“Squatters’ rights!” laughs Jose Koechlin when describing how he came to acquire the land for his hotels in Peru. “When we started out, local government didn’t exist. When we finally got recognition from the government, we were the first company to receive a concession to have a national park.” Koechlin is the founder of Inkaterra, a Peruvian eco-tourism company that aims to sustain and conserve the rainforest of the Amazon basin in Peru. “All this is possible because of tourism,” Koechlin says of the on-going research into protecting the flora and animal species that Inkaterra has assumed responsibility for. “Tourism is good because it translates into money to fund research.”
Set up in 1975, Inkaterra was founded to promote but ultimately protect the eco-systems of the Peruvian rainforest, as well as the customs and cultures of the local populations, through the concept of eco-tourism. “Via tourism, you can create knowledge, and then pass on knowledge,” Koechlin says. The company now has five hotels, with plans for several more, including one in the grounds of a Jesuit cathedral. In the process, Inkaterra has raised money from its tourism ventures to fund the vital research that helps the conservation efforts across the basin. At the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, for instance, they have restored five hectares of cloud forest, “by looking at the birds and what they would like to eat.” This understanding of the delicate balance between animal populations and a reliable food chain has led the region to flourish. “It is a paradise,” Koechlin smiles. “Now, within the hotel, we have 205 bird species. We have big birds, small birds and eighteen species of hummingbird. We also found orchids there. Nobody could tell the name [of the orchid], so it was a new species for science. This year, there have been three orchids, and last year, it was two orchids, all new to science. So that’s an extraordinary thing, that a tourist company can describe new species to science.”
Koechlin is perhaps being modest. He reveals that in 2005, “Cornell University Press published a book in our name, on the lives and appearances of reptiles.” That book was William E. Duellman’s Cusco Amazónico, and was hailed by the University Press as being “the baseline against which all future studies of Amazonian amphibians and reptiles (and even other organisms) will be compared.” When pushed, it transpires that Koechlin not only knows this but can quote the comment by heart, evidence of how justly proud he is of his life’s work.
But it’s not just plants and birds that hold Koechlin’s interest. As well as setting up a butterfly breeding facility and rehabilitating bears back into the wild (just two of many conservation projects), he is also looking at restoring the ocean. “In the 1950s, this beautiful ocean was called Marlin Boulevard,” he explains. “Why was it called Marlin Boulevard? Because of the big, black marlins. They were abundant here. The record for the biggest fish ever caught here was 1560 pounds. This year marks sixty years of that record, so we decided why not bring back the ocean to what it was?” He adds that, “we pushed the government to create the first marine park in Peru. The government came back and said, we can’t handle it – why don’t you handle it?!”
Aside from the preservation of the biodiversity of the ocean, there is another reason for wanting to protect this stretch of coastline. During August, several events took place to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the big marlin catch, and Koechlin was taking part because “the visible thing to show is the boat that the fisherman had – that’s the Miss Texas. When this big fish was caught, by chance on another boat, there was a film crew from Warner Brothers, and so there is footage of it.” But the reason for the film crew? “The Miss Texas is the boat that Hemingway used to go fishing,” Koechlin reveals. “[The film crew] couldn’t get a good shot elsewhere, so they went to Peru to film The Old Man And The Sea.”
Koechlin is in the process of restoring the boat to its former glory. “It is a nice story to tell,” he says. But of his coastal conservation efforts, he adds that “to make it happen is not easy. But the local people are with us, and the fishermen. They want to protect the ocean as well.” In the future, Koechlin plans to open a research centre here (for research into natural and marine resources, as well as training on ocean fishing) and a hotel, to continue to obtain the money to fund his work. Such a prime location will, of course, provide tourists with “the pleasure of having an ocean view.”
Inkaterra has certainly come a long way since it opened its first hotel, a simple jungle lodge, nearly forty years ago, having now evolved into a range of hotels that are (almost) as diverse as the terrains on which they are situated. This is nature travel at its most authentic, where history is created through an ongoing understanding of the unique but ultimately beguiling biodiversity of the basin. Long may Koechlin’s work continue.
Inkaterra La Casona was the first Relais & Châteaux hotel in Peru and is an exquisite 16th century colonial mansion.
Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica is a luxury eco-lodge located on the banks of the Madre de Dios river and at the edge of the Tambopata Reserve in the Amazon rainforest of Southern Peru.
Inkaterra Hacienda Concepcion is located in the Amazon rainforest near a natural lake, which is home to a variety of ecosystems, tropical plants and wildlife.
Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel is a fusion of opulent comfort, excellent cuisine and Incan style, located within five hectares of cloud forest.
El MaPi Hotel byInkaterra has been completely renovated in a contemporary urban style.
For more information, visit www.inkaterra.com.