Given the alarming rate at which deforestation is taking place (78 million acres lost every year), it can be challenging to feel good about visiting a country in an environmental crisis. For conscious travelers, there is a big draw to see such a biologically rich continent, while doing so in a considerate manner.
Agribusiness and timber industries are the biggest aggravators of environmental destruction in South America. According to the Rainforest Action Network, 75% of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil is due to clearing and burning the rainforest. As 60% of deforested land ends up being soybean farms or cattle ranching pastures, it is evident that something must be done. To top it off, a great number of our pharmaceuticals come from rainforest plants. In turn, we are indirectly eliminating the very resources that could save us.
Despite these daunting facts, visiting South America can and should be a top tourist destination.
While tourism may be the root cause of certain environmental issues, it can also increase sustainability for the native people. It creates jobs and prevents workers from turning to illegal activities such as bird poaching or illegal logging to sustain their families. In turn, organizations can contribute back to the land and help to preserve the biodiversity through tourism.
Being selective about your accommodations and tour operators is a step towards keeping a lower impact. It is also important to understand the issues of the particular area and be cognizant where you are putting your money and energy.
The more you know, the more informed a decision you can make. Luckily, South America has several eco-resorts dedicated to integrating the environment, culture, the locals, and visitors.
Imagine Ecuador is a tour operator that leads fantastic journeys to The Guacamayo Ecolodge, located in the northwestern part of the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in The Amazon. The lodge is a three-hour canoe journey from one of the most eastern cities in Ecuador—guests will feel immersed and cut off from the realities of society for the entire duration of their stay (which will generally be a four or five-day package).
Guides from the area will be a resource for guests from sun-up to sun-down, assisting with a myriad of activities such as night walks in the jungle, just steps away from the creepy critters of the floor, and canoe rides to spot all the surrounding life. Additionally, The Guacamayo Ecolodge promotes responsible ecotourism by practicing what they preach—even the toilet system runs on solar energy and with biodegradable products. The lodge’s sustainable tourism is benefiting directly the local communities in the area and at the same time protecting the unique flora and fauna of the reserve.
The lodge prides itself on creating last memories for its guests. "I will remember my stay at Guacamayo Eco Lodge for the rest of my life because I discovered the Amazonas Rainforest's magical natural diversity," said Valentin Vidal, Zookeeper in Buenos Aires and participant in a weeklong venture through Imagine Ecuador. "I understood more about my surroundings through the lodge staff work and the experiences I shared with the other guests. The lodge's unique facilities let me enjoy the time between activities.The lodge was commendable and I really appreciated how they make sure to be as natural as possible."
An Amazon sanctuary. The Critsalino Lodge celebrates the raw beauty of the jungle. How? Each room is powered by photovoltaic panels and solar energy is used to heat the water. The resort is committed to building conservation efforts and is responsible for preserving 28,167 acres of land. It holds top honors from Condé Nast Traveler and Global Vision Awards from Travel & Leisure for its role in protecting the environment. The surrounding state park is a refuge for several endangered species and a huge draw for bird watchers around the world.
Finally, the lodge runs the Amazon school, which allows local volunteers and schools to immerse themselves in forest ecology.
The world's first Geodesic hotel calls Patagonia, Chile home. Ecocamp has quite a resume be proud of, with its many ecological initiatives. The domes boast shared baths, green construction, carbon-free facilities and waste management programs. They support the community by only buying products from local farmers and hiring locals to work on their staff. The camp offers a host of outdoor adventures aimed at enjoying the natural surroundings. From trekking around the Paine Massif to puma tracking, visitors can get directly involved with Patagonia's wildlife—and without endangering it!
Estancia's are intricately linked to the Argentinian culture and pride. For the Criollos, they represent tradition. For the Europeans that have immigrated here, they blend the past with the present. You will see Estancia's peppered throughout the plains and all the way through the mountains. In Argentina, they are an escape from the ordinary for travelers. This is a way to live the gaucho life.
Huechahue stands out not only for its beauty, but it is also the only Estancia that is and has always been sustainably run. Water is the natural power source used at Huechahue. Electricity runs on a water-driven turbine and is gravity fed into the irrigation system. Their livestock is free-range, and produce is pesticide free. The horse trails on which they ride, are carefully selected to prevent soil erosion and the estate offers a "catch and release only" fishing program. Finally, a solar-powered, open-air spa is the perfect way to relax at the estate after a day of adventure.
Chalalán has long been on the list of the top eco-lodges in the world—and for good reason! In 2009 the lodge was listed as one of the top 50 by National Geographic and in 2010 was a finalist for the Indigenous Tourism and Biodiversity Award. Situated in the Madidi National Park, the lodge allows visitors to get a first-hand slice of indigenous life. The tribe, Tacana San José de Uchupiamonas, still inhabit the area and continue to pass on their traditions to the next generation. Chalalán hires local guides to escort tourists on hikes, bird watchers and other excursions driven by nature.
To get the lodge visitors must take a five and a half hour boat trip up the Tuichi River. Once there, visitors are encouraged to remember the sacredness of the land and be mindful of the protected area. The setting is pristine and magical, inviting guests to let go of time and experience the jungle.
Santa Marta is the oldest surviving city in South America. It is also where Simon Bolivar died, an extraordinarily important event for the continent and South Americans. It's one of those destinations where the vibrancy of the Carribean meets European elegance and sweeps visitors off their feet. Santa Marta's Ecohabs are huts made from natural materials and inspired by the Tayrona tribe, the original inhabitants of the land. They are built from palm trees, stones, wood and placed in areas where they are part of the natural setting, without disturbing it.
Guests can also learn about organic farming during their stay, conveniently in close proximity to Tayrona National Park. There are four different Ecohab locations to choose from during your stay. For those looking for something a little more "modern," the resort offers an Ecolodge closer inland that has more amenities (along with vegetarian and vegan fare!)
With water being a precious commodity worldwide, it's always impressive to see an accommodation with extensive residual water treatment as part of their facilities. What is that, you ask? It's an anaerobic and aerobic biological process that takes water waste and removes the solids then treats the water before redistribution. A "solid" move for a place located on the La Pedrera coast of Uruguay. Pueblo Barrancas aims to bring an "appreciation of nature in its virginal state" and values the coastal history and topography.
Water treatment and use of natural materials are just one way; they are working to create harmony. Activities offered include whale watching from the shore (the only truly sustainable way to watch them), a bird observatory and paragliding.