Q & A with Svenja Beilfuss, Co-Founder of Arutam Ecotours – Cuenca, Ecuador.
To bypass the large tourist crowds, come to the town of Cuenca in the southeast region of Ecuador and find this nature-themed tour provider directed by a biologist and a local guide. “A small-scale operator committed to socially and environmentally sustainable ecotourism practices in Ecuador.”
HOW DID YOU AND XAVIER [CARDENAS] FIRST MEET, AND WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO START AN ECO-TOUR COMPANY TOGETHER?
We first met when we were both traveling in Panama. From there we went to Ecuador. Xavier is from Ecuador, he was from the community of Limón Indanza in the province of Morona Santiago. As I got to know his region, I fell in love with its amazing nature and biodiversity. Together we started developing the idea of offering tours here as it was not often seen by travelers. Xavier always wanted to help his indigenous neighbors, and I always liked the idea of bringing people closer to nature. So I went back to Germany to prepare for my new life, and when I came back to Ecuador a few months later, we got started on our big project.
There was nothing like our product in Ecuador, so we had to go our own way. Sustainable living was already a part of my life as a biologist. I had a clear idea of how to be a good example for eco-friendly operations. It was also important to both of us to contribute fairly to the communities we would be working with. We provide locals a fair and decent working condition. Plus we increase their awareness of the fragility of the ecosystems, not only for themselves but also to share with our guests.
WHY CUENCA AND NOT QUITO AS SO MANY OTHER ECUADOR TRAVEL COMPANIES ARE BASED IN QUITO?
Our central product is providing trips from Cuenca to Limón Indanza. This part of the Amazon region is only 3 hours from Cuenca, but no tour operator was offering trips there. So we changed that. We offer trips from 2 – 5 days in length.
Not all of our guests stay with local families, but if someone is interested in spending a few days with local people, we are happy to make arrangements. As a guest, you will have your own room, eat meals with the family and participate in their daily lives. This gives you an authentic Ecuadorian experience plus a chance to practice your Spanish skills. Families are available both in Cuenca and in the rural areas of Limón Indanza. We also organize home-stays within a Shuar Amazon rainforest village.
ARUTAM ECOTOURS HAS A 3-DAY HIKE AND CAMPING EXPERIENCE ALONG AN INCA TRAIL. HOW MANY GUESTS PER GROUP…AND WHO COOKS?
Usually our groups are very small, between 2 - 4 guests plus our guide and the mule leader. Our guests are not supposed to cook the meals, they should relax. But sometimes they like having conversations with the guides while they are cooking to know them better.
ANOTHER OPTION IS HORSEBACK RIDING – YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE EXPERIENCED, IS THAT CORRECT?
The horses are very well trained, and even if guests have not been sitting on a horse before, they can take our horseback riding day trip without a problem. Our riding guide can adapt the routes easily. The horses will take good care of inexperienced riders.
We offer activities like canyoning, rock climbing, rafting, kayaking, cave exploring and bicycling. Of course, cultural trips are also possible. One of our most popular day trips is to Ingapirca – that is the oldest complex of Inca ruins in Ecuador.
WHAT MAKES YOUR COMPANY STAND OUT?
We hire the best guides and pay them fairly, so we may not be the bottom price but we do offer a fair price for excellent service and a good cause for which we’ve received excellent customer reviews. In our first year of operation, we were the #1 highest scoring operator from Cuenca on TripAdvisor.
WHAT WILL GUESTS LEARN FROM ONE OF YOUR TRIPS?
They will learn more about Ecuador, cultures and ecosystems. Our guides explain about the different cultures and the interaction between humans and wildlife. This creates greater awareness, and once guests understand these details they get the bigger picture. We hope that when they return home they share their new knowledge with others.
IS THE GOVERNMENT OF ECUADOR INCREASING ITS PROTECTION OF NATURAL PLACES?
Ecuador’s government made a revolutionary move in 2008 by recognizing the Rights of Nature in its constitution. This gave Ecuador the opportunity to become a global leader in eco-sensitive development. However since then, most of Ecuador’s biodiversity remains severely threatened by the construction of roads that give access to oil and mineral reserves found in the heart of the Amazon region. In particular, the decision to allow oil exploitation inside the Yasuní National Park and Biosphere Reserve is disturbing. Another case is the open-pit mining project in El Condor Mirador, an area with a number of endangered endemic species. Despite this risk, the project proceeded. As these examples demonstrate, interpretations of the Rights of Nature are far from perfect, and violators have not been held accountable.
WHAT’S AHEAD FOR ARUTAM ECOTOURS?
We have new projects in mind for both the Amazon and the Shuar community in Limón Indanza. We will be developing these projects with American students from the University of Massachusetts. We are always open to future projects that support the environment and local communities.
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