Dig Deeper
July 10, 2019

By: Nick Dall

Santiago de Okola, Bolivia: Community-based tourism done properly

Secondary Categories: Bolivia, The Great Inca Trail

As pioneers of community-based tourism both in the Choquechaca Valley near Cusco, and in select locations along the Great Inca Trail, we know a good community-based tourism program when we see one. Case in point Santiago de Okola, a dazzling gem on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

One of the highlights of our latest Great Inca Trail expedition through southern Peru and Bolivia was our visit to Santiago de Okola where we stayed with host families, ate a slap-up meal of locally-farmed produce and traditional high Andes dishes, and delved into the community’s ten-thousand-year history while summiting the Dragón Dormido (Sleeping Dragon) which overlooks the village.

Inspired by this visit, we caught up with Stephen Taranto of our Bolivian partner Sendas Altas to find out more about the project.

El Dragón Dormido seen in profile with its head resting by the lake.

What to expect

Before we tell the story of the project’s development over the past 11 years, here’s a brief rundown of the tourist experience. After arriving in Okola – either by road from La Paz (three hours), or on a private ferry (1½ hours), from the Isla del Sol, travelers typically spend one or two nights in the village. At the moment around 10 families are actively hosting guests. Each of these families has built/adapted a space in their home that can accommodate either one or two people. All families charge the same rate (this includes all meals), and tourists are assigned to families according to a roster.

All tourists are given a tour around the village with a local guide. Optional activities include workshops on weaving (Okola is famous for its colorful sheep’s wool fabrics) and cooking traditional meals (Okola is considered a micro-center of agricultural biodiversity in potatoes and quinoa), not to mention guided walks on the area’s medicinal plants and/or its farming systems. Other options include taking to Lake Titicaca in a rowboat and enjoying a roaring lakeside bonfire under the stars.

The hike to the top of the Dragón Dormido is a real winner. Not only are the views of the Cordillera Real and the Isla del Sol incredible, but the mountain is an important spiritual site that’s home to important ruins including terraces, storage chambers, huacas (ritual sites), and residences.

The Great Inca Trail team dances with the band of drums and flutes.

In the beginning

Stephen first visited Santiago de Okola in 2008, while scouting locations for a winter course he was preparing for Arizona’s Prescott College entitled “Agro-Ecosystems of the Central Andes.” After “pitching up unannounced,” he discovered that Okola wasn’t just perfect for his college course – the community, which has been farming the same way for millennia, is a vital vestige of agrobiodiversity – but also that some of its members were keen to get involved in tourism.

From there the pieces of the puzzle quickly fell into place. Stephen (who had also been working on a grant from the Fundación PROINPA to see how tourism could be used to promote agrobiodiversity and conservation) added Okola to his shortlist at the same time that he and his business partner Tomas Sivila started talking about how they could use their local travel company to support the community’s interests in developing a community-based agro-tourism project.

Tunupa’s Cave on the back of the Sleeping Dragon. Tunupa is an Aymara deity.

Okola was chosen among four potential communities for several reasons. Its convenient location was a major factor. As were its dramatic scenery, fascinating archeological sites, native vegetation, and indisputable agricultural heritage. What sealed the deal was the fact that the community itself had come up with the idea of catering to tourists. All of these ingredients have proved vital to the program’s eventual, albeit gradual, success.

Slow progress

Determined to do things right, Stephen and Tomas looked to other community tourism initiatives for inspiration and went to great efforts to make sure every single member of the community was given the opportunity to take part in the project. “We really tried to avoid creating tension within the community, but still it happened,” says Stephen, before adding that over time, many of the initial tensions have been resolved by the creation of an official community tourism association (the first such legal entity in Bolivia).

Other challenges included the fact that many community members were too busy (with farming, fishing, life) to invest hours of (often unpaid) work to the tourism association – especially in the early days when tourists were few and far between. Quality control is also an ongoing focus as part of the idea is that each homestay should be a bit different. Tourists need to appreciate that each family prepares different meals and that some have hot showers and others comfier mattresses. At the same time, Sendas Altas has to be able to guarantee a certain standard to its clients, says Stephen, pointing out that “together with community members we have come a long way in that regard.”

An impressive spread of locally-grown produce and High Andean dishes.

Good things come to those who wait

While Stephen underestimated how hard it would be to get tourists to choose to visit Okola instead of established destinations like Copacabana and the Isla del Sol, in hindsight he credits some of the project’s success to the fact that it has grown slowly and organically. If tourism had been overly lucrative it could easily have usurped the very practices (farming, weaving, fishing) that it was designed to protect.

Eleven years and several grants later (in total Stephen has secured the project around $125,000 in grant money), not only has the village matured as a tourist destination, but its inhabitants have become adept hosts who are better attuned to the wants and needs of foreigners. Grants have been used to build a museum (filled by getting students from the local high school to ask local elders for donations, resulting in a fascinating collection of old ceramics, textiles, and farming and fishing implements) and a community center (80% done, pending another grant!). Grants have also assisted in developing project members’ skills in running workshops, guiding visitors up the Sleeping Dragon, and the basics of hygiene and housekeeping, improving the administration of the project and setting up the legal entity.

Tied with the grants have been academic research projects – six or seven in total – which have both deepened the community’s understanding of its past and burnished its tourism potential. While building the trail to the top of the Sleeping Dragon, Sergio Calla, an archeologist from La Paz, was brought on board to carry out an inventory of sites and advise on the least impactful places to establish the trail. His inventory, carried out with undergraduate students from a local university, discovered numerous ritual sites on the mountain, helping to establish Okola’s reputation as a spiritual destination among Bolivians (95% of Okola’s 3 000+ Facebook fans are local). This popularity among locals as well as foreigners, says Stephen, should ensure the project’s sustainability.

The ancient Inca road has suffered the effects of erosion.

Calla also identified traces of the Qhapaq Ñan (what we at SA Expeditions call the Great Inca Trail) and a couple of interesting structures including a tambo (Inca way station), and a big column that served as a distance marker/milestone in Inca times. Neolithic arrowheads – dating back ten-thousand years – have also been found in Okola.

What next?

Sendas Altas is confident that the project has reached a point where it is now sustainable. Stephen and Tomas have made a conscious decision “to step back but not let go” over the past two years and this has encouraged project members to take on increasing responsibilities for managing their association. “It’s a teeny tiny thing,” he says, “but we are proud of it and we know the community is as well.”

SA Expeditions loves taking travelers to Santiago de Okola. Choose between one of our classic Bolivia tours or try out our immersive Great Inca Trail experience which will see you hiking select stretches of Inca highway as it traverses Bolivia. Either way, remember that all SA Expeditions trips are totally customizable.

Credit to Kevin Floerke for all the images used in this blog.

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