history of tourism at all.

Modernization and cultural change

Not all of the changes in Huacahuasi are as visible as the new construction. The culture is changing, too. Before the wifi and the electricity, people went to sleep at 6 or 7 pm and woke up at 5 am to tend the animals. Now the young people stay up playing online video games or watching TV until 10 pm, and the community’s elders call them lazy.

The elders and many of the women only speak Quechua. But for the younger men, working in tourism means that they have to learn Spanish, and so gradually the everyday language is changing as well.

Working in tourism has also exposed people to different towns, different cultures, and new ideas for businesses that could be profitable in their hometown. The younger generation of women have also started wearing Western-style clothes instead of the traditional full pleated skirts, layered knit sweaters, and colorful stiff hats topped with flowers.

In other parts of Peru, even on trekking routes, the children will more or less ignore foreign visitors unless they are spoken to. In Huacahuasi, they approach foreigners with hands outstretched.

It has become something of an expectation that trekkers bring gifts for the children — rolls of wheat bread, little candies, or pencils. Rolando, age 10, guesses that he receives about five such gifts each day.

 Filipe Frazao / Shutterstock
A tourist feeds a local child outside a bathroom in Cuzco, Peru.
 Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Some of these changes may be the inevitable product of time and economic development. They might have occurred without tourists, and maybe even without the road. But tourists played a role in increasing the speed of growth, and in selecting the types of opportunities that would be most profitable.

The tourists are a key part of the complex system of factors that drive the economic, social, and environmental changes that are increasingly obvious in Peru’s remote valleys. The irony here is that tourists, often motivated by a desire to connect with traditional cultures, are hastening the irreversible changes to these same cultures.

 Filipe Frazao / Shutterstock

Yet when local residents consider the rapid changes happening all around them, their first response is that the economic opportunities make all the change worthwhile.

People like Mario, another Huacahuasi resident, say they want their children to have better opportunities for education and meaningful work, even if it means their children will move away or live a life that differs from tradition. These feelings are likely familiar to parents in many other parts of the world.

Environmental impact

The most popular trekking route is the famous Inca Trail, which takes visitors up a winding set of ancient stone stairs, past Incan ruins, and into the mountaintop citadel of Machu Picchu.

 Matyas Rehak / Shutterstock
Crowds of tourists swarm the ruins at Machu Picchu.

In response to the erosion along the trail and damage to the stone steps caused by the hordes of trekkers on the trail, Peru’s government began issuing trail permits in 2001. Only 500 people, including tour staff, are allowed to pass each day, and the trail is closed in the month of February for maintenance.

This quota is one of the reasons that more tourists are trekking along alternate routes like Salkantay and Lares. However, the same types of damage that prompted regulation on the Incan Trail are now evident on these routes as well.

Along the Salkantay route, the trail is wide and crumbling where groups of mules burdened with heavy packs full of camp equipment make their daily passage. Llamas, a native species in the Andes, are much lighter and cause less erosion on mountain trails, but they are fickle and stubborn, and cannot carry as much weight as mules. So the packed mules haul equipment ahead of the tourists, then make the return journey back to their pastures.

 Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images

Human excrement and toilet paper can be found behind any large boulder or scraggly bush, alarmingly close to streams that serve as water sources for communities downhill. While most people boil their water before drinking, the abundance of untreated human waste still carries potential to spread disease. Some tour operators carry portable toilets along the trail so that they can haul this waste out of the valley, but evidence on the trail suggests many do not.

The future for Huallhuaray

Not all towns with roads and tourists see the same changes as Huacahuasi. The Salkantay trek starts near in the windswept Soraypampa valley high above the tree line, which had once been inhabited by a handful of families who grew potatoes and kept alpacas in stone enclosures.

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Salkantay Trek in the Cuzco region of Peru.

Now the village is composed of campsites, bathrooms, geodesic dome huts (for midnight stargazing in defiance of frigid mountain wind), and a grandiose mountain lodge, all to accommodate the many thousands of tourists who trek through each year. There are no alpacas in sight, the fields are fallow, and the families who lived here have moved elsewhere.

 Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Instead of growing in the presence of a new road and an influx of tourists, the village of Soraypampa essentially disappeared.

Other farming villages along the trekking routes remain seemingly unaffected by the tourists. Many kilometers of the trail are located on private property and pass right through farms carved into the hillside, yet in most places the owners are not compensated for use of their land. They simply work the terraced fields as they usually would while thousands of visitors walk across their property admiring the orchids or the granite hills.

 Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Why is it that some towns end up like Huacahuasi — communities that thrive and evolve with the help of public and private investments coupled with tourist dollars — while others simply die off or do not change at all?

Answering this question is critical for communities like Huallhuaray that face major changes in the near future. Eder Taboada, the trail guide, says the answer will depend on how Huallhuaray manages the transition.

In some places, the money that tourism brings in ends up concentrated in a few families, and this can breed discontent between neighbors. In other places, people eventually sell their land to tour operators and leave the town as a shell of its former self.

Other options exist that could help Huallhuaray maintain its culture while also making life easier for residents. Taboada believes that towns along the trekking routes should charge an entrance fee for the use of their land, and that the proceeds should be used to improve the town or provide resources for more efficient farming practices.

Towns in the Lake Titicaca region of Peru have done this, and they have collectively decided to continue to speak their traditional language and wear traditional clothing, sometimes requiring visitors to do the same.

 Eye Ubiquitous/UIG via Getty Images

These kinds of local reactions to the changes brought on by tourism and infrastructure investments create a complex feedback loop. If trekkers are primarily interested in observing indigenous cultures, they will begin to avoid towns that appear too modern, thus changing the character of the trekking itineraries and the local economic opportunities that arise from the tourists.

Tour operators could work to improve declining environmental conditions on the trail, provide itineraries that are respectful of local cultural norms, and ensure that tourist dollars flow toward the people and communities who bring in trekkers. Private and public investors may change their strategy in response to changes in local economic prospects and tourist activities.

The culture and environment of Peru’s most remote Andean communities will continue to evolve as towns, tourists, and local investors adapt and react to one another. If all goes well, these forces will eventually create a sustainable balance between the economic opportunities that locals seek and the culture changes they are willing to endure in order to achieve these opportunities.

It will take years for Huallhuaray to find this balance. But if neighboring communities — just a few years ahead in their transition to modernity — are any guide, tourists interested in observing indigenous cultures may soon find that what they are looking for no longer exists.

Angelyn Otteson Fairchild is an economist, writer, and avid traveler based in North Carolina.

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