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]

Discovery Adventures travel company debuts 2011’s Discovery Channel-inspired trips

adventure travel companyArmchair traveler red alert! Discovery Adventures is offering eight new Discovery Channel-inspired cultural trips for 2011, including Greece, Turkey, Italy, France, Japan, and East Africa. Explore archaeological sites near Athens, visit wineries in Tuscany, safari in Kenya, or soak in hot springs in the Japanese Alps. Trips are limited to 16 people, and run from eight to 15 days. Accommodations range from boutique hotels and inns with local character to eco-lodges.

Discovery Adventures has teamed up with adventure travel industry leader Gap Adventures and non-profit Planeterra to offer travelers more opportunities to positively impact the lives of communities around the world. Each trip provides travelers with an opportunity to visit destinations (often traveling by traditional modes of transport such as rickshaw or elephant) and interact with local people in an ecologically-responsible manner. In addition to your guide, you’ll be accompanied by local historians, archaeologists, artisans, and naturalists. Time to get off that Barcalounger!

[Photo credit: Flickr user Arno & Louise Wildlife]

New photos released of remote Brazilian rainforest tribe

Survival International, a UK-based rights group dedicated to protecting indigenous communities worldwide, has just released new photographs of an “uncontacted” group of indigenous people living on the Brazilian-Peruvian border. This is only the second time in two years photos of the isolated Indians have ever been released.

FoxNews reports the photos were taken by Brazil’s Indian Affairs department, which monitors various indigenous tribes by aircraft. Uncontacted tribes are so described because they have limited interactions with the outside world. Survival International estimates that there are over a hundred uncontacted tribes left globally.

The organization came under fire for creating a hoax when the first photos were released in 2008; the president of Peru even hinted that such tribes were an invention of environmentalists opposing Amazonian oil exploration. The myth of “first-contact” tribes also prevails amongst unscrupulous companies catering to tourists. Survival International’s website quotes Marcos Apurinã, Coordinator of Brazil’s Amazon Indian organization COIAB as saying, “It is necessary to reaffirm that these peoples exist, so we support the use of images that prove these facts. These peoples have had their most fundamental rights, particularly their right to life, ignored … it is therefore crucial that we protect them.”

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The Brazilian government is a believer, however, and has dedicated a division to helping protect uncontacted tribes. Many indigenous peoples of the Amazon have been the victims of disease or genocide (due to war or, uh, “eradication”) or displacement by petroleum companies. The Brazilian government is concerned that an increase in illegal logging in Peru is forcing uncontacted tribes over the border into Brazil, which could result in conflict.

Survival International reports that the Brazilian Indians appear to be in good health, as evidenced by their appearance (FYI, their skin is dyed red from the extract of the annatto seed), as well as that of communal gardens and a plentiful supply of food including manioc and papaya. The tribe was also recently filmed (from the air) by the BBC for the television series, “Human Planet.”

While there is admittedly a certain hypocrisy in buzzing uncontacted peoples with planes, the bigger picture is the necessity of proving their existence in order to save them, as Apurinã points out. Look for my forthcoming post on my stay with the remote Hauorani people of Ecuador, who had their first contact with the outside world in the late 1940’s. Over the last twenty-plus years, they have waged legal land rights battles against various petroleum companies in order to preserve both their land and their existence.

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Bolivia campaigns to legalize coca



Four Loko, meet Coca Colla. CNN reports that Bolivia has launched a campaign to legalize coca, a native plant that has been used for medicinal purposes and as a mild stimulant by the indigenous peoples of the Andes for thousands of years. And yes, coca does contain trace amounts of cocaine. The leaves are used in purified forms of the narcotic, which is what led the United Nations to ban coca in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs. The Bolivian government would like the ban amended to make coca a controlled, but not illegal, substance.

Coca leaf is considered saced amongst Andean peoples, and historically has been used to combat everything from altitude sickness to rheumatism (it has anaesthetic properties). The leaves are also used as a digestive aid, and to suppress hunger, thirst, and fatigue. Coca is traditionally chewed or used or as a tea, but now, coca-infused energy drinks are taking the market by storm. Las year, Coca Colla was introduced; it was such a hit that a new beverage, Coca Brynco, debuted this week.

Bolivian president Evo Morales–a former union leader for coca growers–is on a mission to convince the rest of the world of coca’s legitimate non-addictive uses. Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca has embarked this week on a tour of Europe, hoping to convince EU leaders to support the campaign. The U.S. is not onboard the coca train, and filed a formal objection to legalize it on Wednesday. January 31st is the deadline for all UN members to cast their votes.Bolivia is the third largest coca producer in the world, after Colombia and Peru. If legalized, it could provide a signficant economic, uh, stimulus to the country. In addition to energy drinks, Bolivia hopes to use coca in toothpaste, and even flour (I don’t understand that one, either).

I’ve chewed coca while trekking in the Peruvian Andes, and it definitely helps ease altitude-related symptoms. Quechua porters on the Inca Trail (who are employed to haul all of the gear) chew coca incessantly. I have no doubt that, in addition to genetic adaptability, coca aids their miraculous ability to carry loads nearly equal to their body weight, at high speed, even when barefoot. It’s said that coca is what enabled the Incas to build Macchu Picchu.

There are certainly pros and cons to lifting the coca ban, but hopefully world leaders can overlook the stigma long enough to evaluate the medicinal value of the plant.