I can’t be sure what comes into mind when you think of Peru but I imagine your thoughts are similar to thoughts of Egypt: ancient ruins and exotic kingdoms. Lately when I mention I’ve been in Peru the next question is usually a bright and inquisitive “Did you visit Machu Pichu?”


Unfortunately I did not, though it’s not a total loss as I much prefer the company of the locals to 50 or so backpacking gringos. While some might have to do a Google search to match the country of my latest destination to its continent, Peru’s ruins, its mountains, culture, customs and even cuisine have put it squarely on most westerners’ mental gazetteer.


This is my second journey into Peru. My first was exactly one year, and maybe 12 or so blog entries, ago. Back then I found some very dire living conditions in the Amazonian city of Iquitos, but nothing as desperate as the struggle for life and death that I’ve witnessed many facing in Sub-Saharan Africa.


Peru can be classified as moderately poor country, where around 44% of people live in poverty and around 13% live in extreme poverty. It is most fortunate that one would be hard pressed to find starvation or rampant levels of HIV infection here. Most people are making do but are still striving for a better quality of life; I suppose we all are. With increasing foreign investment and trade, however, Peru’s economy is expanding. It is a country that is rapidly changing as globalization expands and as people leave their agrarian lifestlye for the cities.


Despite our ever-expanding global village, there remain frontiers so remote in this vast country that their inhabitants have never had contact with outsiders. Though my most recent journey was not so pioneering as to have stumbled upon undiscovered peoples, it is possible that Christian (writer and traveling companion) and I were the first gringos ever to visit these villages, at least for some time. Christian and I actually began the Peruvian leg of our trip in the warm and dusty region of Piura, near the Pacific Coast. We took a detour to the Andes in search of photographs and stories of alpacas.


Somewhere between the cities of Chiclayo and Cajamarca (I still haven’t pinpointed exactly where) lies Incawasi, a district of Lambeyeque province. In the villages of Incawasi (Quechua meaning House of the Incas) ancient tradition continues to thrive. The district’s inhabitants continue to adorn themselves in colorful dress while maintaining their agro-centric lifestyle much as they have for centuries past. At first I was want to think that the colorful garb was a show for the newly arrived visitors, that I was experiencing the equivalent of an historical reenactment at Colonial Williamsburg.


However, not much has changed here in the past 500 years since the fall of the Inca Empire. Though tourism is a massive industry in Peru, the isolated villages of the North remain a little-traveled backwater. Heifer began to work in this impoverished area a little over two years ago, providing villagers with instruction in productive farming, tree-planting and sustainable agriculture. Villagers received guinea pigs, used as food (they love them up here) and especially prized for their fertility, as well as alpaca, whose wool is used to make clothing or is sold or bartered for goods.


Above, Christian and Feliciana Calderon (37) converse though two translators, one for Spanish, another for Quechua. Here at 13,000 feet, Heifer is helping to streamline Andean agrarian traditions such as irrigation, fishing and the domestication of animals such as llamas and alpacas. Heifer is also introducing new conventions such as reforestry and gender equality, the latter of which is taking some time to catch on.


I say that not much has changed here in the last 500 years. The quality of life has improved somewhat in Incawasi since Heifer began working here two years ago, but Incawasi then fared just the same as it had two hundred years ago. The real change has come within our own society, so that we now look at another that has not kept pace with ours and say that lack of education among children is unacceptable, or that land to work and proper shelter in which to live is a fundamental right.

The people of Incawasi will not starve without Heifer’s help, but it is very likely that without the aid of the guinea pig or alpaca projects here, this district would lag a century behind in its development. Because of Heifer, it is on track to becoming not only a self-sustaining community, but a healthy and prosperous one. Above, Martina Sanchez Barrios (26) weaves clothing from sheep and alpaca wool.


The land of el Morante, 100 miles north-west of Incawasi couldn’t be any more different from the nearby Andean communities. Lying at sea level, this dusty, parched land is almost uninhabitable; in fact it was deemed such until recently. The government owned the once-vacant land here but in the last two decades began leasing it to lower income city dwellers who wanted to move in to make new lives for their families.


The new community is made up of hardy pioneers who constantly fight the region’s adverse conditions in order survive and, in some cases, prosper. Their greatest challenge: water. Unlike Incawasi, where fresh water flows freely from springs into strategically engineered furrows, the people of el Morante must trek long distances to the nearest watering hole.

Some families have closer access than others. However, for those we visited the journey involved waking each morning at 3 o’clock, loading up their donkeys with empty barrels and caravaning two and a half hours to the well. If all goes as planned, they will return home again, their barrels full, by 11AM, just as they heat of the day becomes most unbearable. Above, Perpetuo Cueva (42) and his neighbor Yolmer Delgado (41, far distance) travel to the well to fetch the day’s water. In the interest of sleep, we did not join them for the entire journey, traveling by truck to meet them at daybreak along the way.


Gender roles vary from culture to culture, especially in the developing world where they are often clearly defined. In el Morante it is the job of the men to fetch the water, unlike in African societies where the women inherit the task. The men of el Morante are charged about 35 cents per barrel, money that goes toward upkeep of the well and gasoline to fuel the pump that brings it from 180 meters underground. Because the water is so far below ground, building a second well is no small feat, and so for the moment this well must meet the needs of communities far and near.


Above, Maria Cuenca (44) takes laundry off the line. It doesn’t take long to dry here. A new well which is under construction just outside her house will save her husband 5 hours of commute time a day. Despite this, all of her children have left the area in pursuit of an easier life in Peru’s cities. Citizens here used to petition the government and NGOs to bring running water to the villages. They have now realized they would not be able to afford the subsequent spike in property values as a result of the service.

Sheep and goats are the only animals that people raise out here. It’s much too dry for cattle. Below, Madeline Quispe (38) and her husband Yolmer Delgado (41) have the best looking garden in all of el Morante, raising beans, tomatoes and kasava. They use manure from their goats as fertilizer and water from the well to irrigate the sandy soil.


Roxanna Garrido (28, far right) is the sole teacher at this one room school in el Morante. She technically lives in the city of Piura, three hours away. She comes to the village for five days at a time and returns home on the weekends. All of her students come from families that are Heifer participants. The fact that they are able to afford the services of a qualified teacher to lead the classroom is a result of extra income earned as a Heifer Project participants.


Whether it’s the high cool villages of the Andes or the dry scrub desert of el Morante, the demanding life of these inhabitants puts our own into perspective, making life in Western society, with all its stresses, feel like a vacation. Those of us who have experienced want in our lifetime should be ever grateful of our plight.


Copyright 2008 Jake Lyell Photography