Welcome to Peñas: How one Bolivian town is ready to become a sustainable adventure tourism destination
26 Jan, 2024 | Zofia Todd
A large arch over the road on the way to town announces, ‘Bienvenidos a Peñas’. It feels out of place in this nearly empty part of the Altiplano. To the left is a sprawl of rock formations, looking ready for climbing. To the right is the majestic Cordillera Real, with Condoriri standing proud.
Just past the welcome sign is a small town, its main square full of small statues paying tribute to indigenous culture. There is a colourful monument of Túpac Katari, an Aymaran leader of a major rebellion against the Spanish. He looks onto the mountains proudly.
This is Peñas.
Today, this unassuming town is home to an adventure park and a campus of the Universidad Catolica Boliviana, which specializes in sustainable and adventure tourism.This place attracts climbers looking to escape the city and a chance to take on its 150 climbing routes, its walking paths, and even a mountain biking trail. The local community has established hostels for visitors to stay in, to make the most of the outdoor activities available. This town is also home to a producer of artisanal cheese.
Much of this activity is thanks to Padre Antonio Lavatarelli, a priest with a keen interest in mountain climbing. “I have been a mountaineer since I was young,” he says. “And a beautiful parish like this felt like the perfect place to use it as a tool for social development.”
Padre Antonio has been living in Peñas for nearly 15 years, and his involvement in building the adventure park and the university, tourism has become a growing force in the town. Part of his approach is to ensure the local community remains involved. For example, the hostels here are run by locals, and tourists can find food in the local market.
The central part of the Andes, the longest continental mountain range in the world, cuts through this part of Bolivia. So it comes as no surprise that the outdoor offerings here are both expansive and unique. The Cordillera Real boasts numerous mountains over 6,000 meters above sea level, with options for both experienced and novice mountaineers. Adventure tourism is becoming increasingly popular in Bolivia, due to the accessibility of this exceptional landscape, not to mention affordability.
Peñas is set against the backdrop of Bolivia’s spectacular mountains, and serves as a quick stop on the route from La Paz to Lago Titicaca. For Bolivian climbers in-the-know, this town is already well-known. Not only do they participate in the adrenaline-pumping activities available here, they understand how town plays an important role in training guides to take tourists hiking or climbing and setting the scene for sustainable tourism in Bolivia.
Tourism slowed down in Peñas, as in the rest of Bolivia, due to the coronavirus pandemic. But much of this country is banking on a revival. Pre-pandemic, international tourism in Bolivia had steadily grown, year on year, with nearly 1.5 million visitors in 2019. And while it hasn’t recovered to this volume, it has been increasing month by month over the past two years.
While returning tourists can bring positive change to many communities, many communities in Bolivia understand the importance of bringing them back in a sustainable way, considering the social, economic, and environmental impacts of tourism to mitigate any negative impacts, such as pollution, or profits being concentrated in one place. Many communities are making an effort to respect and conserve the local culture and environment, often employing locals as guides and other service providers.
In mountaineering in world-class destinations like Bolivia, it is important for guides to have a high level of expertise. The impressive altitude of Bolivia’s mountainous region means that it is crucial for guides to have a deep understanding of the different ways that altitude can affect tourists, and how to help them if needed. Experienced mountain guides have an intricate understanding of the technique required to scale these mountains, as well as the unpredictable weather at high altitudes.
This is why Bolivia’s Universidad Católica, one of Bolivia’s more prominent higher education institutions, established a campus in Peñas, with a unique emphasis on advanced studies in adventure tourism and qualifications in sustainable tourism. The university emphasizes how to care for and respect the local culture, and teaches how to guide various forms of adventure tourism.
Reyna Paye Lopez is a current student at the university in Peñas, and works part-time at the adventure park here. She had come to Peñas to study. “When I decided to study tourism, to start my career, I was particularly interested in how local communities can participate in the tourism industry, too,” she smiles, explaining that she wanted to learn how a community can preserve their story and way of life while receiving tourists.
“Many young people have migrated away from Peñas to work in the cities,” she says. “The university helps bring young people back into the community.”
Reyna sees the young people as an important bridge, especially as it can be harder to get older people on board with some of the projects.
In Aymara culture, the mountains are incredibly important and sacred, holding an important spiritual place for many. Today, older generations continue to be concerned with their protection.
Liita Gonzales is one of Bolivia’s famous Climbing Cholitas, a group of women who climb mountains in traditional attire. She describes the mountains as being “like a grandfather” to her. To her and many others, mountains bring life, providing water to communities and the resources to grow food. Because of these beliefs, many guides like her have a strong spiritual connection to the mountains, something they can share with visitors.
And this is where young people like Reyna play an important role, particularly with isolated families that may only speak Aymara. She can help them feel listened to, and demonstrate that their concerns are important and considered in the development of the community. Communication with the locals is important for the development projects, as it demonstrates that their culture and way of life will be respected.
Walk through the main square of Peñas, and the pride in indigenous roots here is undeniable. Statues commemorating indigenous figures face the mountains, the givers of life. Respect for this landscape is important to the local people, and the young people are learning about injecting this into sustainable tourism practices.
Padre Antonio had big visions for the community of Peñas, and they are still taking shape. Today, this is the next important place for outdoor adventures in this spectacular landscape. This small town is alive and evolving, its future holding opportunities for locals and tourists alike.