Magazine article Geographical

The Path Less Travelled: Sarah Gilbert Discovers How a Mountain-Activity Lodge in the Peruvian Highlands Is Working Hand-in-Hand with Remote Communities to Benefit Both the Local Culture and the Growing Tourist Trade

Magazine article Geographical

The Path Less Travelled: Sarah Gilbert Discovers How a Mountain-Activity Lodge in the Peruvian Highlands Is Working Hand-in-Hand with Remote Communities to Benefit Both the Local Culture and the Growing Tourist Trade

Article excerpt

The only sounds were the whistling wind, the crunch of boots on rock and my own ragged breathing. At 4,218 metres, the Cruzcasa Pass was breathtaking in every way; the glaciers of Mount Veronica shimmered in the distance, the jagged peaks and cobalt-blue sky were reflected in the glass-like surface of Alpine lakes. Suddenly a woman appeared from nowhere, put down her heavy bundle and spread her wares across the ground to create an impromptu stall. I browsed exquisite cloth, hand-woven with intricate symbols and imagery that dated back centuries.

Before the Spanish conquistadors destroyed the Inca empire in the mid-16th century, Inca territory covered an area the size of Western Europe, with the Peruvian city of Cusco at its heart. Today, an average of 500 people hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu every day, but I was taking an Inca road less travelled.

DIRECT BENEFITS

As a concept, Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP) began in 2002 when Enrique Umbert turned a former family home into a multi-activity lodge in the mountains near Lima. It was officially founded in 2005 when he partnered with fellow commodities trader, Eduard Rauchdobler from Austria, who shared his love of adventure travel.

His son, Enrique Umbert Jr, has been MLP's General Manager from the start and the younger Umbert has been able to combine his passion for environmental protection, cultural preservation and corporate social responsibility to create a unique business model, designed to mix high-end lodges and innovative programmes with sustainable tourism practices that directly benefit the local communities in which they operate.

The challenging seven-day Salkantay Trek became MLP's flagship programme and was paired from the start with social initiatives supporting health, education and environmental projects, created and supported by MLP's non-profit arm, Yanapana Peru.

By 2010, MLP decided it needed to grow and began developing another lodge-to-lodge trekking route, but one with a difference. It realised that the Lares Valley was seen as a low-budget alternative to the Inca Trail and that there was limited engagement with tourism for the locals. It also saw that these remote rural communities were possibly the most direct descendants of the Incas and pre-Incas, with a singular culture.

While hiking through spectacular mountain scenery would still be a major draw of the 'Lares Adventure', it wasn't just for hard core trekkers. Guests would have the opportunity to combine hiking with visits to oft-forgotten archaeological sites and remote communities, where they could learn about the culture first-hand.

STEP BY STEP

From the outset, MLP's vision was based on long-term partnerships with the communities but that came with its own unique challenges.

The first step was recognising and respecting our differences and similarities,' says Umbert. 'While MLP has the know-how and technology to do business, the Andean communities have inhabited and protected their territory for thousands of years. They have their own set of values, vision, organisational structure, and so on. Both sides had to make an effort to adapt.'

Other complications included the language barrier between Spanish and the native language, Quechua, the communities' level of formal education, and sociopolitical issues they are formally recognised as 'agricultural communities' and are required by law to change their governing members every two years.

It was also a time-consuming strategy. MLP began by mapping out the entire Lares Valley, identifying up to six different communities that would work as locations for the lodges and began developing adventure and cultural activities for each of them.

'You'd never know how long the negotiations would take or what the outcome would be,' says Umbert. 'We began the process with one community at a time, thinking that if they accepted and the business was set up, then other communities would react more favourably to our proposal, like a domino effect. …

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