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Ancient beauty, modern taxes: how Peru’s tourist boom actually punishes locals

October 07th, 2019
by:Gurmeet Singh
located in:Peru
tags:Peru, tourism

Nearly every region of Peru boasts impressive historical sites and artefacts. From pottery in Paracas, to mysterious ghost towns in the Amazon, from the Nazca lines to Macchu Picchu, the country’s cultural and historical record is both visible and abundant.

It follows then, that tourism would be a major industry in Peru, only somewhat smaller than fishing and mining. But where the conflicts and problems associated with the two latter industries are all too visible, with unpaid workers, destroyed ecosystems and governmental corruption, the problems associated with tourism are often swept under the rug. Tourists themselves can be damaging for a country, of course, but the real problems are associated with money. How the influx of vast amounts of consumer money is managed, taxed and distributed: this is the real concern. Local tour companies and small vendors are squeezed by the government with taxes, unfairly advantaging large, foreign companies. This means that although people come from all over the world to see ancient Peruvian sites, the money they pay actually ends up in London, New York, Dubai or Shanghai, and not in Lima or Cusco.

I recently visited the ancient Inca site of Choquequirao, a former Inca stronghold nestled in the Andes, only accessible by foot. The trek can take anywhere between 2-5 days, depending on the trailhead, route and the speed of walking.

Choquequirao is similar in structure and architecture to Machu Picchu. At an elevation of 3,050 metres (10,010 ft), it was built to house royalty and craftspeople, and the complex covers a region of almost 2,000 hectares.

Although the Peruvian government has spoken of introducing a cable car to the site to improve tourist traffic, no such plans have materialised, due in part to the physical complications involved in building such a structure, but also, because there is no agreement as to who should benefit from the building of such a structure: local communities, the government, or an international service.

For my tour guide, I selected Apurimac Adventures, a family-owned company, founded and headed by Juan Covarrubias, a local of the Choquequirao region. A charismatic and warm tour guide, as well as a knowledgeable and deeply engaged local historian, Juan’s family have lived in the region since the mid-19th Century, moving there shortly after the Peruvian war of independence.

Throughout the tour, I was struck by Juan’s warmth and friendliness, but also his commitment to helping villagers and his family. His idea of founding a company, he told me, was never to simply earn money and then deposit it into the community; rather, he wanted to direct tourists through villages, so that villagers themselves could take up jobs, and earn directly from the trade, for themselves.

Born in 1989, he has memories of the current tourist trail to Choquequirao from the village of Cachora, being nothing more than a tiny dirt path. From the mountain village of Marampata, where he was born, he would play kickabout with his brother on ancient Inca terraces, and hide and seek in abandoned historical sites.

It was his grandfather who told him about the history of the place, the importance of overgrown stone walls and their own familial connection to that history. He and his family have been giving tours of the region for decades, in both Spanish and English. Their family may have come from a region outside of Choquequirao, but they still spoke Quechwa, the language of the Incas; they were not educated in Spanish schools, as the descendants of colonialists were, and they continued to live off the same foods as the Incas; quinoa, vegetables and guinea pig - foods amenable to high altitudes. They chewed Coca leaves, just like the Inca. They made offerings to Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth, as did the Inca. They respected the elements and the natural world around them, trying to live in harmony with it, as did the Inca; not exploiting it as did the Conquistadors. Most importantly, they continued the traditions of the Inca of reciprocal work, or Ayni, where the community benefits from actions, not just a single individual.

Such lessons have stayed with Juan, and as we wound our way up the path, step by step in the gorgeous but enervating dry heat of the Andes, he told me about the challenges he and his family face.

Who are you?

My name is Juan Covarrubias, originally from the Choquequirao area, and I grew up in a large Quechwa family. I have eight siblings.

Tell us about your company Apurimac Adventures

I set up the company in 2017, a few years after I completed my education in tourism in Cusco. I always had a desire to help my family in the village of Marampata near Choquequirao, but also, to support the local community. The best way to do this was to found a tour company which best used local expertise and knowledge, and employed people from the local area. People trained as chefs, as tour guides and as couriers. This means they can have a decent job and earn for themselves too, rather than relying on handouts.

My family have lived in the region of Choquequirao for several generations, and we were actually owners of the site for a time, acting directly as custodians. In 1990, the government took over responsibility for this, and we now act only as guides and local experts.

What is so special about Choquequirao?

Choquequirao is a lost city of the Incas. It’s well-known as a sister site of Machupicchu. It is a special place with lost mysteries and secrets. Since a lot of the place is still covered, and only accessible by foot, it offers a lot of adventure for people. Ancient terraces, buildings and ruins, and of course, beautiful mountains.

What we offer, uniquely, is to offer people the experience of adventure, coupled with local expertise. So they not only learn about the Incas and ruins, but also, about how people have lived on these mountains for centuries, and how they continue to earn a living here, in what is ultimately a very remote area.

As I mentioned, our company supports local families directly, by giving them jobs. The tourists get to take a life-changing trek, and the villagers get to earn a little money. It is win-win.

What challenges do you and other small operators face?

The main challenges are to do with entry barriers; especially if you wish to develop a scope of social benefit like our company does. Starting the company is difficult. Taxes are very high for companies, as is advertising to tourists, as is payment for offices and so on. So if you do not have a lot of startup capital, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to found a company. As you can see, this is already very difficult for locals, and a lot easier for companies coming from the outside.

Secondly, maintaining the company. The taxes we have to pay are very high, for us; but an established company, funded with enough money, will only have to pay as much as we do as a base rate. So taxes on a continual basis also actually are biased towards those companies from the outside.

Thirdly, since advertising costs are very high, it’s difficult for companies like mine, companies founded by locals, to actually bring tourists in. This means we lose business to companies who have a lot of money to spend on advertising both physically and online. This means that the monthly costs we have to pay continue to pose a challenge to us.

Finally, if you want to employ local people, like I do, and not simply a team of people from a large city, then these people need to be trained like everyone else. But there are already difficulties with this, since people from the mountains and villages have already faced educational barriers in their lives - it’s simply more difficult for them to become educated. So the locals getting the required certifications is hard.

As you can see, the government has done a good thing in trying to ensure tourism is a properly regulated industry, but in doing so, it’s actually worked against the very people with the knowledge and connection to the tourist sites. It’s much easier for a company from the UK or elsewhere to come in, comply with all regulations and start offering tours than it is for a person who grew up in the region of an ancient site, and has family connections to it.

But I’m very happy with my company and the fact I get to support the local area and my family. I try my best to work on recommendations, so that I don’t have to spend lots of money on advertising.

How is your personal family history related to the area?

My family plays a big part in the history of the region. We’ve lived in the region for 150 years, and I’m actually part of generation number five. My Great Grandfather arrived on this land from Vilcabamba (a large town in Southern Peru), because he wanted to settle in a different, culturally rich area. He became familiar with the ancient site, and began to take care of it.

Lucas Covarrubias not only lived in the area, he actually also used to farm in the terraces of Choquequirao - can you imagine it? Farming on Inca terraces? He even met Hiram Bingham (the Western ‘discoverer’ of Choquequirao), and worked with him briefly, to develop a greater understanding of the site.

My family deeply and closely linked with Choquequirao. We are custodians of it, but also it used to be our backyard. My dad, who is 68, is the head of the family, and both he and his father gave tours of the site too. My family actually owns a part of this area, as it used to be a part of our property. The government took it over from us, as its part of the culture of Peru, but my

Two of my grandparents used to live and work here too, and on our tours, we show where they lived and worked.

My family is very thankful to be able to do this job. We can offer tourists a great experience, and we open our arms to them. We used to only get one group a month. It’s a little more now, but still, we’d like to see more interested and engaged people coming through here.

How do you feel trekking the site so often?

Choquequirao - the trek is amazing. The feeling is personal, not just business. It’s about family. I feel so happy to see people smiling and coming to our region.

I left my village of Marampata to go to study in Cusco 14 years ago. My aim was always to give jobs to people; it’s so nice to be able to do that, whilst also revealing the mystery of Choquequirao to other people.

I always try to treat the people who come here as my family. They not only learn about the site, but about our food and culture and family history. By the end of every tour, I feel my family has grown by several people.

Article written by:
gurmeet portray
Gurmeet Singh
Author, Contributing Editor
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© Gurmeet Singh
Valley where Choquequirao lies
Valley where Choquequirao lies
© Gurmeet Singh
Juan (in red cap) giving a tour
Juan (in red cap) giving a tour
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