DeAnna English sits down with Alejandro “Aleks” Leiva, Peruvian native, tour guide, translator, and now entrepreneur. DeAnna and Aleks discuss the tourism industry, the fate of Machu Picchu, and Aleks’s experience when Peru became one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
It’s a 10 hour bus ride to Cusco, Peru. Let’s make the most of it.
D: We’ve just been talking about all the travels here and relating to that, entrepreneurship. And when you told me that you’re an entrepreneur and would like to start your own business, I wanted to hear your views on the subject, as well as how the situation in Peru has been lately. What is your occupation?
A: My occupation – originally I was a hotel manager. I have a degree in hotel management, but I’ve been working the last 12 years in the travel workforce; I work for an Australian company and lead the tours. As to how I want to open a business in traveling; I want to do tours.
D: I see. And how long have you worked within the tourism industry in general?
A: 22 years – 10 years in hotels and the last 12 years in the travel industry.
D: Was your hotel management experience mostly directed towards Australians?
A: Actually, both tourism and business people. I worked in 5 different 5-star hotels, and the last hotel, I worked at for nearly 7 years. And then I worked 12 years for two travel companies, 8 of which for an Australian company called Peak Adventure.
D: And so, for your current job do you work under Intrepid?
A: Intrepid is one company out of an umbrella company – one brand. The umbrella company, as I mentioned, is Peak Adventure, and Intrepid is under them along with others such as Out Adventures, Exodus, Savadi – which is a Dutch travel brand – and many others! Peak Adventure is one of the largest travel companies in the world.
“I now know a lot of people – after a couple of years, you realize you know people everywhere. After 12 years, you have friends everywhere.”
D: And so, since you are a part of their company, are you able to work in other locations as a tour guide?
A: Ah, no – why? The policy that the company has is to support and represent local people and of course, give you this feeling that whenever you are traveling, there will be someone local leading you and guiding you. For example, if you go to Argentina and there’s an Irish guy guiding you – it wouldn’t be complete, the whole experience, in terms of like – a Peruvian guy showing you Peru and all around. That’s my history, that’s my place, it’s a place where I grew up, and so I pretty much know how everything works. So if you go to Argentina, you pretty much want to have an Argentinian guide to really see how everything works there, to learn about the history and how they live now as well. And so that’s why, no, we don’t have tour guides changing areas.
There was a time, ages ago, when they used to do this. However, they switched to local people only – which makes a lot of sense and I totally respect that.
D: Yes, yes – I’ve realized that every time we go through a city or village throughout the trip, you’re always greeting the local people, saying hi to the restaurant owners, etc. It really stuck out to me.
A: I now know a lot of people – after a couple of years, you realize you know people everywhere, and after 12 years, you have friends everywhere.
D: What is the best and worst – or most challenging – part of your job?
A: Oh, the worst part is when people get sick… or when people lose stuff, and they later want to go to the police station, get a police statement, do the paperwork to help them out with the travel insurance… Or if they need to claim something – that’s probably the most – I wouldn’t say the worst part, but the most challenging because it keeps you busy and if it’s a really serious situation, it might break my routine of what the tour could be. I wouldn’t say it is the worst – it is only most challenging in terms of time.
Then the best part – mingling with people all the time; getting to meet new people all the time, that’s what I would say. Why? Lots of people ask me, “Aleks, how can you handle lots of people, always traveling to the same places in Peru, over and over again?”. If I got the chance to go back to my old job, going back to give assistance in selling my company’s things, that would likely be boring for me ‘cause it would just be myself in the store and office all the time. But mingling with and getting to know new people all the time, it’s what makes the experience. It’s never boring.
D: Ah, I see. And so although you’re going to the same areas, it is always a different experience with different people!
A: Absolutely! Every time.
“Mingling with and getting to know new people all the time, it’s what makes the experience. It’s never boring.“
D: Do you maintain the connections you make with the tourists you meet?
A: Oh yeah, of course! I have friends everywhere, my friend. Most of the times I have been abroad, I have been in the places, the houses of my previous passengers; in New Zealand, the States, New York, yeah. And whenever they’re working they just tell me, “Aleks, just take the car and make up your day. See you later.”
D: Cool! That’s a really cool aspect of it, to hear from a tour guide’s experience how you tour around. When handling a group from a different culture, what are the things you might experience when introducing them to your culture?
A: It’s not that hard, especially on these tours, where trips are organized for people. People are already open to a new experience, and so bringing them into our culture – it’s not that bad because they’re expecting to learn something new. And when you teach them how things are here – what they should do, what they shouldn’t do – they just observe it and respect that.
I don’t think that my passengers have really experienced cultural shocks. They just go along with it, and adjust to the new circumstances.
D: And so for the locals here. So far, when they’ve been in contact with us – for me as a tourist – I have found Peruvians super sweet, super nice.
A: Peruvian people are seen as very welcoming and very warm people. And we are like that – that’s certainly in our blood – seriously, we are very warm people, especially with people who don’t speak the language. Like among ourselves, if I come here and I don’t know the area and I still speak Spanish, there are people who would be hospitable – like if I’m lost and I need assistance. But Peruvians are way more hospitable and welcoming when people don’t speak the language or when they don’t belong to the area. That’s just a part of us.
D: Do you happen to know how much Peru depends on tourism?
A: Well, I cannot give you a percentage, but I can tell you that tourism is not the primary economical activity in the country. First one is actually mining. What do we have? Pft, copper, gold, zinc, iron, silver, oil, natural gas, and much more. Mining is the most important. Unfortunately, it doesn’t keep many people busy.
The second most important economic activity is agriculture. Then fishing. Then services – like people working for other people – and then tourism. Even when we have Machu Picchu – which certainly keeps lots of people busy – it’s not a big, big economical activity. Like for example, France, they have 100 million tourists a year. We barely got to 3.5 million last year. That’s a huge difference.
“Peruvians are way more hospitable and welcoming when people don’t speak the language or when they don’t belong to the area. That’s just a part of us.“
D: I know that there is now an influx of immigrants in Peru, mostly Venezuelans. Has that affected the economy in Peru?
A: Hm, no I don’t think so… yet. Economically, it doesn’t affect our GDP directly because those people are not qualified – they cannot work here properly. And so most of them are taking low-qualified jobs; by doing the jobs local Peruvians don’t want to do. And so it is not affecting our economy dramatically, yet. Where in Colombia, where there are 3.5 million people, oh yeah. We barely have three-quarter of a million. Ecuador has 1 and a half million. Colombia has the most, and they’re experiencing the most, whereas for us, no. In terms of percentages and how it affects our economy, I believe it’s less than one percent. It’s nothing.
D: Peru is also one of the first South American countries to officially and openly accept Venezuelan immigrants, correct?
A: Yes, it is one of the first countries to officially open their borders and ask immigrants, “do you want to apply for a working visa?” and you can work here legally. Unfortunately, not all of them can. 150,000 were legal already, with their permits. 250,000 were in the process of getting their visa, and the rest were not. And so we’re talking more or less about… 350,000 people like, in the cloud, that we don’t know.
D: And as of now, even the census of Peru is undocumented and unknown because of the huge and dramatice influx of illegal immigrants. Would you say it’s because they’re unqualified for a working visa?
A: Yep – well the thing is that in order to protect our people, the government said that if you want to work here as a doctor or as a lawyer, you have to take some courses in order to standardize your degree. Fair enough! Because for example, if a foreign dentist wants to work in the States, he has to serve his degree under your law in order. It’s the same thing here, it’s to protect the professional people in Peru.
D: Comparing Peru to other countries in South America, in terms of education, business development, and technological advances, how advanced is Peru?
A: It’s getting better compared to the last decade. The government is making massive efforts in order to improve education – and access to technology as well. But it’s not the most important country in terms of technological advancement – Brazil is the biggest one in the region. A very important reason being that they are 230 million people. It’s the 7th biggest economy in the world. Huge difference.
The second most important country in terms of technological advances and education would be Chile. I’d say maybe Argentina for the third one, and then Peru. Yeah.
D: And is that because you guys have been more open to trade within the past decade?
A: Yeah, and because of how stable our economy has become as well, and how the competition has been amongst professionals – the more competently you work the better a lifestyle and the better jobs you can get as well, so it’s a constant thing. And the development of the internet as well! You can get access to information online now and people can go abroad. People now have better lifestyles and come back to Peru. For example, most of the teachers here – from schools and universities – are people who’ve been been abroad before, and then came back to teach. And that has really started in the last ten years, ’cause the internet started getting really, really big by 2006 and 2007. And so we’re talking about what, 15 years? Roughly – and the internet has been a huge tool.
D: I know the 90s for Peru was a big turning point in terms of political power, economic favor, and many other factors. Can you explain more of that to me?
A: Yeah, due to the existence of the Shining Path – a communist political party started in the 80s that ended up being terrorists – our economy was bitten in a really bad way in the late 80s, early 90s. We all had to pay the price. We all had to struggle. Economically our family budgets were dramatically affected. And once the Shining Path was over, boom, our economy just kept getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Since 2001, our economy has changed from a gradual ascent to a dramatic increase – even when we had the Global Financial Crisis, we didn’t go back. We grow more or less at about 4.5% a year. In those years, we grew at around 1.6%, but we never stepped back, never went down. We kept going.
D: What are your personal views on the future, then, for Peru’s economy?
A: Ah, due to better access to education – like ESAN University – universities are becoming more competitive and so in maybe 10, 15, 20 years, I think that Peru will probably be one of the leading economies in the region, especially since mining is our most important economic activity and we haven’t even exploited it at 10%. There’s a lot more to get from there. Of course, we have to do it in a sustainable way, but that’s why studies are becoming more important. Because people are becoming more aware, more conscious.
D: I was amazed when you told me that everyone receives an education here, because in certain areas, certain countries, that’s unaccessible or unavailable.
A: People who rely on tourism – they won’t get rich, but they will have a good lifestyle. It’s what I call the working class people – as long as they have a job and they honor that job, they have the opportunity to have a really good standard of life. It’s not low-qualified, no. Most people here will respond to others working in tourism with, “Ah! tourism – you’re doing well, eh?” Maybe not like a lawyer, but you’re still well off.
D: So what we heard is that by 2020, the main tourist destination, Machu Picchu, is going to be closed to the public. Is that true?
A: There is a big rumor of that, but honestly, I do not think that it will close – like completely… but it will probably become very restricted in the number of tourists allowed to enter. Machu Picchu has a title – like any heritage site, there are certain rules that we need to follow in order to keep it that way. One of them is to limit the number of people visiting. The authorities of the National Institute of Culture, which is the institution of our archeological sites – didn’t look out for the number of entries at one point. And at one random check, they realized that there were around 6,000 – 7,000 people visiting in in just one day. That’s nearly 3 times the amount of people allowed, which is 2,500 a day.
One of the things that they did was to shut it down. Machu Picchu was closed in 2010, I believe for two days, because of this mistake that the Peruvian people had made. And after that, they reengineered the number of entries on the site – like now they number your ticket in a certain way. Instead of the whole day, it is now half a day. And so with this, the authorities make sure that 2,500 are on the first shift, and 2,500 are on the second shift. And so you have 5,000 people per day but max 2,500 people at the same time.
Another initiative they’ve taken to preserve it, is that some places within the city has been closed off, fenced, so that people cannot walk there. And that is a dramatic change, because when I started running in 2007, Machu Picchu was completely open. Like you could walk anywhere – there were no fences, no ropes, nothing. Now, every time I come back, there’s more places fenced or shut off to the public. And there is a rumor – things that we have heard – that there’s a project of putting up a walkway, like a dock, so you can still walk within Machu Picchu, but at the same time, not really. It’s like, you can see and take pictures, but it’s supposedly above so you can no longer actually enter the ruins. I’m not really sure how that will work – that means that they will have to dig underground, and that’s holy land as well – but it is a rumor.
However, I don’t think that it’ll ever be shut completely. They might limit the number of people and close some more areas and give you special routes to walk within the site, but close it? Hmph… I don’t think so.
D: If it ever was closed though, would that be a huge impact on the economy?
A: No. Mining, mining is our oil. It keeps 10% of the people economically active. And tourists only affect 7% of the GDP. It might have an impact, but not as huge, because mining is the most important one, yes. Say, if instead the price of copper, which is our most important product for export, goes down, then okay… That would be a big problem for us.
D: That’s interesting to hear. Because now, in most places around the world, the word ‘Machu Picchu’ is well known.
A: Especially after winning the title of one the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’ in 2007. That was really cool. I remember that I was heading towards Machu Picchu in June and at that time before you got to Machu Picchu there was an internet cafe. Inside there were computers you could use to, and you could just go on this website, register yourself, and then vote for Machu Picchu to be one of ‘the New Seven Wonders of the World’. And so I started encouraging people to do it: “guys, you know Machu Picchu might be one of the New Seven Wonders-”
“Oh, yes, Aleks!” they’d say; let’s make a line, and vote. It took 5 minutes or maybe even less. And so we all did it, and – yeah!
D: And so you contributed to this – helping Machu Picchu become one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’!
A: Yeah! Listen, after coming back from Machu Picchu with the group I was guiding then – we came back late in the afternoon – the next day was a completely free day. I believe we came back on June 6th – and the next day it was announced all over the world! There was a big screen in the main square of Cusco by midday, roughly, and so, my group and I decided to go there to see the announcement! And they were announcing like, “And number one… number two… Machu Picchu!” *he gasps*.
My group and I decided to go there to see the announcement! And they were announcing,
“And number one… number two… Machu Picchu!”
The whole crowd, my passengers, they were like, “we made it. We voted for that!” And people who didn’t know each other, local people and people from all over the world, came together. People started getting beers and then, *he imitates a cheer and then smiles*. It was so good.
D: That’s amazing – to be able to be a part of that!
A: Yeah! We voted for that – we made it happen!
D: And that was when the internet was fairly new as well, which proves that that was another contribution to Peru’s development as a whole.
A: Yes – after that, pft, yeah. People started coming more, and more, and more. The government took advantage of that, ‘cause I remember the entrance fee used to be $20 for people, for tourists. The next year it was $50 – dollars, not soles.
Same for Peruvian people – the price pft, went up. Honestly, for what you see, Machu Picchu is expensive for Peruvian people… but for travelers, it’s not that expensive.
I’ve been to New York. I’ve been to your museums – and it’s just a museum! Machu Picchu has way more history to it. It’s bigger, and $50 – I don’t think it’s that much… well, if you compare it. And so… I think it’s fair. I think it’s fair – yeah.
D: Have the prices for Machu Picchu gone down at all?
A: No, they’ll never go down! They’ve found some other ways to make money as well – for instance, your ticket before was for visiting Machu Picchu and all the sites around it, like the Huayna Picchu peak, which is the peak behind – that was included.
Now? Nah – if you want to do it, you have to pay an extra fee. Machu Picchu mountain, which is another mountain in the area – if you want to go there? Na-ah. Another fee whereas before, you know, the ticket included the whole experience.
D: And for the private vendors, I personally ask them, “Do you make these by hand?” and they all tell me, “I make all of these by hand”. Would you say that is true?
A: Not all of them – what we had at Taquile and the floating islands? Yes, all handmade. But there’s lots of those people who are buying it at a wholesaler, a big manufacturer who sells at wholesale prices – and then, they put it on the street and say, “Oh yeah, I made it myself.”
But if you know, for example, “Oh this stitch is made by a sewing machine” – you can actually spot the fake from the real. You just need to observe. Same with the drawings you find on the street. They all say, “I painted it myself”.
Hmph, “Which technique is that?”
“Uhhh – painting”
“Yeah, but which type of painting?”
Yeah – you can tell! With a couple of questions, so don’t believe everything – it’s just for the sale. Money, money, I don’t care. It’s like, if you want to believe it, then I made it myself.
“Yeah, it took me a whole week. 8 hours a day. Yeah. “
“Yeah, yeah, I need to feed my kids”
But they want to sell.
There are manufacturers everywhere, yeah. Especially the handicraft – the wool. If you’re looking for real alpaca jumper, the cheapest would be $60… and the most expensive is $150, depending on the design and how many colors it has. It’s one thing that is important to consider – half a kilogram of alpaca wool is about $15-20. Then you have to add the effort of knitting. So if you’ve bought it cheaply, what you have is probably cheap and synthetic; brushed. And knitted on a big scale. Like in a factory.
D: I also heard that alpaca wool has to feel cold if it’s real?
A: Yeah! It has to be cold. I can explain it to you but if you don’t actually try and feel it, you’ll never know. There’s certain alpaca cloth factories that trains you to detect which one is the real one. After that, once you touch it – you could be blind and tell the difference by simply touching it. It’s because of the hair – it’s really fine hair, so it’s always cold.
And it has a fall, so when you hold it *gasps* you’ll know. I’ll take you to the factory. It’s run by a family that supports local villages by buying wool from them – then they knit it and then sell the finished products. So it’s like a proper place.
D: I see a lot of mutual partnerships, like how you connect with local street vendors, restaurants – I’ve noticed how not only you, but other tour guides bring their tourists to particular restaurants. Do you establish connections with them through Intrepid?
A: Yeah! Almost all of the restaurants that we bring you to are local. First of all, it’s not only because they support the foundation. When we choose them, there is a regulation, a tool to make sure they are certified, that they are clean, so it’s good food and a good experience. It’s not like “I bring you passengers and you give me 5%” – no, no, no – supervisors come from our department to check and see if it’s safe enough to be recommended to our groups. ‘Cause we’re gonna bring in like, 15,000 – 20,000 tourists a year.
D: What are your plans in entrepreneurship? You said that you are an entrepreneur or you’re going to be?
A: I’m on my way – I’m running towards it already! There was this idea, that it started as a bonus to my passengers before. Whenever they had some free time, I would drive them around in the area where I live, which is the other side of Lima – it is a working class neighborhood.
You know Miraflores, we’ve been to Miraflores, and it’s so beautiful; so organized. Where I live it’s not like that. But 65% of our people live in Lima, in not-so aesthetic places. So although Miraflores is beautiful, it doesn’t represent all of Lima. And so I give an in-depth experience like, “This is the real face of Lima”. And people would tell me, “this is amazing! I’m so happy to have seen it.”
And then eventually one of them told me, “Aleks, this has been so cool for us! You drove us around in your car – but you can make money out of this.” I was like, “Huh. Really? I never thought of that, I was just being friendly.”
“No! I mean this tour – I don’t know you can charge like, $30, $35 – I wouldn’t mind paying you 40 dollars. 50 dollars.” Yeah! And then I was like, hmmm. And yeah! It was always like an option, but I kept running through, ‘cause this kept me busy.
But then, something changed last year. My kids eventually were pft, big. And I decided to stay home that year, cause the year prior – 2017 – I worked a lot, and in that one year I only saw my kids for 45 days. And not in a row. It’s a part of the trips. So I was like, “Hm, maybe not, maybe I’ll take a year off.” And so I start working on this business.
D: And so would this tour be like an optional tour while you’re doing the other tour?
A: Well I’m promoting it now in hotels, like I’m dropping off brochures.
D: And you have prior experience and connections in hotel management!
A: Yeah! I’m working with the same hotels that I’ve previously worked with. I also promote it on Airbnb. That’s becoming very important, because those guys replied and they believe in local experiences, “You’re experienced, you have something we don’t have.”
D: Oh so you message them directly?
A: Yeah! They want local people. And I told them that I was going to be the guide. They were like, “Oh, exactly! ‘Cause we don’t want big companies. We want local people to do the business. You are the driver? Okay, send me your driver’s license, car registration.” I send them all, they checked it and I passed through.
D: And it would just be your own – directly managed.
A: Yes, eventually probably with these tours, I would be like, “nah, sorry I can’t – I’m running my own business. And I’m busy this week.” And that’s exactly what I’m looking for. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy this – running tours, meeting people – but my idea is to stay at home with my kids and be there with my own business.
D: So in the future, would it be particular places that you’d go to? Would you still go to places like out here in Cusco in the future?
A: Eh, yeah! Yeah, of course! Okay so, since I have friends – my former clients – they send me other friends. They tell me, “Aleks, they want to do the same tour that I did before. Could you run it?”
I say, “Sure, but if I go, I will have to represent the same kind of service I presented with my last clients in a different way. If they go by themselves, my service and reputation will follow them. Like, there would be people waiting for them in every single bus station, at every single hotel wherever they go. And this option would be much cheaper.
So I actually have two couples – one couple coming in July and the other in November. I’m not traveling with them, but I booked it already. They pay me 50% in advance, and I have to just wait for them to make sure everything’s good, and then connect them with the hotels, the transportation, I would meet them at the airport with a sign, wait for them.
D: However, would those couples need a translator with them throughout the trip?
A: Well, there would be guides – proper guides throughout each segment of the trip. If they want someone to escort them, to join them, then the price would probably go up, because of the wages and the guides’ salaries.
D: But even with that, it would be cheaper for them than to do a tour like this, where you join them on the whole journey?
A: It depends on the size of the group. If it’s a large group, they could do a private tour for the same price. But since it’s going to be a small amount of people, the idea is to not make it private in order to keep the prices low and still have a good standard of service.
D: That’s such a cool idea! Would you say it’s being put to place already? ‘Cause you still need to finish out some paperwork with Airbnb.
A: Yeah, there is some registration that I still need to do, and some payments as well. And that’s important – setting it down is quite intensive paperwork, as well as getting approvals, investment, etc…
But yeah, I already have a lot of work and assignments waiting for me in June. So it might take me awhile.
D: How many of these trips are enough for you to have a sufficient amount of income in a year?
A: One trip a month is enough.
D: I see – and with these trips, even though it’s once a month – this for example, is a two week trip – so it takes time.
A: Yeah, exactly! This business is good, like in terms of money. I can work six months nonstop, and I’ll be free the next six months, if I choose. But then – it’ll keep you away from the family. That’s the other thing. And after a while, after 12 years… it’s a good time to come home.
“This business is good, like in terms of money.
But then… it’ll keep you away from the family.
And after awhile – after 12 years… it’s a good time to be home.“
D: Would you say, after seeing all these startup incubators arriving in Peru, that this is a good time for you to start your business?
A: Yeah! You know, I have a group of five friends. And we have known each other for 27 years. We studied english together – when I was 14, the others were 20 I think. Now we’re all in our 40s… and we’re still friends!
All of us have a business. And three out of five have a business because of our friends’ friends. Because the thing is, you can’t live out of a wage. That will limit your life – you need to go beyond. Everybody needs something. You can choose whatever you wanna do. You wanna make sandals? Make sandals. You wanna sell ice cream? Ah – go for ice cream. People would like that in the summertime. Winter time? Go for jumpers.
We buy, we as a society, we humans. We are a society that can’t stop buying… and sometimes we buy things that we don’t need. Like we do need stuff like water and food. But for beauty – we need a lot of things…
There will be someone waiting for you, needing what you are selling. You just need to look for the market.
Listen, if you like talking to people, you have the chance to learn more – instead of avoiding people and not wanting to talk to them. If you are an entrepreneur, if you want to run a business, you definitely have to have interpersonal skills. You definitely need to talk to people, otherwise you can’t be a salesman!
It took me a lot of time – I was doing it then, but just for fun. I felt guilty whenever people would be like –
“Aleks, we want to pay you for this.” I was like, “No!” I would always turn it down.
“Aleks, we’ll buy you a bottle of pisco sour,” I was like, “Aw nice, thank you” *chuckles*
But it’s just about the decision. Make the decision to take the first step. And once you see the money, it’s like, “ohhhh it’s working!” *chuckles*
Every little experience is rich; it’s filling.
And now look at me! I’m now selling private tours to a niche market. Like the other day, I ran a tour for a friend of mine for 2 days – he asked me, “Aleks, it’s a free day for us today. Do you have time to run a tour of 14 people?”
*eyes widen* “Sure but they’re not – they’re not gonna fit in my car”
“Oh, just get a van”
Oh, you have no idea. That day, I paid for my kids’ school, oh yeah. One person is worth it. Two people are twice worth it. Three people are like – oh my god! Four people – whoa!
And they told me, “Aleks, you should increase your price.”
As I get more known it gets better and better and better.
D: I see. And after 12 years of doing this, you’re pretty well-established.
D: Thank you, Aleks.
A: No worries! It’s been a pleasure.
Every little experience is rich. It’s fulfilling.
COVID-19 has heavily affected Peru’s livelihood and workers and entrepreneurs like Aleks. So far, Aleks and his family are safe, but has been struggling with the sudden lack of tourism.