The Development of adventure tourism in Ecuador: an interview with Marcelo Meneses, co-founder of Neotropic Expeditions

When Marcelo Meneses was 29 years old, he was a young man with the world at his feet. He had a Computer Science degree from Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, he’d worked in a NASA jet propulsion lab sending a satellite to Jupiter, he had an MBA, and was earning billions of sucres (the former Ecuadorian currency) as a project manager for IBM in Ecuador.

Why then, did the LA-born quiteño give it all away to go in on a struggling adventure tourism company with his brother, an idea that in the mid-90s was about as preposterous as if he’d thrown away his shoes and become a traveling hippy?

Bored of a “normal life”

“I realized that I hated it. I was really bored. I was supposed to be completely successful,” explains Marcelo, the motorbike-riding, champion rafter, spiritual convert co-founder of Neotropic Expeditions. “Anyone would have wanted to be in my shoes back then, and I hated it.”

Looking back on his adventurous childhood, it’s not hard to see why. The second of seven brothers and sisters, Marcelo grew up in a noisy, Catholic household, where his father often took off to enjoy the outdoors. As a 12-year-old, he’d climb to the top of Pichincha, the ominous 4,784-meter volcanic peak overlooking Quito, straight from his house in the city.

But it wasn’t until his brother Alfredo, with whom he would later go into business, took him rafting, that he began to see adventure as a way of life.

“I remember Alfredo partying until two in the morning and saying, ‘Hey, we’re leaving at seven!’ And he’d get up and we’d have a full day rafting. He had so much energy. And the next day he’d party again, and then he’d do it again,” says Marcelo.

And although at that time there were no self-bailing boats and the pair literally went with a bucket and tipped the water out as they tore around rivers and waterfalls, Marcelo’s eyes were opened to a new kind of adventure.

First adventure travel tours in Ecuador

A self-described “weekend warrior”, Marcelo was heavily into the motocross scene in his 20s, taking off for international competitions and bike trips, as well as the rafting excursions. But the greatest jump he would take was to go 50/50 with Alfredo on a company that his brother, who’d been guiding and working in the adventure industry since he was 19, had set up with the financial help of family members in 1991.

It was 1999 when Marcelo got rid of his suits and joined his brother on the streets of the Mariscal in Quito, selling rafting and multisports tours to backpackers. Over the next years, the young business took a battering: the switch in Ecuador from the sucre to the US dollar sent inflation rocketing, the attack on the Twin Towers in New York was a blow to global tourism, and still inexperienced in the industry, Marcelo miscalculated the market and couldn’t get a grip on dealing with local people. The company went bankrupt.

“For me it was a huge learning experience as I made lots of mistakes, and that’s what helps you most in life! But what helps you more than that is recovering and changing the strategy. We had to think of new ideas!”

Starting multisport adventures in Galapagos

Working 14-hour days, the brothers battled on. In 2002, Alfredo came to Marcelo with an idea that would change the fortunes of the company, and the course of Ecuadorian tourism. Alfredo explained that he wanted to begin multisport adventure tourism in the Galapagos Islands, something that had never been done before.

“Alfredo always had that vision, he was always creating new projects. He had this ability to identify what was a great product,” says Marcelo. “But he’s not good at the business side. He’s an entrepreneur by creative thought: he can see the opportunity.”

With the specific skill sets of the two brothers, the pair were onto something. Marcelo’s finely-tuned corporate administration skills complemented his brother’s ability to dream and create. The business thrived and grew, securing in 2005 an account with REI – the largest outdoor retailer in the world.

From there, the brothers set about polishing products and discovering what great adventure really is.

Mixing adventure with service, comfort, food and culture

“We kind of knew it intuitively and then we defined that great adventure is not just about the thrill, it’s first about the venue, the destination, it’s about that river, that canyon, that jungle, then it’s about how to interpret that forest, so the guide comes in to help you see it in a different way. After that came comfort and service and food, and being in Ecuador, culture. Integrating all those elements to make the best kind of adventure travel,” he says.

Marcelo realized that he could apply things that he’d learned out rafting to his life in general, and more importantly, to the business.

“When I learned to kayak I discovered this whole new world which is very adrenaline based, but it has more finesse, it has more technique and self-control. Being able not to panic and handling a difficult situation, being able to have that cold mind. For me that was an analogy for life, how we should just enjoy the moment because everything else disappears. Connected to Mother Earth and getting energy from it,” he says.

The biking, the kayaking and the growing business are the not the only journeys he has been on. For the past few years, Marcelo has also been on a spiritual path of self-discovery.

Connecting the mind, body, and soul

“You get to a certain point and you go, ‘What’s next?’ That awoke this idea to connect with myself,” he explains.

He set about enriching his life with meditation and Ayahuasca (the traditional Andean spiritual medicine), and plans to go on a nine-day silence retreat with no technology. He has adopted certain habits to promote gratitude, like writing a special journal: in the mornings, he states three things he is grateful for from the day, and at the end he repeats what was awesome about the day. Sometimes they coincide; sometimes they don’t.

“You realize that sometimes just meeting someone on the street, being about to help someone: that’s a great day,” he says.

He overhauled his diet, trying to eat mainly organic and gluten free (he had to learn how to cook, read labels carefully, and now even makes his own coconut milk), ridding his body of pollution and toxins.

“When I changed, I started feeling well, going back to my potential in terms of my mind and my body and spirit.”

This, he says, helps him to be a better boss: “I’ve realized that if I’m rested and I’m healthy I’m a much better leader. I can think properly and be ahead of the game. You can’t be an asshole and be a good boss!” he explains.

This holistic outlook, in sync with the natural world, is felt right to the core of Neotropic Expeditions. When the company first started out, “ecotourism” did not exit. Sustainability was not a word that was used in the industry, and adventure travel was full of “strange people and hippies,” according to Marcelo.

“Now it’s almost mainstream. The market came to us. We’ve been there all along and the rest have caught up with us.”

“You should come back from a vacation a better person”

Marcelo used to be president of the Eco-tourism and Adventure Association, whose charter was to create sustainable development with local communities – “that’s something that’s very ingrained in our culture and in adventure travel in general.”

“When you get started in adventure and you meet the indigenous people and connect, that’s something you’re raised with. That’s something we respect very much,” he says.

“We sell health and well-being. We are the best moments of a family’s, a person’s life. I have the philosophy that you should come back from a vacation a better person. It’s not just about having drinks on the beach, it’s about learning and connecting. That’s at the core. That’s the wow factor. It’s a moving target.”

The adventure continues

Marcelo recently took a transformative trip of his own. Together with Alfredo, he took to his 1,000 CC, KTM 990 R motorbike and rode it to Argentina, for an adventure travel summit. Alfredo, audacious as ever, was the one to suggest the ‘Motorcycle Diaries’-style journey.

“At first I said, ‘That’s nuts, I’ve never done a multi-day trip on a street bike.’ But the more I thought about it, the more awesome I thought it would be. When am I going to do this if I don’t do it now?” he says.

After leaving two days behind schedule and with a Catholic blessing from their mother, the brothers set out across South America. They got sick along the way, they broke down, and they were cured by a man with the venom of a serpent. But they made it, and Marcelo realizes that it was a blessing.

“It meant that I was able to understand Latin America, to explore Bolivia and to understand how Ecuador fits in the puzzle. So it was a very inspiring opportunity, and something I realized I really needed to do,” he explains.

Finding Colombia: a wonderful land without a tourism industry

The trip was even more fitting bearing in mind one of the more recent ventures of the brothers: to expand their adventure travel operations into Colombia. The country was not new to the brothers: Marcelo used to travel to Bogota regularly for his work with IBM and the brothers’ great grandparents from both sides were Colombian.

“We went back to Colombia and we found this amazing country full of opportunity, full of wonderful people, and there was no tourism industry,” Marcelo says.

And this beautiful, friendly country was now safer than it had ever been: after more than 50 years of political turmoil, the de-escalation of the guerrilla means it is now open for business. Explaining some of the misconceptions over safety issues for tourists, Marcelo remembers a moment from an early fam trip:

“We’re driving around and the police stops us in the middle of nowhere. We pull over and the policeman asks us to get out of the car. Of course, we’re super worried that we that we’re in trouble. But he just says, “Look!” and we see the license plate hanging on by just one screw. He says, ‘Wait a minute’ and we think he’s going to give us a ticket, but he comes back with a screw and a screwdriver, gets on his knees, and puts it back on. Where does that happen?”

A view to the future

Aside from the continued expansion around Colombia, the next step in the future of the Meneses brother lies in the Galapagos Islands. This year, they will lay the first stone of a luxury eco-hotel on San Cristobal Island, in what they hope will be the first of a line of their own hotels across the archipelago.

For now, Marcelo is happy striving to strike a healthy work/life balance, sometimes working 12-hour days in order to take four-day weekends. And he also collects rivers:

“Every river I’ve gone down I add it to my river list. When I turned 50 I wanted to have 50 rivers, and I counted and I realized I had 53. Now I’m on 62 and I collect them throughout the world,” he says.

Not a bad river count, for a man who started out his professional career as a worked-to-the-bone, suit-wearing corporate exec.