We recently received a comment from clients saying that 'a visit to an Indian community ... left us feeling rather uncomfortable: they performed a dance and then sold us trinkets, but we felt quite ambivalent about the whole set-up'. The community in question was that of an Amazonian tribe, the Yagua, visited as part of the Ceiba Tops - and many other Amazon lodge - itineraries.
It is true that much of the fascination with the vast Amazon rainforest is inspired by the 'unworldly' lifestyles of its inhabitants, as featured in National Geographic articles or BBC documentaries. We are naturally intrigued by those people living outside of a modern, capitalist paradigm, who often have a totally distinct world view. Just hearing their interpretation of such concepts as the family, gender, sexual politics, cosmology - even time - can make us shine a new light on our own ideology.
The reality, though, is that to see such indigenous peoples in their natural habitat, one needs to go deep, deep into the jungle, far from any population centres. And this takes both time and an intrepid spirit ... as the journey will be long and arduous.
One also has to recognise that any interaction with Westerners is likely to impact, however minutely, upon the 'purity' of the communities visited. Contact with modern electronics, clothing, foodstuffs, language and ideas is bound to rub off in some way. Therefore, there are communities near Iquitos and Pevas, in Loreto, that are ethnically indigenous, but who are much more likely to be wearing Western-style clothing than traditional apparel, and will be speaking Spanish, rather than their own language.
The upshot, then, is that there are specially-constructed tribal experiences in areas that attract tourists. As well as the Yagua village mentioned, there is also a Bora ceremonial malocca (communal house) on the Momon River, near Iquitos, which is purely a visitor attraction.
Nor is this limited to the Peruvian Amazon: on the Napo River, in Ecuador, there is a specially-constructed Kichwa village, catering to Amazon cruise and lodge guests, conveniently located near to a macaw and parrot clay lick. The hour-long tour explains the use of utensils in a typical dwelling and includes - my pet hate - the opportunity to dance with unimpressed locals to the unfamiliar rhythm of traditional instruments.
Further afield, I have visited similar sites featuring the tribes of northern Thailand and the aboriginals of Australia. And there is always the chance to buy handicrafts, textiles and the like.
So, clearly, there is a need that is being filled. And while it may not be the 'authentic' experience we crave, it is offering benefits in both directions.
Foremost, the fees charged for the visit and the money made from sales of craft items is providing much-needed income to people that traditionally are at the bottom end of the economic spectrum. They are already living within the cash economy, so it is hard to argue that making a bit more money will corrupt them.
More subtly, even though the traditional dress and blowpipes may only be brought out when the tourists are around, it is at least motivation for these communities to maintain their customs, albeit in a somewhat sanitized, artificial way. The alternative is that they lose them altogether, so this has to be applauded.
For the visitor, it is probably the only chance they will get to see any of these traditions in the flesh (and often there is a good deal of flesh!), and may lead to a deeper investigation of the fascinating history and anthropology of each tribal group.
So, unless you have a spare three weeks - and lots of insect repellent - PeruNorth recommends that you embrace these visits, with an understanding of the realities underpinning the experience.
And firing a blowgun really is fun!