Inspiring use of tourism for good in Bolivia

Randall Howlett set up Condor Trekkers with his own cash three years ago with the idea of doing REAL eco-tourism (not just green-washed puff) to help the poor rural communities outside the beautiful city of Sucre in Bolivia. I had an incredible few weeks working with Condor which I’ll never forget.

Here’s how it works:

  • Local Bolivian guides have paid work taking tourists on treks out in the Andes, mostly centred around the magnificent Crater of Maragua.
  • Unpaid volunteers (mostly North American, Aussie and European) help prepare for the trek (shopping, cooking, packing) and one goes out on each trek to help the guide and translate for guests who don’t speak Spanish.
  • Other than the small office premises, a paid Bolivian office manager (the lovely Lidia) and a modest marketing budget, the company has very low overheads.
  • Randall himself doesn’t take a cent back and leaves Bolivia for 3 months per year to work elsewhere in the world to save money to cover his costs for the rest of the year. More on this in a moment.
  • Proceeds after costs are available to fund community projects in the rural communities where Condor takes people trekking.
  • The Bolivian guides are key in talking to local people, identifying needs and making projects happen.
  • Projects have included building ecologically friendly toilets; laying pipelines to supply water; buying materials for rural schools and running teeth cleaning workshops for the kids.
  • Generally money is provided to the local people so that they can complete the projects themselves. They are usually able to help themselves but simply don’t have the money to pay for materials.
  • Tourists don’t pick Condor just because it’s a not-for-profit. It has to be priced competitively, especially for the budget concious backpacker market and provide a fantastic experience.
  • Their relationships with the local communities and community projects provide a strong unique selling point which adds to the customer experience.
  • In just two years Condor have come to completely dominate the market for trekking in Sucre, putting money back into the community, and not lining the pockets of the rich ‘gringos’ who own most of the other operators.
  • They’re currently in the process of opening a cafe as a sister company to the trekking business. I’ll cover this in a separate blog post but you can follow their progress though the quagmire of setting up a business in Bolivia on Facebook.

Here’s my take on Condor Trekkers:

  • It is an incredible way to direct money to provide help where it’s needed. It would take a far larger charity operation to generate in donations the money that Condor Trekkers raises.
  • The trekking itself allows Condor to stay extremely close to the communities that it helps, for example seeing first hand how the late coming of the rainy season is affecting farmers, and identify needs that Condor can later fund.
  • The Bolivian guides who speak Quecha, the local indigenous language, are an important link between the communities and Condor Trekkers – better than the whole thing being operated by foreigners.
  • Randall’s approach of starting up with his own money and not taking a cent back is generous to almost super-human levels. We debated this one and I really think he needs and deserves to be paid although I have a huge respect for his decision to not take anything back. My argument is that by paying yourself at least a fair living wage allows you to focus on the business without worrying about your own living needs. Also, the business might be stronger if he was able to be there all year, but you’ve got to take into account that Bolivia is a tough place to run a business so I think he needs the annual break for his sanity as much as anything else!
  • I love the unique advantages that Condor Trekkers has by being a social business that’s about something higher than just making money: There can be up to 10 or more volunteers helping out; customers get a better experience and it all helps word of mouth marketing.

Randall, you are an inspiration and a hero! I wish you the best of luck with Condor Trekkers. And to anyone travelling so South America, make sure you stop in Sucre when you get to Bolivia and go trekking with Condor.

You can follow Condor Trekkers on Facebook.