Peru is one of the most geographically diverse countries I’ve ever been to. It’s one of seventeen of the world’s megadiverse countries (all of which contain 70% of the earth’s biodiversity). The country has three major regions: the coast (costa), the Andes (sierra), and the Amazon rainforest (selva). I experienced the drastic changes in climate not only in Manú, where within one day I saw the changes in flora and fauna as we reached the high selva and descended into the wet and rainy rainforest. But I also saw the sudden climate shift on the bus from Huaraz to Lima, and from Lima to Ica, where I had started my day next to the snow-capped mountain range in Huarascarán National Park, and by sunset I was exploring the hot and dry desert oasis in Huacachina. While in Huacachina, a small town in Ica province that is known largely for it’s sandboarding and dune buggy excursions catered to foreigners, I took a day-trip to Paracas, where I sealed my introduction to Peruvian geography. It was in Paracas National Reserve, a desert peninsula along the coast and the only marine reserve in Peru, where my subconscious thoughts about the environment were surfaced for the first time. I realized that I had been thinking a long while about my relationship to the planet and what it means as a traveler to experience the world within an environmental context. Being able to witness these extraordinary changes in my environment, and at such a fast pace, is overwhelming yet very powerful. It’s also really depressing. We are destroying our world, and as a traveler I am playing a significant part in it’s rapid environmental decline.
It’s interesting how as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more excited about nature. I was born and raised in the classic city setting. The extent of my exposure to nature was going to the beach on weekends and on holidays. I wasn’t isolated from the diversity we have on this planet – I’ve traveled extensively and have seen many exotic places. But I never considered myself an outdoorsy person, and so I didn’t explore nature from an “adventure” perspective. I wasn’t in love with the idea of camping outside and spending my days hiking in the forest. Nowadays, I crave being outside; last year I started hiking and since then I haven’t been able to stop. Although challenging, I felt at ease in Torres del Paine in Patagonia, hiking for hours on end each day. I felt invincible climbing the snowy Villarrica Volcano in Pucón in Chile. The 5,000 meter altitude of the Vinicunca mountains near Cusco left me gasping for oxygen, but when I reached the summit I felt such a sense of accomplishment rarely felt in my “city” life. And I see myself getting better and stronger each time I set out to hike. I didn’t think I would ever be wearing hiking boots in my life, and here I am proudly wearing them almost every day!
In my travels I crave seeing the world in its natural beauty partly because I am increasingly aware of its impermanence. What I see is not forever.
On our way back to Huacachina from our day trip to Paracas, a fellow traveler and friend said to me, “as we see the world, we destroy the world.” The more foreigners visit a place unknown to them, the more they destroy that particular habitat. It makes no difference whether we are luxury travelers or frugal backpackers. Our mere presence is what creates the chaos. And here in Peru it is evident that some of it’s most prized physical and cultural treasures are at risk of destruction.
Every day tourists take photos as they jump into the air overlooking Machu Picchu. What they don’t realize is that this high forest is actually in danger of sinking. As they land from their high jump, checking to see if all their friends made it in the air and editing away to post on their instagram, they don’t realize they are contributing to soil erosion. The rumor that the Peruvian government is going to create elevated platforms that prevent the huge influx of tourists from stepping on the ruins themselves can quickly become a reality. Hikers leave trash at the gorgeous glacial lakes in Huarascarán National Park. Cultural destruction is evident in Cusco where the local Peruvian way of life has been substituted with the increasing demand for tour operators, massage parlors, souvenir shops, and a McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks, all occupying historical buildings in the main plaza square. In Iquitos, it has become increasingly common for foreigners to interest in partake in a spiritual and medicinal ceremony that has been performed by shamans for hundreds of years. People are taking note of this heightened interest in ayahuasca, and as a result there are some unscrupulous fake shamans taking advantage of people that are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to do something without truly understanding the cultural significance of such to the indigenous community. On a related note, people will also pay anything to learn from the partially remote indigenous communities in the amazon. The social consequences of tribal tourism are dire, as is the mission/religious-based “white man” influence on indigenous populations. For instance, while I was walking in the jungle in Manú I saw three young girls from the Machiguenga indigenous tribe dressed in western clothes, one in a Minnie Mouse t-shirt and another wearing clogs. My guide recognized that they were Machiguengas and was surprised they were anywhere near where we were walking. He began speaking to them in their native language, and he knew they were at least three days away from their home, as they lived much deeper in the reserve. We saw a young European man accompanied by several women approach us, quickly interrupting my guide and speaking to the young girls in Spanish, telling them to hurry along. We knew right away these were missionaries. These missionaries are not exactly the tourist travelers I am discussing here, but this is just another example of the long term effects of modern-day exploration.
In Paracas National Reserve, our guide brought us to an area where we could find thousands of fossils proving that the present-day desert was once a lake within a humid, jungle-like landscape. As we looked at these cylindrical remnants of a tropical water world, the guide began showing us how we could remove the fossils from the clay with water. He excavated a fossil in this method and then he promptly gave it to one to one of us to keep. Various people subsequently walked about and started doing the exact same thing. I was in total shock. I could not believe that this man, someone who is supposed to be proud of the diversity and rich history of the Paracas desert, was literally removing 36 million year old fossils from it’s proper place. Instead of preserving what is left, he is directly causing its destruction, and soon enough there literally won’t be any fossils left in their natural resting place. I realized then that we truly are our own worst enemies. We are the reason for all the destruction we so often try to prevent. And “gringos” aren’t the only ones at fault. As with the local guide in Paracas, no one escapes the blame. Sometimes it’s the residents, those who live in their world more than anyone, that cause more destruction than the visitors. Is it a question of education? Or is it just that we want to have, in a materialistic sense, a piece of something exotic come along with us, as a memento of our where we’ve traveled? Why do we have such an obsession with the material? This is not a modern phenomena – think of a beautiful library where hunters proudly display their kill, the lion and boar heads stuck on a piece of wood jutting out from the wall. I am growing more aware of how I used to carry extraordinary value to objects, and I am now feeling less of a desire to physically take a part of what I see and what I experience with me, although sometimes it can be tempting. We are fortunate to have photos to remind us of the beauty we saw, videos to show us those candid moments frozen in time, and our voices and memories to record our memories and reflections of our travels.
The more we push ourselves to explore every corner of the world, the more destruction we cause along the way. Yes, there is ethical travel. There is responsible, eco-friendly, sustainable tourism. But none of these travel concepts are completely immune. The sad fact is that even if we stayed put in our home town and didn’t travel, we would still be causing destruction. Because then we’d be hurting our own land, sometimes without even knowing it. So what can we do? I certainly don’t have an answer. And I certainly won’t stop traveling. Because I, selfishly or not, want to see the world. I want to hike the mountains, ride along the desert, lie on the pristine beaches, scuba dive in the oceans, and ride boats along the rivers of the rainforest. And in a very small way I can be more aware of the food that I eat, my lifestyle, and my consumption habits. And if we all tried to be more aware of our footprint and of our individual impact wherever we are in the world — maybe, just maybe, we can keep on traveling.