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Eco-Tours and Not-So-Eco-Tours

A Reflection on the role of Ecotourism in our Travels...

Here in Peru, we've found ourselves on a number of treks: through snow-capped mountain ranges, desert canyons, and the Amazon jungle. Before everyone, we gathered information and debated about how we might be able to do it safely on our own. In each case, trekking with a guide turned out to be comparable in price, or even cheaper than doing it ourselves. So, after deciding to go with a guide, we made a goal of going about it the most ecologically-friendly way possible.
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Tourism is guilty of having laid waste to much of the natural world. In Latin America, countries such as Costa Rica deign a blue ribbon in ecotourism, for its extensive regulation designed to preserve and protect the natural habitats that millions of tourists visit each year. It's neighbor, Panama, newer to tourism to its islands and coasts, has far less regulation. The upshot is local people tearing through shallow coral reefs in speed boats so tourists can chase dolphins (this was my experience in 2009).

What is “ecotourism” exactly? It is socially responsible travel to fragile or protected habitats.. As an alternative to commercial “mass” tourism, ecotourism designs to educate the tourist about the environment, to support conservation programs and to the empower the people of the communities visited, rather than exploit them.

By and large, ecotourism throughout Latin America has a long way to go.

While been conscious of carrying out our trash in areas where we know trash might be thrown into the nearby river, for example, we've been unable to produce no garbage ourselves. Organic materials that should be composted are generally thrown into the trash as well, unless there are pigs around. Unfortunately for people's general health and for the ozone, trash of every kind is generally burned. So one measure we have found somewhat effective is recycling plastic bags.

A word on the plastic bag phenomenon here: if you buy beans at the market, your beans will be put in a plastic bag, followed by another small plastic bag, and then a bag with handles to carry the beans. No matter where you go, anything you buy will come in a little plastic baggy, and no matter how many times you declare “No, gracias ya tengo!” and wave your own plastic bag in the air, vendors will still bag and double-bag. So we've gone to every market equipped with our own, fighting a seemingly losing battle with the plastic bag manufacturers of Latin America. With dozens of vendors selling bagged meals on buses, countless bags of garbage are tossed out of the windows on every bus ride. The only upside of plastic bags, T.L. points out, are that fewer to-go containers and Styrofoam cups are being consumed here.

Our Not-So-Eco Tour in Colca Canyon

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Across South America, certain tours function under the guise of “Ecotourism”. We decided to go with one such agency called “Ecotours” of Arequipa, in order to visit the Colca Canyon. And boy, did this guy talk up his “ecotour”: his Eco-conscious tour guides would be sure to carry all trash out of the canyon, and we would stay in sustainably designed eco-huts along the way. We gave him the benefit of the doubt that there might be some more eco-friendly practices about the tour we would discover later on, and so chose his tour at a higher price than the other mainstream tours offered.
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Upon arriving to the canyon, we were shuffled among hundreds of other tourists to form a group of 8 people. Our guide, who we were assured would speak English, spoke not a word, and had apparently not guided this trek much before. It turned out, we were not on an eco-tour at all, as our guide wasn't even familiar with the “EcoTour” agency. After he realized we were interested in the environment, he began to point out plants, making up names and facts about each one. Finally, after misidentifying some of the most common plants in Peru, I assured him it was alright that he didn't know about the plants, but that he please stop inventing stories. While he was a nice guy, he was unable to answer a single question we had the entire trek. He did manage to point out a field of corn, and describe how it is used here: it is eaten, a lot, in many different ways. Suffice it to say, we didn't learn much about the environment in the Colca Canyon, nor did we notice any ecologically friendly measures being taken along the tour.
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Our Eco-Tour of the Amazon
Our EcoTour of the Amazon went a lot further to earn its designation. We came into the tour because we were couchsurfing with David, a guide with many years of experience, who began leading his own tours called “Descubre Costumbres” (Discover Customs) a few years ago. David, having family out in an Amazon river community, has been working to bring awareness to the problems of deforestation there.

One of the more common practices contributing to deforestation in the Amazon today is the practice of cutting down and smoking logs to create “carbón”, or charcoal, for energy use in the cities. It is a filthy practice, characterized by all of the official corruption and land abuse you can imagine. Then of course, there is your traditional felling of huge amazonian trees for construction. We had a chance to witness all of this in action: there's little attempt made at hiding it, nor is it controlled. It was not the big, mean, corporate power dressed in black coming in to deforest... it was local people, looking to make money quicker than they otherwise might growing and selling plátanos. In less than a week's work, people turn a profit clearing hectares of forest for carbón than farmers will earn in years of selling their produce.

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Still, while the effort at awareness was present, practices along the Amazon river do not look to be changing anytime soon. To convince people that saving the environment is more important than quick cash in their pocket is a hard sell, considering many people down here cannot get by without immediate remuneration.

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David, our guide, was also well informed about many other ecological issues of the land and the water, including climate change and the record-high flooding in amazon villages that had caused a state of emergency in Iquitos and the outlying areas.

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I am happy to report, aside from our time in the Amazon, I have not noticed any horrific signs of environmental destruction in the areas we have visited. Still, the pure volume of people traveling to certain sites, continues to degrade the habitats and historic sites so widely visited here.

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Posted by AmyERichards 08:55 Archived in Peru Tagged peru amazon ecotour colca_canyon descubre_costumbres Comments (1)

Bitter Interactions in a Beautiful Place

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Yet again, we've found ourselves in another country for longer than expected, but unlike Ecuador, our prolonged stay cannot be chalked up to enchantment for the country. Sure, there is endless to do and see in Peru and every region is certainly unique in its culture, history, climate, and indigenous population. Unfortunately, however, the common thread we've experienced is the degraded, cheap and saddening interactions we've had with so many people here. Beyond rudeness, we have encountered a downright meanness that I have never before experienced in Latin America.

Upon arriving to Peru, about 7 weeks ago, we crossed the border and stopped for a simple breakfast. The woman who worked at the restaurant was cold and proceeded to overcharge us with no explanation although 2 of us spoke Spanish. Our second meal in Peru, at the market in Chachapoyas, was served in a likewise manner, with the woman literally snarling at us as we ate. I brushed off both instances, as I has been forewarned about the less-than-friendly way foreigners are greeted in Peru. As we pressed on, however, we have been disappointed to find that we have been constantly lied to, taken advantage of, and disrespected. I don't know that I have ever felt so dehumanized in all my travels.

The change in attitude we have encountered, between other countries and Peru, is certainly related to the fact that we've had less volunteer opportunities here, and so have been regular tourists for longer stretches of time. I've been yearning for settling into a volunteer project run by Peruvians, but the opportunity has not been there: unfortunately, thousands of people pay thousands of dollars a month or even per week to come volunteer in Peru, making the options for volunteer work, in its purest sense, very slim. The willingness of so many foreigners to pay exorbitant sums to volunteer here only feeds the sense that foreigners are made of money and nothing else.

Another difference that has impacted our experience here is that we have had fewer opportunities to participate in the CouchSurfing network in Peru, which has left us meeting fewer Peruvians in the friendly, altruistic way that one meets people through CouchSurfing. Still, it is important to note that many people who have put themselves on CouchSurfing in Peru are actually trying to charge people to stay at their homes, which of course, runs counter to all that CS stands for.

A number of instances have left me near in tears as people demand money for no apparent reason and I battle to be left alone. You have literally to say “No me engaña” time and again when making purchases, because most everyone we encounter during exchanges seems to be looking to take advantage in any way possible. Taxi drivers attempting to charge double rates after you've just learned their childrens' names on the ride, waiters who will add 10 soles to your bill for no reason and after correcting them will short you 10 soles in change, women at the market who will add 4 soles to your total unless you stop them: The result has been my complete loss of trust in the people here and near constant suspicion in my interactions with them. I can only expect to be lied to at this point, and I have been made to feel like I am constantly defending myself.

So why are we still here? Well, a change of travel plans and a steep tourist visa for Bolivia has made
Peru the best option for us for now. Further, the difficulty with leaving has been that we have still hoped to see all of the wonders that Peru's tourist industry has roped off and charged up to 18 times more for foreigners than nationals to visit (Compare to Ecuador where Presidente Correa has made all national parks free to the public, whoever the public may be!).

Other travelers we have met making their way through South America have expressed similar sentiments about the people here- quite a few of them actually decided to pass through the country as quickly as possible to make it to friendlier lands, Ecuador or Bolivia. One Spanish man pinpointed that he never once felt like anyone was actually listening to him here. Questions are often met with a dirty look or no response at all. While I speak the language, the people here have put up a barrier in communication that is often impossible to break through.

So, tourism. Does it totally annihilate people's ability to treat others as people and not just a credit card? We hate it and fuel it all at the same time. But while I have visited the pyramids of Giza and the Vatican in Rome, I have never felt so disoriented by the way tourism has totally ravished daily human interactions with foreigners. I can only hope that the parallel relationship between the amount of tourism and the amount of cheating, lying and dehumanization is not universal.

Every year here, thousands of students graduate with 5-year degrees in tourism, in which time, it seems some of the key things they have come to learn has to extract money from these objects, these “extranjeros” and quite little about the actual places they have been “studying” to lead tours to.

So while I am sure we have been guilty of many of our own blunders in interacting, I know that I am familiar enough with manners and customs here to know that we aren't doing anything terribly offensive when we interact. Nor are we unable to communicate.

This is a strong reflection on the people here, and of course, this is what we have experienced mainly as tourists here. I know that most Peruvians are kind and friendly, as we have seen with the few CouchSurfing experiences we have had. I place a great deal of value on the human interactions I have while traveling, and so the degraded ones I have experienced here have certainly shaken up my understanding of Latin America and left me feeling downright awful and sad.

Posted by AmyERichards 07:58 Archived in Peru Tagged people peru difficult disenchantment interactions Comments (0)

Goodbye for now Ecuador. Hello Peru!

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We’ve come to the end of our time in Ecuador, a 3-week-turned-month-and-a-half adventure through a relatively small country with immensely diverse peoples, landscapes, climates and cities. We have come to know the people and the country much more intimately here than in Colombia, perhaps because of the amount of time we’ve spent or the amount of times we have been sick in people’s homes... In any case, there has been an undeniable warmth about the people we have come to know here.

The idiosyncrasies of each indigenous community have been fascinating to experience through each community’s colorful markets and festivals. Ecuador’s food has been at once predictable and full of little surprises. Our volunteer experiences have been peaceful, but animated by an eccentric crew of international volunteers. Meanwhile, couchsurfing with a pair of horse farmers, a systems engineer, a volunteer firefighter and a Peace Corps agriculture volunteer from Texas, injected dynamic energy into our experience in Ecuador.

Highlights include the majestic Quilotoa Crater Lake in the Central Highlands and a cozy hostel-with-woodstove stay,P1010383.jpg the Spanish streets and colonial buildings of Cuenca, P1020092.jpgP1020102.jpg eating in dozens of markets, swimming in the coast at Las Frailes,P1020009.jpgP1010994.jpg and waking up above the clouds, high in the mountains outside of Vilcabamba.P1020322.jpg Most important, however, are the relationships we have formed out of working with and sharing space with strangers.
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Now, we will cross the border from Ecuador into Peru at La Balsa, into a much larger, touristic country that promises more volunteer opportunities, mountainous hikes, the Amazon, Incan and pre-Incan ruins, and at least another month of travel.

We will make a long, fragmented journey to Chachapoyas, with two other volunteers we met in our time at Sacred Sueños: Emile, a Quebecois biologist, who has a 2-month run of volunteer work, and Fabian from Switzerland, a practiced traveler on an open-ended journey through South America.

The deep beauty of Ecuador has made its impression on us, but we must forge ahead… onward to Peru!
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Posted by AmyERichards 21:12 Archived in Ecuador Tagged peru in end of to highlights ecuador weeks six Comments (1)

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