So everything started out like this: On a sunny September afternoon, we jumped on a plane to South America, ready for a life-changing eco trip.
Well, not exactly. Nobody embarks on a travel, knowing it will change their life. Truth is, we needed to plan a bit beforehand and much was left to surprise. But we were sure of a few vital things, including the fact that travelling in an eco-friendly way would be the constant light on the horizon of our travel. And as we found out, an eco trip doesn’t have to be boring, rather the opposite. It means having an authentic experience, learning a lot from locals, and even saving some money.
We share our experience here, and the few tricks we figured out along the way.
So what is an eco trip?
I can see you already raising your eyebrows: “What is an eco trip?”
Because “eco” is still a relatively new term, the definition isn’t yet set in stone. Many define it as visiting a place in a way that doesn’t degrade the natural environment. While protecting nature is a key element of eco friendly travels, we don’t think it should be the only aspect. Respecting and understanding the local communities, their culture and way-of-life is also very important.
Eco, sustainable, responsible travelling or green travel are all similar terms with the same idea behind: to take care of our environment – let it be nature or the cities with its people.
The International Ecotourism Society gives a more comprehensive definition of ‘ecotourism’.
Elements of eco friendly travel
Looking back on our trip, it was indeed life-changing. We really came back as different people after slow backpacking South America for 10 months. With Anthony, we’ve been talking about it a lot, trying to understand what made it so special. We’ve come to the conclusion that most of the experiences that helped each one of us grow as persons came from an insatiable desire to let curiosity be our guide without disrupting anything.
Here are the most important concepts that we’ve learnt.
Tip #1: Explore independently
Feeling South America in the palm of our hand was especially true as we remained spontaneous and visited both famous spots –along the so-called “gringo trail”– and very local, off-the-beaten-track places.
For us, being eco and independent travellers went hand in hand; we could choose our preferred means of transportation (bus, hitchhiking or walking), the places to visit, where to stay and the food to consume during the excursion. Whereas, on a tour, you don’t have your say in terms of transportation, food, accommodation and other elements.
Most of the time, members of the fantastic Couchsurfing community hosted us. That meant having very local, very unique (and usually very cheap) experiences with these open-hearted people. We learnt so much from them about their countries and their cultures.
Read more: Couchsurfing is one of our 8 budget tips to travel more
Tip #2: Eat local food
Trying as much (vegetarian) local food and drinks is a vital element of our travels. And to couple this up with travelling on a budget, we often landed at markets, where we bought our weekly veggies alongside the local people.
A secret of these South American markets is the canteen section, called “comedor” in Spanish. Long lines of boxes with “señoras” cooking 2 or 3 types of daily menu, involving soup, a rice-based main dish and a glass of juice – all for a very cheap price. The ingredients are local, most of the time sourced right at the market from local producers.
We’ve found out about a number of local favourites in those comedores, such as the tongue-tickling spice called aji; or plantain, the staple food in many South American cuisines.
Read about the Peruvian plantain, the versatile ingredient that’s so easy to prepare.
Tip #3: Go the extra mile for the environment
South America has such a marvellous nature. For some examples, just have a look at this list of the most amazing national parks in South America. You really wonder what goes through the brain of people who ruin it with their garbage!
It comes without saying that we don’t litter on our hikes. We always keep our rubbish with us until we’re back in town and are very careful that nothing drops or flies away. Sounds normal to you? That’s very good! Now, early into our trip, we even started picking up rubbish we found on the trails and brought it back with us.
Sometimes it was impossible to find a bin near the trail, so we brought the rubbish back to town. Throwing a glance back at the areas we cleaned, we always felt so happy and somewhat proud!
Whether we like it or not, the future of travel is eco conscious
Tip #4: Save water
The thing that we found outright difficult is that, in many countries in South America, tap water is not drinkable. Even for green and budget travellers, it would be easier to just buy that lousy bottled water in the supermarket and cry a bit. But over time, we found different ways of getting our drinking water without producing plastic waste:
- In private houses (at our Couchsurfing hosts) and eco-minded hostels, a water filter was often installed; so we could just fill up our bottles before venturing out.
- Where this was not an option, we boiled water and let it cool down overnight. That works just as well as purifying tablets.
- For our amazing multiday hike at the Choquequirao Inca site we borrowed a portable water filter that allowed us to get safe water from the wells on camping sites.
Our big challenge: travel plastic-free in Colombia
July and the worldwide #PlasticFreeJuly movement was approaching and we were still travelling in Colombia for a month. So we decided to give it a go during our trip and reduce our plastic consumption as much as possible. We knew that it wasn’t going to be easy, considering the lack of environmental awareness in Colombia (and in most other South American countries).
We were shopping at markets and bakeries a lot already instead of eating out, but street food was big for us; and as such, a big source of plastic waste.
So to respect #PlasticFreeJuly and be more eco, we put together a reuse kit that we always brought with us whenever we went out of the house. It consisted of:
- a plastic lunch box,
- a fork and a spoon,
- a reusable water bottle,
- a fabric shopping bag,
- a plastic bag for the rubbish,
- a reuse cup.
With these, we could keep indulging in juice on the street, ask for food in our lunch box and enjoy impulse shopping. At first, of course, we kept forgetting these items; but as time went past, packing them into our bag became a routine.
What did we learn by travelling eco?
We learnt several things by travelling in what could be considered an eco, responsible way – and essentially we became better tourists.
An eco trip doesn’t necessarily mean an expensive paid tour on an eco farm. For us, it meant going after experiences that respect the wildlife and the environment. These activities easily go hand in hand with local, authentic, social and budget-friendly activities.
In the western world –or at least in Europe– we are so immensely lucky that our tap water is drinkable. Since we returned home, we haven’t bought a single bottle of water and we ask for tap water in restaurants too.
It’s not difficult to take on new habits when we believe in them. We have to be patient with ourselves in the beginning; to know that, yes, there will be times when we forget our eco kit or our re-use bag when we go shopping; times when we forget to say “no” to the straw while we order. But after a while, it will become a routine. Nowadays, we still step out of home with all the items we mentioned before.
Having these “strange” routines can be a good conversation starter with locals. When, on the third day at the bakery, they don’t give you a plastic bag anymore but wait for yours… that’s priceless. And we hope that, with this humble piece, we’ve planted a little seed of reflection about sustainable living, even when you’re on the other side of the world.
Have you got good or bad experiences of travelling sustainably somewhere?
Tell us in the comments section below!
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