Beyond Machu Picchu: A Peruvian adventure in ecotourism

By Betsy Herbert

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 10/18/12

I returned last weekend from a memorable three-week tour of Peru, including a visit to Machu Picchu. With nearly 1 million visitors a year, Machu Picchu, an ancient Incan city nestled high in the cliffs of the Peruvian Andes, is one of the most acclaimed archeological sites in the world. Its sophisticated stone masonry and agriculture terraces are truly a sight to behold ... so much so that Machu Picchu is now listed by the World Monuments Fund as one of the world's 100 most endangered sites. Will all these visitors love Machu Picchu to death?

Ecotourism attempts to address this and other environmental and cultural concerns at a worldwide level. Ecotourism "fosters responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people," according to the nonprofit International Society of Ecotourism.

I booked a tour billed as Majestic Peru by Intrepid Travel, a global tour operator that advocates responsible travel, including supporting locally owned businesses, shopping for locally made products, packing your trash, respecting local customs and saying "no" to plastic bags.

I added a four-day extension trip to the Peruvian Amazon, which took me into to the jungle on the eastern side of the Andes.

Undoubtedly, the tour guides provided essential value to the trip, organizing everything, and bringing us directly into contact with local businesses and people.

Ubaldo "Bobby" Quispe-Huaman served as tour guide for the first leg of the trip, which took us from Lima via the Pan American Highway along deserted south coast beaches, then up to Arequipa, Puno, Lake Titicaca, Cuzco and Machu Picchu.

Born in a small village near Cuzco, Quispe-Huaman, 48, is fluent in English, Spanish and Quechuan. He got his start in the tour business leading treks up the 42-mile Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Five years ago, after completing his 594th trek, he began working for Intrepid Travel. During our tour, he carried two cell phones, which he used to keep meal and hotel reservations on track. Exceptionally good at humoring weary travelers, he was well-versed in local history.

Quispe-Huaman seemed to know everyone, and helped the local economy by introducing us to businesses like the Awani Wasi Tocapo Association of Women Weavers of Chinchero ( These women demonstrated traditional methods of spinning, weaving, and dyeing using plants, roots, and insects. Tourists enthusiastically purchased goods made by the association.

On the second leg of the trip, into the Peruvian Amazon, our tour guide was Erick Arguedas Cavero, a "jungle specialist" employed for the past 12 years by Corto Maltes Amazonia, a locally owned lodge on the Madre de Dios River.

Cavero, 36, born in nearby Puerto Maldonado, says he learned "everything about the jungle from my parents and grandfather." After graduating from high school, Cavero joined the Peruvian army, then worked sporadically in the logging, mining and petroleum industries.

"These were the only ways to make a living," he says. One day, while he was out with a petroleum crew in the jungle, Cavero spotted some signs from indigenous tribes, warning the crew that they were invading the lands of the local people. Cavero was so moved by these signs that he led the crew away and quit his job. He returned to school to earn certification as a tour guide.

Cavero says ecotourism is having a very positive effect on the local economy and on the environment. There is less dredging the river for gold and less logging. "Local people want to protect the river and the big mahogany trees for their children, and eco-tourism gives them a way to do that," Cavero says.