By Danielle Carson
There is no such thing as a free waterfall.
That's what I learned, at least, to my frustration when I visited Baños de Agua Santa, or Baños, in the heart of Ecuador. We saw a glorious waterfall from the road we braved on our rusty rental bikes, and after hiking down to it and crossing an untended bridge we arrived at a well-kept patio garden and cafe charging $1 to reach the waterfall on the other side.
The main attraction, The Pailon del Diablo, a famous nature-made cavern and waterfall further down the road, charges $2.50 for entrance and even the trickle of the waterfall that is the backdrop of the town itself is $.50 to approach and surrounded by a cement enclosure.
I felt as if I arrived too late, missed the days before the waterfalls were privatized. After all, the allure of Baños was that of adventure, surrounding oneself with nature and a feeling of discovery. Although $1 is next to nothing to see a natural wonder, I felt upset to be paying on a matter of principle.
I quickly reminded myself that the waterfall itself isn’t owned, but rather the property on which the water falls. What I was experiencing was just a facet of ecotourism.
Tourism of natural landscapes is generally called ecotourism. In 1991 the International Ecotourism Society defined ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education."
From the high sierras to the rainforest, to emerald green coastlines and rolling hills of the southern highlands, Ecuador is rightly marketed as an astonishingly biodiverse country and holds its own when it comes to ecotourism. Ecuador makes up only .2 percent of the land on earth but, according to The Biodiversity Group, it’s home to 8 percent of the world’s amphibian species, 5 percent of mammal species, 8 percent of reptile species and 16 percent of bird species.
Despite the country’s marketing, the Baños ecotourism experience wasn’t as magical as I had imagined. Arriving as an adventurer, I felt like the sheep I hoped not to be when I chose to be a traveler rather than a tourist in the first place.
By contrast, Mindo, in the cloud forest just northwest of Quito, does a fine job at making privately owned land seem like it’s yours to explore. Visitors can walk kilometers before coming to a toll booth, where they feel like they're paying at least to preserve the nature they enjoy — the trails, the birds, the butterflies and finally the pools formed by the powerful waterfalls.
Tourism is healthy in Mindo, as it is in Baños. Every business benefits off of tourism in one way or another. Many restaurants cater to an English-speaking clientele, tour offices are ubiquitous and vendors take to the streets with the few English phrases they know to sell their goods. In Mindo, reforestation happens as both a means to attract birds for biodiversity and replenishment, and to maintain its brand as one of the most biodiverse destinations in Ecuador.
But I couldn’t help but ask, who owns this land on which water falls?
According to an ecotourism study by USAID, the last generation of Mindeños were predominantly cattle ranchers. Once small-scale adventure tourism put Mindo in the spotlight, nonprofit entities and businesses established an ecotourism industry by purchasing land. Today, 19,000 hectares of land make up public and private reserves for reforestation, wildlife corridors and habitat for the more than 85 endemic, restricted range bird species. Today’s aspiring landowners — young people looking to buy hostels or property for development — choose to develop hiking trails and profit from tours of local flora and fauna.
When local industry capitalizes off of the natural setting and biodiversity of a place, it puts boundaries in place that change the way tourists and naturalists are meant to view nature. When tourists visit a place like Mindo, they are meant to understand that danger lurks in the hills in the form of oncillas (tiger cats) and poisonous plants, and therefore should not go off exploring on their own. Instead, they depend on knowledgeable guides, mapped routes and dollar waterfalls. These boundaries, put in place by the institution of ecotourism, protect nature and those who found it first: locals and natives.
Ecotourism in a global economy
Globalization has helped to drive ecotourism. In a 2004 article by Noah J. Toly of the University of Delaware, Toly makes the point that globalization has been an enzyme of sorts for encouraging local economies and populations to put up these boundaries to capitalize off of and preserve nature.
Toly insists that by putting a price on viewing and interacting with natural space, natural space is reconstructed to be the means to an end — the end being monetary gain. This isn’t a bad thing, however; for instance, the ecotourism industry in Mindo supports the community by employing locals as birding, canyoning and rafting guides, which not only engages the locals through education and cultural preservation, but creates income.
However, there are destinations that lie in communities which have not yet seized these opportunities in tourism. The people whom this globalized movement has not yet reached are impacted differently by the presence of camera-carrying tourists, as they represent a way of life much different from their own.
This impact be observed along the hike to Ecuador's best-known crater lake, Quilotoa, and the surrounding Cotopaxi region. One of the more popular hikes in the region is a 10-mile trek from the crater lake to an extremely small and isolated parish called Chugchilán. Along the hike one can marvel at farmers' small corn-growing operations, guarded by fenced dogs vicious from hunger, as well as happy sheep and pigs on leashes with no owners in sight.
Along this route, however, you stumble upon dirty-faced, red cheeked children bundled in hand-me-downs, asking that you regale, or gift, them food or water while they tend to their sheep. The hiker then realizes that the pristine and beautiful landscape, painted by corn fields dotted with blue lupins, is actually quiet due to lack of work, yellow from lack of rain, and that the harvest has just run out.
When trekking such lands that fall in between public and private, is when one truly learns that hiking is a rich man's sport, a sport in which the locals are not participating.
After encountering the children, I was surprised to not be greeted at least by artisans and food vendors as we passed through the small town of Guayama, the halfway point along the trek. To my surprise, there wasn’t even a cover charge to use the restroom. Tourists that pass through the region are indeed participating in both cultural and ecological tourism, but they are not met with an opportunity to give their support.
In fact, Quevedo State Univeristy (UTEQ) published a study last year aiming to analyze this in-between region for tourism development as a means to improve the "human condition." The researchers found that the Quilotoa region is one of several areas across Ecuador, specifically in the high sierra, in which the inhabitants would benefit financially from opportunities in tourism, whether it be food vending, crafts or tour services.
Tourism changes a place. It attracts people of privilege looking for exotic experiences, nightlife, eateries and souvenirs. It is business, and business both creates and taints the beauty of the world’s landscapes. However, without travelers’ full willingness to pay for those waterfalls and support community tourism, local populations do not fairly benefit from the model ecotourism proposes. The development of tourism in these in-between places, to the disappointment of the backpacker hoping to save a buck, levels the playing ground.
Danielle Carson is a bilingual journalist partial to anthropology. She is from the small town of Big Bear Lake in Southern California, but a piece of her heart stays in Long Beach, CA where she studied.
Danielle is most alive when the snow falls, as she teaches skiing and snowboarding, but when traveling she's drawn to lush cloud forests and coconut palm-lined beaches. Danielle has spent most of her time abroad in Central and South America, where she has had the opportunity to learn about environmental and social issues through living with locals and participating in community projects.
She's currently couch surfing through Ecuador, seeking salsa dancing and eating a bit too much. She hopes someday to be a self-sustaining travel writer, if such a job exists, and work with youth in outdoor education and sustainable travel. Follow her blog at Danielleacarson.com or on Instagram @danidigs.