Written by Fidgit
“Se han acostumbrados,” she shrugged.
This was the summation a kiosk owner in Huallanca offered on why the communities along the Huayhuash Circuit expected payment from passing hikers.
We were standing at the T-intersection on the edge of town, just beside her kiosk where a kitten and a small dog played in the sun. She had seen us casting about uncertainly for a vehicle and had come out to offer advice and support on hitching back out to our route. She was cheery, friendly, and curious. We bought a few trail snacks from her shop. This practice of reciprocity is important in our endeavor.
“When tourists first came to the Huayhuash,” she explained, “they would ask local people to guide them and then give them money. Sometimes they just gave people money, so the people got used to that,” she shrugged.
It sounded like good intentions set a precedent which, with time and increased use, had become the money grubbing loop hike we had hurriedly left behind. It recalled me to the now packed long distance trails in the US and to feel fortunate to be on the front end of the still relatively small wave of people walking across South America.
Huallanca is along the northern edge of the Huayhuash range and is surrounded by mines. Same with the town to the south of the Range. Same with the towns to the east. The famous adventure travel hiking circuit is surrounded by mines but most visitors will have no idea of this because they hire guide companies, hike the loop, check it off their ‘bucket list’, snap the pictures to get the ‘likes’, and leave by the same transports as they came in.
We had walked up the eastern side of the staggeringly beautiful loop. While the mountains most definitely merit the fame, the development of the industry around it was haphazard and unmanaged. Trails were deeply trenched and, when we passed early in the season, were literally running with water. Dozens of ad-hoc foot paths had been worn by visitors trying to keep their ankle high waterproof boots dry, and the guides, wanting their guests to have the best time possible, simply allowed it. Erosion was already hard at work on the steep passes.
What most bothered me were the communities in each valley along the way, roughly every 10 km or so, sent people up to extol payment from passing tourists ranging from $7-$21 USD per person, even just for passing.
I want to be open that my response to this is layered with frustrations:
1) I resent being charged money to be in wilderness in almost any case.
2) Recent months spent crossing two countries of people almost constantly asking us for “propinas,” (tips) or “dulces” for doing nothing more than passing one another on the street.
3) A very specific frustration with being charged money at places such as Rainbow Mountain and a few other new and unregulated “wilderness attractions” to fund practices which I do not see to be in the long term interest of the land or the people.
I am Jill’s self-righteous indignation.
Essentially, the villagers saw or heard from another community the opportunity to acquire an income, they set their own prices and develop the areas as they see fit.
At Rainbow Mountain, this meant a pit toilet about every 100 m in climb along the way, a constant carousel of horses being led by locals clad in brightly colored outfits, unsecured trash cans releasing garbage into the wind, and some sort of sketchy structure being built over the stream (I’m guessing it will be a restaurant?).
Along the Huayhuash, it seemed generally to be maintaining a camp ground surrounded by trash, toilets surrounded by TP flowers and turds, and selling beer in glass bottles and carbonated beverages and water in plastic bottles.
Where we entered the loop, at the hot springs on the southern end, we paid 20 soles each to pitch our tent and use the hot springs, which they manned and cleaned. Never mind the locals taking soap baths in one of the pools and encouraging the tour groups to wash their clothes also with soap, which then ran into the stream which then flowed into their village downstream . . .
My ire peaked the next day when we attempted to walk past another of these sites and were blocked from passing by a man demanding another 20 soles per person. We showed him our colorful little tickets and he said these were for a different community. We explained that we would be hiking on to the next valley and not camping there. He said we still had to pay.
“Why are you being difficult about this, all the other tourists just pay and don’t say anything,” he insisted.
Here I felt we came close to the root of the issue I meant to confront. Mindless acquiescence to ordinances applied by people who, while coming from a deep history of the land, have no concept of land management and do not yet grasp the literal and figurative garbage the expectations and products of the first-world are raining down on them. Chemicals, over use, poor maintenance, etc.
Of the potentially responsible parties: i.e. – the enterprising locals or the visiting tourists, I feel the responsibility for prompting progress falls in the lap of the tourist. Yet, what I saw in general was vacationer’s laziness, unquestioning, self satisfying, path of least resistance:
“The guide said it was okay to wash my clothes in the stream,”
“I don’t want to get my boots muddy,”
“Someone will come pick up my trash,”
“It is just money and these poor wretches need it more than me,”
all the drivel of the privileged.
We are the ones with the benefit of education and perspective on what happens when resources are strained, we’ve already wrought these consequences on our own lands. How dare we come dump our trash on theirs while they, in good faith, trust us and hope we are bringing them economic solvency which they still, also because of us, believe is the only way up.
So, I again asked what we were being charged for. He replied, for using the land and for our protection. I told him we carried our own protection and would not be using the land. I pressed him about how the money was used. For example, if there were some organization or project afoot teaching health, rescue, LNT, and trail work to the communities, I would be thrilled to pitch in.
He replied it was “for the community” but could not clarify beyond that. The understanding I have pieced together is the money is taken back to the community, dolled out by their leaders variously for land projects and among the residents.
“If you can’t pay, then you’ll just have to stay the night here and pay in the morning,” he declared.
“Sir, as I don’t have money now, unless there is an ATM up here, I am still not going to have money in the morning.”
He gave this some thought.
I explained we had not anticipated these constant expenses and did not to travel with much cash as that was a good way to get robbed. I did not have the amount of money he was asking as we had paid almost all we had at the hot springs camp the evening before. I offered him the 3 soles I had and a bar of soap and a small shampoo I carry to give to folks we meet along the way.
He snorted, “I can’t bring that back to my community, what am I going to do with soap and shampoo?”
“Maybe you can come together as a community, vote on who smells the worst, and give it to them?” I suggested.
He looked at me like I was batty, “No, the community only want your money.”
I felt like he heard himself say it at the same time as I did.
As a region with deep roots in collective thinking and a relatively recent place of refuge for the Communist offshoot, the Sendero Luminoso, obsession with wealth is frowned upon. This prompted a shift in the conversation.
Next he offered to half the price, then he told me I had to give him whatever I had, whereupon I again offered him the 3 soles and the wash products, he surmised, “if that is really all you’ve got, and you’ll have to answer to God if you are lying, then just don’t worry about it and move on. But if we find you camping here, you will have to pay.”
We hiked on, edgy but relieved. We went through almost the same situation in two more valleys but with less resistance, giving out the soap and shampoo and a few of my snacks in trade for “safe passage”, made sure to stealth camp high and remote, and got off the Huayhuash Circuit as quickly as possible.
This experience gave rise to my summation of Peruvian people:
If you have nothing, they will try to help.
If you have something, they want a piece of it.
As a nod to your having plowed through my belly aching and opinion spewing, here is a clip from one of the most beautiful days along that section of hiking.