Community-Based Tourism - Life in the Peruvian Amazon

Kristy Royce

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Community-Based Tourism - Life in the Peruvian Amazon

Kristy Royce

"As night fell in the jungle, we sat around the campfire for dinner of fresh Dourada catfish wrapped, cooked and served in large bihous leaves. The beverage of choice was freshly fermented manioc masato, flavored with sweet potato and corn. After dinner, Joaquin shared ancient tales of 'The Kingfisher' and we all listened raptly..."
(A typical evening in the Peruvian Amazon. - Kristy Royce)

From the alarm calls provided by popular media, it would be easy to think all that remains of the Amazon is a small grove of trees with a few exotic animals. Fortunately, there are still vast expanses of undeveloped rainforest; however, rapid development is threatening these wilderness areas. Faced with population growth and the rapid pace of modernization, some Amazonian Indian communities have decided to take more control of their future. One such way this is happening is through 'community-based tourism'.

Throughout the Amazon Basin indigenous communities are opening small lodges and co-operatives that allow tourists to visit their communities through a sustainable approach. The hope is for these lodges to become models for sustainable development and set a growing trend in ecotourism in the Amazon: Native owned lodges that promote environmental protection and foster cultural respect.

In the late 90s, Ashton and I had the fortunate opportunity to help with the development of an ecolodge. The Machiguenga, an indigenous group in Peru's lowland Amazon rainforest, elected to open a small tourist lodge in 1997. With financial backing from an indigenous rights group and a tourism conservation firm, the community received the needed investment to make the lodge possible. The idea appealed to the community as a means of generating sustainable income through tourism while still protecting their rainforest home and traditional customs.

We spent three months living and working with the Machiguenga in Peru. (Prior to joining this project, we had worked in the Amazon as naturalist guides for several years on small ship expeditions.) Our job was to train the community members about eco-tourism, guiding practices, lodge operations, basic English, and prepare them for the realities of tourism. In turn, we learned considerably about their lifestyle through the community's compassion and kindness towards us, and we gained a deeper understanding for and interest in community-based tourism. The whole experience was one of the inspirations behind the travel company we eventually created, ExpeditionTrips.

Walking through the rainforest with a Native guide is an amazing experience. While most people only see immense walls of green, the indigenous Indians see, hear and smell every minute detail. The rainforest, their home, has everything they need to survive; it is their pharmacy, their supermarket, their REI and Home Depot. Every step they take, they gather something useful.

All this said, the indigenous tribes of the Amazon have an uphill struggle. They have to deal with encroaching development, mineral exploration, hardwood timber harvesting, tourism and missionaries. For example, their knowledge of rainforest plants and their traditional usages is astounding; however, with western medicine introduced by missionaries, this once common traditional knowledge is disappearing... Today they walk a tightrope between the old and the new; it is not an easy existence.

The ecolodges we promote at ExpeditionTrips strive to maintain this delicate balance. And, they offer exciting choices for the Western tourist who wishes to learn more about the Amazon Rainforest and its native peoples. Two highly regarded ecolodges we've chosen to work with include Posada Amazonas and Tambopata Research Center in Peru.

At Tambopata Research Center, they have been lodging tourists and researchers since 1989, combining quality eco-tours and scientific research. The Tambopata National Reserve is part of a 3.7 million acre conservation unit in southeastern Amazonian Peru created in 1990 by the national government working in partnership with local grassroots and international conservation organizations. One of their primary missions and attractions of the Center is the protection of the adjacent macaw and parrot clay lick, recognized as the largest in the world. Situated close to the eroded rivers banks, hundreds of brilliantly colored birds gather daily to eat clay -- a spectacular display of color!

Another lodge, Posada Amazonas, opened in 1998 and has been acknowledged as an outstanding lodge and nature tour destination. Through their partnership with the Infierno Community and private partnerships, Posada Amazonas works to protect the local rainforest while meeting the economic needs of the people in the Native Community of Infierno.

There is no question that visitors to the Amazon and indigenous Indians are part of a unique cultural exchange. It is amazing that in an age of email, the Internet and globalization, you can still sit around a campfire and share stories with a people so connected with the natural world that live today much as they always have.

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