Our busses & backpacks tour continues through Peru and Chile. We discover stunning nature, indigenous culture, and many inspiring sustainable solutions.
Copacabana (BOL) – Puerto Montt (CHL)
It’s still dark outside when the cabin lights and the movement of other passengers awake us. Our night bus from the Bolivian border town of Copacabana to our first destination in Peru has come to a halt. “We’re in Cusco, time to get out!” says Floris, after peering though a curtain that covers a damp window. Only partially awake, we stumble out of the bus, show our luggage tickets, and retrieve our backpacks. We’ve become seasoned bus passengers by now. It’s our preferred way of getting around, as there are almost no trains in this part of the world.
At 5 am the old Inca and current tourist capital is still quiet. The friendly taxi driver who takes us to our hostel stresses the bright side of our early arrival. “The town’s main cathedral is free to visit now”, he explains. It proves to be a good start of our early morning explorations. The cathedral is impressive indeed, as are many other archeological monuments around town. They serve as silent reminders of the Inca civilization and Spanish colonial times. As the day progresses, international crowds take over the centre, which makes for a buzzing atmosphere.
Cusco’s main square
Paying tribute to the master stone builders
In Cusco we meet Elena from responsible travel organization Better Places. With her kind and professional help, we get to experience the concept of community-based tourism first-hand. “Our aim is to improve the social impact and to minimize the ecological impact of tourism”, Elena explains. “We do this mainly by offering homestays, which means that travellers stay with local families, and cultural experiences run by locals. We also book eco-lodges and hotels that support social projects. For getting around tourists can bike and hike. And we work with local guides. In this way, the local population can benefit from tourism, while travellers get more out of their experience by truly connecting to the land and its people and culture.”
We put the concept to the test and go biking in the Peruvian countryside. Our guides frequently pause to show us archeological Inca sites. They are not only excellent navigators, but also know a great deal about the area’s history. We learn that the Incas were skilled farmers and even developed techniques to cultivate crops for use at higher altitudes. The circular terraces we visit served that purpose.
The next few days we follow in the footsteps of the Incas. We hike along ancient Inca trails and stay at home with local families. We pick tea leaves and coffee beans and learn everything about tea and coffee making. “Pick only the red beans, the green ones aren’t ripe yet”, organic coffee farmer Alejandro instructs us. With fellow travellers Saskia and Nele we stay at Alejandro and his family’s. Following the entire process from bean to coffee, we experience first-hand how much work it is to make the black brew. We learn more about the family’s way of living over a delicious dinner at their house. As we understand how difficult it is for them to make a living, it’s good to know that our lodging fees contribute to sustain their livelihood. After tasting his excellent coffee and learning how small a fraction of the store prices Alejandro receives for his beans, we also buy some coffee directly from him.
Further along Inca trails, we stay in a beautiful eco-lodge. The owners regenerated the land by planting hundreds of trees and plants. In their huge garden, we follow a path along the river that leads to a waterfall, where the lush vegetation makes us feel like we’re in a jungle.
Early the next morning we make our way to the region’s main attraction. When the clouds finally dissipate, Machu Picchu is revealed, mesmerizing us.
We meet Elena from Better Places in Cusco
Former Inca agricultural develpment center
At the Inca trail
Floris picking only the best tea leaves
Hiking the Inca trail with Saskia and Nele
Ivar trying to only pick the red coffee beans
Staying with organic coffee farmer Alejandro and his family
Hiking near Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu revealing itself
Improving Kids’ Health
“We’re almost there!” Simone says enthusiastically. We look at each other in surprise. Do people actually live here? We’ve been driving for two hours deeper into the Andean mountains, and have now reached an altitude of around 4,000 meters. The landscape is rocky and barren. Each kilometre the dirt road gets bumpier, until we cross a pass and descend into a grass-green valley. We stop at a small building that turns out to be the local school. “Welcome to Incacancha” Simone says with a smile.
Only 20 or so families live in this remote, highland village. Their lives revolve around agriculture and their main crop is potato. Today we can see with our own eyes how Por Eso!, the ngo that Simone Heemskerk founded, works to improve the health of the Peruvian kids. Simone summarizes the ngo’s activities: “We teach the kids how to grow healthy vegetables, and how to cook them. We learned that the best way to improve their health is to follow a step-by-step approach together with the community. First, we build the greenhouses. That is, the locals do the building and we deliver the materials. Then we teach the children how to enrich the soil, and we deliver the seeds. The children plant and harvest the crops themselves. And we provide the tools for the school’s cooking classes, where not only the children but also their moms learn new recipes.” Por Eso’s approach is a big success: the Peruvian government is rolling out Por Eso’s approach on a national level. It makes us think about kids in other countries. They may grow up in a more affluent environment, but their diets are not necessarily healthier. Perhaps learning to grow your own healthy vegetables should be included in every school program?
Teaching children to grow organic vegetables with Simone from Por Eso
With the kids from Incacancha
Back to Chile
From Cusco it takes some more busses to get to the small village of Cabanaconde. After hiking in the impressive Colca Canyon and visiting Arequipa with its charming colonial-style centre, we head back to Chile. Just across the border is dusty Arica, Chile’s most northerly town. In the east it borders the desert, in the west the Pacific. It’s a joy to walk along the beach and smell the ocean again. The same ocean on which where Lucipara 2 is hopefully awaiting our return, 3,000 kilometres further south.
In big steps – meaning long hours on busses – we get closer to her. From La Serena, we travel to the Elqui valley, which is famous for its clear and dark skies. During a night of stargazing at an observatory, we learn all about the southern constellations and even get to see celestial objects varying from nearby planets to distant galaxies.
We next get charmed by the coastal town of Valparaiso. Its street art and the traditional elevators that bridge the different heights between its various neighbourhoods give the place a unique flair. The capital city Santiago, on the other hand, feels large and busy. It is the first place where we can learn more about Chile’s complicated and violent history. The poignant museum of human rights focuses on the shocking crimes committed by the military dictatorship between 1973 and 1986.
Stunning Colca Canyon
And another bus…
Evening in Arequipa
Bussing through the desert
No doubt about it, we’re back in Chile!
Arica, where the ocean meets the desert
Colonial-style buildings in La Serena
Pelicans at the beach near La Serena
Amazing star gazing near La Serena
Coastal Valparaiso is built on many hills
Mural in streetart capital Valparaiso
Memorial in the Santiago Museum of Human Rights
It’s uplifting to also visit an inspiring sustainable solution in Santiago: Algramo. This young company aims to combine making a profit with caring for the people and the planet. They see a business opportunity in re-using plastic containers, which typically make up around 20% of the retail price of detergents. By refilling the plastic containers, they save money and are able to offer their customers a cheaper product. Simultaneously, they reduce plastic waste. If a customer takes an empty container back to the neighbourhood store, they can buy a full container for a reduced price. Such a deposit scheme is more widely used in the beverage industry, but this the first time we hear about it with detergents. According to Algramo, the most price-sensitive customers live in the poorer parts of town, hence their focus on the neighbourhood stores typically found there.
As a more recent initiative, they’ve started a partnership with Unilever to refill detergent containers using a mobile refilling station. We visit this Algramo electric tricycle next to the town’s main recycling station and witness how smoothly it works. Customers bring their empty container and place it under the dispenser. The system recognizes the customer’s personal RFID chip, which serves as an electronic wallet. We believe these types of innovations have consequences beyond reducing single-use plastics. Could this shift the balance of power in the producer-retail chain?
From the glaciers and lakes in the south, to the arid deserts in the north, Chile covers all climate zones. If a country as large as Chile existed in Europe, it would stretch all the way from Norway to the Sahara desert in North Africa. The region south of Santiago has an ideal climate for wine making. We visit the area with our friend Margreet, who just arrived in Chile to spend her holiday.
At bio-dynamic winemaker Antiyal, Clemente enthusiastically tours us around and explains the difference between organic and bio-dynamic wine. “Just like in organic winemaking, we don’t use agrotoxins and synthetic fertilizers in our vineyard. Instead we rely on biodiversity, plant health and animal manure. But bio-dynamic goes even further than organic. We have completely closed our nutrient cycle, which means that we don’t get products from outside our farm. Instead, the cow and chicken manure fertilize the soil. They are fed with grass and grains from our own lands. Moreover, we breed microorganisms, soak them in water and spray them on our vines to further increase plant health. Finally, we prune our vines under a waning moon to minimize the damage to them.” While we try to understand his last comment, Clemente continues his story. “We are certified by Demeter, a leading institute that assures the bio-dynamic origin of foods and drinks.” During a tasting, we concur with Clemente that the taste is exquisite. “It’s commercially tempting to heavily irrigate the vines in order to get larger grapes and hence a larger volume. We deliberately aim for small grapes, as they make for much tastier wine” he adds. The artisanal and healthy approach of this wine family is refreshing and inspiring. Their products might not be cheap, but they are certainly poison-free, eco-friendly and of excellent quality.
Our friend Margreet travels with us!
Bio-dynamic wine tasting at Antiyal
Investing in Nature
Our last stop of our two-month busses & backbacks trip in South America is Puerto Varas. Here are the headquarters of the Tompkins Conservation. During our sailing trip through the stunning wilderness of Chilean Patagonia we visited two of the National Parks which they helped to establish.
In their stately building, director Carolina Morgado passionately explains the organization’s purpose. “Worldwide we see that crises resulting from human activity are getting bigger, both ecologically and socially. Consider the warming of the biosphere, the economic unrest and the destruction of indigenous cultures. But as far as we are concerned, the mother of all crises is global extinction. Species are disappearing at lightning speed due to overfishing, industrial agriculture, and because habitats are destroyed and broken into pieces. Little attention is paid to that, even though life on earth depends on biodiversity.”
She continues: “We believe we can contribute by focusing on the value of wilderness. Our aim is to create protected parks, restore and rewild nature, and stimulate ecological agriculture and activism.” It’s a success, as we have seen with our own eyes. Together with other partners and governments, Tompkins Conservation has helped to protect some 5.7 million hectares of natural areas.
Stately Tompkins Conservation office in Puerto Varas
With Carolina Morgado from Tompkins Conservation
Back on Board
As we walk on the pontoon of Puerto Montt’s marina, we’re glad to see that Luci is still waiting for us, just as we left her. It’s a different story inside, however. The constant humidity provided ideal breeding ground for mould, so we spend the next hours cleaning and drying the main cabin. Only when it’s clean inside, we can reflect on retracing the footsteps of the Incas. What a journey it was!
The next day, our friends Minke and Jaap from SY Eastern Stream tell us that their marina in Valdivia has space for us. “That would save us a considerable amount of money”, Floris calculates. “And it would be an excellent spot to leave Luci behind when we make a trip back home”, Ivar adds. And so we reserve a spot at shipyard Alwoplast and get Lucipara 2 and ourselves ready to sail there as soon as the winds are fair.