Conscious Travel Collective was founded on the value of leveraging travel to create connections between visitors and the people in destinations in a meaningful way. Honoring the local culture and looking to the local community to guide the tourism experience on their terms.
As such, the itinerary design process relies upon researching and partnering with organizations in the destination whose values are in alignment with CTC. No such organization embodies those values quite like Awamaki of Peru and CTC is honored to work with them for their Sacred Valley itinerary.
We recently had the opportunity to chat with Melissa Tola, Awamaki’s Sustainable Tourism Coordinator to share more about Awamaki’s story and the work they do with the communities in the Andes Mountains in Peru
How did Awamaki begin?
Awamaki began in 2009. It was founded by Kennedy Leavens who had come to the Sacred Valley in Peru as a volunteer in high school. During that trip, she fell in love with the community and especially all the women she met in the different villages around the Sacred Valley. The connections she made there resulted in conversations with the women about what they needed. How could she be of service to them?
Ollantaytambo is a remote community. Back in 2009, it certainly was not as “touristy” as it is today, and compared with other tourist destinations, is still fairly quiet. The women described the frustration they felt when they would head to the plaza with the textiles they would spend hours and hours of their days creating. Intricate, colorful, patterns hand-woven using ancient methods from the natural wool fibers they sheared, wound and dyed themselves. Then their day (and their energy) at the plaza would be spent negotiating prices for the textiles they’d worked so hard to make. They found that their customers did not appreciate the craft, the time, and the traditions, and the women would return to their homes having parted with their creations for far less than they were worth.
In response to their requests, Awamaki was formed in collaboration with the women. The first cooperative included 10 women. Awamaki’s goal was to bridge the gap between the modern business world and the women of these remote villages and introduce them to new markets.
Awamaki conducts workshops with the women artisans to teach them how to be business owners, organize themselves, establish a business strategy, and acquire their own clients. With time and guidance, the possibilities for these women and their textiles expanded.
Upon completing Awamaki workshops, the cooperatives— comprised of women whom Melissa affectionately refers to as “The Ladies”— set out to find themselves clients to whom they would wholesale their textiles and knitted art. Their first large client was the railroad train that tourists take from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
Kennedy continuously works on behalf of the women by finding clients in the United States for the Ladies to wholesale to, and Awamaki’s sales representative seeks out and manages clients worldwide.
What began as a cooperative of ten women has since grown to 180 women throughout several villages. Each cooperative is comprised of 20-30 women who are organized in roles of management, finance, tourism, and weaving. The workload is rotated as orders are fulfilled. The work that Awamaki does allows the Ladies to tap into markets worldwide and share their creations at fair trade prices. Many clients would even visit Peru and each cooperative and choose a specific cooperative to partner with.
The Awamaki organization itself is a also client of the Ladies. With a shop in Ollantaytambo, Awamaki’s designer works alongside the Ladies on creating modern handcrafted collections using their ancient weaving techniques and offering the items for purchase both at their shop and on their website. No two items are the same as they are individually handwoven by the different women of the Sacred Valley cooperatives, with each their personal and cultural identities shining through.
An inside look at a special way of life
As the Ladies were introduced to the modern business world, and as the popularity of the Sacred Valley grew as a tourism destination, the Ladies began to realize just how special and unique their culture and way of life are.
“They realized that if they continue wearing their traditional skirts and hats, if they continue to speak Quechua, and living the way they do, they can keep their culture going,” Melissa explained.
So seven years ago, the women approached Awamaki and expressed their desire to share their culture with visitors. The Ladies wanted to teach travelers how to weave in the old way and help them understand the process that goes into their craft. “It shows visitors another lifestyle,” Melissa said.
So Awamaki developed an approach to incorporate sustainable tourism experiences in partnership with the communities wishing to partake in such tours. “If a cooperative wants to add tourism to their community business, they must approach Awamaki and express that interest,” Melissa explained. “Awamaki would then go to the community to evaluate that cooperatives presentation.” They look at the tour, the management, the weaving workshops, the confidence in the presenters, the language, and public speaking skills. They then go through a 1-year period where Awamaki helps them to develop their ‘product’ (the tour) focusing on all aspects of refining their experience and tourism business, developing their confidence, and ensuring all their systems are prepared for clients.
Awamaki then begins bringing visitors to experience the tour. They start with small numbers at first, 2-4 visitors at a time, 3 times per week, until the community is confident to take on larger groups. At that point, Awamaki “graduates” the cooperative and once again becomes that cooperative's client, and encourages the cooperative to seek additional tourism clients as well.
Melissa’s favorite part about working for Awamaki is the opportunity to work with the Ladies and witness all they have accomplished. “I’ve watched them change, I’ve seen their confidence grow as they step into their roles as businesswomen.”
If you choose to join an Awamaki tour, working with the Ladies will likely be your favorite part too.
Awamaki emphasizes connection
“When people think of visiting Peru, they think of Machu Picchu. They think of the Inca. They do the typical 3-day tour. Come to Cusco, and see the city. Go to Ollantaytambo, and see the ruins. Then take the train to Machu Picchu before they leave. Take a little longer,” Melissa encourages. “Go visit the communities. Don’t miss the opportunity to spend time with these community members, and learn their way of living. People think about seeing the ruins of the Inca. These communities are the descendants of the Inca.”
Take a little longer, Go visit the communities. Don’t miss the opportunity to spend time with these community members, and learn their way of living. People think about seeing the ruins of the Inca. These communities are the descendants of the Inca.”
Tours through Awamaki are organized around the needs and with the guidance of the Ladies and their communities. The pace is calm and the process is smooth for the communities and meaningful for the visitors.
The number of passengers for each tour is limited to fifteen. An Awamaki guide is present to translate presentations and conversations between visitors and their indigenous hosts from Quechua or Spanish to English, and always encourages visitors to get to know the ladies as they teach their craft.
“Working with the communities and getting to see the Ladies every day is the best part of my job,” Melissa says. “They are always happy, always smiling, and they love what they do— working together in their communities on their terms and sharing their culture.”
Awamaki is one of the best parts of Conscious Travel Collective’s small group trip to the Sacred Valley. You can learn more about Awamaki tours on their website, shop their handcrafted collections here, or follow them on Instagram here.