Forget the package tour. Eco-adventures get you up close and personal with stunning landscapes and amazing people.
Andrew Tolve | April 2009 issue
I’m standing up to my knees in water on the side of an overgrown mountain in the rural north of Ecuador. My guide, an indigenous woman named Maria Theresa Oloando, carries a machete in her right hand and wears knee-high rain boots, a provision I envy as the chilly river water soaks through my tennis shoes and jeans. We’re headed to the Siete Cascadas, a convergence of seven waterfalls locked away deep in this mountain forest.
Before we forge on, Oloando points her machete at several plants and explains how locals make use of them—this one for tea, that one to treat a stomach ache or indigestion. Back on the path, she picks a berry that, when mashed, soothes a rash, and a leaf that, when tucked between the forehead and the brim of a cap, relieves a headache. Fighting back bugs, I scribble notes in my damp and muddied journal.
This is day two of my five-day eco-adventure around Ecuador. Yesterday I rafted down the Rio Taochi. In the days to come, I’ll ride a horse up a mountain pass and mountain bike down an active volcano. If all goes according to plan, I’ll get more than my fair share of adrenaline spikes and survive to tell the tale. I’ll also get an unrivaled, hands-on education, like the sort Oloando is keen on delivering with machete in hand.
Eco-adventures like mine—also called adventure holidays, adventure ecotourism or experiential travel—are novel for this very reason: Wherein typical adventure travel gets you out and physically engaged with your surroundings, eco-adventure teaches you about those surroundings and the communities that inhabit them. It’s a thrillseeker’s getaway with a twist. As Carolyn Wild, a tourism development consultant and board member of The International Ecotourism Society, puts it, “When it comes to eco-adventure, if you didn’t learn you wanted to protect the environment you got your adrenaline rush in, you didn’t score.”
There’s an eco-adventure for every level of risk tolerance. Some companies take travelers to the Great Barrier Reef to snorkel among the world’s largest living organisms, others journey to Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro for a trek through caves once populated by Chaga warriors. Outdoor Adventure River Specialists (O.A.R.S.), one of the oldest adventure ecotourism companies in the U.S., organizes whitewater rafting, sea kayaking and hiking trips in North America. Intrepid Travel, based in Australia, runs polar expeditions, treks in Africa and backpacking excursions throughout Asia to foster cultural and environmental awareness.
O.A.R.S. was founded in 1969, Intrepid Travel two decades later. Over the past few years, however, the sector has flourished. Growing environmental concern coupled with the Internet has made adventure ecotourism a global offering. Hop online and you’ll find both large tourism agencies and small rural providers catering to the concept. Ed Rymut, founder of Eco-Adventure International, is surprised how quickly the trend has proliferated. “I think a lot of it has to do with environmental awareness, a lot of it with baby boomers getting tired of these cruises to the Caribbean. They’re looking for new, more adventurous things to do. You have to be careful about just how adventurous they mean, though. I make a habit of mentioning that on some trips, the toilet is the third bush to the left. If clients start backing off, I know how to structure their program.”
Eco-Adventure International is based in Wisconsin and works mostly on a wholesale basis; travel agents approach Rymut, who makes arrangements for their clients in one of more than 50 countries. International Student Volunteers (ISV) is another example of how eco-adventure has branched out in recent years. The non-profit organizes volunteer projects in places like New Zealand, South Africa, Thailand and Ecuador. Programs generally cost $3,100 for a month and combine a two-week volunteer project with a two-week eco-adventure.
“The idea of eco-adventure is an old school philosophy,” says Mario Molina, ISV’s program director for Ecuador. “It’s basically that you internalize that which you experience. If you’re told about a glacier in a classroom, you conceptually understand it. But if you stand on that glacier and take a look at a valley and feel ice under your feet, you’re going to internalize so much more—hopefully to the point that you’ll feel a personal loss if that glacier is gone in five years.”
The glacier of which Molina speaks is the white cap of Cotopaxi Volcano, one of two surviving equatorial glaciers in the world. On ISV’s Ecuador eco-adventure, students climb to 16,000 feet, where they learn about tropical glaciers, the impact of climate change on water resources and the rate of glacial recession. “We try to teach our students what to look at but to draw their own conclusions,” Molina says.
Robbin Yager, founder of Morocco Explored, which designs custom trips around Morocco, agrees that allowing clients to draw their own conclusions is key to an eco-adventure’s success. “To me, eco-adventure means bringing people to the experience of environment and culture with sensitivity and openness,” she says. “You can’t package it too much. You have to allow what’s actually out there to be part of a traveler’s experience without interfering with it or controlling it.”
In 2007, I went on a five-day trek with Morocco Explored through the High Atlas Mountains to the desert region of Erg Chebbi. It was my first taste of eco-adventure. I was taken by how raw the experience was, how one day I was hiking through the Todra Gorge with a guide who grew up in a nearby kasbah and the next I was sitting astride a camel learning about local traditions from a Saharan nomad.
As I approached my Ecuadorian eco-adventure, I wanted to see if a major ecotourism agency could deliver an equally authentic experience. While the Internet has spawned a new crop of local providers like Morocco Explored, the majority of adventure holidays are still booked through large agencies. I chose Responsible Travel, a U.K.-based company with a website that serves as a directory of ethical holidays. One of its agents put me in touch with the South American company Andean Trails, which directed me to the Ecuadorian firm Campus Trekking. Before arriving in Quito, I worried that the “eco” part of my adventure had been lost in transit.
With one fell swoop of her machete, Oloando quashed those concerns. It’s clear as we reach the Siete Cascadas, where she points out the natural spring her community taps for its water, that this expedition isn’t about tourism or adrenaline kicks. It’s about transmitting an understanding of her world to someone who comes from a very different place. The next morning, I have a similar experience with my horseback riding guide, Christian, a farmer in the nearby town of Cahuasqui. As we head up a steep mountain pass flanked by fields of maize and tomatoes, artichokes and peas, our destination doesn’t seem to matter or even exist. We’re just riding and learning about his way of life as we go.
Sitting on that horse, I’m reminded of something Carolyn Wild told me a few days before, that the passion of local guides—people who likely haven’t heard the word “eco-adventure” but naturally embody its spirit—has had a profound impact on the tourism industry as a whole. “That bottom-up approach is where ecotourism has its roots,” she says. “Their passion for their local area, their environment and their culture influences far more than just tourists.”
“Here’s the message to convey to potential travelers,” says Wild. “Wake up! Because it’s really easy to take the wrong trip. Either you choose a company that’s not as environmentally dedicated as you hoped for, or you select a trip that’s more intense than you imagined. The Internet has leveled the playing field. Take advantage of it.”
A good place to start, she says, is with countries that have developed strict ecotourism accreditation systems. Australia and Costa Rica are two of the best, but you can find a comprehensive list on The International Ecotourism Society’s website. Another good option is sites like Responsible Travel, which operate according to stringent criteria you can read online. Those criteria, though very far removed from the wilds of Ecuador, have stood me in good stead throughout my trip—even on day five, as my guide shepherds me up Cotopaxi to a lung-constricting height of 15,000 feet (4,600 meters).
This is a classic adventure scenario. Our mountain bikes are perched on the side of an active volcano. The wind howls and the clouds swoop. Far below spreads a green plain hemmed by glacial moraines, our distant destination. But as I start down the sheer dirt road, my guide makes it clear this is about more than a bumpy descent. Several times he stops and points out the amazing breadth of life that thrives here—wildflowers with neon streaks of blue, tiny leaves with waxy pigment, countless clumps of lichen. None would survive at this altitude if it weren’t for the equator’s constant summer, he says.
With fingers still shaking from the handlebars, I scribble a few notes in my journal, then zip up my jacket and rattle on down the mountain.
How green is my travel?
The UN once took a negative stance on tourism but has come to recognize that eco-adventure tour providers, who serve as ambassadors for their communities and inject much-needed money into local economies, offer a model for poverty alleviation. In October of last year, the UN introduced the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC), which delineates the ways all operators need to be committed to the well-being of the countries, cities and natural settings from which they profit.
“A lot of ecotourism’s energy and its guidelines have laid the groundwork for sustainable development and have been the impetus for the GSTC,” says Kelly Bricker, board chair and executive director of The International Ecotourism Society. Bricker worked with the UN to create the GSTC and the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council, which aims to implement the criteria in the coming years.
“It’s so important to create a common language so that everyone is on the same page,” Bricker says. “Especially in the general tourism arena, that language hasn’t been very common. People often complain about language that isn’t substantiated in the field.” She says convincing mega-travel corporations and conglomerates to embrace stricter criteria would be a huge step for the tourism industry and the environment. But it’s not just the mega-travel corporations that matter. Many ecotourism and eco-adventure providers are exemplars of environmental sensitivity and local stimuli; others are not. Greenwashing is a serious problem and something all travelers need to be wary of as they search for eco-friendly trips.
“The word ‘eco’ in the tourism industry has been so greenwashed, it’s almost allowing people to get away with things,” says Andrew Motiwalla, executive director of Global Leadership Adventures, which organizes immersion programs for U.S. high school students in Africa, Asia and South America. “In the worst cases, it’s destroying communities and making a mockery of sustainability standards. There’s a definite need for enforced criteria.” So, travelers beware. Make sure you do the research before booking a trip.
Andrew Tolve, who has a newfound appreciation for machetes, wrote about social entrepreneurs in the March issue.