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.


Jump to:
What is eco travel?
4 tips for eco friendly trips
The plastic-free travel challenge
What we learnt


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.

For us, an eco trip means a form of independent travel that is sustainable from both an environmental and a social point of view.

 

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’.

Empty Praia Lagoinha do Leste in Brazil
Enjoying Lagoinha do Leste beach on Santa Catarina Island alone in the shoulder season in Brazil

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.

Don’t get us wrong: being independent doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan anything; and planning doesn’t mean you can’t be open to spontaneous happenings. It’s all about finding the balance that’s right for you.

 

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

An anecdote from the road:

Juan was right: the hike was really smooth and sweet. More like a stroll, really. Past the sheep down to the road, crossing the dormant village and then into the woods along an earth path. I’m not sure we would have found the right way out of Santa Sofía; and Juan knew a bucolic shortcut that saved us one hour on the road.

Juan knew the way when we didn’t even know the mere existence of that waterfall. To this day, we still don’t know its name (does it have any?). It was surely no Iguazú or Salto del Ángel – the world isn’t only made of superlatives. But if you want some, here they are: it was the most intimate, quiet and resourcing nature hike we had on our whole trip.

That’s until Anthony twisted his ankle and had to limp all the way back to Juan’s place.

 

Hidden waterfall near Villa de Leyva, Colombia

In some circumstances, one cannot do without a tour. Fair enough. But for your day tours to really be ‘fair enough’, make sure you choose a tour operator that keeps to good sustainable standards. To know if they offer eco tours, look up whether they have international ecotourism certifications; but, more importantly in countries where such things aren’t developed yet, read online reviews of past users. The same thing applies to accommodation.

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.

An anecdote from the road:

The mess, the sheer chaos in that market! But also the colours and the smells and the shapes of the fruits and veggies piling on the stalls. At every corner, a new discovery: alien-like fruits, bland cheese, live guinea pigs, housewares… The market of Ayacucho is a town within the town, with blocks of specialities.

We were following Misael in the labyrinth of the alleys, too narrow for two people to meet. Left, right, right, left. Getting more lost every metre, not confident that we would eventually quench our hunger in that disarray. We suddenly entered the comedor when we less expected it and Misael walked us straight to his favourite bench.

We knew our line by now: “¿Qué hay para comer? ¿Es vegetariano? What’s on the menu? Is it vegetarian?” Yes, assured the lady, everything at this stall is always vegetarian. Bliss! Needless to say, we went back 3 days in a row.

 

Market comedor in Cusco, Peru

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

Picking up rubbish on a hike

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.
In the Andean countries, where water isn’t treated well (Bolivia, Peru, Colombia), tap water contains a certain bacteria that our Western stomach isn’t used to and causes diarrhea and belly ache.

 

Camping at Choquequirao site
It would have been very hard to carry all our water on the 4-day Choquequirao hike

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.

An anecdote from the road:

In that popular part of Cali, Plastic Free July was certainly not a thing. The residents –some of them sleeping on dirty mattresses directly on the square– have other things on their mind. Across the avenida, up the clean cobblestone streets of San Antonio, they could be serving espresso-flavoured mojitos with bamboo straws; but here, the pavement was littered with residues of all kinds from the market street two blocks away.

If the man at the sugarcane syrup cart didn’t seem surprised to see gringos, the look on his face when Anna handed him her beloved reuse cup was priceless. “Sí, aqui dentro por favor! Inside of this please!” And we told him our reasons, and he thought it was very good, and we were happy for the remaining of the day.

Oh, we are not naive – we probably didn’t change the way he’s been working forever. But we want to think it’s a sweet little drop that might, eventually, make a change.

 

Home made eco travel kit

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.

Embarking on an eco trip doesn’t necessarily mean buying new equipment. It’s perfectly fine to take your metal cutlery, old lunch box and to pick up a reuse cup at a festival (true story). Going eco can mean staying cheap!

 

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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Who am I?

Anna is a world citizen, an avid traveller, a passionate environmentalist. Writing about her year backpacking through South America, she tries to encourage everyone to discover this beautiful continent and pass on her love for responsible travel.

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