Community tourism has been described as the difference between seeing and living, as exemplified in the two scenarios below:
Scenario one: You arrive in a small Andean town on board a bus full of tourists, drive around, take shots of various landmarks, eat in a upscale restaurant, buy a few souvenirs, exchange a “buenos dias” with the driver or the storekeeper, take a few more photos, and then head out for the next stop on the itinerary.
Scenario two: Alone or in a small group, you reach a remote indigenous community in the Andean highlands. Here, you live with a family, take part in their farm chores, and break bread with them during the day. You will sleep in a simple yet comfortable room, one with all the privacy you require. A member of the community will take you on a personalized tour of the area, directing you to the most beautiful places, and sharing with you the myths and legends of the area, the names of local plants and their uses, and teaching you a few words in their native language.
The difference between the first and second scenarios is the difference between seeing and living. Both have their advantages, and either can be more suitable to you – depending on your interests and preferences. If you are someone who prefers a deeper involvement, if you are seeking an authentic experience and want to make a positive impact on a place, perhaps you should consider the second scenario: “community tourism.”
Also referred to as “human tourism,” this activity allows for more exchanges of experiences between travelers and locals. In addition, it also supports sustainable development of communities and creates sources of employment in small towns and villages.
Several community tourism initiatives have emerged in Ecuador, three of which are outlined here: one in Ecuador’s Andean highlands and two in the country’s Amazon rainforest.
Runa Tupari: community tourism in the Ecuadorian Andes
“Coexistence” is the key word in tourism activities organized by the group Runa Tupari (which means “an encounter with indigenous people” in the Kichwa language). This sustainable development initiative involves four communities in northern Ecuador, a region known for its cultural richness and the beauty of its landscapes.
Those communities organize cultural activities for travelers who want to experience the Andean Sierra in a different and more affordable way. Operating as a network, campesino families in these communities provide housing and food in 15 rural cabins that can accommodate up to three people each. Guests spend the night in a comfortable atmosphere, where they can enjoy their own fireplace and the privacy afforded by their own bathroom with hot water. During the day, they share in the tasks of the family by participating in farming. The Runa Tupari network also organizes activities such as horseback riding, hiking, biking and visits to natural sites such as local lakes, paramo highlands, mountains, and volcanoes. Included in all of these tours are the costs for accommodations, meals, the local guides and transportation.
Excursions on foot, horseback or bicycle (whichever the traveler prefers) are led by local, professionally licensed guides. Programs can last from one to four days, during which time the surrounding area is explored. Some of the most attractive activities – which is also the spirit of community tourism – are visits to neighboring communities to learn about and participate in the extremely rich cultural expressions, including spiritual healing sessions with shamans.
Another of the visits that is included in these tours is a trip to the famous Otavalo market’s “Plaza de los Ponchos.” At this indigenous-run market, the most beautiful and colorful woolen, leather, wood and other handicrafts are displayed for potential buyers, though regateo (haggling over the price with the seller) is a common and usually entertaining practice. Other nearby markets where farm produce and animals are sold is also a part of this tour.
This tour will then take you to the city of Cotacachi, famous for its handmade leather goods. Located between bright snow-capped mountains, with a peaceful and friendly atmosphere, this visit will give you even more of the flavor of the Ecuadorian highlands. Lake Cuicocha, also known as “the lake of the gods” or “Rainbow Lagoon” is yet an additional destination on the tours organized by the Runa Tupari network. It is located in a volcanic caldera seen from afar by the bright blue waters and idyllic mountain setting. In and around this lake, travelers can go on short walks or take boat rides.
The mothers of indigenous families in the communities participating in the network are the leaders of this community tourism initiative. Sharing their daily lives and tasks with visitors allows them to reveal the local culture. The men serve as guides, leading visitors across Andean landscapes and past mountains, while sharing with guests their ancestral knowledge of Andean wildlife, stories and legends of the area, as well as elements of the Kichwa language. This direct contact with nature and cultural exchange allows travelers to experience some of the most fascinating aspects of the Ecuadorian Andes.
The funds obtained from its operations is divided equally among the communities involved. In this way, as well as through the jobs created for local people, tourists contribute to improving the quality of life in these communities.
Napo Wildlife Center: deep in the Amazon
In instead of an alarm clock, you’ll wake to the songs of birds and the music of gurgling rivers. Opening your eyes, you’ll find yourself surrounded by all possible shades of green in a magical spot in deep in the jungle. Sounds like a dream? Perhaps …but every morning it’s the reality for travelers staying at the Napo Wildlife Center-Lodge. This eco-lodge, located in Ecuador’s famed Yasuni National Park, is situated on the banks of Lake Añangucocha in the territory of the indigenous Anangu Kichwa people.
It is precisely the members of this community who run the lodge, which is a community tourism project that provides all the comforts for visiting guests and offers them a new understanding and greater respect for the environment. The chance to learn about life deep in the Amazon is what this initiative offers to travelers, who by coming here benefit the community that manages the eco-lodge.
Napo Wildlife Center-Lodge is reached by motor boat down the majestic Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon. Depending on the water level of the river, the trip can take an hour or two …time that will allow you to enjoy the remarkable and lush jungle scenery. The 40-passenger boat will take you to entrance of the reserve of the Anangu Kichwa community, where you will then board a paddle canoe (motorized transportation is not allowed in the reserve) and continue to the eco-lodge’s main house.
The Napo Wildlife Center — the first luxury eco-lodge in Ecuador — has 16 cabins that can each accommodate up to three people. All of these quarters are equipped with a private bathroom, a safe, fans, mosquito nets, screened windows, permanent electricity, hot water and a private terrace overlooking the lake. This exotic eco-lodge also boasts terraces, a library, a laundry, a gift shop, a restaurant that serves delicious Amazonian cuisine, an observation tower and a bar.
Being located at one of the most beautiful and biodiverse spots on the planet, the Napo Wildlife Center gives you the opportunity to appreciate the incredible plant and animal life of the Amazon, with direction and attentive assistance provided by local naturalist guides (members of the Anangu community) and bilingual guides from the hotel.
Birdwatching day and night in the forest, canoeing, hiking and visits to the indigenous community to learn about their customs are some of the activities organized by the eco-lodge. In addition, you can witness up to hundreds of parrots and macaws assembling at one time to feed at “clay licks” found on the edge of the lake, or you can take a dip in the lake in the company of the Pink river dolphins.
A tour by canoe, paddling on the “black water” of Lake Añangu in the shade of the forests canopy, is one of the most impressive attractions. On this silent voyage, you are sure to see several species of brilliantly colored birds and reptiles, as well as raucous primates and large mammals. Beneath the water you will be able to spot rays and electric eels, though Giant piranhas and lung fish too inhabit these waters. And, if you’re lucky, you might glimpse a jaguar, monkeys, macaws or horned screamers in the towering trees above, or tapirs and peccaries close to you on the ground. At night, during your paddle canoe rides under a breathtakingly starry sky, you should be able to sight alligators, as well as hear the nocturnal orchestra of frogs, toads, insects and night birds.
The tourism project includes the conservation of 21,400 hectares of rainforest in Yasuni National Park, which is a place unlike any other – it is located right in the heart of one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems. The facilities at the Napo Wildlife Center were built and designed in an environmentally friendly manner, avoiding any negative impact on the environment whenever possible. Therefore, solar panels, energy-efficient generators, wastewater treatment and water filtration systems are used at this eco-lodge.
The construction of the hotel was headed up by the community of Anangu Kichwa indigenous community, but with the help of the Barro Viejo Company. The commitment to eco-tourism responds to an awareness of the need to actively protect the 82 square kilometers of virgin forest of the private reserve. One of the first positive effects of this project is that hunting activities by the community have voluntarily ceased for the past ten years.
The Napo Wildlife Center is undoubtedly the most luxurious lodge in Yasuni National Park. Those who have visited describe it as “magical” and “unique.” The reflections of two surprised and satisfied travelers speak better to this than any description. As one of them commented:
“This is the best place to connect with nature, to learn from it and live on it. My stay here was a great example of what teamwork and effort can achieve. Indeed, the Yasuni is a paradise. I hope to come back again sometime. The service was quite personalized and first class, and I was able to make new friends. In short, it is a unique adventure that Ecuadorians themselves must experience.”
The other traveler then added:
“When you plan a trip to the heart of the jungle, perhaps you imagine it as being a form of “extreme travel adventure.” However, once here, you’ll find that this magical place will envelope you in peace and close contact with nature, allowing you to make a trip to your inner self.”
Kapawi Lodge: contact with millennial traditions
Located in the traditional territory of the Achuar people, in a remote protected area near the border between Ecuador and Peru, this Amazon lodge is accessible only by air. A flight in a small plane over the immense rainforest is the means of transportation that will take you into the territory of the Achuar, one of Ecuador’s indigenous nationalities that has remained in relative isolation.
The extraordinary relationship of harmony and respect that the indigenous Achuar people have with nature is the basis of this ecological initiative that offers travelers the chance to dive into the mystery of the jungle without leaving the comfort of a luxury hotel.
The fundamental vision of Kapawi Ecolodge and Reserve has always been to create – in one of the most remote environments in the world – the chance for travelers to never cease being amazed by the wonders of the rainforest, as well as by the efficient organization and quality services provided by members of the community who manage the hotel.
The eco-lodge was launched in 1996 with the aim of achieving economic sustainability and contributing to the preservation of the cultural and natural richness of the Ecuadorian Amazon region.
The cabins at Kapawi Ecolodge and Reserve were built by Achuar craftsmen in the vernacular style of the jungle, which meant using local materials but with modern and functional designs. With thatched roofs and linked by an over-ground boardwalk, the cabins have large bedrooms, private bathrooms with hot water (thanks to the lodge’s solar panels), beds with mosquito nets, safe and a host of services that make a stay here quite comfortable. What most travelers like are the hammocks and the reclining chairs with which each cabin is provided, as these allow the guests to sit back, relax and watch the beautiful natural scenery before them.
Travelers who stay at the Kapawi Lodge are also incorporated into the daily activities of the community members. As such, they have the opportunity to hunt with a blowgun, make crafts, sample traditional “chicha” and walk through the rainforest.
This is the perfect place for bird lovers, as more than 560 species of fowl have been recorded in this area. But there are not just birds; you can also spot capybaras, Amazon boar, Giant otters, Capuchin howler monkeys, alligators and legendary Pink river dolphins. And don’t forget that the Amazon rainforest is home to 2.5 million species of insects, thousands of plants and hundreds of mammal species.
Depending on your physical condition and your interest, you can enjoy a variety of activities in the forest during your stay at Kapawi Lodge. These include birdwatching, kayaking in nearby rivers, day and nighttime walks in the company of nature guides, and a night of camping near the Achuar community to get to know them better.
Alfonso Tandazo is President and CEO at Surtrek Tour Operator.