Ecotourism Ventures to Share the Natural and Cultural Wonders of Venezuela with the World
From a Stamp to a Clear Night Sky
In 1998 / 1999 I won a trip with the company I was working with at the time (a book printing company) to Aruba with a friend. While we obviously enjoyed a lot of sun, beach and cocktails, being an active person, the typical beach vacation was not enough for me. Fortunately from Aruba one could easily hop across to Venezuela, an interesting country that I had always been fascinated with, since I collected a stamp shaped like Venezuela way back when I was a youngster.
We flew to Caracas and stayed near the former Hilton Hotel at the former Anauco Suites. That first night in our hotel from our balconies, we experienced a gun fight in the streets below at around 2am – the next day, fortunately we bumped into a lady selling tours to the interior, specifically Arekuna Lodge in Canaima National Park and she signed us up on the spot – we didn’t feel like staying in Caracas for any more days….
Well, to cut a long story short, we flew over Canaima National Park in an old DC-9 aircraft with nationals of many countries – we landed in Canaima and were then flown immediately to Arekuna Lodge, deep inside the national park. The lodge was built overlooking the Caroni River and opposite pristine rainforest.
Quickly, on that first evening we endeared ourselves to the guides and staff at the lodge after assembling a large telescope that they had had in wrappers for many years. I was the first to look through the sight and low and behold, in the milky unpolluted sky, I was able to see clearly Saturn with its rings. Wow! A sight I can never forget.
Finding Purpose and Passion Deep in the Rainforest
Next morning, we were invited before everyone was awake to go visit a community of the indigenous Pemón (the Arekunas) – we traversed the river, hiked a little and entered their camp. I was blown away by them living deep in the rainforest surrounded by nature and danger – the night before they had to kill a jaguar that was lurking close by. We ate breakfast with them and to this day am not sure what was in the bowls – there were lots of ants I could see.
Well, we spent some enjoyable hours with them using hand signals mainly to communicate, then left, spending another day exploring the area before flying over the spectacular Angel Falls on the way back to Caracas. I said to my friend and company – “one day I want to come back and go there to the foot of the falls”. I returned from New York, the next year, and did just that. I was hooked. The next time I visited, was to the interior of Canaima National Park – Kamarata – there I fell in love with the Pemón that lived in the valley (the Kamarakotos) and made some dear friends to this very day.
It was then, after that trip, that I decided to get involved and invest in Venezuelan tourism - this just happened to coincide with the International Year of Ecotourism. I didn’t care much, at the time, in making a profit, but I did want to help the communities in some way – very much in line with the message of the United Nations and the goals of the International Year of Ecotourism.
I found myself making contacts from all walks on each trip then to Venezuela (which were frequent). One such contact was the then Commercial Attaché at the US Embassy – Louis Santamaria. I asked “Louis, how do I get involved and make an impact in Venezuela?” He told me I needed to do something special like set up something the Venezuelans did not have. I thought about this and founded two organizations, EcoAlianza and Expoecoturismo – the themes were resoundingly “eco” and initially they were well received nationally, and internationally.
Adventures Across Venezuela and Spreading Awareness
During the few years after the launch of EcoAlianza and Expoecoturismo, we created Sustainable Tourism / Ecotourism Expos in Caracas, Puerto Ordaz (Estado Bolivar) and Maracaibo to spread the word about ecotourism and sustainable travel across the country.
Each location had its own flavors and adventures, and we ended up with many memorable stories. In Maracaibo, for example, when the Ministry of Tourism in Venezuela was instructed to pull their support, right before a group of international stakeholders in eco / sustainable tourism were due to travel to the Catatumbo Lightning phenomenon in Lake Maracaibo. Last minute, we hired mini vans, contacted the Army, and got an Army truck to take us by river to Catatumbo. We went in motorized army dinghies – with machine guns mounted at the rear! What an experience……I guess we had to be prepared because we were close to Colombia and the Farc crossed the borders regularly. We even overnighted in a ranch surrounded by armed guards.
Sadly, I was eventually to find out that my Venezuelan partner / office had excluded me in the “papers” when the two organizations (EcoAlianza and Expoecoturismo) were registered, convincing me (wrongly) that foreigners were not allowed to be part of such organizations!
Nevertheless, I continued focusing on ecotourism and sustainable development in Venezuela through the company I founded, Angel-Eco Tours (launched in 2000), which also played a role in the 2002 International Year of Ecotourism activities.
Business Lessons and Inspirations for Ecotourism Entrepreneurs
My twenty years of experiences working in Venezuela have been interesting, to say the least. I’ve experienced corruption when working with the expos and events, constant changes within the leadership in the Venezuelan Ministry of Tourism, and visa shutdowns. Now we are slowly ramping up again after the pandemic. Also, for Venezuela in particular, inflation has been rampant with the local currency – hence the dollar is now being comprehensively introduced.
Thank goodness Venezuela is such a beautiful country, with more than 23 indigenous tribes, 43 fabulous national parks, mountains with snow, table-top mountains, jungles, rainforest, beautiful beaches, islands and more than 1,800 kilometers of Caribbean coastline. It’s a wonderful unique destination full of biodiversity and great people that I have come to love.
Mine is a story and vision of a small organization focused on making a difference. There have been struggles, of course, but along the way I’ve gained valuable lessons. Although Venezuela has persistent challenges with visa issues and political complexities, I’ve come to learn that depending on the country one works with, it is useful to engage the country’s tourism ministry – most are supportive of good ideas and practices.
On the other hand, successfully running an ecotourism business depends also on sales and marketing. For me, word of mouth has been among the most powerful tools, such as good testimonials. This means regularly providing good reliable service and experiences, then your positive reputation can spread through platforms such as TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet. I would also recommend promoting through focused travel shows relevant to your market. Perhaps if the budget is low, traveling with, and exhibiting on the stand of their national tourism ministry can be an option. Very important, do not underestimate the power of social media, and keep your online presence always refreshed and up to date - especially if you are looking to be found by independent travelers or small groups.
Finally, I am very pleased to say that the two not-for-profits that I launched some years ago, Fundación Etnika and Angel Conservation, are working quite well and supporting some great initiatives with the indigenous Pemón communities in Venezuela. These non-profits were really the outcome of my work with Angel-Eco Tours – whilst sometimes we were not bringing many groups, we were able and are still heavily involved in supporting the communities with special programs that we have developed, such as the building of a Cultural Centre and Museum in Kamarata Valley.