Before You Book: Eco-Friendly Hotel Or Just Greenwashing?

can of green paint and brush

velo_city, Flickr

We’ve all stayed at hotels that proudly boast, via little signs on the bed and/or bathroom sink, that they’re doing their part to save the environment. Don’t want towels changed in order to save water? Just hang ’em up, and the housekeeper will know that you’re a carbon footprint-savvy traveler.

Sure. I can count on half of one hand the number of hotels that have actually paid attention to the location of my towel. I’ve seen countless housekeepers dump the contents of in-room recycling bins into their trash bags. I don’t have any expectations at motels, but when it comes to boutique, “eco-friendly,” or high-end properties making these claims, I find it infuriating.

My focus as a writer and traveler is on sustainability issues, and I’m overjoyed that an increasing number of hotels are more aware of their environmental impact. What doesn’t thrill me: the amount of greenwashing, or false eco-claims, that take place in the hospitality industry. This problem isn’t unique to hotels, but it’s prevalent.

African man holding fish

safari_partners, Flickr

We’re living in an era of climate change. Lowering our individual and collective carbon footprint should be something we do, to the best of our abilities, on a daily basis. Hotels are hip to the fact that an increasing number of travelers have an elevated eco-awareness, and they want to capitalize on that.

In the absence of a word-of-mouth or written recommendation, it can be difficult to ascertain a hotel’s eco-integrity (although certain chains are well-known for their green policies; a 2012 Reuters report cites chains like Six Senses Resorts & Spas, Taj Resorts, Kimpton Hotels and Marriott).

Sites like Green Traveler Guides, however, (full disclosure: I’m a contributing editor) exist as unofficial industry watchdogs, reviewing properties and assessing their green policies. If you’re looking for a hotel or resort that’s genuinely green, sites like GTG feature properties that are both green and great, as well as provide tips on how to be a more eco-minded traveler. Other resources include sites like Green Lodging News.

hotel with exterior living wall

Rev_Stan, Flickr

For a quick study, here’s a checklist of what to look for when researching hotels:

  • If the only mentions refer to buzzwords like “organic,” “local,” “eco-friendly,” “eco-lodge,” or “environment,” caveat emptor. There’s no law that prohibits the use of green jargon; it’s up to you as a consumer to do your homework.
  • Is there a bona-fide recycling (bonus points for composting) program?
  • Does the property employ locals/incorporate and support local culture and community? How?
  • Is the property built and furnished with natural and/or reclaimed or renewable materials wherever possible?
  • Are there green options for guests, such as bike rentals and local culture-based activities?
  • Does the property have green certification from a legit international or domestic organization or program?
Laurel Miller, Gadling
  • Does the property use alternative fuel or electric carts for guest transit on-site and off?
  • Are bathroom amenities and cleaning agents chemical-free? Bonus points your in-room goodies are locally made.
  • If there’s on-site dining, is the food seasonal and sourced locally whenever possible (which reduces fossil fuel output as well as promotes local food security)? Do family farmers, ranchers and fisherman supply ingredients? Is there a chemical-free on-site rooftop or other garden from which the restaurant sources product?
  • Does the property have a “living roof” or walls?
  • Is the property using alternative resources for operations? Examples include solar or wind power, geothermal heating and reclaimed water systems.

Outside magazine’s inaugural ‘Travel Awards’ winners

travel awardsWith twenty-three categories and every continent up for consideration, the competition is fierce, but today Outside magazine released its picks for its new Outside Travel Awards. The winners include everything from travel companies and locales to cameras, suitcases, hotels, and apps, road-tested by those in the know (you know, those people).

Amongst the chosen is Seattle-based Mountain Madness, a mountain adventure guide service and mountaineering school, for its new Tsum Valley trek in Nepal, named “Best Trip in the Himalayas.” Known in sacred Buddhist texts as the “Hidden Valley of Happiness,” the Tsum Valley lies on the edge of the more visited Manaslu Conservation Area, which opened just three years ago to tourism.

Best travel company Geographic Expeditions (GeoEx) has “consistently taken travelers to the most remote regions of the world, from Everest’s north side to Patagonia’s glaciers to the far reaches of Papua New Guinea. This year its trailblazing new terrain with a 27-day trek to the north face of K2 ($11,450).” Bonus: “the price of every GeoEx trip includes medical assistance and evacuation coverage from Global Rescue and medical-expense insurance through Travel Guard.” Not too shabby.

Also making the list: Myanmar is the “Best New Frontier;” Canon Powershot G-12 makes the “Best Camera;” the “Best New Adventure Lodge” is the Singular, outside of Puerto Natales, Patagonia, Chile; and the “Best Eco-Lodge” is the architectural marvel, The Mashpi in Ecuador.

[Photo credit: Flickr user tarotastic]

Adventure vacation Guide 2012: Ecuador

Most Norteamericanos are hard-pressed to locate Ecuador on the map. Those familiar with this South American country the size of Colorado usually associate it with the (admittedly) spectacular Galapagos Islands. Yet Ecuador has so much more offer besides the Galapagos, and 2012 is the year to get your hardcore on. Why? Because the country’s adventure travel industry is blowing up–but it’s still affordable, especially if you opt for independent travel or book certain activities through domestic outfitters or U.S. travel companies that work directly with Ecuadorean guides.

Whatever your recreational interests, budget, or experience, odds are Ecuador has it: mountaineering, glacier climbing, and volcano bagging; trekking on foot or horseback; Class III to VI whitewater kayaking and rafting; sea kayaking, scuba diving, and snorkeling; surfing; remote jungle lodges and endemic wildlife, and agritourism. Need more convincing? Ecuador’s adventure tourism increasingly has an emphasis on sustainability. When it comes to protecting its fragile ecosystem and indigenous communities, Ecuador has become quite progressive for a developing nation, which hasn’t always been the case.

If you like a cultural or culinary component to your travels, there’s that, too. You can opt for an active, educational trip to indigenous-owned and -operated Amazonian eco-lodges, or play in the Pacific regions, which retain a strong Afro-Ecuadorean influence.

Agritourism is also hot in Ecuador, most notably at centuries-old haciendas, although there are also coffee and cacao plantation tours. Ecuadorean food is a diverse melding of indigenous and outside ethnic influences that’s regionally influenced: be sure to patronize markets, roadside restaurants, and street food stalls for some of the most memorable eats.

[flickr image via Rinaldo W]

Nuts about Peru’s Tambopata National Reserve

Nuts–if you think about these things, which evidently I do–evoke blustery fall afternoons, or wintery evenings before a roaring fire. You bust out the nutcracker, and get to work. At least, that’s what my family did when I was a kid, even though I grew up in Southern California where, let’s face it, the weather is seldom blustery. Anyways, we always had a lot of Brazil nuts in the communal bowl, and consequently, they’re one of my favorites. They’re big and easy to crack, with rich, oily meat.

Nuts have been associated with the winter solstice since Medieval times (they provided much-needed fat and nutrients). What most of us don’t associate nuts with are steaming jungles, machetes, or endangered wildlife. I certainly didn’t, until I visited the Brazil nut camp in Tambopata National Reserve (TNR), in Peru’s Amazon Basin.

The Tambopata is a tributary of the Amazon, and the 275,000-hectare Reserve is home to some of the world’s most diverse and pristine rainforest. This conservation area, and the adjacent Bahuaja-Sonene National Park were designated by the Peruvian government to protect the watersheds of the Tambopata and Candamo Rivers. Rainforest Expeditions operates three Puerto Maldonado region eco-lodges within the confines of the Reserve: the Posada Amazonas and Refugio Amazonas eco-lodges, and the Tambopata Research Center. It’s at Refugio that one can visit the Brazil nut camp, and harvest the nuts (April through July).

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Even if nuts aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other reasons to visit. The area is noted for its wildlife, especially birds. If there’s an active nest, there are tours to check out endangered harpy eagles (they live in Brazil nut trees), or hike to clay licks teeming with macaws or parakeets. That may not sound thrilling, but it’s an amazing sight to see (and hear) that many explosively colorful birds in one spot.

Rainforest Expeditions integrates its jungle properties with educational/voluntourism experiences for adults and families. Besides the clay licks, activities include forest walks, wildlife viewing, philanthropic visits to local communities, seminars on the ecology and biology of the region, kayaking, catch-and-release piranha fishing, or cooking with the indigenous staff (an activity reserved for rainy weather, and something I really enjoyed, from a cultural standpoint).

Refugio is located in a 200-hectare private reserve (which is adjacent to the greater Reserve, you see). To get there, one must fly into the tiny jungle port of Puerto Maldonado from Lima. From there, it’s an hour drive to the boat launch in the indigenous community of Infierno, which works in partnership with the Posada Amazonas Lodge. The Refugio property is a two-and-a half-hour trip upriver, through a park ranger checkpoint.

The gorgeous, four-year-old, open-air lodge is built from traditional native materials such as wood, palm fronds, wild cane, and clay. It has a communal dining room with a bar (yes!), and clean, breezy rooms with gauzy, mosquito-netted beds. There are also luxe touches, like the pretty little guest soaps made of–wait for it–Brazil nuts. The food–a daily buffet of international and Peruvian dishes, and loads of fresh fruit, far surpasses what you might expect. Some of the produce comes from organic farmer Don Manuel, across the river. He grows tropical and citrus fruits, yucca, and chiles; on his farm tours, (if you love food, definitely go for it), you can sample Amazonian fruits such as cupuaçu and pacay.

Getting back to nuts, the brazil nut camp is a concession owned by the Peruvian government, although a local indigenous family has rights to the nut harvest. There are thousands of Brazil nut concessions in this region. They’re an important cash crop that provides the local families with income, which also helps to protect the Reserve from slash-and burn-agriculture.
The local Ese’eja, as well as other indigenous peoples of mestizo and Andean descent, live within four communities in the buffer zone of the Reserve. Many are employed by Rainforest Expeditions (the company tries to hire as many local people as possible), or harvest Brazil nuts during the wet season.

The nuts are technically an edible seed, clusters of which are found within thick seed pods. The trees don’t make good timber, although they are tapped for rubber in the dry season. They’re considered one of the most sustainable crops because their harvest and tapping have little ecological impact, especially in areas where hunting is prohibited or restricted during harvest season.

Brazil nut trees are an interdependent species, because they rely upon several animals to perpetuate their life cycle. Agoutis and other rodent species eat the nuts, spreading seeds in their droppings. A species of rainforest-dwelling bee is necessary to pollinate the trees, which is why they aren’t cultivated.

It turned out I’d just missed the harvest, but I walked the short trail to the deserted camp to check it out–basically, some leftover seed pods in a small clearing. Back at the lodge, however, Brazil seed pod cracking is like an Olympic sport, in part because it brings out the competitive spirit. They’re exceedingly difficult to open, necessitating a scimitar-like machete and serious hand-eye coordination- something I am seriously lacking. I finally managed to whack one apart without losing any digits, and made use of the lodge’s industrial-strength, communal nutcracker. You see a lot of people walking around, picking Brazil nuts or bits of shell out of their teeth.

The handsome, coconut-like pods turn up all over the lodge in the form of napkin holders, and votive-receptacles on recycled wood chandeliers. At the Puerto Maldonado airport, you can find Brazil nut candy, and oil, which is intoxicating, with a smooth, clean, complex flavor. Unfortunately, it has such a short shelf life that it isn’t suitable for the export market, but it’s worth bringing a bottle home with you (I honestly have no idea if Customs permits this, but that’s never stopped me before). Use it to dress salads, or drizzle on roasted potatoes or root vegetables.

Refugio and its sister properties may take some getting to, but if you’re looking for responsible, soft rainforest adventure, it’s well worth the trek.
All the more reason to load up that bowl with Brazil nuts.