Peru, a name which conjures up images of lost Incan kingdoms, the snow-capped Andes and sacred Lake Titicaca. It's easy to view a holiday to this microcosm of South America as simply a journey through a lost Incan Empire. But don't underestimate its diversity. Over half of Peru is home to the extraordinary Amazon rainforest and some of the most bio-diverse regions on the planet. Its 2,500km desert coastline hosts some of the highest sand dunes in the world and its cities are an eclectic mix of ancient and up-to-date, with Incan, Spanish Colonial and modern architecture jostling for position.
Finding the authentic in Peru
While the market for all inclusive package holidays remains high, we are seeing modern travellers now crave deeper, more meaningful experiences from their holidays. In an increasingly time-precious world we're not content to simply 'fly n flop', collapsing on a sun lounger on our coveted two week annual holiday. There is a need for that of course, to rejuvenate, recharge and refresh, but I believe that it is the insights into the "real" destination that the responsible traveller craves. In Peru it is surprisingly easy to get off the well-trodden "Gringo Trail" yet seldom done. Leave behind Aguas Calientes and its myriad of poor quality shops and restaurants, ditch the fake alpaca-wool jumper and avoid the islands and markets where "authentic" Peruvian culture is fabricated for the mass consumption of tourists. Instead slow down; stop for a few nights at a homestay in the heart of Lake Titicaca or spend time delving into the food and architecture of Peru's cosmopolitan and underrated capital. These experiences allow you to really get deeper under the surface and truly explore the country like a local, rather than simply being an ambitious tourist ticking off a do list.
But with this new way to travel, travel that allows a deeper, more enriching connection with the authentic Peru, there also comes a new deal for tourists. Getting closer to fragile environments and fragile cultures brings a greater responsibility onto each of our shoulders to understand the issues and challenges facing our chosen destination, to ensure our visit benefits these landscapes and communities. And is it a burden worth bearing? I think so.
The trouble with trekking...
For most a trip to Peru is not complete without a trek into its Andean backbone, and whether along the well-trodden Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or deeper into the remote snow-capped Cordillera Blanca you will invariably be using the services of Peruvian guides and porters. On the face of it Peru's treatment of its porters is not so bad - porters' rights are now protected by law, including minimum wage regulations, and regular checks and weighing points exist along the Inca Trail. And with so much regulation along Peru's most popular trekking route it can be easy to believe that the hard work has been done for us - that we don't need to worry whether our porters are treated fairly and the fragile Andean ecosystem is protected. Simon Forster, from responsibletravel.com's supplier The Beyond Tourism Co. says "Abuses of porters' rights might not be as widespread as somewhere like Kilimanjaro, but it can still be pretty bad. A lot of companies don't really pay much attention because the porters on the Inca Trail are always portrayed as very well looked after". Although the Peruvian economy is on the up, one third of the country still lives in poverty and conditions in rural areas conditions can be particularly tough. The booming trekking industry can provide much needed income and support for these regions, however the minimum wage for porters is barely a living wage, many trekking companies have found ways to flout both this and the strict weight limits, and if trek profits do not stay in the region, local communities will not see much benefit from your visit.
Do it right in Peru, but how?
Choose a locally run trekking company with a history of responsible tourism practises and ask questions, lots of them. Find out how the company works to protect the environment and to ensure their porters are treated fairly. The opportunity to spend time at a home-stay before a trek can be a great way to connect with your porters. A personal connection which will add depth and understanding to the trekking experience; a chance to appreciate why your research into porters' rights was so important, a chance to learn about a way of life which is becoming a culture in its own right, and a chance to become immersed in the authentic rural Peru away from tourist façade. For the local community, the stay provides a vital income directly to each family involved. For me, this equates to a much more memorable, inspirational and engaging holiday experience.
Yes, the privilege of authentic travel, rooted in beautiful places and inspiring cultures brings with it more responsibility but I believe the rewards for the traveller far outweigh this. Not only will your holiday bring greater benefits to the communities and environments which need it most, but you will have a much more enriching time.