LIMA – Peru is much more than Machu Picchu.
It's also more than nice hotels and history museums, although the country abounds in these.
We found out how much more Peru is by following Jim Kane, owner of the tour company Culture Xplorers, as he researched some little-known communities where he hopes to send more travelers in the future. Culture Xplorers goes a step farther than voluntourism and the recently popular "guilt/gilt"-type trips where travelers see needy people, donate money to them, and then rush back to their luxury hotels. Kane believes in making a positive, permanent impact on the communities he comes in contact with on his list of destinations, which includes Oaxaca and Chiapas in Mexico, Cuba, Northern Spain, Argentina, and Guatemala, in addition to Peru.
His mission, besides donating funds to community projects where his travelers visit, is to work hand-in-hand with local leaders, support the living traditions that make the destinations unique, meet artisan food producers, and get inside the kitchens of chefs and hotel restaurants and the living rooms of home cooks. His Cultural Explorers Foundation, has already made a tremendous difference for a group of weavers near Cusco who are recuperating the endangered 2,000-year-old Andean textile tradition of their ancestors. In the 10 years his company has been involved, it has donated $50,000 and begun a yearly awards ceremony to recognize the men and women who are bringing back the ancient and beautiful weavings in the same patterns their grandparents created and using the same natural dyes they did long before the Incas came on the scene.
We joined Kane in Chinchero, at the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, for its 10-year awards ceremony and helped present medals and money to the winners, who speak their native Quechua and often do not see their fellow weavers from year to year because they live so far away from one another. The weavers in some cases left their remote homes at 6 a.m. to walk to Chinchero for the 10:30 a.m. event. Some of them told us that the awards mean not only prestige in their villages, but much needed money for food and medical attention for their families.
Our first research visit involved a drive to the outskirts of Lima to the desert shantytown of Pachacutec, where the Pachacutec Foundation has started a school for cooking, bartending, electronics, business, and cosmetology. A priest, with the help of Iberia Airlines, in the year 2000 got donations for the land in this barriada, where 50,000 people live in plastic houses they constructed themselves, there is 60 percent underemployment and no running water. Drinking water is purchased by the foundation, ingredients for the cooking school are donated by a large supermarket, and the "library" of cookbooks, signed by well-known chefs, is in a shipping container that was sent from Spain and now sits on the property outside the school.
Many of the culinary students, explained foundation vice president Magally Fuentes Acurio, have been abused, often by their fathers, and many are so committed to their studies that they get up every morning as early as 3 a.m. to take a bus to get to the school. We spoke with student Maria Luisa Tohalino, 23, who told us, "I love to cook seafood," and we joined her and the other students to make, and eat, an elaborate lunch using local seafood, lemons, potatoes, tuna, avocados, onions, chili pepper, chickens, and eggs.
On another day we took four-wheel vehicles up into the Andes until we reached 14,000 feet, where we were among the first-ever gringos, save for Por Eso! Foundation founder Simone Heemskerk, to meet the 46 extremely poor and isolated families of Chaupimayo and see the community gardens and greenhouses that Heemskerk, formerly of the Netherlands, has shown them how to build.
One of every three children in this remote region is malnourished, Heemskerk explained to us, because nothing except potatoes grows at this altitude. This leads to learning problems and an average lifespan of 55 as opposed to 75 in Lima. She has painstakingly shown the people here how to make covered greenhouses, enrich the soil by means of a bio-intensive method of potassium and layers of manure, and grow pumpkin, broccoli, kale, onions, celery, lettuce, and tomatoes. When a family has made a greenhouse and grown these vegetables, Heemskerk and her foundation rewards them with a "dream kitchen," which means the rambling guinea pigs are put in another building and the kitchen receives paint on the walls, a water keeper/purifier, and cleaner cooking conditions, including the elimination of parasites.
Heemskerk has opened a restaurant, Panza Verde ("Green Belly"), below this Andean outpost in the town of Calca, where breakfast and lunch are served daily using fresh vegetables she has purchased from the greenhouses up in the Andes, and supporting with the profits the families who have created the greenhouses. After our visit to Chaupimayo, Kane said that in the future he will offer a "limited, special" number of tourists a visit to the off-the-grid community. Those who are adventurous enough (and can handle the altitude) to take the four-wheel-drive trip and walk the remainder of the way up to Chaupimayo will be rewarded by seeing an expanding number of working greenhouses in this remote community and visiting with the grateful families who are part of the project.
Culture Xplorers offers small-group (a maximum of 10 people) trips to all of the iconic Peruvian sites, such as Machu Picchu, along with stays in some of the most luxurious hotels in the country and meals in the most elegant restaurants. You can design your own journey with Kane's help, including tailor-made trips focusing on food, which he calls "adventure foraging."
"Food is becoming a central nexus as a way of reconnecting with people," notes Kane, whose company won a National Geographic award for its inventive method of food travel in 2007. Already taking travelers to meet with shepherds in Spanish Basque country to hike with them and help them make cheese, going to market with chefs and taking the ingredients back to their homes to cook with them, Kane plans to expand his adventure foraging idea next year by taking his groups kayaking to hunt for seaweed and to go mushrooming with a gastro botanist in Spain, among other ideas.
Even if you choose the luxury trip to the Relais & Chateaux hotels and Machu Picchu top-of-the-line hikes, you can be sure that Kane, who works out of his home office in Missouri, will make part of your visit sustainable travel that will help the local people.
Julie Hatfield can be reached at email@example.com.