Why We Should All Be Traveling Off the Beaten Path

The women behind El Camino Travel show us how our vacation days are about much more than getting out of the office
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Jul 16, 2015 | By Liv Combe

f you've ever had a friend travel to Central America, chances are that friend came back tan, full of fresh fruit and Toña, and still riding the highs of catching that first wave. “What a beautiful country,” they told you. “But what a poor country.”

And that's exactly what El Camino Travel is working to change.

Maybe you already read about my trip to Nicaragua earlier this year, about the food I ate and the people I met. If you have, maybe you've already gotten the sense that those are just the kinds of things that Katalina Mayorga — cofounder of El Camino and career hustler in international development — hopes people will ultimately take away from their adventures with El Camino.

“That’s the one thing that really breaks my heart when people come back from visiting developing countries — that their lasting impression is the poverty," she says. "It’s true that it’s very different from the US, but all that [impression] really does is take away from the hustlers in country, all the hard workers, all the people who probably don’t want to be known just as poor people. We want these locals to inspire our travelers, not make them sad.

"We’re trying to keep it kind of under the radar, but we’re hoping that through El Camino, we can help to transform the dialogue around tourism in developing countries.”

People are traveling more than ever have before. Last year, international tourist visits hit a record 1.13 billion, and all that travel adds up to a fair chunk of change — 10 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, in fact — and generates hundreds of millions of jobs.

In our increasingly technologically-connected world, it only makes sense that we crave more human connection, too. Personally, it doesn’t do a place like Nicaragua justice to just, say, like Maderas Village on Facebook; I get so much more from staying a few nights in their treehouse bungalows and learning to surf with Juan Carlos, the instructor on Playa Maderas. I want to taste the food and swim in the volcanic crater lake and talk with the locals in San Juan del Sur and, yes, probably come face to face with a kind of poverty I don't often see back home in San Francisco.

And I’m obviously not alone in this. In the year since El Camino kicked off the ground as a fledgling company, they’ve gotten a lot of attention — selling out trips to Nicaragua and Colombia and getting written up in the likes of AFAR and the New York Times. They’re popular among the young, urban, tech-savvy set — not surprising, since they're impeccably branded and have more than their fair share of beautiful photos to give would-be travelers a taste of what it might be like to go on one of these trips. (Aside: If you're considering taking the plunge and signing up, I really can't urge you enough.) 

But what hasn't been touched on too much — understandably, since Mayorga herself says they're not trying to "shove it down anyone's throats" — is what's at the very root of El Camino and at the root of Mayorga, as well: a savvy take on international development.

To get back to when the seed of an idea for El Camino was planted, you'd go back a few years to a trip Mayorga took in Guatemala. After years of working in global environmental policy and climate change, Mayorga started her own private consulting business, which she was traveling for in Central America. She had some free time one day and decided to make a day trip to Antigua, and over the course of the trip there, Mayorga — whose parents are Colombian and speaks fluent Spanish — got to talking with her driver.

“Kind of out of nowhere, he said, ‘Thank God for tourism.' What do you mean, I asked? 'It’s the only job that provides me a high, reliable income and allows me to put three meals on the table for my family. The only other industry in our country that can compete with that is the drug industry. So thank God for tourism — it’s keeping me out of the drug industry.’

“That was a huge ‘aha’ moment for me,” says Mayorga. In one moment, her two passions — international development and travel — came together, and a solution to many of the problems she'd worked on in her career presented itself.

“We're often trying to resolve economic development issues, like how do we really support communities and bring them employment opportunities in which they’re able to make legitimate money? As hard as we try, those are often low-paying jobs, and a lot of the time the funds will eventually dry up — once the grant ends, the people don’t have jobs anymore and they fall back into the same cycle of poverty," a cycle that's incredibly tricky to break.

But here, hidden in plain sight, was a solution that turned out to be little more than a question of matching the right supply with the proper demand. The demand is from the travelers and tourists looking to explore these countries and get off the beaten path, and the supply comes in the form of the many people in country "who can provide the jobs that are needed to provide those experiences," says Mayorga, "whether it's drivers or teaching cooking classes or tour guides.

"All of that's sustainable, in its own way, because it's not forced —you don't have to convince a community to adopt it or train them in a whole new way of doing anything — and it's good pay when these people are used to making an average of $2 or less every day. For us, tipping a dollar when someone helps us with our bags isn't a huge deal; for them, that's almost their day's wage, and it's coming from multiple people."

Mayorga is quick to point out that tourism, of course, can be detrimental when not done correctly. Take a look at most major all-inclusive resorts — in most cases, about 80 percent of expenditures go out of country to international companies rather than to the local vendors and the surrounding community. Moreover, grave environmental damage can be incurred through the construction of the infrastructure needed to support the resorts. 

Learn to roll a cigar? Yes. Explore private beaches on a catamaran? Definitely. But stay a week in an all-inclusive bubble of a resort? That isn't too high up on many bucket lists these days. 

Enter El Camino’s first tenet: to provide an authentic travel experience. “Our generation doesn’t want to be in resorts,” says Mayorga. “The more we can be connected to the places, to the people whose communities and cities we’re visiting, the better. That’s what fulfills our desire for travel.” There's the demand, and the supply is in country with the locals, the movers and the shakers and the entrepreneurs, who are working incredibly hard for change in their countries."

But it's still up to the traveler to make sure they get off the beaten path to meet those people, which is right where El Camino steps in. 

“At every point along the El Camino supply chain, we’re looking at everything — the activities, the lodging, the transportation — and are constantly asking ourselves, ‘Does this benefit the local community? Is this having a positive impact?’" says Mayorga.

"It’s at the core of who we are as a company. For us, as travelers — and I really consider myself a global citizen — we’re voting with our dollars. When we decide to spend our money in travel, we’re voting for what type of tourism will succeed in the long run. If more of us are demanding socially responsible practices, there will naturally be more vendors in the market to ensure that supply because they want to make money.”

And in return, El Camino promises a percentage of the profits from each trip to a local non-profit organization. In my case, that was the Tio Antonio Centro Social, which employs deaf, blind, and mute youth from the city of Granada to become, essentially, artisans — they handmake beautiful hammocks that are widely recognized as the best in Nicaragua. In a country where it’s already difficult to get a job — our guide told us that the rate of unemployment hovers around 55 percent — Tio Antonio helps these people prove their worth to a community that saw them as useless. 

When we visited one afternoon, it would have taken some effort not to be inspired by the work that was going on there. So instead, we all carefully chose colors and patterns for our own custom hammocks that would be sent to us back in the United States — a reminder, every time we lie down on it, of the people we met on that trip.

Mayorga has spent her life so empassioned by her work in international development that she can't ever turn her critical mind off, whether she's leading an El Camino group through Redondo Bay or taking a personal beach vacation on an island off of Honduras.

"I can't ever just rest," she says. "I always end up in crazy situations where I'm trying to learn about the whole community on the island. I've been working on these issues and been on the ground for so many years that I can't even imagine turning that perspective off and not trying to integrate that perspective into everything I do, into everything El Camino does."

Hey, it might not be for you. Maybe you like turning your mind off, having a lazy beach day, and drinking a cocktail with an umbrella in it. There's nothing wrong with that. And even if you don't end up traveling to Nicaragua with El Camino, take my word for it: if you're thinking about your vacation days simply as an excuse to get out of the office, you're definitely doing it wrong. [H]

Liv Combe's hammock has red, blue, and green stripes.
She's the Associate Editor at Huckberry in San Francisco.
Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Images © Marianna Jamadi. Video © Kyle Hausmann-Stokes