“You’ll have to get out and walk from here the rest of the way,” our driver announced to the passengers on our small tour bus. Carrying all of our belongings for the weekend ahead, we began the near vertical hike up to the community of Huilloc Alto, tucked in a pocket of the Andes. We were at nearly 12,000 ft of elevation, breathing hard and sweating in the cool mountain air. The road to the community was supposed to be finished by now and yet thanks to the water running down from the streams on the mountain peaks, our car was stranded just beneath our newest tourism cooperative community. Strike one.
We at Awamaki have been growing, expanding our reach to even more women’s cooperatives, helping them develop their businesses and improve their families’ well-being. One of our most exciting additions has been Huilloc Alto, home of our newest sustainable tourism cooperative. After approaching us two years ago in search of guidance to start their own sustainable tourism project, we’ve been excitedly awaiting their first tours. “We started to do workshops with them, to figure out how many ladies, how many homestays, what activities there are to do in the community based around culture and nature,” Juan, our coordinator of sustainable tourism explained. We planned and prepared and trained and yet it took just one attempt to realize we had quite a ways to go before it would be smooth sailing.
It was one of my first weekends in the Sacred Valley, as the brand-new Marketing and Communication Coordinator at Awamaki, and I couldn’t have been more excited to catch my first glimpses of life in one of our partner communities. A group of five staff members would be the guinea pigs, so to say, for the weekend. We had been expecting a fun and relaxing time, giving the women pointers on how to improve the tour; maybe reviewing the details of the schedule or discussing boiled or fried potatoes for breakfast. The unexpected hike in was just our first surprise. When we arrived, we were welcomed graciously by each of the women, necklaces of Cantuta flowers, the national flower of Peru, strung around our necks…but what next? We looked left and right waiting for a plan or an order to the weekend’s activities. The women stared and we simply stared back. Hmm. I had expected something maybe just a little more structured.
Finally, Juan stepped up to help guide the community and encourage them to assert their leadership, and plans began to take shape. “They were expecting for me to tell them what to do,” Juan remembered. He had been unsure of his role, and intimidated that the tour wasn’t going as well as he would’ve hoped. There was so much work to be done to get this group ready for actual tourists!
Juan continued to make suggestions throughout the weekend. “Maybe you could tell us where everyone will be sleeping and introduce yourselves, then show the way to your homes. Help the tourists carry their things, show them where they will eat, where they can use the bathroom, and so forth,” Juan explained to the community members. If this had been an actual tour, for paying customers, we would’ve been close to disaster– failing not only them, but also, the women of the Huilloc Alto cooperative who were not 100% prepared for the tour. “All of these little pointsindicated to me that it required practice for them to feel comfortable andunderstand… to take initiative and be comfortable with the activities they proposed,” Juan added, reflecting on the process that the group went through to plan and prepare for visitors. Figuring out how the schedule would work proved to be an important and missed preparation step. Without even planning on it, it turned out a trial run with staff was exactly what the group needed.
The mishaps continued. As my roommate for the weekend and I headed to our homestay for the night, we realized there was no real path. We tossed our bags down off a ledge and made the leap ourselves, we skipped over puddles and squished through muddy terrain. Not exactly ideal for impressing future customers. What was proposed as “just around the corner” turned out to be much more like a mini-hike. Finally, a delicious traditional lunch of hot quinoa soup and vegetable pancakes with rice– no mishaps there! Afterwards, we hiked up just a short bit around the outskirts of the community to learn about their use of local plants. The aim was to have one of the hosting women partner up with each of us to go look for some of these various plants. I can’t lie: things we’re a bit awkward as each woman was so shy, nearly unwilling show us around. Juan yet again stepped in to do some delegating and to encourage each of us to actively participate, discuss, and learn. Partnered up, and separated from the intimidation of the larger group, boundaries finally began to thin and opened the platform for short, but very sweet conversation. The weekend progressed in baby steps with Juan preparing the women to host confidently and independently, as the women gave me my very first weaving lesson, with some good old-fashioned hand-holding. Making this interaction feel comfortable was much harder than it may have seemed, for both of us, as it wasn’t just the weavers who had to push themselves to make connections across cultural and language divides.
“It is extremely valuable for them, rewarding for them, and it is an interesting process for them because they’ve never had tourism before,” Juan explained, “when you do something the first time it is never going to turn out perfect. Practice is everything.” This wastheir first time doing something new, and a little scary, and while maybe it didn’t come naturally, practice does make perfect, and practice is exactly what they will get. We have since continued to work with the group, promoting organization, planning, and taking initiative in their work. To date, Huilloc Alto has since hosted four successful tours, the most recent of which I was lucky enough to tag along on (as Marketing and Communications Coordinator this time, and not as guinea pig!). It has only been a few months since their trial run and it is clear the progress this group has made, from a planned itinerary, to the women asserting themselves to lead the tours confidently. I was so impressed by what strong and capable women they are, and our tourists surely were as well. With a little additional help establishing leadership roles and learning the nuts and bolts of running a tour, our newest sustainable tourism cooperative is on the path to great success. At the start, we may have failed, but we definitely failed forward!