Will Nicholls recently traveled to Peru to study indigenous economic initiatives, eco-tourism projects in particular.

Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)

Ah, Peru, primeval Peru. A place where you could feel the very bones of the Earth were exposed and old.

While flying into Lima, the capital, I was looking at the ocean beat against the coastline. That same wild coastline, according to archeologists, was home to nomadic hunter-gathers around 12,000 years ago. Eventually, crops were planted four millennia ago leading to more advanced agriculture, weaving and religion. Tribes would rise and fall but it all led to the Inca Empire.

That empire would last until it cruelly taken over by and looted by the Spanish conquistadors in 1533. The infamous Francisco Pizarro led the Spanish takeover, stealing a page from Hernando Cortez and killing the Inca emperor in 1533. Pizarro founded the city I flew into, Lima, and was assassinated six years later. It would be 250 years before the Inca leader Tupac Amaru II would lead the exploited Indians in an unsuccessful uprising against the colonial machine that brought down the Incan empire.

The Spanish would control Peru until independence was declared in 1821, and a civil war saw the last of the Spanish forces slink away in 1824. It needed two outsiders, Simon Bolivar and the Argentinean Jose de San Martin to free Peru. It was ironic that Peru would later end up fighting with its neighbour to the north, Bolivia, over the lucrative rubber trade. Rubber trees were on the border and both sides claimed the territory. The eventual creation of artificial rubber would see an end to this piece of colourful history. I even went to a private club that the survivors of the war built in Lima. Inside are portraits of the patriots and it was stunningly beautiful.

Peru’s military history would catch up with it and see a military dictatorship take control of the country in the late 60s. It wouldn’t be until 1980 that democracy would return.

President Alberto Fujimori’s election in 1990 showed a few things. It showed that the Peruvian economy could be turned around. It saw the Maoist guerilla group Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), lose a violent war against the state. And though it may seem strange that a person of Japanese descent would run Peru, the country has one of the largest Asiatic populations in South America.

But a fact of life for Peruvian politician is corruption and instability. Fujimori fled the country to his ancestral Japan over a corruption scandal. One of his ministers was caught on video promising over $100,000 US for a politician to change his party affiliation to Fujimori’s. It was the final straw for Peruvian voters who ousted him. This was different because most politicians from Peru would go to Florida. For some, not necessarily because they were corrupt, but because the incoming party wanted to eradicate corruption and promised to arrest their predecessors in office.

The government in power now is led by President Alejandro Toledo. Toledo claims native blood and his wife wrote an extensive book on Peru’s native communities. The aboriginal peoples in Peru are not as organized as Ecuador but there are strong unions. I saw no less than three demonstrations in one day in Lima. All were over jobs being cut.

Lima itself though is a beautiful city. One that grabs you and allows you to see the majesty of South America at its finest. I enjoyed especially the seafood. It was exceptional and extremely good as well as being quite affordable. An expensive night out for two, including wine, runs about $40. May I recommend the Mar de Popas in the Miraflores district of Lima. It is a great place to get a hotel or find a fantastic restaurant. I enjoyed a platos especiales. It was a mixture of different sea foods. The shrimp in a light lemon based sauce was to die for. There were slices of fish, three different types and each in its own distinct sauce. Each one had me drooling for more. It was not so much one plate as a bunch of plates. When I called the cook out to compliment him and have a glass of wine with him he made one short trip back to the kitchen. As we were enjoying the wine and talking about cooking, another plate showed up, compliments of the chef. It does pay to tell how much you enjoyed the meal.

I met with the equivalent of Indian Affairs for Peru. Their budget is very small, around the equivalent of $2 million. With it though, they look after such things as malaria and hepatitis B shots for natives in the jungle.

From there it was on to that jungle to another eco-tourism travel package. The first stop over was at Sandoval lodge by way of Puerto Maldonado. The port was a bustling town with mostly dirt roads. I found it a beautiful place as it was relatively untouched by the regular tourist trade and offered many bargains in its many shops. I picked up a handmade packsack for $12 that would have cost me hundreds back in Canada. It is a place where you can still bargain and bargain you must. The cost of goods is automatically jacked up whenever a tourist approaches. The prices will come down quickly as you start to walk away. Though most people speak just Spanish, sign language and drawing numbers on your hands seemed to work well for me. A word of warning though: check out what you are buying. Some of the stuff may be illegal to bring back to Canada. A handmade knife I was looking at turned out to be made of caiman hide (looks like an alligator), and another was made of anaconda skin. Though they are beautiful, they will be confiscated and may result in a fine. The market though is friendly and people are genuinely happy to see you.

The trip to Sandoval lodge begins with a walk to the river. It is picturesque with families swimming or boating. The boats are long and usually have taki-taki motors, named for the sound it makes as it travels along. The engine is a single cylinder and while slow it gets a majority of the native population around. The ride on the river is welcome because it is hot. Lima’s climate is not as hot, but a jungle is not a jungle without a lot of heat and humidity.

At the end of the boat ride you have to walk for about two kilometres through the start of the wildlife-rich Tambopata National Reserve. The walk is amazing with our guide Carmen pointing out various examples of plants, trees, insects, birds and animals. We see monkeys, parrots and macaws. We also learn what a trees that hosts fire ants looks like. These babies have a nasty bite that will keep you in pain for hours despite medication. They have a symbiotic relationship with the tree and keep the area around it clean. There are these beautiful butterflies with a metallic blue pattern. Everyone makes appreciative sounds.

After a while we make it to the end of the trail sweating heavily. We all brought water with us but fortunately the packsacks and other gear are being carried by porters. They have made a rickshaw type of carrier using bicycle tires on which the luggage is piled high. We arrived at a dock with a few boats with no motors because they would disturb the ecology on the lake.

It is a relaxed and slow ride across the lake with Carmen pointing out the sights. Giant palm trees that house macaws (way larger than parrots but just as wildly coloured). Places where the endangered Giant Otters play. Sandoval Lake has one of the largest, and most accessible, populations of Giant Otters in Peru. We keep an eye out for the elusive anaconda and no, they don’t really grow to the size of the one in the movie of the same name.

I got a chance to see a very colourful, ancient bird called a Hoatzin. (The locals call it “stinky bird.”) It is a truly strange sight to see and hear. Scientists themselves couldn’t decide if this bird is a survivor from the pages of evolutionary history or a throwback. Finally they gave up and placed the bird in a class all of its own. It was pointed out by our guide that these birds had claws on their wing. They weren’t used by the adult but the young use them to climb around in the trees near the nest. The birds also have a different stomach than other birds and this adds to their smell, hence the name stinky bird.

Situated on a hill overlooking Sandoval Lake is a beautiful lodge made of mahogany. To be precise it is made of driftwood mahogany and thus more ecologically correct, my hosts pointed out. In any case, it is beautiful and was built to protect the Giant Otters and other endangered wildlife that inhabit the lake and surrounding forest. This 25-room lodge is a partnership between Tropical Nature, a nonprofit conservation group, and five Brazil nut-gathering families. It is the second type of CBE (community based eco-tourism) and is well run. The meals are great and the staff courteous.

At one point in the night one of the staff took us out to see a strangler boa. This boa was in a tree and drops down on prey. We were a little too big for it to even consider us as possible food. The night a group of us went out in the long shallow canoes looking for black caimons. There was one beauty over five feet long. When you go out looking for these big boys you shine a light at the water near the edge and under overhanging banks and trees. Then you slowly and silently move in. To get a really good look we went to where some babies were and pulled along side. We couldn’t stay long as the young call to mama. While the caiman are less aggressive than the crocodile or alligator mom will aggressively defend her young. Caiman will not bother daytime bathers but when night starts to fall it’s get out of the water.

Beesum communications, and The Nation magazine would like to thank the Canadian International Development Agency (ClDA) for their support in making this project a reality. Without them, this story would not have been possible.

Be sure to pick up a copy of the next Nation in two weeks time, where well feature part 2 of the Peru indigenous eco tourism ventures.