More than Machu Picchu: A Local Perspective on Tourism in Peru
Often when we travel, our thoughts drift towards the largest, most distinct, awe-inspiring landmarks in the area. The Eiffel tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Great Wall are some of the many iconic landmarks travelers seek out. However, in our pursuit of the iconic, we often miss the heart and soul of the places we travel to: the places and activities admired by locals.
In many ways, Peru embodies this problem. When travellers think of Peru, there thoughts immediately wander to Machu Picchu, but seldom do we think about the locals. The seasoned traveler will tell you, where the locals are is where the truly memorable experiences happen.
Juan Covarrubias, a local fixer in Peru, has made it his mission to help local communities grow through education and employment. Juan grew up in the Andes, in his words: “I grew up in the wild in a very remote area, the sister side of Machu Picchu, Choquequirao.” Juan is Quechua, people indigenous to South America, the descendants of the Inca. Juan shed a little light on his journey, his disappointments, and what he called the “local experience.”
Q: So let's talk a bit about where you’re from and your journey.
Here in Peru we have lots Quechua villages, Peru is a very huge country, we have 30% of the population here in the Andes. The people, they still are speaking Quechua, which is our mother tongue. We’re used to farming, we’re used to working. Growing up, out in the villages is beautiful. People are farming, growing animals, what you eat is what you produce. In my place, up there in the mountains, my parents are farmers. I grew up farming tons of types of kinds corn and potatoes. We have places where people can go and find around over 100 varieties of potatoes.
When I moved to the city-- to Cuzco-- something was very different. I grew up with no cities, no traffic, a completely wild area. I moved to Cuzco and in the Cuzco area I went to the university to study tourism. Lots of people they don’t have that chance. In Peru, if you are living in the city, you have chance to study and you have chance to work, but there are people from the country and they need to rent a room and buy food, all that stuff is pretty hard for them and that’s why we have still lots of Quechua indigenous villages. We have people here who don’t really care about having any telephones or T.V. or any connection.
In the villages, we have schools that are free until high school, but after that people decide to stay in the villages because money is a problem and many of them don’t want to take the risk of going into the city and not finding success. They prefer to just stay here, farming and working, and that’s how rural villagers are living. Wherever you go there they are very friendly, very nice, very kind people. These people are working, still practicing the Inca way of life; reciprocal work, community systems, helping each other to help everybody. That you can see in Peru, but in the villages, not in the cities. The city has changed a lot with all the technology.
Q: What are your goals working with travellers?
Naturally, Peru and the Cuzco area is getting a lot of tourists from all over the world, but people should go outside to the places like Lares and Ausangate. I work for many companies; they are organizing and offering rural community tourism but they are fixing, they are organizing the communities on how they have to give people, how they have to welcome everything. I want people to have a real experience, nothing fixed you know, nothing organized.
Where you go you will learn how the people are living. They have lots of llamas, they are farming, we can see guinea pigs. People here eat guinea pigs. We have rooms in every single house where people have guinea pigs running around. They are living with them, and people are cooking the vegetables, throwing away scraps for the guinea pigs. They have chickens, they have pigs, animals walking around. Llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, all that stuff, and that’s what you can see in Lares.
Me and my friend we were working to take people to the local market outside of Cusco. You will not find any tourists. There is a big fair where people come with their pigs, chicken, sheep. They are arriving to this big market and they are selling animals, vegetables, products, even medicinal plants. We go to the places where we can see a lot about the locals, interact and work with them and be part of their daily living.
Q: What disappoints you as a guide?
I would love to really see people that could really respect our culture. There are people coming here who don’t care about locals. They are a bit afraid to get close to them. There are people chewing coca. That’s the culture, people are dressing with long skirts and feathers. Of course lots of people are interested to see them and how Quechua are living, but many people are thinking “are we going to be with them?”
They don’t really respect the culture. The locals are not like people living in the city that everyday, or even twice a day, can have a shower. These people are living in the Andes. They don’t have any hot water. They don’t have any proper toilet or showers. It is like living in the wild and there are lots of people that are a little afraid and a stay away from them.
As a Quechua boy, I feel bad because Quechua people here are the best people. Of course, if you can teach people they can learn, but there are people that are living in the country not like the city. They have to take care of their lambs, llamas, alpacas. They are very busy working, harvesting, cooking, and in my opinion, there are lots of people that don’t really respect that, and I really love when people can think about locals.
There are tourists that don’t even want to say hello, talk to them, or just get close, and for that I feel very bad because in the Andes, the Quechua people treat each other like brothers, like family, just like the Incas did. We never say sir, madam; we always say brother, sister, even if you don’t know anyone, people in the villages treat each other like family. Sometimes tourists don’t want to taste their food, they don’t want to taste their drinks, because they are afraid they will get sick, and I understand, that but it's good to explain to the locals why.
Whenever you go to the villages in the Andes, the people are so kind; they welcome you and offer you food. When you don’t eat those foods, they are a little bit upset because they are thinking how do these people not want to eat my food? These people are just trying to be kind and nice and I explain that these people are a little afraid of their stomachs, that’s why they are not eating what you’re offering, but they can love. I have many people that say “I am not going to eat,” but then I have some people that love to have that local experience.
There are times that people want to stay far away from the Quechua people. And that’s what I don’t like, but I hear about it happening often. I talk to Quechua people about it and I ask them about it. They say: “there are lots of people coming from other countries and we know they have money. Why are these people looking at us like we are a kind of animal?” And I try to explain to them, but there are also things that I don’t understand because there are some tourists that are just here to see, eat, drink, but want nothing to do with that local experience.
Q: What do people find the most memorable?
I go to places that people really want to see, like jumping into the house to see the guinea pigs and feeding them. Also, taking care of llamas and alpacas and seeing how locals are transporting their stuff with llamas. You can also do that or try farming because that’s what I’m doing. My parents have gardens and are cultivating all the vegetables for our treks.
Whenever we want to get some vegetables or we want to buy some organic foods, I take my group to harvest them, and I’m going there to work with them; picking all this stuff for some people is really special. For some, seeing how how vegetables are growing is what people love. We can see how people are growing vegetables and have someone cook for us and eat guinea pigs. We have families whose business is raising guinea pigs and for dinner we have roasted guinea pigs. Most people really like it.
Seeing how these people are living is very memorable, and of course people go to the city and see Machu Picchu too. All of it is really special.