From Mississippi to Mindo: life in the cloudforest
Last year I had the great pleasure of spending a few days in the company of Tom and Mariela at their sustainable lodge, nestled in the Ecuadorian cloudforest. The memories I have from that time there are centred as much around sharing a coffee or a meal with them, as they are the toucans and hummingbirds I saw at close quarters. It's why we love sharing their lodge with our travellers. And why we'd love to share it with you too, when you're ready to visit Ecuador. Their's is a story I've been keen to tell. So I posed these eight questions to Tom in the hope of doing so.
Can you tell us how an American from Mississippi ends up living in the heart of the Ecuadorian cloudforest?
Sure. I was teaching high school biology but was looking for a life change and definitely found what I was looking for here in Ecuador. I originally came for a job as a rainforest guide at La Selva Jungle Lodge, where I was hired by the owner Eric Schwartz. I met my wife Mariela Tenorio in Quito on one of my breaks from guiding, and we were married a little more than a year later.
After working at La Selva for a year and a half I went to work on a flower farm just outside of Quito. I was so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work at La Selva, where I was able to learn firsthand ecotourism. Moving on to the flower farm was also a stroke of good luck. I learned about agriculture, business and how to manage employees at the farm. The next step was finding our own property...
When you and Mariela decided to build a lodge, what factors were important to you? What did you want to do differently from everyone else?
It is weird that when Mariela and I decided to build El Monte, we never considered the business aspects. We just knew that we wanted to live in Mindo and somehow we would make it work financially. The factor that was most important to us was lifestyle over business.
What often happens is that a young couple (like we were!) discovers their version of Paradise, then they slowly start to forget why they wanted to move there in the first place, build too many rooms or cabañas, get tired of the business move to Quito or some other metropolitan area, get divorced, sell the business… We figured out early on for us the concept of lifestyle, sustainability (in every sense of the word) and nature would always be more important than the financial side of the business.
When you arrive at the lodge, you have to cross the river on a kind of sit-on zip wire. For guests, it's a nice little dose of adventure before you even shake your hand and settle in, but it must have presented some interesting challenges when you were constructing El Monte?
Our property was the only one we looked at when we decided to buy in Mindo. It was exactly what what we were looking for, but with one little drawback. There was no entrance. We had to wade through the river when it was low, or walk a couple of miles to the nearest bridge to get across. When Mariela began the construction she started sending some of the heavy materials by pulley on a stretched rope. This eventually led to the “cable car”, which we felt never needed to be improved from there. It gives us a sense of an island. Everything was brought in by this hand pulled cable car… boards, thatch, refrigerators, tables, cement, and then carried by hand or wheel barrow.
Sustainability is very important to you both isn't it? It's not just about the material used in construction, but you don't serve red meat for example...
You know it is a little funny to us how sustainability, conservation and all have hit the news lately. But if you think about it we all have known how we are negatively affecting the planet for at least the last 30 or 40 years. But (hopefully) its better late than never. I think everything we do here at El Monte we consider the environmental consequences… although we still have our “environmental sins”. Because of financial and other constraints we aren´t able to do everything as green as possible right away. We try to eat low on the food chain, no red meat (horrible for the environment in many different ways), produce as much of our veggies as possible, use alternative energy etc. I think it will be a lifelong pursuit.
Tell us about the lodge's role in the local community, because you told me before that you were not here to "colonise", but rather to play a very active role in it...
I think we chose well when we decided to move to Mindo. The local community had already started to embrace conservation, and ecotourism was soon to follow (it usually is in the other order right?). We have mostly worked in an informal way here in Mindo and our biggest contribution is probably by training guides, cooks, housekeeping staff, gardeners. Many of our former staff have went on to work at other lodges or started businesses of their own.
Most people, understandably, associate the cloudforest with exotic birds like toucans and quetzals. It is an amazing birdwatching destination of course. But there's many more, sometimes unexpected, layers to the experience of El Monte aren't there?
Yes I agree. Many guests are originally drawn to Mindo by the birds, but I think most come away with so much more. Green mountains, clear rivers, lush vegetation and just the experience of being in a natural environment is what people reflect back upon once they leave. I think many of the worlds problems stem from this disconnect that we have with nature. Luckily nature is still all around us.
When we went out walking on one of the trails which start from the lodge, we were both surprised to come across a possum. You said you hadn't seen one out during the day before. There must be all manner of unexpected encounters and new discoveries that, even now, keep surprising you?
You would think after over 25 years of being in the same place you might feel you have experienced it all. Not even close! We still see new birds we haven´t seen before, and others that we haven´t seen for a long time. We put out a camera trap and have found that three species of cats, including pumas, are common, plus many other mammals.
Of course, your ecotourism interest is not confined to Mindo. You have both played a vital supporting role in the establishment of the community lodge that we share with Pura travellers to the Ecuadorian Amazon. What does that relationship, and ecotourism as a wider concept, mean to you and Mariela, personally?
Mindo gives us strength and hope that maybe parts of this planet can be saved. When I worked at La Selva Jungle Lodge I asked why the locals killed the monkeys. My friend replied because they were hungry. In this case the locals were Kichwa and owned 44,000 hectares of the land that La Selva operated. They also were the native guides, cooks, housekeeping staff, canoe operators… basically all the Jobs that kept the lodge running. It was an easy bridge to cross in my mind; empower the comuna and eliminate the hunger.
Our first foray into this concept was Sani Lodge. Mariela and I worked for 5 years to help establish Sani. And today Sani is completely managed and owned by the Sani Isla Comuna and is one of the 1st shiny examples of a locally owned and operated lodge. And yes, the monkey and general wildlife population are better than ever!
Next we started helping Otobo Baihua, a native Huaorani who lives with his family in the Yasuni National Park in the Amazon of Ecuador. Together we created Otobo´s Amazon Safari and have been working with Otobo for 13 years now.
And about two years ago we started helping Eden Amazon Lodge. We are very proud of the service that Eden provides and they are well on their way to becoming one of the premier lodges here in Ecuador.
If you want to share Tom's company on a tailor-made trip to Ecuador, take a look at our Ecuador Uncovered itinerary for inspiration. Or our Wildlife Ecuador trip if you want to include the Galapagos as well.
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