Posted by Colleen Connolly – MA Candidate at CLACS / Global Journalism at NYU
The Plaza de Armas in Chinchero, Peru. (Photo by Colleen Connolly)
I ended my field work in Lima, about as far away as you can get from Chinchero in Peru. I swapped freezing night temperatures and extreme dryness for the gray humidity of Lima’s winters, mountains for coast and Quechua for Spanish — and even some English. The transition was striking. Even my body felt the effects (but not in a good way — I got the flu).
Lima offered me the chance to step back from the conversations and observations I’d had in Cusco and look at them from another perspective. Like in the United States, there exists a great social conflict in Peru between the coastal “elites” and the campesinos. Those in Cusco who support construction of the Chinchero airport have much to say about “el centralismo de Lima” and their hatred of it. Now, here I was in Lima, talking to some of these “elites” who don’t want to give the Cusqueños their airport.
Everyone loves to travel. In 2008, 924 million people traveled abroad. That is a lot of people contributing an enormous amount of money to foreign economies. For obvious reasons many people think of tourism as having a positive impact to the economy of any area that utilizes it to create jobs, preserve natural resources, and increase the overall quality of life for the people living and working within the tourist economy. But does tourism always leave positive impacts? My research delves into the tourist economy of a specific area in Guatemala where the Tzutjujil Mayan people struggle to decide how tourism should be used to bolster their economy and maximize the benefits tourism can bring while minimizing its negative impacts.
The town of San Pedro La Laguna on the side of Lake Atitlan Guatemala has blossomed into a thriving community over the past twenty years. Much of the success the town has had in the tourism sector is due to Narco-tourism. The various illegal narcotics that can be purchased around the town has made San Pedro a popular stop for many backpackers while traveling through Central America. Marijuana, cocaine, psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, MDMA (pure ecstasy), and prescription drugs are all available to buy at discount prices given you can make contact with the right local. The local dealers are both Guatemalans and foreigners who call San Pedro home. The sale and availability of illegal drugs has had a significant impact on the lives of this Mayan community, especially the impressionable youth. But this is just one of the problems that tourism can bring if it is not regulated.
I have returned to Guatemala to do field research for the NYU CLACS masters program after having served in this country as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2008-2010. Even though I am now in a different location of the country from when I served as a volunteer, many elements of the towns San Pedro La Laguna and San Juan La Laguna are familiar and ubiquitously Guatemalan. The major difference about these communities in comparison to other parts of the country is their ability to use tourism as a development strategy and how this has changed the people’s everyday lives and culture.
My research interest lies with the cultural elements that are unique to these two towns because of their high connection with the outside world. The town’s geography gives them both their own feel and how they have used tourism differently has had significant impacts on everyday life. Situated alongside the beautiful Lake Atitlan surrounded by volcanoes at an altitude of over five thousand feet, both San Pedro and San Juan have something to offer the bold tourist who craves a unique cultural experience. Over the past twenty years these communities have developed with the aid of tourism, but poverty still grips the lives of the majority of the town’s inhabitants. Trying to understand this situation will take time and patience. After being here a week, I have identified many people who have unique perspectives that will benefit my research. Continue reading