Is Sustainable Tourism Everything It's Cracked Up to Be? I Found Out in Ecuador.
Photo Credit: Nola Solomon
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This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
This wasn’t like any hayride I’d ever been on. I grasped onto the side rail of the pickup truck, as the others were, so as not to fall out. The floor was littered with straw and dark brown shards of shattered beer bottles. The truck bumped along up a steep and potholed dirt road. We left from Tulipe, the nearest town, perhaps only ten minutes ago, but the 6 km ride seemed interminable.
After landing in Ecuador earlier that day, I found myself at the Ofelia bus station in Quito waiting for my 5:30 pm two-hour long bus ride to my stop in the town of Tulipe in the Northwest region of the Pinchincha Province. From Tulipe I’d have to wait for the next truck driving uphill to the remote mountain town of Las Tolas, where I’d be spending the first week of my trip working in sustainable farming.
As a newbie to South America I arrived wary of Quito’s crime-ridden reputation and uncertain of what to expect from my trip. With my backpack strapped in reverse to the front of my chest, I paid my $2 bus fare, tucked the money pouch dangling around my neck back under my shirt, and sat on a designated bench to wait. I would soon discover that globalization’s ever spreading tentacles had already begun to erode the mystique of this so called developing world.
The air was thick with exhaust and smelled of gasoline. A group of men leaned against the bus station building. They passed around swigs from a bottle containing a clear liquid, which I later learned is an Ecuadorian aguardiente called Punta. They seemed to be hanging out with no clear urgency, as if they had nowhere specific to be. They spoke so quickly that, with my rusty Spanish and in my exhausted state, the words sounded like garbled noise.
Women scurried through the wide bus lanes in front of me. They carried woven baskets stuffed with produce and wood-barred crates filled with bock-bocking chickens. These men and women, like the clucking hens and unlike me, seemed to know exactly what to expect from the day.
After finishing my summer-into-senior-year advertising internship in New York City, I was taking advantage of the three weeks before the start of soccer preseason to travel. I chose Ecuador because an Ecuadorian friend I’d made during study abroad in Paris the year before raved nonstop about his country. The way he described it sounded so romantic that I yearned to escape from my presumed monotonous destiny of corporate ladder climbing for a lusher, though perhaps equally uncivilized, jungle. I planned an amazing trip; I would straddle the Equator at La Mitad del Mundo, hike up volcanic Cotopaxi and peruse its foothill Otavalo Market, then head 5 hours south to the town of Baños for a stay in the Amazon with the Huanorani tribe. The grand finale of my trip would end in the unmissable Galapagos Islands. But as I scanned my itinerary something was wrong. It felt too touristy and removed from real life. I’d participated in humanitarian trips in Kenya and Thailand in the past, which had given me rewarding contact and a sense of how people lived in the world outside my bubble, so I searched for similar opportunities in Ecuador. I found a tiny Quito-based travel agency run by an Ecuadorian couple, Juan and Maria. They organized trips for foreigners to work in sustainable farming during weeklong home stays in the Cloud Forest. Bingo.