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In one of the most spectacular areas in Peru, the Colca Canyon, full of ancient ruins sits an eco-lodge that excels in its unique location. Right on the bank of the Colca River with thermal hot springs, a spa area with a view of the Alpaca Farm, rooms mixed with the gardens, Colca Lodge has used mud, stone, and straw as an inspiration by pre-Inca constructions. Surrounded by nature, Colca Lodge is well-known for becoming as sustainable as they can. Renzo Morante Pajuelo, the general manager of Colca Lodge, explains what actions they have been making for being sustainable and how they took advantage of the pandemic situation to improve the lodge.

On your website, you have written that you are using creative heat-radiating stone slabs warmed by your own geothermal energy sources. What does your heating system work like? 

About the heating system, it’s an underneath flow heating system. We have pipes under the floor in our rooms and those pipes are filled by water and the water is heated by our thermal water. In the hot springs, we have a radiator, and this whole system is closed so the water is moving all the time, but the water is always the same because it’s a closed system. So you only fill it once and you don’t have to refill it again. The water warms up the floor of the rooms and that’s actually the most efficient way to heat any interior because the heat tends to go up so you need less energy. The only energy we use is for the pumps that move the water which is really low compared to a normal heating system. Even if you shut down the pumps, because of the difference in the temperature, water always moves, the flow it’s low, but it’s always going to move. For example, in the summer, when we shut down the whole system we still get a little bit of heat because the water moves slowly but it moves. 

When did you start using this heating system? 

We did a trial like 10 years ago with only one part of the hotel and from there we started to move on to complete the whole hotel and we finished around six years ago. So all 45 rooms have it. 

Was it complicated to build it? 

The first one was a little bit because it was a new technology and there wasn’t a lot of knowledge about this in Arequipa or in Peru, but then it has become more popular and also we learned how to do it. At this moment, our maintenance department does the job, we don’t even hire anybody from outside.

Do you know about any other hotel around that is using this system? 

I’m not 100% sure, but I think one hotel in Cusco valley also has it. But otherwise, I’m not aware of any other. It’s very popular in the United States and in some countries in Europe. Also, not a lot of properties have geothermal energy. 

So the place where Colca Lodge is is quite unique also because of this. 

Right, because the hot springs allow us to heat the water in a very efficient way. 

I have noticed a sign in Colca Lodge that says you are using a water treatment plant so none of the water is wasted. How does it work in the case of Colca Lodge? 

As you could see in the hotel we have around 40,000m2 of garden, so that’s a lot of irrigation needed. We process 100% of the water we consume, we have a water treatment plant so none of the water goes back to the river. This way, 100% of our water ends up in our gardens. It doesn’t just help us with the irrigation system of our gardens but also helps the local communities because we don’t take any freshwater from agriculture sites that are needed by local farmers. 

Have you been using this for a long time or is this a new system? 

We started 5 years ago and it worked well since the beginning. 

I would like to talk a bit more about this pandemic situation. When did the lodge open again? 

We opened in September, as soon as the law allowed us, and we were probably the first hotel in Colca Valley that had opened again. The hotel has been around for 25 years and as you could see, we have some employees that have been with us for over 10 years. And the main goal during the pandemic was not to cut off any of our permanent employees. We have around 45 permanent employees and no guests at all. So what we have done over the pandemic is that we did at least the job that needed to be done, but there was never time for that. And also before the pandemic, we started building a new house that is situated in the middle of the hotel. So we talked to our employees and told them that we are willing to continue to work with them, but everybody has to change their duties which were working on the construction maintenance and gardening. Everyone agreed. So we didn’t fire any of our permanent employees. Eventually, it got to the point where we were finishing everything and were ready to reopen. So that allowed us to reopen really fast without losing the quality of the service. We didn’t hire anybody new, we had our full staff ready. The beginning was slow as in every business. By December we started to rehire some of our employees who’d rather stay at home, especially for the reception, front desk, and stuff like that, they stayed in Arequipa.  

That must have been really helpful for some people. 

Yes, I think it was a win-win situation because nobody wanted to lose a job and we did a lot of stuff that needed to be done during the last years and also finished our construction. We reopened as fast as possible, but we’ve still had as good service as before the pandemic. 

What are the steps you have taken to make the hotel safe for everyone? 

The first thing we did was agree with the Peruvian government on safety instructions. As you know, the situation is changing probably every month. We tested the whole staff just to make sure that no one is asymptomatic, everybody was negative. Then we started with disinfection of everything coming into the hotel area by using alcohol disinfection, as well as, providing plenty of alcohol gel available for guests and our employees. All our employees use face masks and plastic shields. Since we knew that we were not going to have many guests at the beginning, we used every other room. But starting in November when the law changed, we have been using every room. I think one of the most important things, as I said before, is that we have around 40,000m2 of open gardens so there is plenty of space for our guests and social distance is not a problem at all. Also, we provide open-air activities and every room faces an interior alley full of plants. So that keeps our guests and also our employees safe. In the case of the dining area, people can choose whether they want to sit inside or outside. So far, we haven’t had any problems with our security. 

I think this is one of the best places to be, during the pandemic. It’s in an open space surrounded by nature, it’s ideal. 

Yes. Last year in November, we got some families that went to spend some time there, their children studied and their parents had a home office. It’s so nice you can just work in your room or outside, there is plenty of space for everyone. 

Do you have any foreigners or just Peruvians coming nowadays? 

I think the first foreigners that came were actually expats living in Peru or they got stuck in Peru and they decided to spend the whole pandemic in Peru. Actually, real foreign reservations are starting next month. We have bookings from the US and some from Europe. I think at the beginning it’s going to be mainly just from the US. Because they are probably already vaccinated and they want to start traveling again and also it’s a short flight for them. However, we don’t expect to see big groups until September, mainly just couples, small groups, or friends. But it’s just the beginning. 

What is the biggest challenge for the management in Colca Lodge? 

I think logistics. Unfortunately, I have to say, around 90% of the things we need at the hotel come from Arequipa. Just a few things of supply are from Chivay (the gateway town of Colca Canyon). For example, if the chef makes a mistake and miscalculates how much chicken he needs, it would cost us a lot to send an extra chicken. Sounds a little bit, but it has already happened before, they miscalculated a really important ingredient we needed for a Christmas dinner. We probably spent around a couple of hundred dollars just on buying the ingredients and on a taxi to the hotel. So you really don’t want to make a mistake in logistics, you have to be really careful. 

I think that’s the only disadvantage of this place, right? 

Right. It has been improving every year, as you know, it only takes you around 3 hours from Arequipa now. Probably 6 years ago, it took around 4 hours, because the roads were not as good as now. And that’s reality, but I think it’s also the charm of the place.  

I noticed you have some photos in the hot spring area documenting that you had floods and the pools were covered by a wild river. 

Yes, that’s the sad part, this happened in early June. As you know Colca is a geothermal area, we have volcanoes, we have earthquakes, and everything that has to do with geological aspects. We have a huge mountain covering the Colca Valley and around one and a half kilometers down from us. So what happened was, the river stopped flowing down the coast and started going up and covered all our hot spring area. Our spa area, which is a bit higher, includes a building and outdoor pool and the water was somewhere in the middle to start flowing into the spa pool. So imagine how high the water was. 

But there are a couple of things we discovered. One is that our heating system that comes from the hot springs was still working, even though the source was underneath the water. And the other part, that we were really lucky, is that we could reopen the hotel as we planned. We had finished cleaning the hot springs on Friday and the hotel was ready to open again on Monday next week. So better timing, impossible. But our hot spring bar has been destroyed and actually that’s the reason why I’m going to the hotel right now. I’m meeting with a constructor and we are going to start rebuilding it next week.  

But I’m assuming this is not happening every year? 

No, this happens once in a lifetime. And I hope it is not gonna happen again. 

Are you planning some improvements or changes in Colca Lodge in the future?

We have been in a process of becoming as sustainable as we can. We started 4 years ago with the “Reduce Plastic” program. As you could see everything we have done is to make the hotel sustainable. We were one of the first hotels that started using reusable shampoos in the rooms when every hotel used disposable ones. When we started everybody was saying that we were so cheap that we didn’t want to use these small bottles, but today, I think almost every hotel uses those dispensers in the showers. 

So the plan for us again is to be as sustainable as we can, because we have to be also realistic that some of the parts are not going to be achievable, especially now during the pandemic, our consumption of plastic has doubled as what we would like to have, but we are trying to recycle as much as we can. And we are in the process of getting sustainable certification this year. 

For example, when I talk to a foreign client, I always present a rule that we are trying to keep in mind: We do what we say and we say what we do. We are totally honest about what we do and what we are not able to do with sustainability. So for us to get a certification, which is going to be a Rainforest Alliance certification, is a little bit easier, because the lack of our program is not in having things done, it’s just in reporting things. Having a systematic way of recording how much plastic we recycle, and the amount of water we use. We do it anyway, but unfortunately, we didn’t have time to report, but now we are improving the whole system, so we hope that this year we will be ready to pass our first inspection. 

I’m gonna wish you a lot of luck, it’s definitely worth it. 

Yes, I think since we are a small hotel in the middle of nowhere, I think a lot of our customers appreciate all our effort toward nature. It’s a lot of work. For example, two years ago we got ISO which helped us to figure out how we can handle the documents and now we are going for the sustainable certificate. It’s going to be hard work, but I think we can do it. 

So good luck with it and I hope everything goes well. 

Thank you. 

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