Before launching El Camino Travel, I had my own consulting business in international development. I was traveling all over Latin America and the Caribbean supporting social entrepreneurs and enterprises in their big dreams to change the world. In May of 2014, I was back in Guatemala working on with one of these organizations for two weeks.
I had the weekend off to return to Lake Atitlan, the deepest lake in Central America that is surrounded by three volcanoes and twelve villages. To get to most villages, it is easiest travel by water taxi from Panahachel. I paid my 7 quetzales fare, jumped into my water taxi and immediately, without even thinking twice, I grabbed my phone to start taking pictures.
As I looked around, I noticed that the boat was filled with half tourists and half locals. All the tourists had their phones out and we were snapping away, looking at such an expansive and beautiful view through the limitation of our phone screens. This was my “aha moment” number one. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “mobile technology and social media really have changed how we have traveled these past few years.” I was not judging anyone, it was simply a moment of observation. However, something did feel off about having so many phones out. The rest of the weekend I kept thinking of that water taxi ride and grappled with that feeling of discomfort. I wondered how our travels would be different if there were not so many phone screens (including mine) crowding our views.
A few days later, another taxi ride would lead to my second “aha moment.” It was my last day in Guatemala for my consulting gig. I had a few hours to escape Guatemala City and hang out in the colonial town of Antigua. It was about a forty-five minute drive to get to Antigua. The driver and I immediately hit it off and we began to talk about life in general, politics (when in doubt about what to talk about with your taxi driver, always ask about the next elections), and of course the drug industry that has swept through Central America in that past years.
It had been silent for ten minutes and I was aimlessly staring out my window into jade colored fields as we crept up the steep hill that led to Antigua.
“You know, thank God for tourism.” The silence was broken.
“That is an interesting statement, why do you say that?” I replied as I locked eyes with him through the rear-view mirror.
“It provides me a high income, it provides me a reliable income, and the only other industry that can compete with what I make in tourism is the drug industry. So, thank God for the tourism industry, it is keeping me out of the drug industry.” And there it was—my second “aha moment.”
My mind began to race. I thought about my own work in international development, where often we tried to create sustainable employment opportunities, but where it would often fail, and the jobs would disappear once the grant wrapped up. Here it was, an industry ACTUALLY rooted in demand and supply that has had, and could even have a bigger, economic impact on millions of lives. There is a huge demand for more culturally immersive experiences, in countries and places far from the beaches of Cancun or Costa Rica, and in countries whose local economies need an injection of cash from the outside. There are millions of individuals that could provide those services and millions of travelers eager to pay for those services.
On the plane ride back, I began to think about what it would like if we provided travelers with an alternative to their phone. What if we gave them an option that allowed them to fully get back to living in the moment and fully engaged in the experience in front of them. The reality is that majority of travelers are using social media. 97% of millennials post on a social network when traveling and three-quarters of all millennial travelers post at least once a day while traveling. That is not going to change, so rather than judge it or fight it, provide a solution. Don’t fight market trends, adapt to them.
Beyond that, it truly is a different travel experience when you are able to fully indulge in the people, the conversation, and the experience in front of you without checking your phone. Having one photographer allows our travelers to fully engage with the locals we are meeting along the way during these opportunities. For example, in Cartagena, when we meet with the dancers of Ciudad Movil and watch their morning practice, we ask our travelers to not have their phones out so that they can fully experience such an emotional art where the creative director has put so much thought and passion into each movement. Instead of having 12 phones snapping away (or viewing the whole performance through a screen), it is a much more respectable cultural exchange and our travelers still get photos that beautifully reflect the experience and that they can share with others or have as a personal memory.
So there it is. While you do receive incredibly gorgeous and authentic photos of your experience while traveling with us, there is also more depth to our company. We are focused on providing a different type of travel experience—one where you get to take part in activities you normally might not be able to organize on your own, but also mentally one that is free of the angst of capturing the perfect moment.