TRAVELING TO PERU
THE FAIR TRADE WAY
A new concept in tourism has recently been launched in Peru: Fair Trade Tourism.
A joint effort between indigenous communities and Minka, a fair trade organization in Peru, the Minka Trail is a tour designed to bring tourists closer to rural and indigenous people, in fair and sustainable cultural exchanges. For our fair trade work, this tour is ideal: we would learn directly from the producers, and return with an understanding that will help us promote their products. We would do this without taking away precious working time from income generating activities. Also curious about this new fair trade idea, we wanted to see how it worked. All this we could count on. What we gained was far more than expected.
From Taquile Island on lake Titicaca, our hosts Alipio and Elias greet us in Puno and take us by boat to the Huanalli community. Elias displays the local produce of various tubers and grains and the rudimentary tools still used to cultivate the stony soil. In a simple gesture when preparing tea, Alipio gives the first cup to mother earth. They talk of dreams and legends and daily life on our way to a spiritual place where people gather to pray for rain and harvest. Terraces cover the island, some to grow corn, spread potatoes to dry, or serve as pasture for sheep. There are many types of potatoes on the island, but there are even more stones, neatly piled around the small fields as fences. The gates - a couple of stones out to lower the fence, a couple of stones back in on the other side. We tour on foot, the only mode of transportation permitted on the island, captivated by the peaceful view, distant mountains and sunset on the lake.
The island is managed by the inhabitants, the communities meeting regularly to discuss everything from land to customs, regulating tourist visits and docking permits to protect the natural environment. We settle in at Alipio and Francesca’s home. The guest rooms have curtains for the tourists - though there are no houses in sight - and they’ve just built a new ‘tourist-ready’ outhouse complete with seat, toilet paper, bucket of pure water for washing and a bar of soap. The women disappear in the kitchen to prepare lunch while we chat. All are dressed in their traditional clothing: the men in a red and white hat with finely detailed animal designs and an intricately patterned red & white cummerbund (faja). This is the daily dress code on Taquile, where the men knit and the women weave. They spend 6 to 8 hours a day, for three months, knitting a single hat or weaving a single faja. The women’s black skirts move in waves when moving, revealing a bright green skirt, complemented by a red top and black shawl. All look incredibly good and smile proudly. Tourism has helped maintain the traditions on Taquile Island, but when off the island to the public market, plainer clothes are worn to avoid discrimination.
Children walk past with large bundles of kindling. When we return to the house, a fire is lit in the centre of the small courtyard, and Elias picks on a guitar. Twirling around the fire, the women’s sandaled feet step close to the coals, the flames searing the edge of the wool skirts. The men perform stories in steps to the music. Men and women pull us up to dance, try to teach us a few steps, and laugh. We dance until the fire dies out. We walk the length of the island the next day, to the pre-inca ruins, the small village, then down through the famous stone arches.
Well garnished with our Taquile purchases, we return to Puno on the Huanalli-owned boat. The next day, our new hosts arrive in a small van, which we stuff tightly with our luggage and ourselves, long legged and sitting sideways. A few hours later at the gate in Unocolla, eight musicians and a crowd of 30 greet us with such fanfare that we’re speechless. We dance in a circle, and turn and turn until we’re dizzy. The joyful welcome is overwhelming; we sink down on a bench, adorned in paper leis and breathless. The cook looks anxiously for approval while we eat a simple but satisfying meal, and drink lots of hot tea. One by one, we each get up for extra helpings to reassure her and make her smile.
Mauricio’s farm in Unocolla is surprising: despite the challenge to grow food, the place is irresistible. The mountains, lake and landscape are pristine, herons strolling on the lake’s edge. The homestead is a collection of small stone buildings around a courtyard, a loom installed outside up the slope, a work in progress ready for a demonstration - it doesn’t rain very often. Further down the road, alpaca are grazing. Their eyes are childlike, large and questioning. Their wool grows in many shades of brown and grey, black and white, and the local farmers and artisans are helping to preserve the less common color-coated alpaca. Here, the women knit and the men weave. They give considerable attention to the quality of the materials, working with organic cotton and alpaca, and using the softest fibers. There are no chemicals on the farm, and all the work is done manually, with simple tools, and no pollutants. The alpaca is raised locally and the tan and white cotton brought in from indigenous farms farther north with the help of Minka. The fibers are hand spun and made into beautiful sweaters, shawls and accessories, naturally colored, without dyes or chemicals.
The driver’s family join us the next day for the scenic road to Lampa, then Cuzco. They give us lunches but bring no food or water for themselves, and never need to pee. We circulate fruit and sandwiches. They drop us off at the handsome Niños Hotel in Cuzco, a tourism project that helps abandoned children with daily meals.
Starting the next morning, we’re in the care of Vicente Rayo for the Cuyo Chico community, ready to ‘plunge’ into the Valley of the Incas. Ever more dramatic, the landscape changes into greener, steeper slopes and rocky cliff-edges. We are the first group of tourists to Vicente and Casimira’s adobe house, recently finished in smooth redish earth, with perfectly rounded edges, wood trim and plasterwork on the inside. The skilled handwork and tasteful details are admirable, and the beautiful home is in perfect harmony with the landscape. The men greet us in traditional clothing and place vine wreaths, fruit still attached, around our necks. The women sprinkle fresh rose petals on our heads, and a musician plays the flute: a warm welcome that has us completely charmed. We sit comfortably on small rugs for lunch, while the table is garnished generously with a feast. The dishes are exceptional: Casimira had prepared us a gourmet meal of ancient Inca recipes.
Vicente walks us through the harvested grain fields, and to the clay ‘wells’. This resource is abundant in this region, and the locals are known for their painted ceramic flutes. A wide fissure breaks the length of the field, the clay ground sinking slowly. The entire village could succumb in a landslide explains Vicente casually, pointing at the unstable ground. He walks on, and we talk about opportunities for artisan goods, returning to the workshop for a tour and demonstration. Once filtered, the pure white and black clay are mixed to a pale strong medium and poured into drying trays. The paste is then pressed in a mechanism that forms thin tube shapes, later cut into necklace beads. All things done manually, the handmade tools make the work very productive. Flutes, chess pieces and beads are fired in a handmade oven built inside the workshop. Around it are the cooling areas. The paint and sorting area hide behind the tiny courtyard garden of bees and hibiscus, and upstairs the flutes and necklaces are laid out on a table. The sun has set at six, hours ago. A festival starts in the neighboring yard, young people in intricately embroidered costumes performing folklore dances, playing music and drinking chicha, the local corn beer.
All support being done humbly by our host, who offers to bring us to any site and wait patiently, shows commitment to this project and his community. On our return from Machu Picchu, we invite Vicente and Casimira to join us on our last day in Cuzco, and get a better sense of Vicente’s role in creating the ceramic workshop and inspiring community efforts. The tools were built based on those used in similar workshops in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Columbia where he traveled. Now counting 17 people, the members of Communidad Cuyo Chico work together diligently and the effort has been worthwhile, able to start new projects like the tourism service and help other local initiatives, such as those in Cuyo Grande where he had taken us. Challenges remain and there is not yet enough sales, especially at fair prices, but somehow, there is support for those who work together to improve their lives, whether the activity is fishing or growing medicinal plants, or even another ceramic producer group. We spend hours talking frankly but easily, despite our own limitations in Spanish. The exchanges are precious and we laugh a great deal.
The tour, bringing valuable income to the artisan communities, is an opportunity for them to share their lives and culture with dignity, on their own terms. It is also an opportunity for them and tourists to understand each other, replacing assumptions with appreciation. Where the usual tourist route brings you no closer than a market stall, the fair trade alternative opens another world of real people, their issues, and their ingenious and sustainable solutions to social and environmental challenges. Throughout the trip, questions and answers from hosts and tourists went back and forth, our guide translating everything. In addition to the many things we came to learn, conversations touched on the topics of relationships, adoption, medicinal properties of plants and tea, the influence of new religions on old beliefs, spiritual needs, that we sell our houses and they build theirs for their children, and the age when one starts to work. The conversation has just started, but the experience has left us with a fresh perspective on the world and our place in it. Inspiring and unforgettable.
Photos of our trip and the artisan products from Peru are posted on Peri Dar’s website at. For a full itinerary and to travel on the Minka Trail, visit Minka Fair Trade at
Written by: Nicole McGrath
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