Peru: Peeking at the Life of the Poorest

A small group of visitors takes in the Lima slums. Hannah Vickers photos.
A small group of visitors takes in the Lima slums. Hannah Vickers photos.

Tourism in the Lima Slums: High above the city, a chance to see how real people live

By Hannah Vickers

Mariam stands at the door of the half-built structure looking uncomfortable as we all file past her and into her sparse home.

We stand crowded together in the small space: the two tour guides, a couple from New Zealand, a policeman (since tourists have been known to try and ‘rescue’ children from their families, outsiders aren’t allowed in the district without an escort, the tour guide tells us) and me.

We’re in one of Lima’s poorest districts, Villa El Salvador, on Peru’s only shantytown tour. The tour company, Haku Tours promises to show us the other side of Lima.

A policeman is required, 'to keep travelers from stealing kids,' in the poorest cities in Peru.
A policeman is required, ‘to keep travelers from stealing kids,’ in the poorest cities in Peru.

“This is an eye-opening tour experience that challenges common preconceptions about poor areas, this is great!” enthuses the website.

Poverty tourism is not a new thing. The curious wealthy visited deprived areas in the 19th century, eager to see ‘how the other half lived’. There are tours in the poorest parts of Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, India, and Namibia. And now in Peru. I went along on one of Haku’s tours, the only tour company in the country that offers trips out to a genuine, real-life shantytown, Lima’s Villa El Salvador.

Inside Villa El Salvador: ‘the real’ Lima

Lima’s juxtaposition of wealth and poverty is made even more apparent by the fact that we’re picked up from a four-star hotel in a big, shiny minibus. We’re dropped off at a local outdoor market at the foot of the shantytown. Villa El Salvador looms above us, steep yellow concrete stairs winding away up the hill, cutting through the dusty crowded structures that make up the district.

Daycare center in Lima.
Daycare center in Lima.
Taking photos inside a home in the Lima slums.
Taking photos inside a home in the Lima slums.

Haku Tours founder, Edwin Rojas says that he’s brought us to Mariam’s house because he wants to show us how much they’d helped her family by buying them a bed.

Ellen and John from New Zealand dutifully follow him into her bedroom to admire the bed while Mariam stands quietly by, looking like an intruder in her own home.

No Visible Kitchen

There is little other furniture in the house. There’s a mattress leaned against one wall and some dishes piled up on a surface but no visible kitchen and no sink.

There’s no glass in the window to keep out intruders or the humid chill of night. The walls are plain plaster and there are exposed wires sticking out of the wall.

“Where do you wash the dishes?” asks one of the tourists, openly curious about how this woman with such limited resources gets by. It turns out she does them outside the house. No one asks about where she cooks her food. There’s no stove in sight.

The yellow stairs.
The yellow stairs.

Through the glassless window, we can see down the hill to the rest of the district spread out below us. It’s hot and dusty up here, the fog lying heavier as you get higher up.

The controversial world of Poverty Tourism

This very different kind of tourism is obviously not without controversy. Shantytown tours have divided the traveling community.

While tour companies argue that they’re educating people and breaking down barriers and some help with voluntourism projects and by injecting much-needed money into the community, these kinds of tours are often slammed for being voyeuristic and exploitative.

Edwin, the founder of Haku tours, isn’t phased by the suggestion his tours might be exploiting the residents of the town. He was raised in Villa El Salvador and says that the tour is a way to give back to the district and to educate visitors to Lima about what life is really like in a shantytown. Edwin says his tours exist to show the other side of Lima but he insists they’re not voyeuristic.

“What we sell is something no one else sells: we sell the real Peru and the real Peru is shantytowns. Peru is one of the three poorest countries in South America.”

“We create[d] the company not to make us rich, [we] create[d] the company to help,” he says, adding: “Everyone wins from the tours, especially people with fewer resources, people from the shantytown.

“Miraflores and Barranco (two wealthy districts in Lima) are not the real Peru. Real Peru is different. And the real Peru is better.

Touring above the city Lima Peru shanty towns.
Touring above the city of Lima Peru shantytowns.

“If we’re successful, it’s because we’re honest and we love what we are doing. the clients don’t get a tour experience, listening to a tour guide. The clients get local experience with local friends.”

Haku tours was founded in 2011. As well as the more controversial Shantytown Tour, they offer a huge variety of tours around the city. Their website says that the company is a non-profit organization that feeds all profits from the tours back into the community and Edwin tells me the company does building work for the town.

Climbing the Famous Yellow Stairs

After leaving we head further up the famous yellow stairs of Villa El Salvador. These steep steps that lead all the way up the mountain were built by members of the community, using materials provided by the State.

We visit silversmiths, pre-school and community kitchen. The silversmiths are like something out of The Neverending Story. It’s pretty dark inside but light glints back at us from a hundred different shining surfaces.

The policeman shows me trinkets and tries to persuade me to buy them. The couple admired a large silver tray which, we’re told, gets sold in the city for much more than the craftsmen get for it.

Halfway through our visit, we stop by an old woman’s house for a glass of chicha de jora, a thick, sweet corn beer. Before drinking, we pour a little out of our glasses onto the dusty ground. Edwin says it’s a tribute to the Pachamama, Mother Earth.

At the community kitchen, we’re handed huge steaming plates of chicken and rice. The community kitchen offers cheap and healthy meals, which are sold even more cheaply to people in need. It’s another way the community looks after themselves, something they’ve been doing since the founders first migrated there from the Andes.

Visiting a silversmith in Lima's slums.
Visiting a silversmith in Lima’s slums.

Lima’s slums, or pueblos jovenes

Lima’s ‘pueblos jovenes’ – (young towns, or slum districts) were hastily built on the edges of Peru’s desert capital to cope with the arrival of people from the provinces looking to find work in the big city.

Lima’s slum districts get little or no help from the government. Everything that’s there, every small comfort or service, is provided by the residents themselves.

The steep yellow stairs that wind up the hill connecting the town were built by the residents with materials provided by the government. The community kitchens and daycare centers are run by the community for the community.

Villa el Salvador started off as a shantytown in 1970 when families moved to the capital from the highlands. They’ve had to look after themselves for the most part.

The community got hit heavily by the Shining Path terrorist organization, which focussed its attention on the area in the 80s. It’s been an official district of Lima since 1983 but Edwin still calls it a shanty town.

The town has come a long way since it was founded. The houses, small squat boxes, some half-constructed and many without glass, clinging low on the sides of the hill, have replaced the wooden, plastic and metal shacks that came before them.

Educational or voyeuristic?

All in all, it was a pretty discomfiting experience, especially the part where we strolled into someone’s house like we owned the place and wandered around. But, there were parts that were very interesting. The views from the top of the town were incredible, the workshop was fascinating, and the chicha de jora was delicious (and a potent way to start the day!).

If you’re interested in visiting Villa El Salvador with Haku Tours, check out their website. The company asks that you wear bright clothing, as black clothes are seen as bad luck, and that you don’t carry valuables and bring small cameras. No one likes tourists with big fancy cameras in poverty-stricken places.

Don’t be that guy. Tours cost around US$50 per person (prices vary for couples and groups) and last around 3.5 hours. Wear comfortable shoes – you’ll be doing a lot of walking – and bring a bottle of water. These tours can be coupled up with one of the company’s other half-day tours. Get in touch with Edwin Rojas for more information.

Hannah Vickers

Hannah Vickers is a freelance writer. She’s from the UK but likes to move around a lot and has lived in Spain, Greece, Peru, and Portugal. She was Editor of Peru this Week and has written for The Independent, National Enquirer, Now Then, InMadrid and Stirrings magazine. You can read about her various adventures on her blog and keep up with her on twitter: @hanwyn

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5 thoughts on “Peru: Peeking at the Life of the Poorest

  1. Edwin, the founder of Haku tours, isn’t fazed by the suggestion his tours might be exploiting the residents of the town.

  2. That is why you have Shining Path, what kind of life is this,the state obligation is to provide welfare with the taxes,and if this guy does these tours is okay,money is good for everybody, it does not matter if it is showing human misery, food costs money roof,water,so if you don’t like or don’t care that is your f’ing business,let others help

  3. How can you, the person who wrote this article, acknowledge and give credit to the freaks who want to see “how the other side lives.” The rich worms of society should be happy with their own lot without shaming the poor even more by showing their homes and lifestyle. You are disgusting……..I am a visitor from the USA who did not take this tour.

  4. “Don’t be that guy” – any reason you didn’t write, “don’t be that girl”?

    Because women are always complaining that books are written: “he”, but I guess it’s OK to use “guy” when the comment is negative.

    Pretty obvious. Personally, I couldn’t give two sh–s about how these dumb people live.

    And if I want to wear black on the tour, I will. “Black clothes are bad luck!” again, more evidence of what simpletons these people are.

    1. Polly….You really need a life…..seriously!! You call these people “dumb” because they are poor? We all could give two sh*ts about your opinion.

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