Tag: Otavalo

Mixing Work with Play

Before I even knew I wanted to work in the tourism industry, Sarah and I were planning this round-the-world journey.  It just so happens that over these past 5 years, I have immersed myself in the world of eco and sustainable tourism as a career, and conveniently, our big trip is now doubling as a professional development endeavor (can I write this trip off?!?).  Don’t worry, I’m not working too hard.

Among a few different hats that I’m wearing on the road (representative of STI, trip research for AWR, etc), I am contributing bi-monthly to the Responsible Travel Blog of World Nomads, a travel information and insurance provider.

You can find my first contribution, Trashing Ecuador, at this link, or copied below.

Dealing with waste (trash, recycling, composting) is one of the biggest issues that cities and destinations have to deal with in their pursuit of sustainable tourism. Generally speaking, it’s rare to find recycling and composting infrastructure outside of the western world. Imagine my surprise when I saw this image (Otavalo Waste Sorting Photo) walking down the streets of Otavalo, the famous market town north of Quito. Otavalo has composting?!?! Boulder, Colorado – the hyper-enviro-conscious- hippie-haven doesn’t even have city composting pick up – how can these Ecuadorians have a more progressive program than my home town? Well, they do, and it’s not just the businesses. Across town, there are separate garbage cans are labeled “Organico” and “Inorganico”, and city workers follow this dump truck help to sort any misplaced trash.

I mentioned my enthusiasm for the program to a friend who lives in the neighboring community of Cotacachi, and he quickly corrected my misconceptions. “Oh, all that organic waste just goes to the landfill. They separate it, but it gets re-mixed at the dump site.” Really?!? Why go through the trouble (and costs) of separating organic waste if it’s just going to end up in the same place? Apparently, Otavalo used to compost their organic waste. But that was under the old Mayor. The new Mayor doesn’t see the need to pay for a composting program, and so he discontinued it. The sorting infrastructure was kept in place to continue to educate the public, because at some point down the road, they might start composting again (when funds become available).

While the cities are pulling a fast one by their citizens and visitors, there are some inspiring examples of waste management in the Ecuadorian tourism industry. I just finished a short stint at the Black Sheep Inn, an eco-focused accommodation in the Quilotoa region. BSI is famous for their toilets…seriously. There hasn’t been a toilet flushed on the property since they opened their doors in 1996 – they are all composting toilets. It helps that the views from these waterless waste disposals overlooks gorgeous Andean mountains and valleys (View from the toilet). But that’s just the start of their waste management strategy.

BSI is nearly a zero-waste operation – everything consumed on the property is either recycled or reused. Guests are asked to separate their trash into plastics, metals, and paper. All food waste is either fed to the on-site animals (of course there are some black sheep) or composted for the gardens that grow food for the restaurant. Glass bottles are re-used for artwork. Grey (dirty) water is used for irrigation. BSI, in their efforts to benefit the local residents, also funded and built a community recycling center, as well as a recycling pick-up. Andres, co-owner of BSI, is known to the locals as “The King of Trash”.

Otavalo and the Black Sheep Inn have one thing in common when it comes to trash – they are both trying to educate people about the importance of proper waste management. As a responsible traveler, you have the obligation to the destinations you visit to properly deal with the trash you produce. Think about what resources you use during your travels, what you can do to minimize them, and how to properly dispose of the trash you create. Avoid excess water bottles when traveling (bring your own refillable bottle!). When you do drink out of glass or plastic, try to find recycling options, even if that means packing the empty bottle in your pack for the afternoon. Refuse unnecessary plastic bags. Seek out accommodations like BSI who are dealing with your waste responsibly. You get the idea – the less trash you create, the more the destination benefits.

Written by Ted Martens

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Ted’s journey into the travel and tourism industry started the summer after a two-month backpacking trip throughout Europe ignited a life-long passion for international travel.  With a master’s degree in Tourism Development, Ted has focused his efforts on helping non-profit Sustainable Travel International promote responsible tourism across the globe as their Director of Outreach & Development. After working too hard for the past 5 years, he is on the road again, escaping the office for some field research… is the responsible travel movement taking seed across the globe, or not?

The Ecuadorian from Vermont

Ok, he´s not officially an Ecuadorian citizen yet, but that´s where his heart is. Meet Peter Shear, non-profit founder, father to two beautiful Ecuadorian girls, University of Michigan alumnus, and one of the most generous, genuine, and kind people I have ever met. Originally from Vermont, Peter has spent the better part of the past 14 years living in northern Ecuador, raising his family, and helping rural communities through his non-profit, the Inter-American Center for the Arts, Sustainability, and Action (CASA).

I first met Peter in Colorado in spring, 2008. Among his many different hats, Peter is the in-country director for a volunteer tour operator in Boulder, which brings him through town once a year. After hearing about the community development and tourism projects he´s been orchestrating in rural Ecuador, I knew a visit would be part of our RTW itinerary. It turned out to be way more than just a stop along the way.

Our first two weeks in Ecuador were spent under Peter´s wing, getting the behind-the-scenes stories about the successes and challenges of organizing a wide variety of community-driven economic projects. I was quite literally blown away by all he has accomplished. Have a look:

The Inter-American Center for the Arts, Sustainability, and Action is committed to helping rural communities realize sustainable economic development opportunities (or in non-jargon, helping poor people earn decent livings in ways that are good for their communities and regions). While CASA’s projects span a wide range of economic development initiatives, a core component is community-based and volunteer tourism.  For over 7 years, CASA has been bringing groups of student and young-adult volunteers to the area, working side by side with the locals to build community projects and infrastructure that benefit the residents and the environment.  Volunteers participate in “mingas”, organized project days where residents come together to work on a particular construction, farming, conservation, or other community-benefiting initiative.  Funding for minga projects comes from local sources, as well as money raised by volunteers prior to their trips.  To date, CASA volunteer tourism projects in a single community, Pucara, have included:

  • Building homes for residents in need (recipients of the homes were chosen by a community housing board that accepted applications and prioritized based on economic and social factors).

  • Construction of a community center for meetings, events, celebrations, weddings, etc.  The center is the largest of its kind in all of the region, and has turned into a source of revenue for Pucara, as neighboring communities have begun renting it out.  Proceeds from this program now pay for transportation for Pucara students to attend high school in the neighboring community of Apuela (prior to this program, most kids in Pucara did not attend high school due to the prohibitive transportation costs).

  • Purchase of land and construction of community organic gardens.

  • Purchase of land and construction of community farms.  Some of the poorest residents in town have no land, and were in need of space for subsistence farming.

  • Construction of solar hot water showers for community use.

  • Construction of soccer field facilities.

  • Conservation through land purchasing, reforestation, and preservation.

  • Education through organic and agro-ecological farming instruction and testing.

This impressive list of projects, while organized and guided by Peter and CASA, was driven primarily by community initiation, participation, and democratic decision making.  The result is a community with a much richer set of resources and infrastructure for creating new economic opportunities for local residents.

One of the most lucrative opportunities that has arisen from CASA’s work in Pucara is a well organized community-based tourism infrastructure, which we had the pleasure of participating in. While initially developed primarily for the volunteers, Pucara is now well equipped and actively receiving independent travelers interested in an authentic experience interacting with rural Ecuadorian families and communities.  A rotating homestay program with 20 participating local families allows travelers the chance to live, eat, sleep, and participate in lives of the residents of Pucara for US$10 dollars per night (which includes 3 meals).  The rotating nature of the program ensures an equal distribution to families throughout the community.  The CASA-established Spanish school, the first of its kind in the region, allows travelers to hone their language skills while supporting local women teachers, all of which are government-certified. Of course, there are always volunteer opportunities available, independently or through community mingas.

Impressive, right? What’s more impressive is that Pucara is only one of 5 communities across the northern Andes that Peter is working with, and each has its own set of projects, resources, accomplishments, challenges, and approach to community tourism (we were able to visit 4 of these communities with Peter).

Peter is very humble about the achievements of CASA, and while he´s pleased with the progress of the communities, in his mind they´ve just begun.  The list of potential projects grows weekly, and there are always bumps in the road to smooth out.  But Peter is excited about what the future holds.  The grand vision is to connect his work in each community through a multi-day community-to-community trek (think of Peru’s Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu, only instead of camping near ruins, trekkers will stay with families in CASA communities along the route). Starting atop a glaciated volcano near the community of La Chimba, the 12 day trek will lead visitors through native forests, along active volcanoes and around alpine lakes, through the famous market town of Otavalo, and then descend into the cloud forest before culminating at a set of hot springs near Pucara. The Inti Chakinan Trail (or Sun Trail, in the local Kichwa language), as they’ve named it, will be hosting its first through-hiking guests this January. Want to go? I do.

It’s now been well over a month since our time with Peter in northern Ecuador, and one of the most significant lasting impressions is the motivation behind his dedication – the well-being of the people of the CASA communities. Peter’s work is selfless, genuine, and fully engaged with the people in these pueblos. Peter is no longer an outsider, a gringo, to the people of Pucara, Morochos, Peribuela, Pijal and La Chimba. He is an accepted, trusted, and appreciated member of their community. And when you’re visiting rural communities in a foreign culture, there’s nothing like a local to show you around.

The Wheels on the Bus go Round and Round

I had been promised that bus rides in South America were quite an experience and not for those that value personal space so I was surprised on our first bus ride from Quito to Otovalo. We arrived just in time to purchase tickets and when we got on the bus, only one other person was on board! However, between when the bus left it’s parking place and when we actually started driving, we picked up 5-6 additional stragglers as well as a host of vendors selling everything from ice cream cones to newspapers. They’d come on the bus, try and pitch their wares and then get off a hundred yards later – it was quite entertaining.

Our second bus ride was absolutely nothing like our first. We were headed to Pucara with our friend Peter and as he lives in Pucara part of the time, he was bringing back some supplies for the house he is in the process of building. He was also traveling with his newly adopted dog, Princessa. So there we were, 3 gringos, two big packpacks, a dog and 4 large sheets of glass trying to get on this nearly-full bus. Luckily, Peter had purchased us seats ahead of time or we would have been standing the whole 2.5 hour bus ride to where we were going. As Peter and I finagled our way to our seats through passengers, vendors, kids, old women in their traditional dresses, etc., Ted was outside trying to store our backpacks and hold onto the dog. In hopes of helping him out, I was sandwiched between a large-breasted woman selling limonadas and the glass Peter purchased while taking Princessa’s leash from Ted and holding onto her while leaning out the window. It was absolutely overwhelming and hilarious at the same time. Eventually, Ted gets on the bus, as does Princessa, the vendors make their final sales and we’re off!

Once we were in Pucara, the bus system works a bit differently. There are no tickets and few actual bus stops. If you want to get on a bus, you simply wave it down. When you want to get off the bus, you just say so and they stop. Some buses are crowded and some are not. There are a few going each direction each day so you plan your trip around these times and you’re good to go. The bus driver has a helper who gets out to help people with bags store them under the bus. The helper also collects the bus fare from the passengers and is the point of contact if you need anything. The driver just drives.

On our way home from some hot springs that we visited on Sunday afternoon, we were waiting at one of the few bus stops for our 6-7 mile trip home with 20-30 other people. When the bus arrived is was already PACKED! I was sure there was no way we’d all fit but sure enough, we were packed in like sardines. In fact, the bus driver didn’t even close the door and two people stood on that bottom step about a foot above the road. At the next stop, I’m not kidding you, they managed to smoosh on even more people – apparently “the bus is full”, is not an option.

Lucky for us, we had a short trip home however, many people on that bus were headed over 2.5 hours back to Otavalo and were destined to be standing on the bumpy, windy road the whole time!


It’s been nearly a week since our last post but we have a pretty good reason for the delay as we were officially off the grid. Last Tuesday, Ted and I met up with a tourism industry colleague/friend of Ted’s named Peter that Ted had met with a couple of times in Boulder. Peter is American however, he now lives in Ecuador and has for the past ten years. More about Peter and his work in a future post, but he was our connection for where we spent the last week living with a family and learning Spanish.

We met up with Peter in Otavalo, Ecuador which is a fairly large town (~40,000 people) known for its weekly Saturday market and a predominantly indigenous population. We then took a very crowded, yet beautiful and entertaining 2.5 hour bus ride along a dirt road (more about the bus rides in a future post as well!) west into the mountains to a community named Pucara.

Pucara is a gorgeous little community nestled in the lush Andes mountains, accessed only by dirt road and 5 daily buses.  It is one of those places that you drive by and wonder to yourself, “What do people do here?” Well, we were about to find out.

After a delicious lunch prepared for us by the shop-owner of one of the two shops in town, Peter introduced to our “sisters and brothers” for the week. Anita is in early 20s and the mother to a beautiful little 10-month old boy named Chris. Andres is her 10-year old brother and Maria is their 6-year old sister. The family lived about a 20 minute walk from ‘town’. Though there were certainly many awkward silences on that initial walk home, we, or Ted rather, was able to break the ice and make conversation. Once at home we met another brother named Victor, who is 23, and the mother/grandmother of the home named Celia. There is also another sister that is 18 but she is away at university several hours away. The family did not speak any English and I am a better listener to Spanish than I am a speaker, so the majority of the responsibility fell on Ted’s shoulders to communicate.

The family’s home was modest to say the least. When you walked in the door, there was a central room that was used as the kitchen, living and dining room. There were then four small bedrooms off the main area. Ted and I shared one of the rooms and the other six people shared the remaining three bedrooms. The bathroom was connected to the house but you had to go outside to access it and it was not enclosed. The dishes and laundry were also done outside the old-fashioned way. They did not have a refrigerator or a telephone and in fact, the only electricity they used for their cooking was a blender to make smoothie juice drinks. The cooking was done using a gas stove and a propane tank.

There was not room for everyone to eat together so Ted and I sat out in the central room with one or two other people and the remainder crowded into the small bedroom with the tiny T.V. to eat. Though the women (Celia and Anita) were in charge of all the cooking, it was a treat to see that everyone helped out with baby Chris. I was impressed to see how helpful and useful the little guys (Andres and Maria) were to their older sister and little nephew. Everyone took turns holding him, entertaining him and making sure he stayed out of trouble.

Though the language was a barrier for me, I made friends with Maria by painting her fingernails with some polish I’d brought from home and pushing her on the swing. Ted brought a frisbee which was also a popular activity with Maria and Andres and a couple other nights we built a fire and burned everything from grass and sticks to plastic bags and track pants (not our suggestion!).

Ted spotted a guitar in Victor’s room the first night we were there and after removing a broken string and tuning it up he learned that Victor didn’t know how to play but that wanted to learn. For the remainder of the week, Ted and Victor sat down in the evening and Ted gave Victor some guitar lessons.

Though it was certainly a treat to live in this family’s home it was not without its challenges for us (no privacy, bugs, tummy trouble) and for them (two giant gringos with very limited Spanish!), I’m sure. I’m thankful for the experience and the insight it provided however, I would by lying if I didn’t tell you that I’m excited to be back in a hostel in Otavalo in a comfortable bed, eating whatever we want whenever we want and going to bed confident that we will not be woken up by multiples roosters outside our window!

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