Welcome to the first of our “Expat Living” interview series, where we interview expats we meet on our travels for an insider’s point of view on what it's like to live and work as an expat around the world.
Beth, originally from Cornwall, UK, is an expat living in Peru. She's been in Huacachina since 2005 after passing through in 2002 while travelling in South America as part of a round the world trip. She now runs a vegetarian restaurant and two guest rooms at her self-built home, Casa de Bamboo in Huacachina where she lives with her two young daughters.
What made you settle in Huacachina and build a bamboo house here?
I always had a dream to have a restaurant, and during my around the world trip in 2002 and 2003 in the back of my mind was always the thought, where could I do it? Out of all the places I went through, here seemed like a good place. Back in 2002 there were maybe just 100 inhabitants, two hostels and a couple of hotels but no restaurants really, just some bad food in the hotels. Other than that there weren’t many other choices of places to eat here!
My job before I came to Peru was as an environmental consultant working on renewable energy, and I’d seen other things built from bamboo, and I wanted to build something more sustainable than the usual bricks and concrete normally used in this country. It actually worked out very well later on, because the 2007 earthquake that struck Pisco also affected Huacachina, and the bamboo house stood up very well!
What is the most important practical thing for a foreigner to know about setting up a business in Peru?
Remember the custom here is to tell you what you want to hear rather than the truth! Don’t trust anyone, instead go with your instincts!
Don’t expect anything to work as you imagine, or things to go smoothly, or imagine that things will be done quickly, or that what one person tells you will correspond to what someone else from the same authority will tell you. Nothing is set in stone here, and the legal way to do things is not always the way things are done in practice.
Always remember that where there's a will, there's a way and you have to be very determined if you want to achieve anything here. I have always believed that if you put your mind to something you can achieve your goal, don´t expect it to be easy, but if you are determined you can do it!
For the official line on immigration, have a look at the government website.
What were the biggest challenges in building your bamboo house here in Huacachina?
When buying land you need to be very careful, you need to know if that piece of land has the correct documents, and sometimes you’ll find that two or three people have documents to the same piece of land, or the documents are false, so it can be very complicated. But it is getting better, and the rules are getting stricter. Land must now be registered, but it’s still not a perfect system. You just have to go for it and then deal with the consequences afterwards.
That way of doing things took me a long time to get used to, but sometimes it’s the only way. If you do of something wrong you normally get a telling off, maybe a fine if you break some rule and then you’ve learnt what you need to do and you just carry on. Unsurprisingly, bribing may be the faster way to get things done here.
Do you find you are at a disadvantage being a foreigner doing business here?
Well, I don’t think it’s as difficult to set up a business here in Peru as in some other countries that are popular with expats, though it is starting to get harder, mostly due to the change in government. The previous government was very open to foreigners, whereas the new President is a little more hostile.
However, in general, I think I actually have more of an advantage than a disadvantage due to the fact that I understand more what travellers want, having been one myself, and can offer a kind of service that Peruvian business owners may not think to offer. For example, I don’t play loud music in my restaurant, and I’ve had customers sit down and tell me how glad they are to be somewhere quiet!
Also, I know what it’s like to have eaten the same bland vegetarian meals for the last two weeks and just want to have something different; that’s why I offer things like Thai curry and falafel on my menu here, and I think that’s what keeps people coming!
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What are your future plans for your business?
When I first moved here, a lot of people told me I was crazy and that Huacachina would only last another ten years as the lake would dry and up business would die out. That hasn’t happened yet, but there are some businesses here working in an unsustainable manner, which may eventually damage the area permanently. Unfortunately that’s the consequence of the corruption here.
I’m now at the point where I’m deciding whether or not to continue to stay here. I am living my dream; I feel like I have achieved what I set out to do, and now I am looking for a new challenge. I may start up something in Cerro Azul, which is a beach destination towards Lima popular with Peruvians, or I may even return to the UK and start a business there. Certainly, it would be something along the same lines, providing good veggie food, and friendly service. So, you never know, you may see a Bamboo house pop up somewhere else soon! It’s a tricky decision, as I do love it here, and I love meeting such friendly interesting people every day. I would definitely miss that side of it very much.
All photos courtesy of Beth Wooley.