Looking at all the Latin American nations emerging from the bleak histories of the last few decades, few have transformed themselves into travel Meccas quite as completely and quickly as has Peru.
After a long and dark period of civil unrest, extreme violence and chronic poverty, the country has become a beacon of the South American tourism industry – blessed by the richness of its archaeology, history and culture, and buoyed by the return of security and safety throughout most of the country.
But Peru’s metamorphosis into a beautiful, harmonious and welcoming place for visitors is not quite complete. Parts of Peru remain thoroughly out of bounds for tourists. And although the Andean nation has now spent 10 years reconstructing itself, a recent spate of headlines has thrust the country back into the limelight, and for all the wrong reasons.
Crisis near Cusco
First, in January, there were reports that a group of independent travellers from the USA had been kidnapped by a band of villagers while camping in the southern Andes not far from Cusco, the country’s main travel hub. They were held captive for hours, beaten, threatened with death and they escaped with their lives after signing forced statements that their injuries were caused in a driving accident.
Then, in a totally separate incident two weeks ago (mid-February), the US Embassy in Lima warned of the heightened risk of kidnappings in the Cusco and Machu Picchu region. Apparently they had intercepted word of plans to kidnap tourists by remnants of the Shining Path, the insurgency-turned-narco-trafficking group that tormented the country during the 1980s and 1990s.
Both incidents have sparked fierce debate in and outside of Peru. Sensationalist coverage featuring headlines like “Cancel that trip to Machu Picchu” have caused havoc to the country’s tourism industry at peak season, prompting objections from the government and leaving travel businesses scrambling to reassure travellers that travel to Peru is still safe.
Meanwhile, discussion of the kidnapping incident has been remarkably polarised, with comments swinging from compassion to horror, and even contempt for the travellers themselves.
What’s the Truth?
So what’s going on? Are the hard-won gains made over the last decade beginning to slip away? Or are these stories mere blips in on the radar of Peru’s long transformation?
Precisely what makes these stories so shocking is that Peru has become so universally accepted as safe for tourists. While many other countries in the region remain shackled to their bad reputations, Peru has acquired a different lustre in the mind-set of most travellers: green light, safe, go.
But this isn’t entirely accurate. The simple truth is that there are still parts of Peru into which you wouldn’t venture alone and expect to come home in one piece. This is just as true in parts of Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala or, let’s be honest, the USA and many European capitals.
In Peru today, the Shining Path is still active. It controls territory in remote regions of the Amazon, including parts of Cusco province. Were any tourists to find themselves out there, they would certainly be gambling with their lives. That said, it’s virtually impossible to wander into such a zone, separated from the mainstream as they are by hundreds of miles of impenetrable jungle and impassable mountains.
Also worthy of note is that Andean villages have traditionally had a prickly relationship with outsiders – especially visitors who turn up unannounced and have no apparent reason for being in a village (i.e. most independent travellers).
Step into Andean Shoes
To understand what the Andean people might be thinking requires more than a cursory knowledge of their history, as well a good grasp of their cultural sensibilities. Traditional life and society in the Andes is profoundly different to anything we know or understand in the West (or in Peru’s own cities, for that matter). The Andean people live in a closed and guarded culture, conditioned by the hardships of daily life in a harsh climate and geography, and, more poignantly, by generations of having been brutalised by outsiders.
Andean folklore reflects a deep distrust and suspicion of outsiders, including the legends of pishtacos, evil cannibals (usually tall and pale-skinned) that lurk in the night, dragging off innocent villagers to cut their throats and harvest their body fat.
More recently, and still fresh in many peoples’ memories, the years of deeply traumatic civil conflict saw Andean villages isolated and cut off from government control, left to fend for themselves.
Mario Vargas Llosa’s excellent Death in the Andes depicts how these fears and experiences manifest themselves in contemporary life in rural Peru, where outsiders have frequently encountered resistance and violence from bewildered and uncomprehending locals.
Even today, life in remote Andean villages is characterised by almost complete isolation from the rest of the country, minimal access to education and a daily life of grinding subsistence. Villagers habitually leave boulders and chains across their roads at night to prevent outsiders from driving in and rustling their livestock. At the first signs of unrest or protest against the authorities, they do not hesitate in throwing up roadblocks and aggressively barring entry to anyone – police, officials and tourists alike.
In short, this is a delicate, sensitive environment, not a place that outsiders can simply swan through as though in Machu Picchu or Lima.
Be a Responsible Traveller
Although there are plenty of locals now accustomed to gringos, when you head off the well-trodden tourist trail, you quickly step into this different world. It’s real, raw and authentic, which is precisely why independent travellers want to visit. But when you do, you need to tread lightly and appreciate the complexities of your host community.
It’s always wise to visit such an area with a Quechua-speaking guide who has local connections. This will immediately put the locals at ease, as you’re no longer an unannounced outsider. If you are travelling alone, it is important to proceed with respect and caution. Do not expect to camp on people’s land without asking (and paying) in advance.
Be prepared to show your documents and prove that you’re there as a tourist. Village leaders are legally recognised officials and have the authority to demand your passport and documentation. Bear in mind that the locals might not speak Spanish. Cooperate and be patient and courteous at all times.
Most of all, you must recognise that you’re a guest in an extremely conservative and reserved culture. Respect and goodwill will get you a long way.
By and large Peru is the safe, secure country that most people assume it to be. Yes, there are regions that remain off limits with a real risk from terrorist and narco gangsters. Yes, there are indigenous villages that do not have a tradition of welcoming outsiders with open arms.
But by treading carefully you can easily avoid the risks and the culture shock. You can appreciate the nuances of the country you came to visit. And isn’t that the point of travel in the first place?