Last Updated on July 15, 2020 by Audrey Scott
As much as anyone else, we enjoy visiting world-famous tourist sites and embarking on adventure trips. Peru has been no exception. In fact, in just a few hours we depart for a five-day trek to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu by way of a mountain pass at 4650 meters/15,500 feet.
But there’s almost always another side to the countries we visit. And sometimes we disappear into the hills for weeks to find it.
When we told Peruvians we were headed to the hill town of Huancavelica, their response was often: “Huancavelica? But that's the poorest area in Peru.”
We traveled there to photograph and profile microfinance borrowers and were further exposed to the realities of life in the rural Andes. Here’s what we found:
The Challenge for the Interloper
We departed Lima at 11:30PM.
We fell asleep somewhere after midnight, only to wake up around 3:30 AM to shortness of breath, cold perspiration, and a general feeling of anxiety. In less than four hours, we had climbed over 4,800 meters/16,000 feet to the Anticona Pass at Ticlio, Peru’s highest navigable mountain pass and one of the highest roads in the world.
Aside: It turns out that iPods also suffer from soroche (local term for altitude sickness). At around 13,000 feet, iPods begin to show erratic behavior (freezes, stops playing, makes clicking sounds). Apparently, this is the iPod hard drive's struggle with altitude. A similar thing happened to our iPod in Nepal. Fortunately, on both occasions, the iPod returned to normal when we descended to lower elevation.
Upon our arrival in Huancavelica later that morning, at a mere 3,676 meters (12,000 feet), we downed cups of coca tea (a natural altitude sickness remedy) and spent the better part of the day adjusting to the thinned air. Our heads were fuzzy, we moved slowly, our hearts beat heavily and our thought processes retained a certain murkiness.
The Challenge for the Native
During our visit to the more remote villages outside of Huancavelica, the surrounding peaks outlined how beautiful yet challenging mountain areas can be. Valleys lay vast as sparse villages of mud brick homes clung to the hills. We wondered what steps people took to survive.
Because jobs are scarce and agriculture is often not enough to live on, village men work away from home in the mines. They return home only once or twice a month. Wives left behind raise their children (often in the range of five to nine of them) on their own. Because the money their husbands earn is usually not enough and the lack of jobs also extends to them, women run basic businesses in order to make ends meet.
For our photo project, we visited rural villages – some only accessible by foot – to witness the work being done by ECLOF, a global microfinance organization whose Huancavelica program is less than six months old and funded by Five Talents, a microfinance NGO based in the United States. The program makes small loans to clients (mainly women) in the range of 200-600 soles ($66-$200). Additionally, the program provides skills training and capacity building so that clients may learn how to improve their businesses and in turn their lives.
Over the course of a few days, our heads became filled with stories:
- Juana produces and sells ice cream in a small town to support her seven children (two more grown children live away from home).
- Paolina raises guinea pigs and sells hand-knitted goods and cheese in a small village to support her seven children.
- Isabel weaves and knits her way into providing as a single mother and dreams of someday exporting her work.
- Donaires sells coca leaves at the main market in Huancavelica and shared with us all the natural benefits of chewing coca leaves (it soothes altitude sickness, provides calcium, disinfects the mouth, cures stomach ills, etc.).
- Zenovia runs a small village restaurant, sews blouses, raises guinea pigs, and weaves traditional blankets (mantas) with the help of her whole family.
At one of the borrower group meetings we attended, a woman broke down as she spoke about the support she receives from the women sitting around her. When she got sick, the other members of her loan group made her loan payments for her until she was healthy again. While individual successes are important, the success of the group is the broader aim.
To make the point, another woman captured a rather uplifting spirit, but with tears in her eyes: “When one of us falls, we help her even more.”
12 thoughts on “Machu Picchu? Not Yet. A Slideshow of the Other Peru”
This is really inspiring to read. We all hear about microfinance on an intellectual level in the U.S. but to read actual stories of individuals and see the photos is very inspiring. I have an aunt in Colombia who works in microfinance loans for women there. If you’d like to be put in touch I can do that.
What a genuine and real experience! The pictures in your slide show are fantastic ~ thank you for sharing!
I was wondering if, when you travel in more developed nations, like the U.S. or Western Europe, do you feel people are a little more closed off? This sentence from your post really stood out to me: “To make the point, another woman captured a rather uplifting spirit, but with tears in her eyes: â€œWhen one of us falls, we help her even more.â€” Sometimes I feel in the U.S. that we don’t even know our neighbors. How can we help each other when all we really care about is ourselves?
You are doing amazing things on your travels ~ keep up the great work.
Microfinance projects are so fascinating, and your idea to photograph the beneficiaries is a great one. My wife and I did something similar in Bolivia, photographing the people and landscapes serviced by a nonprofit green energy org and using the images to create a promotional book. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to get as immersed as you.
Thanks for sharing this.
How inspirational. Love reading your impressions of micro-financing and the real lives being touched.
Excellent shots as always.
I absolutely love your intimate compositions for the portraits. The candid shots came out really well too. Did you find that your photo gear was effected by the altitude? I don’t know what type of iPod you have, but perhaps the ones with a spinning hard drive (iPod Classic, I think), are the only ones effected.
What fantastic work these organizations do! Industry, ownership, education- Where can I find out more about these NGOs that participate in Mircofinance?
Blakesjourney / TBD
beautiful pictures! so much character … and great story as always … very inspiring.
@Carmen: It’s interesting that you mention that what you hear about microfinance in the States is on an intellectual or theoretical level. I found the same when I was searching for blogs and websites about microfinance. A balance between the theoretical and reality on the ground is best. Yes, we would love to get the contact info for your aunt in Columbia – we hope to visit next year.
@JoAnna: These are the projects and experiences that keep us going on this journey. Interesting question about people in the west (Europe/US) being more closed. When we meet them on the road, I find them to be very open. But, perhaps it is the anonymity of the road that promotes this.
Although we haven’t lived in the States for eight years, I understand what you’re saying about people not knowing their neighbors. Perhaps it has something to do with people moving frequently and the way communities are set up where you have to drive everywhere. That said, there are still many communities in America where people actually know their neighbors. Our old neighborhood of North Beach, San Francisco was certainly one of them. Regardless, we’ll look forward to returning someday to do a compare and contrast with what we’ve witnessed on our journey.
@Hal: Like you and your wife, we find it really fulfilling to be able to use our skills to promote worthy organizations and programs. We have two microfinance photography projects in Bolivia, so stay tuned for the next microfinance installment.
@Lola: Glad you’re still enjoying our microfinance installments! Sometimes I feel like maybe we post too much about this topic and readers will start getting bored.
@Blake: Our camera equipment (Nikon D300) was fine, fortunately. Even in Nepal at 5,400 meters, our Nikon held up great but a few other trekkers with Canon DSLRs had problems. Our iPod is several years old (G4), so it’s a platter/spinning hard drive. I imagine altitude does not affect flash-based iPods at all.
You can find out more about the microfinance organizations we have worked with here. Idealist.org is a great resource as well – just enter the type of organization you’re interested in and the geographic area for a list of relevant organizations.
@Neha: Thanks for the kind words about our work!
It’s great to find places like your article, which get aid money for small business development and employment generation. We hear much of it, however it has little knowledge of its existence. Would be nice if future aid reaching other remote locations where there are also needs. Very good article
What an amazing and inspiring story! These woman are phenomenal, creative, hard working business women and its’ beautiful to read how supportive they are of eachother in times of need! Thank you for sharing your experiences in Peru as well as these stunning images!
@Mary: Thanks so much for your kind comment! In all the work that we’ve done with microfinance organizations we’re always so humbled and inspired by the spirit and resourcefulness of the women involved. And the importance of support and community cannot be underestimated.
Awesome story. I am originally from Peru (Lima) and have never thought about venturing so deep into the mountain villages, though my mother is from Antabamba, a village in Apurimac. I am a scaredy cat when traveling, unfortunately. We’re actually traveling to Lima and Cusco in 2 weeks and I’m very nervous about the crime in Lima, especially since I’m traveling with my fiancée, who is American.
Anyhow, just wanted to commend you on making it all the way to Huancavelica! My best friend’s parents are living there, doing missionary work and she tells me it’s definitely way out there.
Magda, although some of these places may sound scary and remote it just takes one trip to change your mind 🙂 Huancavelica was certainly way out there. In fact, some of the villages we visited were not connected yet by roads. But, we loved it.
As for Lima, just remember not to always be aware and not wander around aimlessly at night. We really liked the Barranco neighborhood and felt it was safer/more laid back than other areas. Enjoy your trip there with your fiancée! You will certainly eat SOOOO well!!