After a quick drive past jungle farms lush with papaya and cacao trees, our visitors arrive in the small town of Infierno, Peru. Many Tambopata travelers know the port town as the starting-off point for their Amazon journey. But Infierno is much more than a point of departure. Home to the Ese Eja community, an indigenous people of the Amazon, the town has played a crucial role in Rainforest Expeditions' success since the start.
In celebration of this week's UN Indigenous Peoples Day, I spoke with Jesús Duran, the Account Manager at Rainforest Expeditions, to get a better sense of Infierno's decades-long relationship with the lodges. Jesús grew up in Infierno, and is committed to the community's development through sustainable tourism.
The community of Infierno, traditionally part of the Ese Eja People's ancestral homeland, is one of Rainforest Expeditions' major local partners.
When Jesús was a boy, he lived in Infierno — a small town along the Tambopata River — until adolescence. There, and even more once he moved to nearby Puerto Maldonado, he saw the discrimination, lack of economic opportunity, and social challenges that the Ese Eja community faced in the region.
At the same time, Jesús began to see tourism come to Tambopata in the early 1990s. The industry seemed to offer a promising alternative to local subsistence fishing and farming, and soon enough, Jesús and his brother both joined the new industry. Armed with his ambition and hard work, he studied tourism at a local school, working his way up from lodge waiter to tour guide to globe-trotting account manager. Working in travel, he says, "You really get to know yourself and learn to solve any kind of problem." Today, Jesús travels the world representing Rainforest Expeditions — this small town boy from the Amazon Rainforest has visited Japan, China, North America, Europe, and more.
But despite his cosmopolitan life in Lima today, Jesús hasn't forgotten his roots in Infierno, the community that raised him and provided the local insights crucial to his success. Luckily, the Native Community of Infierno serves as Rainforest Expeditions' partner at the Posada Amazonas lodge. In fact, the Ese Eja People own the lodge, largely manage it, and receive most of its profits! Jesús still gets the chance to work with the community on many joint initiatives.
Today, visitors to the Posada Amazonas lodge can visit Infierno and learn about cultural traditions, fishing, and art.
In 1996, the Infierno community and Rainforest Expeditions began their partnership, dedicated to conserving the natural environment and cultural heritage of the Ese Eja, and using ecotourism as a powerful tool to do so. Since then, Jesús has seen firsthand the ways tourism has transformed Infierno. "Before tourism, the Ese Eja were very marginalized in the Western World," he says, "with few resources and little access to education."
While economic development always brings a mixed bag of changes, Jesús believes ecotourism has been a positive transformation for the community. "Thanks to tourism, many people have returned to the community, because now they can find good opportunities for work there," he says. "Now the community has a higher quality of life. Young people can study in university, with a different level of education."
Even more than this economic transformation, Jesús saw firsthand how tourism has changed the way community members relate to the world. "Today Infierno has more resources" and is able to stand up for its legal, cultural, and environmental rights, he explains. "Money is a tool to effect change — they can hire a lawyer, dissent or complain about conditions, even go to Lima to petition the government."
Rainforest Expeditions also has Ese Eja crafts and artwork in the lodge.
Now, the partnership between Rainforest Expeditions and the Native Community of Infierno is growing even more. The Ese Eja were interested in sharing more of their culture, not only their natural surroundings, with international visitors. That led to the creation of Ese Eja Day, a new activity offered at our lodges, in which guests can spend a half-day in Infierno learning about Ese Eja traditions, artisanry, and food with locals. "I love that the community has decided to share its heritage in this way," Jesús says. "Visitors' trips are enriched when they learn about local culture. Without disrupting locals' day to day life, travelers can get to know the Infierno community and its customs."
Soon, the partnership will deepen further as the community and lodge collaborate on heritage preservation projects, including a traditional dance initiative and Ese Eja language education for the town's children. "The goal is the recovery of Ese Eja culture," Jesús explains, "that their culture is recognized and respected, and that the community feels pride in their own culture."
The benefits of this community relationship, starting with a shared dream over 20 years ago, extend far beyond Infierno itself. The Ese Eja community has contributed so much to Rainforest Expeditions, enriching an ecotourism venture with local knowledge, culture, and appreciation of the environment. "This is what rural community tourism should look like," Jesús says. "Infierno community members are no longer afraid to say, 'I am Ese Eja, and I am an entrepreneur.'"
To learn more about our relationship with the Ese Eja People of Infierno, check out Ese Eja Day.