A FEW YEARS AGO, a teenaged local led me through a stretch of the Sierra Norte mountains in southern Mexico’s Oaxaca state. My Spanish es malísimo, so I walked quietly beside or behind him, starting from a humble hilltop village, down a narrow dirt road, into the brush and up the other side of the valley along a steep and sometimes crumbly pathway. My travel companion did the talking, and we learned that our guide’s indigenous bloodline went back hundreds of years, to a time when his ancestors probably lived much the same: commuting on foot, almost constantly in commune with nature, thriving in isolation.
As we trekked, I thought about the differences between now and then, and between him and me, and how they appeared to manifest in our footwear. Ostensibly out of need (and in a rush), I’d bought cheap hiking boots in Oaxaca city – a gaudy black and yellow pair, assembled in some neglected part of South Asia. His footwear – flimsy looking plastic sandals, probably produced just as cheaply – was made for a different kind of leisure, but that fact didn’t faze him. I’d suspect his ancestors repurposed whatever they could get their feet on too.
I watched our guide stroll and scramble along in his meager sandals, nimbly and literally with no sweat. Granted, I was hauling camping gear, a few days’ clothes and some other indulgences, but I was totally drenched. As I observed this, chuckling, a question grabbed me: Which one of us was better prepared to be here?
I’d brought baggage, my preconceptions of need and comfort, into a remote place that had essentially sustained his people for centuries. Sure, he was more acclimatized, but he lost zero ground because his shoes seemed inappropriate. Although he was primarily guiding to earn money, our shared purpose was to enjoy and explore a gorgeous, unkempt ecosystem, teeming with birds, butterflies, rich foliage and astonishing views. We were disembarking from civilization; our shoes, whatever they told about us, no longer mattered.
That experience, accessed via Oaxaca’s burgeoning network of ecotourism outfitters and attractions, reminded me why we travel. Ultimately, and especially in the case of ecotourism, it’s about getting more out of less. Rather than relying on human invention and technology, it’s about rediscovering the innate grace and ingenuity that sustains the whole animal kingdom.
Alternatives got interested in ecotourism because it raises questions about greenwashing, the parameters of sustainable development and comparisons to other forms of travel. One of our contributors, Joe Pavelka, recognizes it as a “messy, ambiguous and often misunderstood industry,” then goes on to profile a pair of Peruvian families who demonstrate ecotourism’s most holistic qualities.
Rachel DeMotts and Larry Swatuk look at the complexities of promoting tourism through conservation in southern Africa, and discover that solutions are often easier to identify than implement.
Amid heated debate over oil pipelines in Canada, Chelsea Gutzman speaks to ecotourism outfitters in the proposed Northern Gateway path about how the project will change their operations. We also compile a small deluge of escape options for exploring biodiversity and culture, both at home and abroad.
We’d love to hear your ecotourism stories and concerns too, so please don’t hesitate to send us a letter. And may your footprints be too small to matter.
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