October 12, 2012 by Christina Hamlett
A Conversation With Jacquie Whitt
Galapagos Islands (Photo Credit: Misty Smith)
Back in the 1980’s, I always looked forward to the arrival of Banana Republic’s hand-illustrated catalogues. Between the covers and interspersed amongst the sketches and descriptions of travel clothes worthy of Indiana Jones were fictionalized journal entries about exotic realms. Decades later, it’s the mystique of Machu Picchu that still lingers. Although I’m unlikely to ever cross this destination off my list, the next best thing is seeing it through the eyes of a savvy globetrekker. Jacquie Whitt, Co-Founder /Director of the U.S. Office for Adios Adventure Travel, chats with us about her “journey” from suburban soccer mom to travel operator and guide.
Q: For starters, what was the inspiration that made you wake up one day and decide that the world was calling you?
A: I started traveling at the age of 17 when I went to Russia with the Girls Scouts in 1973. I traveled to Europe many times in the 80’s, exploring Spain, Italy, England, France and Germany by bike, train and foot. I met my (American) husband in England at the youth hostel in Oxford. Then settled down for 16 years to raise children and do the Mom thing.
When my son was in 10th grade at a private Quaker School in Virginia where I worked as an administrator, I offered to take a group of students on a trip abroad (including my son) and was given the go ahead. I acted on an unsolicited email offering travel and service opportunities in Peru. Nine of us, including another teacher, went to Peru to see Machu Picchu, followed by a trip to Cajamarca, in the north, to do a service project. The freelance guide who greeted us in Cusco and stayed with us a week was a charismatic, extraordinary man. The students and I adored him and I stayed in touch with him and 7 months later, I returned to Peru for a 2 week trip with him that included a tour of Lake Titicaca and the 4-day Inca Trail hike with a group of women friends. The following year, I returned to Peru with another group of students. Again, with the same guide. His name is Vidal Jaquehua and he asked me if I wanted to be his business partner. I had no idea how to start a company, but started by registering Adios Adventure Travel as a corporation, then set up banking and a website. Our corporation was formed in October 2009 and our target demographic is active boomers and retirees, adventure travelers and special interest groups including churches, schools, photographers and knitters/weavers
Both of my children have participated in trips to South America. But my beloved husband stays home to take care of the house when I travel. He travels as well and although he has not accompanied me on any of the South America trips, we travel as a family and as individuals.
Q: What was the primary attraction for you to South American destinations, history and culture?
A: Traveling to South America is exciting and exotic to me. It’s very different than traveling in Europe which is a variation of “western” culture in the U.S. The logistics to explore Europe are more “user-friendly” than in South America. Traveling in South America has an element of adventure that Europe does not have. I’m attracted to the indigenous cultures, some of whom still practice the ancient traditions of their ancestors. It’s like stepping back in time! I’ve developed friendships with the guides and helped Vidal get a visa to travel to the U.S. He has been to my home and met my family and I know his family as well. We have forged a friendship across many barriers of age, culture, language and geography.
Q: When and where was your first official tour?
A: In 2006 I started organizing the first group of high school students from the school my children attend. We traveled in March 2007. All the travelers came from the school where I worked.
Q: Share some of your memories of that first tour.
A: No matter where you travel you have to be prepared for the unexpected. On the first trip, as we arrived in the remote region of Cajamarca (where less than 1% of tourists go) my 16 year old son started showing signs of illness. Fever, lethargy and loss of appetite. The local operator arranged for 2 nurses from London (who has just arrived) to examine him. Their first thought was that he had altitude sickness. But before we left Cusco – when my son was just starting to feel bad – Vidal had clearly told me he was not suffering from altitude sickness.
There was nothing specific that could be identified as a cause so we continued our tour to the remote region where we would build mud-brick stoves. It took all day to travel from Cajamarca by local bus, over dirt roads including switchbacks up and over a 15,000 foot pass, and through a throat-clutching, rushing creek that tumbled outside its banks, before we descended to a small village. When we arrived, several jeeps were waiting to take the group to the remote lodge where we were to stay and one jeep took my son and me to the local ER.
The darkness of evening was falling as we entered through a gate and appeared to be the only people on the premises. A doctor in a white coat waited in a dimly lit hallway and showed us to the exam room. Our wonderful guide spoke about as much English as I speak Spanish, so translating the symptoms was difficult. It’s easier to ask directions and order meals in Spanish than it is to describe symptoms of illness! We both struggled with medical terminology, but somehow conveyed basic info to the doctor, who offered to admit my son and administer an IV, which struck me deeply as to the seriousness of our situation. I wasn’t sure how pushy the doctor would be with his advice, but asked if we could stay in a local hotel and see how things went. At the time I was afraid of the treatment! And afraid the doctor would challenge me. But now I realize he was merely trying to make all the treatment options available. My interpretation of his intentions was prejudiced by my own experiences with the medical system in the U.S.
Our guide directed us to a local hotel where I chose a room with the toilet and shower next to each other. This was a critical decision as my son deteriorated into a feverish stomach virus that caused him to lose 20 lbs over the next 2 days. When my son could walk, we were moved up the mountain to the lodge to be with the rest of the group. They generously asked me what foods they could provide to help my son recover. The guides arranged for a local man who owned a vehicle to transport the two of us up the kidney-crushing12 km dusty artery that connected the mountain people to the village. My son winced every time his tender posterior boomeranged off the seat as the small truck jostled us up the mountain.
Until the moment we were perched in the Andes on the edge of the planet, the kids and I had no idea how remote our location was. It was a spectacular opportunity to be immersed into an ancestral world that allowed us to experience the local culture with all our senses. We were not prepared, but there is no way to prepare. It’s not necessarily something I wish I knew more about in advance. We approached the experience as if we were children, learning something new!
Q: How do you define your role as a cultural bridge between American travelers and South American locals?
A: I understand how North Americans prioritize their needs while traveling. And I know how the local South Americans like to structure tours. Americans are famous for reading comments on travel forums and asking for tours that don’t make sense. My job is to find out what their travel goals are and then explain it to Vidal.
There are some situations that cross a boundary for some travelers. For instance when you travel to Lake Titicaca, you will find public toilets, but they may not have seats. If someone wants to go to that area, I will make sure they are prepared.
Many travelers want to know what is planned every minute of their tour. While we can and do arrange all the daily activities, we try to leave a little wiggle room for unplanned, meaningful moments. Our guides do a good job of looking for these special occasions, but it is difficult for Americans to trust us. I understand that some companies are packing the tour buses as full as possible to make as much profit as they can, so people are wary when I suggest they should tell us what they want and leave the planning up to us. It’s in our best interest to provide every traveler with their trip of a lifetime. But hard to Americans to give up what they perceive to be full control over their trip.
Q: What sort of insurance considerations are involved when you book tours as well as oversee the safety and well being of tour members when traveling abroad?
A: Travel insurance is strongly recommended. Travelers who participate in adventure activities including hiking at altitude, mountain biking, horseback riding or boating/scuba-diving (Galapagos Islands) should verify that all their activities are covered. We use only licensed guides and vehicles. It is possible to find cheaper guide service or transportation if you are willing to be flexible on the licensing, but we won’t do it.
We organized a big 16-day trip for a 50 year old woman and her 20 year old son earlier this year. They wanted to see everything including the Amazon jungle, Machu Picchu and Galapagos Islands. Three days into the trip, the woman fell and broke her arm while walking through the mud in the jungle. Her son was able to contact me by phone before they took her upriver to the clinic for services. By the time she reached the clinic, I had her booked on the last flight out of the jungle that day to Cusco and I had an ambulance and doctor waiting for her at the airport. Her broken arm was treated and she continued her trip with a few minor modifications.
If it’s in our power to help or do something to help someone, we will do it. Vidal in Cusco organizes all the logistics and he has his own stories about roadblocks, airport closures, etc.
Q: Given the diversity of your tour group demographic, how do you go about deciding an itinerary? For instance, is everything done together as a group or are there options for participants that, for instance, want to go to a museum instead of taking a rigorous hike?
A: One of the hallmarks of working with a small company is that we don’t mind offering a variety of activities for one group. If part of a group wants to hike the 4-day Inca Trail, and the other half does not, then we will make arrangements to accommodate needs /logistics for both groups. This may mean providing two guides, two vehicles and two itineraries for a portion of the trip. The itinerary is determined by the interests of the group. A photography group will do different activities than a yoga group or a group of students. My job is to screen the group leader to whittle down the options and then Vidal and I collaborate to craft the itinerary. We also make suggestions to people once we know what their interests are. Or we advise people away from an activity or destination if we think it will not meet their needs. Most people doing this kind of travel are doing “once-in-a-lifetime” epic journeys. We try never to forget this.
Q: What’s your favorite South America destination that you’re always jazzed to go back to?
A: I went to Bolivia on a reconnaissance trip and it was like I discovered a whole new world! First, the altitude is higher than Peru. La Paz airport is 14,000 ft above sea level. The city is slightly below. But it’s amazing how civilizations have evolved and thrived at such heights! In the U.S., anything over 10,000 feet above sea level is mostly wilderness. Not in South America. I fell in love with the Uyunia Salt Flats, and even more interesting to me was the Bolivian desert that is right behind it. I traveled by Land Rover for three days staying in rustic lodgings in mud-brick towns. There were four 23 year old Belgium women who traveled with me and my guide. We had so much fun! I was surprised to learn about the geography of the region. High altitude lagoons are full of flamingos who feed on plankton. Steamy geysers, rock formations and hot, thermal pools make this remote destination my top pick for adventure travelers.
Q: I understand there’s only one hotel near the Machu Picchu ruins but that it’s without a view or after-hours access. Tell us more about that.
A: It’s a 5-star hotel and it’s the only one in the National Park. I think people are attracted to it because of the convenience. It’s literally right next to the main entry to the Machu Picchu ruins. And of course, the service is 5-star, too, and everything is perfect. For travelers who seek 5-star comfort, they will enjoy it. Although I think the hotel tries to play up its exclusivity, it’s no advantage to enjoying the ruins. Hotel guests have the same access as everyone else. Some want to stay there just to splurge for a special occasion. There’s nothing wrong with that. But they will not see the ruins!
Q: How many tours do you do annually?
A: Our company has grown considerably from doing 1 or 2 tours per month, to 2-10 groups per month. This past June we organized and guided over 12 groups in one month, including a group of 12 people. That was our busiest month so far. I travel with 2-3 groups per year.
Q: What’s the best travel advice anyone ever gave you?
A: “Find friends who love to travel as you do.” The greatest gift is to have friends or family willing to go with you. Whether it’s a weekend cruise or an epic journey to the end of the earth. It’s always best when shared. I have a couple of girlfriends who don’t flinch any more when I suggest trips to climb mountains, shimmy up ropes or go jeep trekking in remote deserts. They know I’m serious and they know I can make it happen!
The other advice? If you plan to travel a lot, buy good luggage with guarantees. Five years ago I got a rolling backpack from Osprey. The fabric finally gave way in Bolivia. I duct taped it to get it home. When I took it in for repair, they replaced it with a new bag. Worth every penny of the original purchase price!
Q: What’s the one thing in your travel bag that you never leave home without?
A: My netbook. Zip ties and duct tape. I was stuck in Lima once with a student with a visa problem. I was able to contact my congressional representative for diplomatic services with my computer. I never travel without it.
Q: What’s the funniest, weirdest or most nostalgic memory of these years that Adios Adventure Travel has been in business?
A: Last June I took a group of 12 to the Amazon jungle on a “soft adventure.” We kayaked, climbed ropes to the top of 100 foot trees and bicycled through the jungle. One afternoon the guide took us on a little hike near the lodge. One of my friends lifted the leaf of a vine and asked the guide about the “orb” shaped object hanging from the vine. The orb started to vibrate and the guide reached out and touched her arm to get her attention and quickly said, “You just disturbed a wasp nest, we have to run now!” I actually caught us running and crashing through the jungle on video as we escaped the wasps. No one was hurt but we all learned a lesson about touching what appeared to be a simple and benign object.
Q: How can a small company make a profound and lasting difference in the world?
A: Aside from providing the best customer service we can possibly offer, we go to great extent to make sure our guides, porters and drivers are treated with respect and dignity. This is a big problem in developing countries, where business ethics is sometimes ignored or neglected. Porter abuse is a problem on the Inca Trail (and elsewhere). We gladly pay living wages to all our staff and service providers. Last year we were able to offer holiday bonuses to all the staff in Peru.
Vidal and I are like two pieces of fabric cut from the same cloth. We share the same ethics and values when it comes to taking care of our customers and our staff. We want everyone to know they are valued and they are essential to the win-win operation and success of Adios Adventure Travel. The customers should come away feeling like they did have the trip of a lifetime and the staff should know their devotion and loyalty are appreciated.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: The measure of success for our company is the joyful emails and letters we get from people when they get home. Some will take the time to post their comments on the travel forums but most just send us wonderful comments and stories. Which we love to hear. I make sure that every guide knows when someone has spoken highly of them.