Alternate Title: Beat the Beaten Path with a Baseball Bat
Lima shantytown tours caught the attention of Peru’s tourism industry and mainstream media last year. They were a fairly controversial phenomenon, which will come as no surprise to Expat Chronicles readers or expats with more than a couple years in Latin America.
Latin Americans want to show off the modernity of their countries while sweeping the less-than-flattering artifacts under the rug. “Mr. Gringo” was an expat pal of mine in Bogota who ran a tourism agency. He used to ridicule his Colombian competitors by saying they will take tourists to the mall. It’s funny because it’s true. One of the typical experiences is when the gringo visits a friend from his U.S. college (read “upper-class Latin American”) in their city and they end up going to the most modern shopping mall in town.
The other criticism came from well-meaning people who object to tours they consider to be “poverty porn.” While there is a voyeuristic angle to the slum tours, I would counter that, without these kinds of tourism activities, the vast majority of visitors to Lima will base their opinions of the city Miraflores and Barranco, with a minority also seeing the historic city center. And that would be a very jaded view of the city.
Above is socioeconomic data for Lima from 2014. “Nivel socioeconomic A” is the upper class, and it goes down to E. This distribution illustrates that one third of Lima residents are in the lower-middle or lower class, and that’s on Peruvian standards.
That’s actually not too bad for Latin American standards. But as in Latin America, wealth is concentrated in the capital. Below is a distribution for all of Peru in 2014. Notice that over 60% are lower-middle or lower class, and more than a third are in the lowest class which would resemble a lifestyle very similar to that of the hillside slums in Villa El Salvador.
And that is why Edwin Rojas introduced the first shantytown tour in Lima in 2007 under the name, “Lima Reality Tour.”
Edwin was immediately a pariah in the tourism industry. He received letters criticizing his “reckless” decision to bring gringos down to VES and his opportunistic attitude at the expense of the country’s image.
I felt this sentiment when I lived in Colombia, where I used to joke how they only want you to see coffee, flowers and pink dolphins. The Pablo Escobar tours which have become famous in Medellin were a common object of scorn. Colombians understandably get angry when foreigners think their country is overrun by drug cartels. But their vitriol borders on censorship when they try to cover up the widespread availability of drugs (specifically cocaine) and prostitution.
Edwin didn’t buckle under the pressure and now, as happened later with the Pablo Escobar tours, the shantytown tours were replicated by other agencies and are fairly common.
But if you’re going to take a shantytown tour, I highly recommend Edwin because he’s the real deal. I’m sure the other operators are great, but what sets Edwin apart is that he grew up there. He offered tours because he saw gringos leaving Peru with the jaded view and he wanted them to see his part of town.
If you have no idea about informal housing in Latin America or Lima’s Villa El Salvador district, see the more introductory and pedestrian review of the Lima Shantytown Tour on my new website, Lima City of Kings. Econ nerds must read The Other Path by Hernando de Soto, whose research on informal economies and shantytowns in Lima inspired the creation of the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings. That book earned him an assassination attempt by the Shining Path. Or watch this 12-minute gem from the Associated Press archive on when VES was settled.
I tagged along on a tour Edwin gave to two Canadian tourists. The reality check came in the van, long before we got to VES. Edwin started explaining that we would see some difficult things, the culture shock was “four out of five” according to his website.
He continued in explaining that the people of Villa El Salvador are heroes. He asked what is a hero, and defined it himself by saying a hero is a superior being. And just when you’re starting to roll your eyes, he says the adults of the area are heroes because they survived infancy in childhood. A common sight in VES is the removal of dead babies from homes.
The children at this socioeconomic level are not going to have three meals per day, and those meals are not going to adhere to any nutritional guidelines or pyramid. It will be long on starch and short on protein. They won’t get medicines when they’re sick, and only recently have vaccines become accessible. So considering that, these people overcame adverse circumstances and the ones who reached adulthood would have been stronger than the others who didn’t make it.
We’re not even in VES yet, but by invoking dead babies we’re already far from Machu Picchu, Larcomar and ceviche.
Before we arrived he dropped another bomb on us. He told us that, in the hillside slums, an unaccompanied foreign visitor will draw suspicion. He said that in his first year, a child disappeared on a day he had given a tour. That child likely ended up with a human-trafficking gang. Forced prostitution is most common in the jungle state of Madre de Dios, where brothels in makeshift camps serve illegal miners. But there is also a well-documented existence of a shadowy, child-sex-tourism industry which preys on impoverished communities in Latin America. Police in December arrested an American who allegedly ran a sex-tourism ring in Peru for the last 12 years.
Edwin does not pull his punches. But he’s also unique in being a VES native, not just in the sense of growing up there but also racially and ethnically. For most of Lima’s history, the racial demographics looked much more like Detroit or Atlanta, with a population split between black and white with a minority of Indians. That changed starting in the 20th century when migrants from the Andean highlands and Amazon jungle swarmed the city, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s.
Peru’s Great Migration, if you will, changed the face of Lima forever. Those migrants came to shantytowns like Villa El Salvador, which culturally have a lot more in common with Cusco or Ayacucho than Lima. And Edwin identifies himself as Inca more than Hispanic. He is passionate about Inca culture and practices the Inca religion.
Here he showed us an example of Inca architecture in fitting rocks together perfectly with no mortar. This foundation has withstood earthquakes and has two floors built above. While it’s nothing like Machu Picchu, Sacsayhuaman or the 12-angled stone, it clearly reflects an ancestral knowledge that continues to this day.
Edwin adds still another layer to his tour in relating stories from when Villa El Salvador was under the control of the Shining Path guerrillas. Migrants flocked to Lima in the 20th century for economic opportunity. But starting in the 1980s, new arrivals were fleeing terrorism and political violence in the Andean highlands which served as a stronghold for the blood-obsessed rebels. Atrocities were committed by both the Shining Path and security forces, so sometimes the only safe bet for the peasants was to flee.
They arrived en masse in the 80s, but by the 90s the Shining Path had followed them to Villa El Salvador. Edwin explains that there were no police, so Shining Path filled the vacuum similar to how M-19 controlled the slums of Bogota. He says they implemented a 9 p.m. curfew, and snipers shot anybody on the streets after that time. Adding those killed in accidents near the houses used to make bombs, there were enough corpses in the street on most days to shape Edwin’s childhood. He said the area became a warzone when military or police would attempt to enter and take control.
Probably the most famous native of Villa El Salvador is Maria Elena Moyano, a community organizer and outspoken critic of the Shining Path. She was assassinated in 1992 four blocks from Edwin’s home. His father worked with her, and he says she survived a few assassination attempts before they finally got her. Everybody knew it was coming, but they were appalled at the cruelty. They shot her several times in the legs before cutting open her stomach and stuffing her with explosives.
I have read enough Peruvian history to know about Moyano and the Shining Path’s occupation of Lima’s shantytowns and their efforts to mobilize support. But Edwin added a level of detail which the history books don’t give. That helped me understand a key take-away from the tour.
At some point I saw a PPK sign used to fortify a sheet-metal roof. The winner of Peru’s 2016 elections was the investor-favorite. He defeated Keiko Fujimori, another center-right candidate most known for being the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori.
One of the big stories from the election, however, was the unexpected success of leftist Veronika Mendoza. Her policies, which we can expect will moderate before her 2021 campaign, followed the mold of Hugo Chavez and the “pink tide.” When a poll showed she was tied with PPK to qualify for a runoff against Fujimori, the Lima stock exchange plummeted as investors panicked that Peru’s economy would veer left into populist incompetence and away from technocratic orthodoxy.
Given I’m building a premium-intelligence business with Peru Reports, it’s my job to know if there’s a growing base of support for Mendoza or such policies. I already knew Edwin’s politics, which seem similar to mine, so I asked somebody else: the school principal. Out of earshot from Edwin, I pointed to the PPK sign and asked who the people of Villa El Salvador supported in the election.
She replied that, on this side of this particular mountain, they supported Kuczynski. On the other side they liked Keiko. In hindsight, I would have liked to ask what the hell is the difference between this side and that side of the mountain, but I only confirmed what she said. Then I asked: “Y Vero?”
“Nada,” the teacher replied. Everybody associates her with terrorism.
NOTHING. Well that’s a surprise. I would think the poorest people in the city would lend a little support to the candidates whose entire platform is based on reducing inequality and empowering the poor. I knew this was Keiko-country, but I didn’t think Vero would have “NADA.”
After hearing her opinion I asked Edwin about Vero in VES. He confirmed it. Nada. Bit of a relief. Kinda like when markets rallied after she failed to qualify for the runoff.
Enough context and politics. Check out some pics.
As in the comunas of Colombia and favelas of Brazil, the pueblos jovenes of Peru often enjoy better views than we in the heart of the city do. My rooftop is surrounded on three sides by the concrete walls of neighboring high-rise apartment buildings.
Edwin is also what we at Expat Chronicles would call a true-believer do-gooder. Haku Tours is a nonprofit organization and 100% of the shantytown tour proceeds go to building daycare centers and other social service projects in the area.
The tour I took passed by a Haku-built school, daycare center and a soup kitchen under construction. We met the woman who will be the principal of the wooden schoolhouse on the left. She had cleared the land herself. It was formerly a trash dump.
The areas settled informally are some of the least attractive lands in the world from an aesthetic perspective. It’s barren desert without a path of vegetation in its natural state. I took the tour in November, when the sun was out. Imagine what it looks like in winter when dense fog blankets Peru for six months.
The humidity of the fog at the heights of the mountains is actually not safe for human habitation. Edwin says the residents suffer serious respiratory and bronchial issues because of it. To make things worse, visibility is so low that airplanes sometimes crash into the mountains. It happened twice last year, including a military plane.
To see more pics, check out the Lima Shantytown Tour review on Lima City of Kings or the Lima Shantytown Tour album on the Lima City of Kings Facebook page.
Haku Tours offers two more off-the-beaten-path kinds of tours which I should be taking soon. One is a “Witches Tour” which visits the naturopaths of Andean and Amazon medicine, which Edwin says is pretty intense. Also a tour of the Chorrillos fish market. Food-market tours are common in Latin America but this is a popular artisanal fishermen’s dock. See all of Haku’s tours.
Lima Travel Guide update
Email subscribers (why subscribe?) know that I’m working on the second edition of Lima Travel Guide. The biggest overhaul will be the replacement of one of the top 10 things to do in Lima. Two of those 10 things were “off the beaten path” so tourists get a real idea of the culture.
Those two things included La Punta del Callao, Lima’s storied port district which is unbelievably ignored by foreign visitors to the city, and the Gamarra garment district in La Victoria. Clothing and textiles are a major part of Peru’s heritage, as Gamarra is to Lima industry. Some 20,000 businesses hawk every kind of garment or fabric imaginable, and this is the best place to get custom-made tourist t-shirts or alpaca wool. It’s absolutely packed with lower-income people, which fulfills the “off the beaten path” requirement.
But Gamarra is going through an existential threat. Cheap imports from China have flushed out many Peruvian producers. You can find unique Peruvian designers who sell high-quality, low-cost and unique clothes, but it’s a needle in a haystack. A gringo with no Spanish would have no chance.
The other hook for Gamarra was to see the informal economy in action. Three out of every four Peruvian workers are employed illegally, either by unregistered, off-the-books companies or in cash-under-the-table agreements from legal businesses. Gamarra was a way to see extralegal capitalism in action for econ nerds like me. However, I went shopping in Gamarra twice in 2016. On each occasion we made purchases from two or three vendors, and EVERY ONE of them gave me a legal receipt. I asked one about it toward the end of the second day, and she said it’s getting to risky to operate informally.
So the high-quality, distinctly Peruvian clothes are disappearing and the area is formalizing. What’s the point? Gamarra out, Lima Shantytown Tour in.
Gamarra is still cool to visit, and I still go for some things, but it’s demoted from the top 10.