Off the beaten path in Chile

Guest blogger, naturalist and sustainable travel queen Kim Mathieu shares about her experience explore sustainable tourism projects and local accommodations in Chile!

Like most backpackers, my usual travel style is to book the cheapest hostel I can find the day before I need to sleep there. Last month, I was literally given the challenge to change it up. This time, I was going to spend a month backpacking solo in Chile speaking to the owners of the places I was staying at (I know, wow!) and only going to family-owned, rural and sustainable accommodations. Along the way, I was going to take notes using a pre-developed checklist in order to evaluate these accommodations and potentially showcase them on a website which specializes in the promotion of sustainable and off-the-beaten-path accommodations: Vaolo.com. My budget was about the same as what I would use for my other trips.

Standing in front of a Ruka, Traditional indigenous Mapuche homes made entirely of natural materials such as straw and mud.

I knew that this trip was going to be much more focused on culture than my trips normally are, but I had no idea that it would have me question all my assumptions and beliefs about sustainability and environmentalism. Every day, I listened to the stories of the families with whom I was staying. Lucia’s husband lost his job because there are no more fish in the bay. Erika and her family can go days without having running water because of the extreme droughts. Arturo sees his favorite glacier, the one perched on the mountains behind his home, diminish in size every season and he worries that one day the water in the river will stop flowing. This trip gave me time to sit, to listen and to understand what’s happening in the world.

Arturo contemplating the valley beside his home and sharing with me his observation about the state of the local glaciers.

Many of these families have developed sustainable tourism projects as a way to grow resilience to these issues and to build a new industry in which they can chose how they want to share their authentic culture and which won’t deteriorate the environment.

This is where this “checklist” thing comes into play. When I started my exploration, I was a huge fan of it. Solar panels? CHECK! Off the beaten path? CHECK! Reinvests income in local development projects? CHECK CHECK CHECK! “WOW! So sustainable” I’d tell myself.

I understand why it is important to use a standardised checklist system to evaluate accommodations, but I soon realised that the sustainability of the tourism industry and of the accommodations went far beyond what this checklist could capture.

If everyone in town uses solar panels, is an accommodation considered sustainable if they also have them?

I really believe that for an accommodation to truly be sustainable, they must understand and respond to local problems. They need to want to go above and beyond, lead by example and show anyone who is ready to listen what new advancements can be done. The most sustainable projects I visited were rooted in a strong understanding of the local environmental context.

Pablo proudly showing me the native specie reforestation project that is being funded in part by the money made by the local rural tourism association.

If grid electricity is produced in a coal power plant and that an accommodation is the only one to go off grid and create their own electricity using solar power, then I’m very impressed.

This whole trip made me realize that if I were to evaluate my own lifestyle using that same checklist, I would not be impressed at all. Do I understand the environmental issues in my own community and then act in a way that addresses them? No. Am I then a hypocrite for heading to Chile and evaluating these accommodations? Yes. It was clear to me that I needed to start being much more critical of my own lifestyle; to start evaluating myself and to understand my weaknesses. My responsibility is now to invite you all to do it with me.

I have found our collective 2019 resolution: we’re all going to undergo the checklist.

I invite you all to the #checklistmylife challenge.

Join my by making a post on social media about a local environmental issue close to your home and one new action you are taking to address it in your daily life. Use the hashtag #checklistmylife and tag @villagemonde/Vaolo (facebook) or @vaolo (Instagram)!

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