LIMA, Peru (AP) — Shacks cling precariously to sandy hillsides. The flat roofs of board-and-tin hovels stretch as far as the eye can see on treeless moonscapes. Humble meals are served on battered plates.
The sights and tastes of Lima's huge shantytowns are not the standard fare of tourists, who are mostly drawn to Peru to see the majestic Incan citadel of Machu Picchu or sample the country's renowned cuisine. Yet for a few travelers, the slums are precisely why they come: to experience the other side of this diverse Andean nation.
"We didn't know there were areas like this," said Ashok Arasu, an Australian doctor who along with his physician wife, Cherry Wu, was walking on one of the many misty, gray hills that hold slums in Lima, where a third of Peru's population lives. "I saw something comparable once in Cambodia," Arasu added.
Arasu and Wu passed out notebooks, pencils and socks to warm the feet of the shantytown's children amid the cool, damp weather of the Southern Hemisphere's winter. Sometimes tourists bring medicines for the respiratory infections that affect children here or they help paint houses.
"I want to be just and honest with the visitors who come to get to know my country. Peru is a country full of 'young towns,'" said Edwin Rojas, founder of Haku Tours, using the Peruvian term for the sprawling shantytowns that sprang up around Lima and other cities as people fled the countryside amid the brutal war with Shining Path and Tupac Amaru guerrillas.
Rojas says his firm is the only travel agency that offers "shantytown tours," along with more traditional historical and culinary tours of Lima.
It takes about 400 tourists a year to the slums, in groups of two to six, at a cost of $45 a person. Participants sometimes visit slum markets or they eat meals with local families, sampling daily fare very different from the exquisite dishes served in posh Lima restaurants and increasingly around the world.
"More than a tour, it is an anthropological experience for foreigners to get to know the local people with mutual respect," Rojas said.
He is aware that similar slum tours in Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, Nairobi and Johannesburg have been criticized as exploiting the poor, but says he has built ties with community leaders in Lima's shantytowns.
"What we do here is more sensitive because when we visit these communities we help the people and get to know the best of them," he said.