About 93 miles (150 kilometers) northeast of Cusco, a rough, narrow road skitters down off the mountains, away from Machu Picchu, to reach Manu National Park. This vast swathe of high and low Amazon jungle in Peru is renowned for being rigorously protected, along with its residing wildlife and indigenous communities. The preservation here is a fact that has cemented the Amazon’s reputation as one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, and a holy grail for wildlife lovers.
It seems ironic that, for many years, the few Cusco agencies that took tourists to Manu were run by extranjeros: foreigners, or outsiders. Only recently has one company begun to buck the trend.
Bonanza Tours is the first big Manu tour company to be 100 percent owned and operated by people who grew up in Manu. Bonanza offers tours that show travelers a different insight into this immense patch of the Amazon jungle, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and famous for wildlife such as the brilliant orange cock-of-the-rock bird, tapirs and jaguars. They offer eco-lodges, local cuisine, camping and trekking expeditions. The tours show visitors the jungle and animal life from the perspective of those who lived much of their lives there, and it shows them how they can help those who still do. When National Geographic came to the Peruvian Amazon recently, they used Bonanza to get them there.
Ryse Huamani Choquepuma is a co-owner of Bonanza, along with his four brothers and sisters. Choquepuma remembers how, as a boy, seeing the tourist boats going past his family house on the Río Alto Madre de Dios inspired him to want to be the one to show these tourists his homeland.
“I remember being intrigued by these foreign-looking people,” he recalls. “I thought: These people are obviously interested in my home. I would like to be the one to show it to them. I could show them things others don’t know about, because I live here.”
It was a dream the Huamani family would spend the next 30 years striving for. The main obstacle to locals creating their own tour company was acquiring the money to do so.
“It took a lot of hard work,” Choquepuma says. “We were lucky to have five of us, all able to work really hard to achieve this, plus my parents supporting us. It’s impossible that we would put in all this work just for money; you have to have a bigger plan. Our plan was, we wanted the opportunity to give back.”
Bonanza believes they (with the support of other responsible travel agencies) can make indigenous lives in Manu better by concentrating on basic needs of the community. Much of the proceeds from their tours go toward buying essential provisions for people.
“I know very well how tough life is growing up in a small jungle village,” says Choquepuma. “You have nothing. The things people in North America or Europe take for granted, those are the things that are needed most by these villagers. Number one is the machete – you can build a house with that, you can get food with that. Next, mosquito nets, so you prevent disease. Things for women’s health, baby’s health. This is how you build up a community.”
The idea is that if the essential needs of the locals are met, they can then begin to focus on self-improvement, such as ensuring their children attend school.
Anyone with the finances can set up a travel agency in Cusco and expect to make a decent amount of money doing so, being in one of South America’s biggest tourist centres near the ancient blockbuster site of Machu Picchu. But it’s rare to find someone like Choquepuma who passionately craves to preserve the jungle and help its people, someone who grew up in the community and has had the education to see how an ecological, community-focused approach to tourism can make Manu a better place.
“First, you have to improve the lives of the people who live in the jungle,” Choquepuma says. “They are the ones that have to be taught how to look after it, and they will only do that if they have the means. No one cares about sighting a cock-of-the-rock if he can’t support his family.”
Bonanza also collects rubbish in the community, often produced during the tourist season. They tackle the bulk of the work on the road from Cusco through Paucartambo and Pilcopata to the Manu reserve. In March, before the main tourist season, they let tourists come along on rubbish-collecting trips. In this way, Bonanza aids communities not only in the more westernised villages, but also those that lead a more traditional lifestyle.
Some of Choquepuma’s old school friends from Salvación, one of the main towns in Manu’s Cultural Zone, are now following Bonanza’s model and opening tour companies with similar goals.
Choquepuma thinks local people do appreciate Bonanza’s efforts and provide exclusive insights not granted to the many foreign-run tourist groups. The locals offer tips to Bonanza on rare places to visit that can be incorporated into tourist itineraries, and also discuss with the organizers what provisions they need to improve their communities.
“People are so happy to help us and work for us because they see we are helping them,” he explains. “I’m not saying other agencies don’t help, but if you come from such a community, you know how to help them best, because they tell you things they wouldn’t always tell outsiders. For example, when there was a recent incident of people in Shintuya depositing rubbish in the river, we knew about it immediately and could inform the necessary people to act on it.”
In the Amazon, travel has changed. Tourists still want to clap eyes on one of the classic Amazonian birds and animals, but now travellers feel a stronger need to give something back. Perhaps this explains why Bonanza has become the most highly rated of Cusco’s Manu travel agencies.
“Rubbish first,” says Choquepuma. “That’s what we tell our tour groups when we are out birdwatching. Cock-of-the-rocks after. Otherwise, there won’t be any cock-of-the-rocks left.”