Sunday, November 23, 2008

Glimpsing village life in Peru

As the sun came up, I peeped through the window of our guest house onto a timeless vista: fields of potatoes and other crops, rimmed by hills and mountains. In the distance, a farmer was already at work behind a horse-drawn plow. In the village of Huamacchuco in the Peruvian Andes, many people wake and sleep with the sun; without night-time distractions such as television, the Internet or movie theatres, that makes perfect sense.

It's hard to get more than a glimpse into a country's way of life on a week-long trip. But if you're heading to the Ancash region of Peru, I can't think of a better way to try than to stay in the Comunidad Campesina Unidos Venceremos, a small community of Quechua families in Huamacchuco. Together, they maintain five purpose-built guest houses and offer hospitality ranging from pachamanca (a traditional feast cooked over heated stones buried in the ground) to impromptu dance sessions to local music.

We spent a little less than a day in the community, but it was a highlight of my visit to Peru earlier this month. When people ask, "How was your trip?" I inevitably start telling tales of Huamacchuco: of sampling chicha (a beverage made from corn, lemon juice and cinnamon), visiting the tiny school (where the kids eagerly sang a few Quechua songs for us) and trying to engage the reserved village women in conversation, despite some language barriers (most conversations involved hand signals or simultaneous translation from our guide, who spoke Spanish, Quechua and English).

While unfailingly friendly and welcoming, our hosts had some unspoken rules. Despite our curiosity to see the inside of one of their homes, they kindly but firmly limited conversations to doorways, courtyards and public spaces. Perhaps that was just a coincidence, but I suspect it was an effort to maintain a modicum of privacy. Fair enough. We were there as guests and their homes are not museums. I'm glad they felt free to set limits. Once the visitors start calling all the shots, any cultural tourism project can quickly degrade into a soulless theme park.

Overnight stays with the community, which include all meals, activities and accommodation, cost US$16 to US$27 per night, depending on the size of your group and the length of your stay. To book, contact the Yachaqui Wayi Responsible Tourism Centre in Huaraz, Peru. The centre also has a comprehensive webpage with further information on Huamacchuco. The Mountain Institute, a U.S.-based organization devoted to supporting traditional mountain cultures and environments around the world, is one of the project's sponsors.

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