Peru: Tourism, Exploration, and Exploitation

By Sara Ciplickas

Photo by Junior Machado on

In the summer of 2022, I had the opportunity to travel to Peru. I met with a group of solo travelers and explored the coast and Andean region. Like most people who visit Peru for the first time, I explored significant cities such as Lima and Cusco, hiked Machu Picchu and Mount Vinicunca, and visited the Spanish cathedrals and catacombs. I also explored local villages within the sacred valley and rode ATVs through farmland outside Cusco. 

During my stay, my friends and I spoke with many locals who combined English, Spanish, and Quechuan (the language families of people indigenous to the Andean region). While their kindness and hospitality made my trip unforgettable, I was shocked to be invited (or allowed) into so many sacred and private spaces. In addition to visiting Machu Picchu, a sacred Incan city hidden by the Incas in the 1400s, many people invited me into their private homes built during the same time. I was enamored by the relics, dried food, and alters scattered around the single-room houses. It indeed was like stepping into the past, but I often felt like an intruder. As a tourist engaging with this country’s past, I felt a sense of guilt stepping into spaces that white European colonists tried to erase. 

Tourism is Peru’s third-largest income source. The country, like many others, took a sizeable economic hit in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic initiated harsh lockdowns. Around 85% of the people working in tourism lost their jobs. I was more than happy to buy as much as I could pack and thrilled to listen to the people tell stories; however, my trip seemed like a tug-of-war game between tourist sites and private spaces. At times, it was hard to tell which was which. The commodification of culture is not something exclusive to Peru. Many countries optimize their historical sites and traditions to stimulate travel and economic growth.  Specifically, indigenous cultures of North and Latin America are commercialized because they are considered to be a variation of the “public domain.” (Think about when someone dressed up as an “Indian” for Halloween or attended a Redskins game.) Contrary to the United States, indigenous culture in Peru, based on my observation, is more integrated into the everyday life of all Peruvians and consumer products and services. Upon reflection, I wondered why it was so uncomfortable for me to experience an indigenous culture outside of museums. 

Like the United States, Europeans colonized Peru, and the native people were either enslaved or murdered. Contrasting to the present-day Native-American tribes, the Incan people more successfully preserved their indigenous traditions and ways of life. We, of European descendants, in the United States, do not recognize, participate in, or acknowledge the cultures of Native American descendants. Most Native American culture has been systematically exterminated by the United States government throughout history. In Peru, I could see a difference. History, traditions, art, clothing, and food were acknowledged, used, and appreciated. One way this is done is through the commodification of said traditions. Arguably, the Incan people have survived so long because they have allowed their private traditions to be opened up as tourist exhibitions. As a tourist, I could see the tension between the need to preserve and sell one’s culture, especially when I visited local markets.

Now, this is not as black and white as it may sound. Peru has its fair share of racism and disrespect for indigenous cultures. Additionally, the United States has areas and new laws trying to protect indigenous communities. Both countries have inexcusably disrespected their Native people, and I am not defending the colonists in Peru one bit. However, my time in Peru and the oddness of seeing so much indigenous culture have caused me to reflect on how my own country has handled (and erased) its colonial past. 

The balance between the preservation and commodification of culture is blurry. In some ways, by opening up to the public, Indigenous traditions and sites have survived history. My time in Peru exposed to me this tension in how tourism works — as a means of preserving and commodifying, often both at once — in a way I had not previously considered. I still wholly support traveling and learning about different parts of the world and their people. However, the tourism industry’s complexity is not to be ignored. As white European travelers, it is easy to view other, often poorer cultures, as far-removed places to visit and get a glimpse of the ancient world (even if unintentionally). That is not the case. Places like Peru that thrive off tourism are also recovering from previous exploitation. With that comes the responsibility of both seeing the world and understanding why and how certain places use tourism to keep themselves alive. 


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