This past May, in an uncharacteristically joie-de-vivre move, my family abandoned jobs, classes, and all the other trappings of “reality” to embark on a 10-day Peruvian odyssey ending at the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu. Ask me anything you want to know about our adventures—like what noise a baby llama makes when you feed it alfalfa (a soft, nudging bleat that will, no kidding, pierce your heart), or how much my acrophobic father liked inching along a 1.5-foot wide pass at 1500 feet high in the Andes surrounding Cusco (not much). Ask me how close Peruvian tour guides like to park their vans to the edges of terrifically steep cliffs (very), or what the national drink, a grape brandy-and-egg whites cocktail called a pisco sour, tastes like (heaven).

But if you ask me how green our trip was, I can’t promise that I won’t toss a pisco sour right in your face. It’s not that you don’t have the right to ask, it’s just that I’ve thought a lot about it, and there’s no good answer. 

The first reason I can’t answer the question is that the sustainable tourism industry doesn’t yet have the universal set of criteria it’ll need before it can offer well-meaning travelers like myself a cohesive guide to the green, the bad, and the ugly of tourism. They’re working on it—a no-nonsense Sustainable Tourism Criteria Initiative is underway—but it could be a good while before Joe Shmoe can go online and find completely transparent environmental cred list for any given “ecotourism” operation. 

Take Inkaterra Machu Picchu, the hotel where my family spent the last two nights of our trip. A research and conservation reserve as well as a hotel, Inkaterra boasts 111 species of butterflies; more than 16 species of hummingbirds; the largest native orchidarium in the world (372 species); a garden where coffee, tea, fruit and medicinal herbs are grown; impressive nature walk tours designed to introduce guests to all of the above; and even a resident biologist. As if that weren't enough, Inkaterra's partner non-profit foundation has been recognized for conservation work by National Geographic and even the World Bank.

But when I contacted Inkaterra to find out more about eco initiatives like water conservation and use of non-toxic cleaning supplies, the answers I got were vague at best. To compound my confusion, industry opinion of Inkaterra seems to fluctuate faster than a hummingbird’s wings can beat. Just last year, Inkaterra was called precedent-setting by Sustainable Travel International (STI)—a US-based travel certification company that’s helping to lead the push for global green travel standards—for its decision to go carbon neutral through STI’s carbon calculator. But this year, STI cofounder Brian Mullis says he probably wouldn’t even put Inkaterra on a list of the world’s top 50 green hotels. “In 2007,” he explains, “the press was still really supportive of any company that said ‘Hey, we’re carbon neutral,’ but the problem was that that wasn’t being defined. Most companies are not quite ready in travel and tourism for [green] certification—they’re just taking the initial steps.” STI has certified fewer than a dozen hotels to date, so how’s an innocent tourist to navigate the ocean of uncertified hotels claiming to be green?  

I’m also not sure how to measure the planet-friendly parts of our trip, like our carbon-neutral stay at Inkaterra, against eco sins like the New York-to-Lima-to-Cusco series of flights we took to get there. Sure, we bought carbon offsets like good little greenies. And I did have a super intense conversation about composting and dry gardening with the Egyptian woman to my left on the first leg of the flight. Also, the Irish guy to my right was surprisingly receptive to my 40-minute tutorial on the importance of buying grass-fed beef. But no matter how you slice it, my vacation footprint was big.

So although I’d like to give my family a gold star for effort, I’ve got nothing quantitative to base a green grade upon. I’m left with a slew of notes scribbled in my journal, plus a few dozen photos. And memories—those things Barbara Streisand likes to sing about. Inkaterra’s whitewashed huts buried in the emerald cloud forest and lit up at night; the sweet, sticky air; the long, elegant coral-red bulb of Peru’s national Kantuta flower; the proud look on our nature guide’s face as he explained how Inkaterra preserves such a wealth of biodiversity in one place. The puff of steam that rose from the traditional thatched Andean sauna when I opened the flap door; the smoky taste of locally grown quinoa, bought from a Cusco market and served in a neatly pressed patty at Inkaterra’s restaurant, alongside tender slices of locally raised Alpaca. The delicious lemon-y smell of the “citronella splash natural insect repellent” made from cymbopogon nardus (no es tóxico, and it worked like a charm), left in tiny brown glass bottles next to our sinks.

Most clearly of all, I remember the harrowing, switchback bus ride from Inkaterra up through the jungle-like forest to the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu, and looking out for the first time over the stone homes and shelters spread over the mountaintop village that was Peru’s trading mecca before the Spanish invasion. The warm sunlight stretched across the hundreds of agricultural terraces sloping down the mountain’s steep inclines, painstakingly constructed by hand out of multi-ton boulders, and used in the 1400’s to grow cereals, beans, and grains. I followed the beautifully efficient, gravity-powered spring irrigation system, still routed intricately through homes, streets, and terraces, and felt the presence of the people who had, six hundred years ago, eaten, slept, and gossiped exactly where I was standing—integral cogs in a localized and self-sufficient community like none I’ll ever experience. My mother looked down at an ancient holy fountain and said sadly, “I keep thinking that if we worshipped water the way the Inca did, maybe we wouldn’t be wasting so much of it today.” A melancholy tune drifted to us from an Andean flute player just over the next hill as the sun fell and we climbed back through the ancient village to our bus.

So we didn’t win the low-carbon footprint prize this time around, it’s true. But we did what we could to mitigate our impact on Ma Earth, and we spent a whole lot more quality time with her than we would have had we stayed in New York and read coffee table books on Machu Picchu. Is that green travel? You tell me.

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008.

Copyright Envion Press 2008

The ecotourist's dilemma
A trip to Machu Picchu left this traveler with a greater appreciation for nature, but does that justify the journey's massive carbon footprint?