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As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine September 2008 Issue
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Responsible Travel
Responsible Travel in Latin America
Living in Ecuador
Volunteer in Ecuador
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Volunteer in Ecuadorian Eco-lodges

Slow Tourism in Ecuador

Travel That Raises Awareness

Sam with a new born Llama
Sam with a new born Llama.

My wife and I were slow travelers over 15 years ago before we moved to Ecuador and built the Black Sheep Inn. We began exploring South America in Venezuela, arriving with an open airline ticket and no itinerary. Our goal was to travel for six months to a year or until the money ran out. Using the South American Handbook (the bible for travel in the continent back then) as a guide, we chose destinations. If we liked where we ended up, we stayed. By studying detailed maps, we deliberately chose villages that were not included in the guidebook. We enjoyed going one step further to insure that we were truly off-the-beaten-path. 

Sometimes we arrived in villages with no accommodations, so we knocked on doors to find a family to stay with. We hitchhiked by boat around the Paria Peninsula, the northeast corner of Venezuela that juts out towards Trinidad. The peninsula had no roads, so when we were ready to move on we asked local fishermen to take us to the next village and slept in hammocks with friendly families. We saw no tourists during this 2-week adventure. We ate the fisherman’s meal of fresh (or salted) tuna for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

We spent two months in Venezuela, but only saw a small section of the Northeast coast and a bit of the high mountains of Merida--our first taste of the Andes. In Ecuador we spent over a month on the coast but visited only three beaches. We spent another couple of months in the high Andes. That is when we “discovered” our future home in Chugchilán, which is now the home of the Black Sheep Inn.

A Brief History of Travel to Ecuador

The way people travel in the 21st century has, of course, changed compared to a century ago. Over 100 years ago people traveled less and did so out of necessity--usually for business or family.  Of course there were still adventurers, explorers, and even tourists. But in order to travel a century ago people needed to make serious decisions and carefully plan ahead. This included arranging transportation by ship, train, motor coach or even horse. They had to carefully pack their trunks with clothes, money, and sometimes even food and cooking items. Currency was not easily available once leaving home.

Would you have taken a vacation to Ecuador in 1925 if it took over 12 days to get there? In 1925 “new ships made the run between New York and Guayaquil in 12½ days.”* In 1944 it took over 36 solid hours by plane and train to travel one way from Guayaquil to New York.** This was considered a fast travel compared to 20 years earlier. Travelers had to be open to new and different foods, changing levels of comfort, and varying levels of service. Traveling often changed lives permanently. 

On the Ethics of Slower Travel

We now live in a world which has shrunk. With modern air transportation and electronic communications almost every location on the planet is accessible; blogs tell you where to go and guidebooks are competitive. As a traveler it is easy to get from one country to another, find accommodations, food, activities, and still feel adventurous. But in this modern and interdependent world where we travel with such ease there are also new ethical responsibilities. Where do your tourist dollars go? Do you interact with local communities? What is your effect on local cultures and the environment of the land you visit? 

If you are concerned about global warming, eating local foods, growing organic products, developing alternative energy, then it is easy to be an eco-traveler. Ecotourism is not just about visiting natural areas such as jungles, deserts, beaches, mountains etc.; it is about communities, cultures, and environmental impact. One of the most important and challenging aspects of travel to consider is speed. Based upon our experience, we suggest that you slow down, research where you are going, learn the local language, choose eco-lodges and tour operators that support local communities and have low impact on the environment. 

It is now possible to travel to Ecuador from virtually any North American city in four to twelve hours. The journey is easy and many travelers do not consider the implications of their movements. They simply buy an airline ticket, pack the bags (often rushed) and the adventure begins. But you have once landed in Ecuador you must consider what to see and do with the time you have available.

Often “tourists” bring a list of must-see attractions, but if it means never staying in one place for more than a day, what are these people missing? A “traveler” will find a comfortable place to stay and immerse themselves in the area while getting to know the local people, customs, culture, attractions, and environment. Slow traveling takes this further and is also about lessons learned that you can take home while helping to conserve natural resources.

The Black Sheep Inn

Black Sheep Inn is located close to Quito as the bird flies (85 km/52 miles southwest), but far from Quito as the bus drives. It takes over six hours to get here by public transport. Even in a private 4x4 it takes four and one half hours due to the twisty winding roads through spectacular scenery. Sometimes tourists and travel agents request one night reservations, but we discourage or refuse them. Instead the Black Sheep Inn encourages slow travel by giving discounts to people who stay longer. 

Because of the Black Sheep Inn’s rural location, we stock up in bulk on food, hardware, and office items. Planning ahead saves time and money. Buying locally and building with local materials saves time, money, and natural resources. Growing our own foods with recycled composted organic waste makes sense. For us, eco-living and eco-traveling go hand in hand.

Search for water in Chugchilan
President of the community of Chugchilán on a water search with the Iliniza Twin Peaks in the distance

Options in Ecuador for the Slow Traveler

As a slow traveler in Ecuador there is much to see. Check out authentic eco-lodges that support indigenous cultures in the Amazon jungles, see how Darwin processed his thoughts in the Galapagos to write the Theory of Evolution, climb and hike various active volcanoes in the rural Andes, and enjoy whale watching on the Pacific Ocean. Planning ahead does not mean setting an itinerary in stone, but knowing more or less where you want to be based and having the time and freedom to stay.

Often it is not just where you decide to stay, as getting there is half the fun. For instance to get from a Jungle Lodge in the Amazon you may have to travel several hours in motorized canoe and then six hours by bus to Quito and then another eight hours by bus to the Pacific Ocean. One option is to break up the journey somewhere in the high Andes.

It has been said that conservation starts at home, but it also can start while traveling. Save up extra vacation time, volunteer if you can, take a leave of absence, or do as we did and expatriate. Even though Ecuador is a small country, and we have been here 14 years, we have yet to see it all.

Laguna Quilotoa
Laguna Quilotoa, a volcanic crater lake at over 12,000 feet in elevation. 

For More Information

South American Handbook: In print since 1924, and known as the bible to South America, Footprint South American Handbook is the longest running travel guide in the English language. Covering the entire continent, from Colombia to the tip of Argentina, this updated guide provides the adventurous traveler with everything needed to plan a trip, including tips on how to get there, where to stay, and where to play, from little-known attractions to exciting getaways, with extensive city maps and festival guides. This guide also includes information on staying healthy and keeping in touch from Footprint's acclaimed "Responsible Travel" perspective.

Black Sheep Inn: Internationally Acclaimed Award Winning EcoLodge aims to provide a comfortable, educational experience for guests, teaching about the local area, local customs and Permaculture, while contributing to and improving the local community and the natural environment. Their goal is to be a leader in environmental stability and ecotourism.  Ecological features include solar panels, adobe construction, composting toilets, recycling, roof water collectors, gray water systems, organic gardens, community education and aid work, reforestation, erosion control and more. Visit www.blacksheepinn.com for more.

Ecuador travel information on Galapagos Islands, Amazon Jungle, Andes Mountains and Pacific Coast: www.ecuadorexplorer.com.

The Wonderland Ecuador primarily delineates the political and territorial organization of Ecuador and describes the economic conditions of the early 1940’s. Now it is a bibliographical curiosity; interesting because at the time of its publication there was very little written in English on the subject of Ecuador.

Footnotes:
* The Wonderland Ecuador by Dr. Raphael V Lasso, limited edition, New York: Alpha-Ecuador Publications, 1944, page 168.
** The Wonderland Ecuador by Dr. Raphael V Lasso, page 164.