Responsible tourism in Ecuador

Responsible tourism in Ecuador


Travel right in Ecuador

Edgar Morin is one of France’s leading philosophers, and, on a visit to Ecuador in 2012, he highlighted this stunningly biodiverse country as a model of good living; how it is the right path to follow if you want to understand how social and conscious economies work. This is the effect Ecuador has on people, even 90-year-old philosophers. It has ‘good living’, or buen vivir and the rights of nature written into the constitution, for goodness’ sake. And it even has a Minister for Good Living. And a cool example of this way of life is that recently, its people voted, by referendum, to ban casinos. So, it is up to us, as visitors, to not only to respect their inspiring attitude to life, but to learn from their generous community ethos, and apply it to our own lives back home as well as to our travels elsewhere in the world.

Culture & Nature


CONNECTING WITH THE ENVIRONMENT, & VOLUNTEERING TIPS

Going local – it's in the constitution


The one thing that strikes you in Ecuador is that responsible tourism comes naturally. So much of it is locally run and environmentally aware. This is due to a combination of factors. First, they seem to be innately socially conscious people and proud of that heritage. Second, the people took on the oil industry and its devastating impacts on people and place, in an unprecedented case to protect their indigenous lands in the 1990’s. And thirdly, in 2008, a new constitution was ratified by the people which included a Chapter: Rights for Nature. This acknowledges that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, and that the people have legal authority to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems.
 
This explains the reassuring proliferation of eco accommodation in Ecuador. In nearly all cases, when you look for somewhere to stay, it will be locally managed, environmentally responsible, with local employees and serving local food. These range from plush haciendas to small, locally run lodges. Gleaming examples include the famous Black Sheep Inn, Napo Wildlife Center and Kapawi Ecolodge of course, but these are just like the elders in a one great big family of businesses looking out for one another.
 
However, times are a changing in Ecuador at the moment. The current government is threatening to overturn some of the 1990’s social and environmental achievements, announcing in 2013 that that it will auction more than three million hectares of Amazonian rainforest to Chinese oil companies. Not only do local people object, but international campaigners are watching on with interest too. For more information, see Amazon Watch’s website. The Pacific coast is developing too, with a push to attract outside investment, in particular from expats who want somewhere cheap to retire to. Expats who want nothing more than a second tourism income to top up their retirement fund. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, with many destinations kept afloat by expat tourism businesses. However, just to be wary that on the coast, in particular, the community vibe might be dissipated with time. But hopefully not.

Volunteering – who does it help?


Volunteering holidays are big in Ecuador. They generally fall into two categories: Conservation on the Galápagos, or community work on mainland Ecuador. Be wary, though, because this hugely growing market of ‘giving back’ holidays is getting a little out of control. Choose your volunteering holiday carefully. It is important to ensure that your volunteering holiday company adheres to some of the strict guidelines now being recognised as good practice within the industry. This way, you can check that the work you are doing is actually sustainable and that the needs and expectations of the host community are being well met on every level. We feel particularly strongly about the issues surrounding volunteering with children and have, consequently, put in place some guidelines in this area for any organisation featured on our site. So, before you volunteer, read and ruminate on these guidelines and also check out this pioneering, new Better Volunteering directory.

Volunteering in Ecuador. Image by VISIONS Service Adventures

Responsible tourism tips


Travel better in Ecuador

  • The Galápagos are a bit greedy and needy when it comes to getting all that Ecuadorian tourist adulation and adoration. Going to Ecuador and not spending serious time on the mainland is a bit like going to Sicily but never bothering with Rome, Florence, Tuscany or the Dolomites. So, yes, go for the iguanas and islets, but don’t go all that way and miss the Andes and Amazon, World Heritage cities and coast.
  • The emerging market for young Ecuadorians is in all things adventure. So, if it’s riding and rafting that you are after, this is the place to go. And because environmental protection is so innate here, you can rest assured that the operators are switched on to sustainability.
  • In Quito you will hear about lots of day trips, but consider asking them for an extension so that you can stay overnight in the rural parts where tourism income from bed and board makes a real difference. Sometimes this might only be for the really adventurous, the ‘off piste’ types, but often it is easy to just stay in a local lodge, and catch the tour operator bus back at the end of the next day instead.
  • Ecuador has always been a haven for birding experts. If you want to know the best places to visit that are off the beaten path, tune into the birding sites as they know them all – especially if it is utter tranquillity you are after. Ecuador will bring out even the most reluctant birder within, however, so to get started check out the leading Ecuadorian birding organisation, Aves y Conservación for more information.
  • National Park fees are ridiculously low in Ecuador, and in some of the less-visited parks they are rarely enforced, meaning there are not enough rangers to patrol the areas, and the deforestation is on the increase. In coastal areas, this also results in the clearing of mangroves in protected areas to create illegal shrimp farms. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t visit national parks; you absolutely should. Just be sure to pay the fees. If you aren’t asked for them, push the issue, share it on Facebook, and spread the word.
  • If you put ‘Amazon Jungle Ecuador’ into a search engine, you will usually find yourself pretty far out there in places that involve a domestic flight in order to access remote spots. However, keep in mind that you can also have a total forest immersion just a few hour’s car or bus journey away, in the cloud forest. OK, if you are a serious explorer these might not be as intense, but they are still five star as forests go – as one of the most species-rich habitats on the planet – and you don’t have to board another plane.
  • A lot of tour operators offering day trips for adventures will lay on a packed lunch for you. Buying food locally has a huge positive impact, so ask them if you can do that instead.
  • Public transport is easy to use in Ecuador and full of friendly local people who will help you if you are feeling lost. There are three well-marked tram routes which will take you up and down Quito, the Trole, Ecovía and the Metrobus, which is a vast improvement from just a few years ago with huge government investment in infrastructure going on right now. Outside the city, there are plenty of regular, cheap long-distance coaches running along the Pan-American Highway in the mountains and up and down to the coast and Amazon. The longer the journey, the comfier the coach – with air conditioning, toilets and reclining seats. This investment has allowed places like Baños, the country’s activity hub, to thrive.
  • The new train service, Tren Ecuador, launched in 2013, travels between the port of Guayaquil and Quito. This is not an Orient Express experience by any means, but one that is about connecting you with Ecuadorian life, not just its landscape. It is also considered by local people to have been a super successful social initiative to re-engage communities that lost their way a little when the old railroad collapsed. Read a lovely article about it here by leading train travel writer, Anthony Lambert.
  • With an ever changing tourism infrastructure due to the current government investment in tourism, it is worth keeping an eye on local magazine Ñan, meaning quite simply, Path, which comes out bi-monthly and is available in many local shops and tourism information centres. You can also follow them on Facebook, as it’s an excellent source of information to inspire and inform all tourists, domestic and international.
Dominic Hamilton, editor Ñan Magazine:
"I think sometimes people can be disappointed when they go to Cotopaxi volcano. It is the one everyone wants to see, and there are superb images of it in all the brochures. But the weather is changeable here, and the experience not always what tourists had hoped for. I often recommend going to see Antisana volcano instead, which is easier to get to but yet less visited, and the weather is usually better too meaning you can see more, even the condors flying overhead."
  • If you are hiking, bring planet safe, paraben free soaps and detergents with you, as well as eco-friendly sun creams, and biodegradable bags and tissue for when you are caught short. And remember, all waste should, ideally, be carried out of protected areas. A good hiking company will provide all of this, so ask in advance so that you can get to see if they are practising what they preach.
  • You will find it impossible to keep your lens cap on in Ecuador. It is photography paradise. But in a western world obsessed with selfies and shoot before you drop, please do think again when it comes to photographing people on your travels. Being a responsible tourist also means being a responsible photographer. Always ask a person if you can take a photo. Not just ask and click, but check that they actually agree to it. It is a simple thing to communicate. And if you want to photograph children, ask the parents or adults with them, when possible. In some countries, local people accept payment for photos, such as in Peru, but this is NOT the case in Ecuador. This is seen as an insult and you risk offending people. So if in doubt, just leave your camera in its bag. It is not the end of the world if you don’t get that photo. It makes for a better world if you just stop to chat.
Simon Forster – Co-founder of one of our suppliers, Beyond Tourism:"When I’m in Ecuador, I always feel as if I am being wrapped warmly up in an old culture. I really feel that there. It is not put on for tourists. It is not a cultural museum or show. It is real. Even when you see the Quechua communities in the tourist markets, they are not there to pose for photos, they are there doing a day’s work of trading with each other. Cultural tradition is something that is strong here, so I would ask that tourists just try to fit in around that. Don’t take endless photos as these people aren’t on show, they are just being themselves."
  • Go light on the packing because you are going to want to shop in Ecuador. And this is putting money straight into local coffers, so leave room for some winter woollies in that suitcase. Alpaca is the big seller but beware of fakes. Alpaca is expensive, so if you are offered something cheap it is most likely to be acrylic or a mix. Real Alpaca feels a little greasy to touch and loses its shape a little if stretched.
  • The big tourist market is Otavalo where you will find plenty of goodies, but it has more of a mass produced feel here. Check out others if you can, for example Saquisilí on Thursdays, where you will also find some of the smaller sellers from Otavalo. Ambato also has a big market on Mondays and Sangolqui or El Quinche northeast of Quito on Sundays. Most villages will have a market at least once a week so you just need to ask around and try and time your visit to coincide with the sellers.
To connect with Latin America on that philosophical level mentioned above, check out Edgar Morin’s book The Path to Hope – this will inspire you to travel there more than any tourist board will.
  • A popular purchase is the famous Dragon’s Blood, a deep red cure all medicine, which is sourced from resin of the Croton tree species . Locally it is often called ‘sangre de drago’. Used for treating everything from stomach upsets to insect bites, it is found in many back backers’ first aid kits. You can see a video explaining it here. The sap is not self-generating, so trees do need to be cut down to produce an adequate yield. There are conservation movements afoot, but as it grows up to one foot a month this is a very sustainable, and for many Ecuadorians, essential, everyday resource. So much so that you can find it in most pharmacies.
  • Don’t think you are buying something foreign when you opt for a Panama hat to bring home. It was never from Panama in the first place, but is well and truly Ecuadorian. Head to Cuenca and Montecristo for the leading artisans of this iconic headgear. In terms of headgear, or any gear in fact, beware of anything made from feathers which are sometimes sourced from endangered tropical birds.

 

Ecuadorian chocolate. Image by Vicki Brown
 
  • Chocolate and coffee buying is a must. Although it is not so well known for coffee, there are ideal growing conditions here, so look out for Fairtrade or organic producers if you can. For Arabica coffee head to Loja, Manabi and Guayaquil. For Robusto beans, it is the eastern slopes of the Andes that you want, such as Mindo. These are all great places to pick up the country’s high quality chocolate too. Chocolate tourism is on the up, with the famously aromatic chocolate having its own denomination now, Cacao Arriba. So, a bit like Champagne, no one else can say that they have this special chocolate, except Ecuador.
  • The high altitude páramo regions are well known for hiking, and many people try it alone. But it can be dangerous, so all the usual hiking safety information applies. Don’t go alone, tell someone when and where you are going, wear proper gear, and bring safety and first aid equipment, and supplies. And when possible, use the services of a local guide. This is the best money you will ever spend.
Edmundo Vega, Manager, award winning Black Sheep Inn: "The tourist should change his or her mindset when travelling to Ecuador – you need to learn about the culture and keep learning throughout your travels. For example, when I go to Europe, I know that everything is on time – so I need to change my mindset. One other thing that bothers me is the haggling over accommodation prices. I ask tourists to respect what is on our websites and not just turn up and demand a lower price. Because when they do this, it means that they are forcing each hotel to keep lowering its prices to compete, and it becomes unfair. This might work in the city, or in Europe, but here in rural Ecuador it is becoming a problem. We would like people to simply accept the prices that we have all put on our websites please."
  • The Galápagos Islands are home to many unique species, and a highlight of any wildlife fan’s trip to Ecuador. However, the fragile marine and land environment is under constant threat from growing tourism and development, so there are some important points to bear in mind when planning your Galápagos tour. Choose a smaller boat – which impacts less on the environment and is more reliant on local businesses for food and supplies; keep your distance from the wildlife no matter how enticing those baby sea lions may seem; and spend some time on land, eating at local restaurants, shopping in local stores and even staying in local hotels to get a real taste of Galapgueño life.
Photo credits: [Dominic Hamilton quote background - Antisana Volcano: Marcio Ramalho] [Volunteering: VISIONS Service Adventures]
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