The sixteenth of March was, for Peru, the very beginning of what was to come. At the time, there were just 38 confirmed cases of the virus in the country. Despite the comparatively low case numbers, Peruvians were met with incredibly harsh lockdown measures. Few complained. Many, including myself, thought this to be a small sacrifice for a longer future.
Oh, how wrong we were. I had been traveling at the time the lockdown was announced and I was unable to get home in time. So, every day from the bottom bunk in a distant acquaintance’s spare room I checked the news and watched the numbers climb.
We were told three weeks. We were hopeful and those first three weeks- at least for us- were a welcome break from the daily grind. My old office had shut to save for the future. But as the weeks stretched into months the novelty wore off and savings ran low.
The government allowed people to access their pension funds to help pay the bills. But in a country where almost 70% of the population have informal contracts- and as a result, 70% had no savings to access.
One of the areas worst affected by COVID19 was, of course, tourism. While plenty of offices stayed open working towards an uncertain future, plenty of others shut their doors in an effort to hibernate through the cold winter. Regardless of what was happening within the offices, there was one group of people within the tourism sector who were without question left without work.
The guides, the porters, the cooks, and the muleteers. The people who spend days at a time trekking through the mountains, ensuring that people like you can trek safely. The people who bear the cold, the weight of the packs, and the pressure of direction- and they do it all with a smile on their face and a spring in their step. Left with nothing.
Many agencies shrugged this off as tough luck. Risk of the job. We’re experiencing rough seas at the moment, we have to cut the legs off to save the body. People who are satisfied with so little, left with nothing.
Not all agencies tossed their sailors into the storm. One year ago, in July 2020, Amazonas Explorer began its porter food drop initiative. This involved traveling to the rural villages where the porters, the cooks, the muleteers all lived. Then, they would be given a food parcel to last them a month. This was in congruence with fundraisers set up for our main guides- you can find out about it here.
We kept this up under our own steam until March 2021. When resources become scarce, we call for enforcement. Brainstorming with the LATA Foundation, the 25 for 25 fundraiser was born. Not just born, but incredibly successful. With an amazing £15,000 raised, we once again set about helping those in need.
On the 30th of June, my alarm cried out at 5 am. I hadn’t slept well and it didn’t take me long to roll over and smother its screams. By 5:30 am I was waiting on the corner of my street for the van to roll past, picking me up moments after I left the building.
As I bounced along in the back seat accompanied by an enormous stack of bags of pasta, I watched the world dance by, and I was reminded about how beautiful Cusco is. As you leave the ancient streets you’re welcomed by rolling mountains, small farms, and women waving bags on the side of the road to tempt you to sample their huge loaves of bread.
We drove for around two and a half hours. Passing through the tourist hub of Ollantaytambo, and the barely visited lower Huilloc. The people of the town were wearing bright red clothing typical of the region. I pondered over the thought that where I grew up, clothes were an expression of individuality, whereas here they were an expression of community.
The road followed the curves of the mountain as we steadily climbed and climbed, eventually arriving in upper Huilloc. A woman with a textile full of herbs cheerfully waved at us, her alpaca dutifully following close behind.
Around 70 people call this pueblito home- dwarfed by the 1000 or more in Lower Huilloc. They invited us for breakfast and a hot Muña tea. As we chatted over roasted cuy and homemade cheese, they said they had avoided bringing COVID into the village by self-isolating completely.
Nobody had left or come in for the first three months- the people had been relying on supplies they had stocked and food from the land. This was, understandably, stressful and there was a limited amount of time they could maintain self-sufficiency. Far from the closest medical center and no way to pay for it, an outbreak of COVID in a place like this could bring untold disaster.
Then, as Amazonas Explorer began the food drops, the need to leave for the larger town below dissipated. They could relax in each other’s company without a cloud of doubt hanging over them. They could relax knowing where their next meal is coming from, and knowing it was free from the dangers of the invisible enemy.
Once the families were loaded up with sugar, rice, pasta, oats, canned milk, and other non-perishables, we packed ourselves back into the car. With us were some of the villagers who lived in secluded houses through the mountains. As dropped them off, their endless cheer set the tone of the day.
The sun was shining as we sped through the back roads of the Sacred Valley. Hours later we came to a stop in Calca. With such a long drive ahead of us the drop was short and sweet, all hands on deck. The two-year-old daughter of one of the porters helped me distribute the oats, being sure that everyone had enough.
The final stop of the day was a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. We had driven for three and a half hours outside of Calca, and the village was little more than houses on the side of the mountain. This was our largest drop of the day, and a few friendly dogs helped us to shuffle through the packs while pigs snuffled behind us.
The following day we had fewer places to visit- but the drive took much longer. As we drove through the mountains to Cachora- the starting point to the Choquequirao trek, I was once again mesmerized by the mountains and the Apurimac valley that the car wound up and down through.
However, this was to be dwarfed by what was to come. Cachora had what was probably the greatest view I have ever seen from a Plaza de Armas. After dropping the food parcels to residents, we took a moment to ourselves, appreciating the beauty of our surroundings, to unwind and stretch our sore muscles after the 4-hour drive.
I’m thankful we allowed ourselves that time to unwind, as the discovery of the closure of the Pan American highway was about to add another four or five hours to our journey. Killing a bit of time, we stopped at a traditional Chicharia, owned by the parents of one of our rafting instructors.
After a quick glass of the good stuff, we then went to their small fruit yard to help gather the harvest and say hello to their guinea pigs and chickens. With chirimoyas raining down from the trees, we hunted for carrots in the dry earth.
Eventually, it was time to start out on the way to the next destination. We bounced (literally) around on terrible, barely used roads for hours to get to Mollepata. Mollepata is where a lot of Salkantay treks start from, and the formidable glacier watches over the town.
We stayed and chatted for a while after the drops, sharing a soda before beginning the long journey home. But our job wasn’t yet done. What should have been a 40-minute drive to Limatambo turned into almost two hours thanks to the road closures. Once we arrived in the town it was dark and cold. We were grateful to be invited in for a warming Caldo de Gallina.
We chatted with the family as their tiny kitten begged for a morsel of food, and I was reminded of the wonderful sense of family and community in Peru. The simple pleasures of sharing what you have with the people you care about. It’s something that is easily lost and reminds me of the phrase “less is more”.
Those who have less are often far richer in many other ways; in community, in family, and in the things they surround themselves with. We’re grateful to be able to help with their difficulties and share a moment of peace as we do.
While the Inca Trail is set to open on the 15th of July, it is likely, owing to the restricted 30% capacity. Because of this, we intend to continue providing each family with a parcel of food every month until the hard times are over and they are sure they can provide for themselves and their families.0