When Caitlin Murray met Alejandro and Agostina, conservationists and owners of Ecuadorian Mashpi Artisanal Chocolate Farm, she’d been living in South America for two years after a solo trip that inspired her to stay. They showed her how their commitment to regenerating Ecuador’s cloud forest focuses on sustainable farming practices and educating others. They also gave her a taste of their handcrafted Arriba Cocoa bar that won first place in 2016’s International Chocolate Awards. Inspired by their story and commitment to the environment, Caitlin wanted to bring others to their farm.
Volunteering abroad, solo backpacking, and working in the tourism industry, Caitlin realized in order to access culture and be socially responsible, she must find measurable ways to directly give back to local communities. Driven to create opportunities for women to collectively experience this, she founded Purposeful Nomad. Purposeful Nomad is a travel company that crafts deeper, safer, more ethically responsible travel for women. They attract women from a variety of backgrounds and ages seeking a different kind of experience. “I wanted to use tourism as something positive in the world and not just a consumerism ‘let’s take my life and emulate my life somewhere else’ ethos,” Caitlin explains.
Two years after her visit to Mashpi Farm, Caitlin launched her first women-only sustainable social impact travel program in Ecuador - called Food, Farm, Fleece. The 14-day itinerary integrates local experience and education. Early on, the group meets with grassroots organization founders of Paqocha, Felipe Segovia and Lorena Perez to learn about their efforts to revive the alpaca population. Next, they learn from Ecuadorian women how to shear, clean and spin the fleece with the opportunity to purchase handwoven wares directly from the makers.
Going through a transitional time in her life, Sara Carter signed up with Purposeful Nomad to “fulfill her desire to immerse herself in Ecuador's culture, food, and people, while affording her the chance to do it with like-minded women.” Within a few short years, Purposeful Nomad has grown to eight new locations and diversified itineraries - including Cuba, Morocco, India, and Guatemala.
According to the World Tourism Organization as explained in CNBC’s article “Eco-Friendly Tourism” eco-travel is expected to climb to 1.8 billion by 2030. Since 2000, worldwide destination seeking has jumped by more than 50 percent. As socially responsible travel continues to grow “we make sure our dollars stay local. We’re not a luxury tour company,” says Caitlin. According to McColl of Ethical Traveler, the best way to travel sustainability is to get to know the local people so the “money stays in the local economy, rather than getting extracted by foreign corporations … as a bonus, it’s a more genuine experience, and a better chance to connect with local people.” Purposeful Nomad prioritizes local from lodging and cuisine to hiring knowledgeable guides. Caitlin builds partnerships by talking to locals and finding ways to help. She doesn’t assume to know what a place needs. She asks. Would you like to work with us? How can we help?
According to MarketWatch, more than 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation each year, paying more than $2 billion annually to help out while traveling. Nevertheless, it brings into question how much lasting impact they are generating.
Purposeful Nomad focuses on tapping into established grassroots organizations that are already happening on the ground and are a proven success to help measure their impact. “Bigger volunteer organizations, can create incredible infrastructures in developing countries, but once they pull out, the schools are empty. We don’t want that,” Caitlin explains.
With the mounting popularity of conscious travel, terms like responsible, sustainable and ethical can often be overused or misused in the tourism industry. Epicure & Culture contributor, Daniela Frendo explains, “In the travel industry, greenwashing refers to tour operators which make eco-trips seem more sustainable and ethical than they actually are.” Travelers can mitigate this by asking travel companies whether they employ local people and buy locally-sourced products as well as learn more about how invested the company actually is in community-based projects. Aware of greenwashing, Caitlin says, “If you take shortcuts, people are going to know.” She thoroughly vets organizations and individuals to ensure there is transparency in where the money goes.
Back at the Masphi Farm, Alejandro and Agostina’s passion for conservation and keeping the Ecuadorian traditions of the cacao crop alive balances well with dishing out delicious artisanal chocolate. So, for your next trip, consider traveling with a purpose—it doesn’t get much sweeter than that.
JULIA KRAMER is a New York-based writer and avid traveler who addresses systems changes to social challenges through storytelling and community building. When she’s not writing or on the road, you will find her cooking something from her urban garden or hiking. Read more of her articles on travel and social impact at julia-roos.com.