Reviving a Lost Tourism Tradition and Creating a Better Future along Ecuador’s Inca Trail

By Yessenia Soto

Some say that South America’s first tourists were the travelers who hiked the Inca Trail 500 years ago. That pre-Columbian highway, built in the 15th century to connect the distant regions of the Inca Empire, once stretched from what is now Ecuador south almost to Patagonia, Argentina. Scattered along that cobbled route were way stations called “tambos” where travelers could obtain food and lodging.

The Inca Trail may no longer be a major transportation route, but thanks to the natural and cultural treasures that line its remnants, it has become an attraction that draws thousands of modern-day tourists every year.

Llamas - Photo by Casa CondorIn the majestic Andean province of Chimborazo, in Ecuador’s Cordillera Occidental, a coalition of 12 indigenous communities are working together to take advantage of that route as part of their effort to develop the region’s tourism potential.

A coalition of small farmers and business owners called the Chimborazo Community and Tourism Development Corporation (Corporación de Desarrollo Comunitario y Turismo de Chimborazo, or CORDTUCH in Spanish), has joined forces with the Global Sustainable Tourism Alliance (GSTA), in an initiative funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to use tourism as a means of generating and diversifying local incomes. But perhaps the most important aspect of those efforts is their desire to regain control of their ancestors’ lands and to conserve them for future generations.

“Ten years ago, private companies and big tour operators would arrive here with their tourists and offer us to them like post cards; they wanted to see our homes, take photos, and give us a few coins, as if we were beggars, while they charged for the tours,” explains Anibal Tenemasa, CORDTUCH’s president.

In 1998, various communities grew tired of that situation and began offering those services themselves to put an end to the exploitation of their culture and natural riches. They founded an organization, which eventually grew into CORDTUCH.

Tenemasa notes that the group was formed without a business plan, but with a strong commitment to work together and a desire to make a real difference on economic, social, cultural and environmental fronts. Those good intentions have made them a model of community tourism and have propelled them toward success.

“We never thought about hotels or luxury tourism. Our proposal was, and continues to be, to offer tourists the opportunity to enjoy an authentic experience surrounded by the peace and beauty of nature,” emphasizes Miguel Ángel Guamán, a member of CORDTUCH’s administration.

Mountain - Photo by Razu ÑanTravelers who visit these communities can enjoy an unforgettable journey through ancestral lands on the lower slopes of snow-capped Chimborazo Volcano — Ecuador’s highest peak, towering 20,702 feet (6,310 meters) above sea level. The breathtaking landscape is dotted with indigenous villages where the colorful traditional dress and houses complement the surrounding natural beauty. A visitor can combine horseback riding or hiking with traditional food and handicrafts and take comfort in the fact that they are directly supporting the local community, since everything from the meals and lodging to the tours are owned and operated by local indigenous families.

This is the positive result of years of proposals, paperwork, and meetings with tourism authorities in the country’s capital of Quito. CORDTUCH managed to attain legal recognition and now, any tourism operation in the region is owned by one of its member communities. Those tourism operations, which have such authentic names as Calshi Grande, Casa Cóndor, Cedibal, Ucasaj, Guargualla, Nizag, Razu Ñan, Visión Futura, Sumak Kawsay, Balda Lupaxi, Chuquipoggi, Quilla Pacari, and Llucud, are the property of Chimborazo’s inhabitants, specifically the 12 communities that have spent the past year working with the Rainforest Alliance, an international nonprofit organization that works to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behavior. The organization’s Sustainable Tourism program works to help tourism entrepreneurs conserve their environments and contribute to local livelihoods, while improving their own bottom line. The Rainforest Alliance-CORDTUCH partnership was born out of the communities’attempts to deal with challenges presented by their tourism businesses, such as what to do with garbage and sewage, or how to respond to tourists’concerns about the quality of the drinking water and cold temperatures, as none of their lodges had heating.

Support from the Rainforest Alliance included training workshops for CORDTUCH members about the principals of sustainability and how to adopt best practices, as well as ample technical assistance in environmental, operational, and business management, according to Verónica Muñoz, the Rainforest Alliance’s Sustainable Tourism Regional Manager for Latin America.

Tourist - Photo by Rainforest AllianceMuñoz says that in a matter of months, community members have learned everything from better food handling, to first aid, to how to build a biofilter to treat water, and how to separate garbage. The technical assistance has translated into the development of 11 plans for adopting alternative technologies to treat waste water and solid waste and to identify environmentally-appropriate energy alternatives. Local people have also begun to identify different ways to help heat their lodges and restaurants.

CORDTUCH also received help in better investing its resources for infrastructure improvement, thanks to an infrastructure study and analysis of interior design options that are more appropriate for their surroundings, local culture, and facilities.

The businesses have also benefited from improved marketing activities, thanks to the production of a promotional video, improvements to their Web site, and their participation in the Eco-Index of Sustainable Tourism, a project of the Rainforest Alliance that provides tourists, tour operators, and tour agencies with a list of businesses that have either been certified by an independent, third-party tourism certification program, or have been recommended as being sustainable by a reputable organization.

“Working with CORDTUCH has been a fascinating experience from the start. We have had a very fluid relationship thanks to the commitment and hard work of the organization’s members, who have ensured that all of the planned activities were developed and took place on schedule,” notes Muñoz.

Both Tenemasa and Guamán agree that the group’s members are enthusiastic about the knowledge and tools that the Rainforest Alliance trainings have given them, and are convinced that responsible tourism is what the tourists who visit them want. The rest of the community is also happy, because they know that the partnership has generated more economic opportunities.

“The development of community tourism has allowed CORDTUCH to increase the potential of their agricultural and handicraft production, which are currently subsistence activities for community members,” affirms Eduardo Jaramillo, a consultant with the Rainforest Alliance who worked on the initiative.

Women - Photo by NizagJaramillo explains that the communities plan to sell handicrafts and Andean grains and jams, among other things, adding that there is an enormous potential because they already have the resources for production, processing plants, and trained workers. To take advantage of that potential, CORDTUCH is creating a “commercialization unit,” which will help them to standardize, organize, and work together to gain access to major markets.

More than 1,600 people have directly benefited from CORDTUCH’s work thus far, Tenemasa explains, adding that they now have more work, more income, and more possibilities. The region is even attracting research and other initiatives, such as a volunteer program with the French government, which will bring students to the country to teach French to Chimborazo’s inhabitants.

“We want to reach out to other communities in order to benefit more families,” says Tenemasa. He and the rest of the group’s members know that there are many communities along the Inca trail that would be happy to revive the tourism that began there centuries ago and to develop it in a way that will allow them to pass a lucrative and sustainable business on to future generations.

Contacts: Anibal Tenemasa, President, CORDTUCH. Av. Canónigo Ramos y Miguel Ángel Jijon. Riobamba, Ecuador. Tel/fax: +593/032606774. anibaltenemasa@yahoo.com, www.cordtuch.org.ec. Verónica Muñoz, Rainforest Alliance. Quito, Ecuador. Tel: +593/2243-2087. vmunoz@ra.org, http://www.rainforest-alliance.org.

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