We like to highlight companies doing a superlative job in Latin America for upscale travelers. Sometimes you may not have heard of these companies because they’re “inbound” tour companies. You contact someone to book a Galapagos tour, for instance, and a company like Latin Trails is the one actually taking care of you on the ground the whole time. We hit up experienced tour planner Marcel Perkins, who is general manager of that company, for advice on traveling in South America.
How did Latin Trails get its start and where do you operate tours in South America?
Latin Trails started as an extension of a lifelong passion of traveling throughout Latin America. My first trip to Ecuador took place when I was less than a year old. Eventually my parents decided to move from New Jersey (USA) to Quito when I was 7. We kept our U.S. ties but Latin America turned out to be our playground. We traveled the entire continent several times and helped hundreds of visitors organize their trips, and sometimes we led them as well. I decided to give the business a formal turn in 2002 and Latin Trails started as an Ecuador based destination management company.
Today we offer custom trips throughout Ecuador and Peru for travelers who search for private services, customized itineraries, and a 24/7 concierge service for a worry-free trip. To compliment these services we operate 2two boutique yachts in the Galapagos Islands: The Galapagos Sea Star Journey and The Galapagos Seaman Journey. We also run trips on an Amazon riverboat out of Iquitos: The Cattleya for eight passengers. We’ll soon be adding another ship there, Spondias. In Ecuador we will be adding a luxury boutique hotel in Quito for 2017.
What mistakes do you see tourists make who come to South America? What do you wish they would do differently?
The biggest one is not taking enough time to plan their itinerary. There are so many advantages of getting help from a travel planner and booking in advance. We offer early bird discounts for advanced bookings. For example we are holding 2016 rates for 2017 bookings until the end of September.
I also notice travelers wanting to cram too many destinations into a trip in a short period of time. We get requests of Galapagos plus Machu Picchu within a seven-day time frame, for example. It could probably be done, but travelers would not enjoy either location fully. My advice would be to give each location enough time to enjoy it slowly and without a rush. Latin America lives at a slower pace and travelers should take advantage of this. To enjoy the Galapagos fully I would say no less than five days is needed on the cruise side, plus there's transit time to the islands and back.
We have to address the big scare of the year: The Zika virus. What's happening in the regions where you operate and how are you coping with all the fears from potential visitors?
Fortunately Ecuador is a country where the local health system is well prepared to handle this type of outbreak. The local community has taken strong action to keep the virus from spreading. In Ecuador there are less than 2000 cases, most of them in non-tourist areas and confined to rural coastal locations in the northern border with Colombia. The rest of the country, especially regions like the Andes and Amazon, are pretty much virus-free. The mosquito that transmits the disease cannot survive above 800 meters of altitude, therefore a large amount of the country is spared.
In terms of the Amazon basin, the area has not received enough visitors with the virus for it to spread. It is important to note that it spreads from one infected person to another by the means of the mosquito and it is virtually impossible for an infected mosquito to cross the Andes from the coast to the Amazon to transmit the virus. Therefore the only cases existing are related to visitors that have arrived infected. In those cases the local health organization has immediately given them treatment and put into quarantine in order to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes and transmitting the virus to other people. A similar case has occurred in Peru where native cases are non-existent and the virus has been found mainly in visitors that already have arrived into the country infected.
As a further precaution our itineraries have been crafted to include areas that are mosquito safe, with no current possibilities of being infected.
Areas our travelers visit and are not infected by the Zika virus:
Andes of Ecuador: Otavalo, Quito, Cotopaxi, Riobamba, Cuenca, Loja
Galapagos Islands: The mosquito does not exist in Galapagos
Coastal Peru: Lima, Nazca
Andes of Peru: Huaraz, Cusco, Arequipa, Puno
As you can observe these are some of the most important tourist sites in both countries and are virtually Zika free.
Despite all we travelers can now do online directly, I know most of your business comes through travel agents and international tour companies. How has this changed over the years and what are your end customers like? What kind of travelers are taking your tours?
We have continued to be loyal with travel agents and tour operators from around the globe. Travelers are more and more loyal to their travel agents, mainly because they receive unparalleled value from a long relationship with a private travel designer.
Agents help manage mileage programs, and also have insider knowledge of destinations. We work together with agents from around the world by being their local partner, their ground crew. Our long-lasting relationship with hotels, bus companies, having our own staff of guides and other relationships allows us to offer discounts, confidential rates, and upgrades that are not available to online channels or to the public. By working with hundreds of agents as their local partner we are able to secure for hotels, lodges, and other suppliers a continued flow of tourists and in exchange we get preferential rates. Our partner travel planners save their customers hundreds of dollars on bookings by using a local destination management company. Also travelers benefit from a travel planner by avoiding costly mistakes in route planning. One very important factor is access to unique attractions that are off the radar. We are constantly on the road investigating and preparing experiences to share with our guests.
Regarding our typical guest, they are usually baby boomers and generation xers who have little time to plan a luxury trip on their own. It takes a lot of knowledge to put together adventure and comfort in remote locations like the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon Rainforest, and small Andean villages. Our travelers are foodies and cultural enthusiasts; they look for life changing experiences and of course enjoy wildlife encounters with unique animals.
What makes your ships different in the Galapagos Islands and Peru?
They have been custom designed for each destination. Our yachts in Galapagos have been built in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and have been planned for Galapagos cruising. Every feature on board comes out of decades of experience and leading travelers to the archipelago, reading through thousands of trip reports. Some important features are: lower berths with orthopedic mattresses, ocean view windows that can be opened to allow fresh air flow into each cabin, and large sun decks with day beds to enjoy not just visits but navigating in between islands. We have secured a team of the best naturalist guides over years of trial and error (working with the most enthusiastic and guest driven guides makes a difference). We have a strong staff training program in terms of service and cuisine.
Each boat is for 16 passengers and has a high crew to guest ratio (12 crew to 16 passengers). Our expedition equipment is made up of sea kayaks for all travelers, glass bottom zodiacs, and other expedition toys. Careful route planning has allowed us to come up with a set of itineraries that combine highlights and hidden gems in each itinerary. We can offer travelers 3, 4, 5 and 7-night programs that can be combined up to 14 nights without repeating visitor sites.
In the Peruvian Amazon our eight-passenger riverboat is small and ideal for family charters or small groups. We do sell individual cabins on all departures as we guarantee our operation twice a week on 3- and 4-night itineraries. The Cattleya carries 8 passengers in 4 cabins, it has 2 guides on board and a staff of 10. This allows to offer unique service and spend much of the time on wildlife experiences.
Travel to the Galapagos seems to go up and down depending on the economy, plus there's always the challenge of maintaining a balance between conservation and tourism growth. How are things looking there in the second half of the 2010s?
Galapagos is not a cheap destination: everything we use on board in terms of liquor, food, and hotel amenities is imported from mainland Ecuador or abroad. All this does have its price tag, yet we prefer to charge a fair price and not cut corners. We are a "once in a lifetime" destination for our travelers and their only chance to see the islands. Our goal is that they can do it in style and comfort. We do get effected by economic downturns here and there, but in general the second half of the 2010s is and will be on the upside. The Galapagos Islands are a unique destination not comparable to any other place on the planet. You have unique animals who do not fear humans, amazing birdwatching, unparalleled volcanic scenery mixed in with tropical rainforests, lava tunnels, craters, lava fields, mangroves, and more. To top things off it is one of the best snorkeling and diving locations on the planet.
By offering our guests the best service in combination with a unique destination we have been successful in overcoming difficult times.
In terms of tourism growth the Galapagos park authority has limited the amount of overnight tourism boats to 55 give or take. These slots have not changed for the past decades and will not change. You will see newer yachts and improved services, yet there will not be added capacity. For us to bring in a new yacht we have to take out an old one. These limitations make it an expensive destination yet at the same time ensure its preservation for future generations of visitors.
Let's say I'm a wealthy traveler with a family who has an unlimited budget. What kind of dream trip would you set up?
I would suggest arriving into Quito, Ecuador and starting with two nights in the downtown district, either Casa Gangotena or Plaza Grande are nice luxury properties. I would then suggest one night at Cotopaxipungo, a beautiful lodge just outside of Quito bordering the Cotopaxi park. I would also put in a couple nights at Hacienda Piman in the northern highlands to show some off-the-radar locations and allow you all to enjoy this unique Oasis.
I would then fly the family off to the Galapagos Islands for a six-day cruise on board the Sea Star Journey with a two-night extension at Iguana Crossing hotel on Isabela Island (with a private Cessna flight transfer). I would connect everyone directly to Lima for a culinary stay, including dinner at famous El Central restaurant and putting you up at beautiful Hotel B in the Barranco district. The tour would continue on to Cusco, staying at La Casona Inkaterra and of course extending into the Sacred Valley. (I would set you up for dinner at "El Albergue" one of the finest dining experiences in South America). Then Machu Picchu and from here we would connect with Iquitos for a cruise into the famous Pacaya Samiria reserve for four days on board the Cattleya, exploring wildlife, culture and navigating the Amazon river. After this amazing trip you would leave for home from Lima.
To plan your own trip to Ecuador and/or Peru, get in touch with Latin Trails here.
Interview conducted in September, 2016 by editor Timothy Scott