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Discovering a Connected Life in the Peruvian Amazon

Today's post comes from Irene Lane, the founder of Greenloons - a premier online resource dedicated to inspiring people to think different, be different and travel different in ways that help to ensure a more sustainable planet.

Golden Spotted Frog Near Tambopata Research Center

When I was younger, my preferred travel destinations were always cities. Perhaps it was because from the ages of 5 to 18, I lived in smaller towns, or maybe it was because I found cities to be life-affirming, educational, and liberating. Whatever the reason, I felt rejuvenated after a trip to Singapore, London, Paris, Sydney, or even New York. However, that sentiment changed with a recent trip to the Peruvian Amazon.

It was my third trip to a rainforest ecosystem and my second to the Amazon, but everything else about this trip would end up being unique. I was invited by Rainforest Expeditions in Peru, to participate in one of their wildlife photography safaris through the Tambopata National Reserve, a relatively remote and unexplored area of the Amazon.

Bursting with life

In a country where there are issues with water pollution, soil erosion, and deforestation, the Tambopata National Reserve is a fledgling success story of the symbiotic relationship that can exist between natural resources, wildlife, and cultural standards.

As a result, the region is bursting with life. It is not just the vast wildlife contained within the rainforest with its jaguars, caimans, capybaras, black hawks, geese, macaws, turtles, monkeys, peccaries, frogs, butterflies, and countless tree and plant species. Life was also encompassed within the sweet smell of the afternoon rains as we relaxed in hammocks at the Rainforest Alliance Verified™ Refugio Amazonas Lodge.

Parrots Pecking for Salk at the Clay Lick

My fellow travelers and I listened with rapt attention and fascination as we asked questions and learned from the area's volunteer ecologists, who were observing the habits and habitats of the myriad of butterfly, frog, and bird species in the region.

I observed life in the easy smiles of my three guides -- a professional photographer, an entomologist, and a local guide -- spotting what my suburban eyes always missed and eagerly imparting their knowledge about the mysteries of the rainforest. I learned that caimans are smaller, distant cousins of crocodiles with pointier heads, shorter tails, and U-shaped noses. And that butterflies drink the salty "tears" of the endangered yellow spotted river turtles, which helps the butterflies to reproduce.

The leaf-cutter ants that roam the rainforest floor live in communities of workers consisting of wingless female ants that never reproduce and male ants whose only function is to mate with a queen (after which he may die). Theirs is a truly female-led (and organized) society!

Caiman On The Shores of Rio Tambopata

Connecting with communities and nature

Ultimately, what changed my perspective was the profound sense of connection I quickly felt with the Peruvian rainforest. I felt connected to the local community because I stayed in sustainable lodges that partner with local families and businesses, sharing the social, economic, and environmental benefits of ecotourism.

I felt connected to the forest when the caiman "smiled" for my photo, and when I stared right into a frog's eyes and knew that it was just as curious about life as I am. On several occasions, peccaries suddenly emerged en masse from the rainforest, settled into the ecolodge's front clearing to eat some roots, and then completely disappeared 20 minutes later. I learned how to use medicinal plants to cure skin diseases, organ failure, and even addiction.

I wasn't merely observing the multitude of life around me, as I do when visiting cities. Instead, I felt like a direct participant doing her part to respect life, nature, culture, and the future.

Finally, I felt privileged to be among the people and indigenous tribe communities that work hard to preserve their culture and protect the land that, in turn, protects them in times of need - a truly connected life!

Sunrise through the Tambopata canopy

Photo of the Week: Water and Energy

Photo by Hotel Whales and Dolphins

Tomorrow is the World Water Day, a celebration that brings attention to the importance of water and advocates for the sustainable management of water resources.

This year's theme is Water and Energy. Water and energy are closely interconnected and interdependent. Energy generation and transmission requires utilization of water resources, particularly for hydroelectric, nuclear, and thermal energy sources. Conversely, about 8% of global energy generation is used for pumping, treating, and transporting water to various consumers.

But we must also remember that tourism is highly dependent on freshwater resources, for everything from recreational activities to showers in hotels. When you are planning your next vacation, remember to choose a sustainable tourism business that protects buffer zones on their property, treats wastewater properly, and implements other water conservation practices.

Photo courtesy of Hotel Fairmont Mayakoba, Mexico.

Making a Difference: Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa

Vea esta publicación en español.

Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa, Mexico

Our "Making a Difference" award for this month goes to Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa, a luxurious and sustainable hotel located in the idyllic Riviera Maya in Mexico.

Just how does a high-end hotel go green? We spoke with environmental coordinator Leonardo Salas, who tells us about their sustainable initiatives and their work with local communities.

Question: What makes Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa so special among the multitude of hotels in the area?

Leonardo Salas: We are a socially responsible hotel with a strong commitment to the conservation of our surrounding ecosystems. The hotel and our projects are 100% dedicated to having no negative impact on our natural environment, and we aim to have a positive effect on economic growth for the workers and the communities nearby. Guest participation strengthens this effort.

Q: How can interested guests participate in or assist with Dreams Tulum efforts?

Salas: They can join our programs by making donations, volunteering during their stay, and spreading the word to their friends so that other people learn about our initiatives and support them.

Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa, Mexico

Q: What are some of your major sustainability initiatives?

Salas: The hotel has an "Environmental Management System" that covers a plethora of different sustainability practices that make use of the best science and technology. In terms of water conservation, the hotel has aerators for faucets, water-saving toilets, irrigation sprinklers, and two 500,000-liter wastewater treatment plants. We use biodegradable cleaning products and have grease trap systems in all areas where food is handled so that the fat can be used to make biodiesel fuel. We have the proper permits for well water extraction and conduct monthly physicochemical and bacteriological tests of the water. Our staff makes daily inspections to verify that we are meeting our objectives and goals for saving water, electricity, and gas.

For energy saving, we have an optimal energy system with cutting edge equipment and machinery for optimizing performance and economy. For example, we have installed capacitor banks to compensate for the energy power factor, low Kw consumption refrigerators, air handling units for the air-conditioning, and pumps that use heat from the air-conditioning to warm the water for the hotel.

We manage waste by sorting recyclables from all areas of the hotel, and special wastes such as ink and toner cartridges or wastes that are hazardous are all delivered to companies that specialize in handling them.

Q: What does Dreams Tulum do to support local communities?

Salas: We create jobs, since 70% of our staff comes from Mayan indigenous communities nearby. We support small vendors by buying the foodstuffs they produce, promoting the sale of their crafts, and even hiring small local businesses to share cultural performances with our guests.

The Dreams Tulum hotel, through the Tulum Foundation, also runs social programs such as "Adopt a School," an initiative that provides maintenance to the schools in Tulum. We also give environmental education presentations to children and teachers and make annual cash and in-kind donations to organizations such as the Red Cross, Villas de los Niños, the sea turtle festival in Tulum and to the sea turtle conservation program run by Flora, Fauna and Culture of Mexico.

In addition, the Tulum Foundation awards scholarships for higher education to the children of the hotel's low-income employees, and we give out toys during the holiday season in the surrounding communities.

Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa, Mexico

Q: The Riviera Maya had been stereotyped as a mass tourism destination but it is now becoming more sustainable. What motivated tourism entrepreneurs to show that their businesses are friendly with the environment and the communities?

Salas: We are motivated to protect the environment and ensure the future of its natural wealth. Tourists come to this area to enjoy healthy, natural settings and beautiful scenery. We understand that in order to achieve sustainable tourism development, our business practices must be aligned with the conservation of the environment.

Q: Last year, your parent company AMResorts was awarded the 2013 Sustainable Standard-Setter Award at the Rainforest Alliance's annual gala. What does this achievement mean for the company and for the tourists who visit your property?

Salas: This recognition of our work is an extremely important accomplishment that confirms our efforts to conserve ecosystems and support local communities. Society and tourists especially are increasingly committed to sustainable projects that protect the environment. The achievement has a double impact because the hotel is located near a protected area and this motivates us and impels us to redouble our efforts to be sustainable.

Photo of the Week: A Sunset Dip

Photo by Hotel Whales and Dolphins

After an exciting day of hiking, whitewater rafting, or whale watching, there's nothing better than taking a relaxing dip in a warm pool as the sun sets in the distance. What does your perfect vacation day look like?

This photo was taken at Hotel Whales and Dolphins on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Six Reasons to Stay at a Sustainable Hotel

Today's blog entry is a guest post from college student Tyler Satoh, who visited a sustainable hotel in Costa Rica while on a trip with Rainforest Alliance Verified tour operator Horizontes Nature Tours earlier this year.

Photo by  by Tyler Satoh

This past January, I, along with 22 other college students, traveled to Costa Rica through a University of Minnesota study abroad program. Costa Rica is a major supplier of several commodities such as coffee beans, and as a supply chain major, I was interested in learning more about the origins of these products and the people who make it possible for consumers in the United States to enjoy them.

Our primary goal during the trip was to study the Rainforest Alliance's efforts to promote environmental stewardship in agriculture, forestry, and tourism. One of the most valuable things I learned from this experience was the importance of the Rainforest Alliance's verification program for sustainable tourism businesses. Tourism is a large source of income for many developing countries, and the purpose of sustainable tourism is to provide lodging and experiences for travelers that have a minimal impact on the environment and support local communities. Our group went on a tour organized by a Rainforest Alliance Verified tour operator called Horizontes Nature Tours and during our travels, visited a sustainable hotel and ranch called Rancho Margot. This property has received the highest rating of "five leaves" from Costa Rica's Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) program for their incredible efforts to be environmentally and socially responsible.

These six sustainable practices followed by Rancho Margot are great reasons why you should consider staying at a certified or verified sustainable hotel the next time you travel:

1) Fresh Food
The food here was simply amazing. A typical meal at Rancho Margot consisted of rice, beans, plantains, and a variety of fruits and vegetables that are all grown locally and organically.

Photo by  by Rancho Margot

2) Renewable Energy
There are two hydroelectric turbines that generate power throughout the entire ranch, providing electricity to all the bunkhouses and bungalows without the need for fuel.

Photo by  by Rancho Margot

3) Composting for Heat
Organic waste is composted and used to heat water for all of the sinks and showers in each cabin.

Photo by  by Rancho Margot

4) The Bio-Digester
Manure from the ranch's livestock is processed through a bio-digester, which creates methane gas used for everyday cooking.

Photo by  by Rancho Margot

5) Low-Impact Recreational Activities
Rancho Margot provides many fun, low-impact activities for visitors such as horseback riding, visits to natural hot springs, yoga classes, cow milking, nature hikes, and more. These activities give each visitor a unique experience, yet leaves a minimal impact on the environment.

Photo by  by Rancho Margot

6) Nothing Gets Wasted!
Every type of waste is a valuable resource at Rancho Margot. Uneaten food is fed to the farm animals or composted to use as fertilizer. Even the cooking oil is recycled and made into soap!

Photo by  by Rancho Margot

As one of the largest industries in the world, tourism must continue to focus on environmental stewardship so that future generations may enjoy the same experiences that we do. This trip was a life-changing experience for me because it helped me realize the significance of sustainable tourism and how important it is for people like me to support organizations like the Rainforest Alliance that are working to ensure a sustainable future.

If you are interested in sustainable lodging options for your next trip, check out the businesses listed on SustainableTrip.org!

Photo of the Week: Royal Crest

Vea esta publicación en español.

Photo by  by Andrew Snyde

Most of the time, the Amazonian royal flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus coronatus) looks like an ordinary bird. But during courtship rituals and while competing with other males, this little bird shows a fantastic feather display on the crown of its head--a brilliant array of red, yellow, white, blue, and/or black.

This spectacular image of an Amazonian royal flycatcher with its royal red crest was taken in Guyana by Andrew Snyder for National Geographic's Your Shot.

This species is found in forests and woodlands throughout most of the Amazon basin in northern Bolivia, eastern Peru, eastern Ecuador, eastern Colombia, Venezuela, the Guyanas, and northern and western Brazil.

Celebrating World Wildlife Day and Sustainable Tourism

Vea esta publicación en español.


Yesterday, the world celebrated the first ever World Wildlife Day! The United Nations established this day to celebrate the many beautiful and varied forms of wild fauna and flora and to raise awareness of the multitude of benefits that environmental conservation provides to people and the planet. At the same time, the UN aims to remind us of the urgent need to step up the fight against wildlife crime, which has wide-ranging economic, environmental, and social impacts.

Wildlife is a key part of the tourism industry, and sustainable tourism actually helps to conserve ecosystems that are important to many species of flora and fauna. To honor this day, we want to share with you some of our favorite wildlife photos from the sustainable business listed on our website:

Skillful monkeys

These spider monkeys owe their name to their ability to move from tree to tree with a speed and agility that makes you imagine they have eight limbs rather than four. Unfortunately, they have become Central America's most threatened primate-especially the Nicaraguan subspecies, which is critically endangered.

Photo by Oro Travel, Nicaragua


The cutest sloths

Isn't this mama sloth and her baby the most adorable pair ever? There are six known species of sloths living in South America, and one of them is critically endangered - the pygmy three-toed sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus), found only on a tiny five square kilometer island off the coast of Panama.

Photo Tirimbina Rainforest Center, Costa Rica


Strike a pose!

This is a little Legler's stream frog (Hyla legleri), found in Costa Rica and Panama. This species is threatened by habitat loss, which is an sadly common occurence. Amphibians (frogs and toads, newts, caecilians, and salamanders) are the most endangered group of animals on the planet: nearly 1/3 of the world's species are on the brink of extinction.

Photo La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica


Hungry hummingbird

Contrary to popular belief, hummingbirds don't suck up nectar through their beaks like a straw--they lap it up with their long, pointy tongues! The Hummingbird Society lists 28 species as endangered due to habitat destruction and loss.

Photo by Bahía Aventuras, Costa Rica


Up close with a gray whale

Hundreds of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) arrive every year to Baja California, Mexico, to court, mate, and reproduce. Of the original three gray whale populations, one is extinct in the North Atlantic, one is critically endangered in the Western North Pacific, and one has recovered from very low levels in the Eastern North Pacific and was removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List in 1994.

Photo by Casa Mexicana de la Ballena Gris, Mexico


A stunning scarlet macaw

The scarlet macaws (Ara macao) were adored by the Mayas and the Aztecs. This species of macaw is not currently endangered, but their populations have declined in many countries due to the loss of habitat from deforestation and indiscriminate hunting for the illegal pet trade.

Photo by Costa Rican Trails


The great Galapagos tortoise

The Galapagos giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra), native to seven of the famous Galapagos Islands, is the largest living specie of tortoise. There are 15 recognized subspecies of Galapagos tortoises, but only 11 are still alive today. Continued poaching and the presence of invasive animals such as rats, dogs, and goats represent the greatest threat to the survival of these majestic creatures.

Photo by Andean Travel Company, Ecuador

Photo of the Week: The Green Basilisk Lizard

Photo by Cactus Tours

The green basilisk lizard pictured here is also known as the "Jesus Christ" lizard for its incredible ability to walk on water. That's right--their specially designed feet and unique running style allows it to sprint across the water's surface. Green basilisk lizards are also great swimmers, and can stay underwater for up to 30 minutes at a time.

You can find these striking creatures in Latin America from parts of Mexico to Ecuador, but they are especially prevalent in Costa Rica.

3 Things Every Eco-Conscious Traveler Should Do

Photo by Grayline Tours Nicaragua

A record 1.1 billion tourists traveled to international destinations in 2013, and the World Tourism Organization predicts that international travel will increase by 4% or more in 2014. This means that the tourism industry will have an enormous impact on the environment and on communities in and near popular travel destinations – many of which are located in ecologically fragile areas like coral reefs. Luckily, the sustainable tourism movement is growing, as more travelers are making smart choices that help to protect and support the planet.

There are lots of different ways to be a sustainable traveler, and many of them are easier than you'd think! We picked three green travel tips that are easy but effective enough to be a great starting point for the average traveler. Let us know what you think of our suggestions or if you have any of your own to share!

1. Ditch disposable water bottles

When you're on the go, it's tempting to buy a bottle of water at the airport or the convenience store and trash it when you're done. Sadly, this leaves behind a harmful trail of plastic that takes hundreds of years to degrade in landfills and ends up being a considerable expense, with bottled water costing as much as $10 per gallon. Even more troubling is the fact that some bottled water companies obtain their product by exploiting natural water sources in rural, often impoverished communities, and leaving these people high and dry when the water runs out.

Travelers Against Plastic (TAP) estimates that if Americans stopped buying disposable water bottles while traveling, an estimated 3.5 billion plastic water bottles would be taken off the market. Being a part of the solution is simple: buy a reusable plastic or metal water bottle, and you're set for life! One will cost you anywhere from $5-$25. When you consider the price of bottled water, you can see how quickly a reusable bottle pays for itself.

Water bottles

But what if you're backpacking in the wilderness or traveling in the developing world, where potable tap water is not available? There are several popular and easy-to-use methods for treating water during your travels. Water purification tablets and water treatment drops are cheap options at $5-$15 per bottle, but require 20-30 minutes to work. Filtration systems work faster, but only remove bacteria and not water-borne viruses. The SteriPen is a convenient solution that uses UV light to remove both bacteria and viruses in less than two minutes, but will set you back $50-$120. Whichever method you choose, there are very few excuses left for not kicking your bottled water habit.

2. Track and offset your CO2 emissions

With the advent of several innovative mobile apps, it's extremely easy to determine the CO2 emissions of your travel. Check out Green Travel Choice ($1.99), created by Pocketweb in partnership with The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), Cleaner Climate, and Commute Greener. Pick your mode of transportation and enter your starting point and destination, and you're done! You can even log your trips to track your carbon footprint over time.

Green Travel Choice

Carbon offsets can be a great tool to help mitigate the impact of your travel. Buying offsets has never been easier, whether it's for single flight or your entire trip. Many airlines offer the option to offset your flight at the point of purchase, or you can buy virtually any amount of carbon offsets online from a plethora of companies. Critics of carbon offsetting have claimed that these purchases allow people to assuage their guilt without truly mitigating the impact of their behavior. Environmental journalist Duncan Clark explains the carbon offset debate in this article and answers some of the most popular questions about its efficacy. If you're going to offset your emissions, make sure you choose a legitimate company--Green America's guide to choosing a carbon offset program is a great place to start.

3. Look for the little green frog

Two of the biggest purchases you'll make on your vacation will be accommodations and tours. Hotels have the ability to wreak havoc on the local environment by consuming an abundance of energy, generating large amounts of waste, and destroying wildlife habitat for construction. They can also exploit local communities by hiring foreigners for higher level jobs and relegating local people to low paying jobs with little or no opportunities for advancement--essentially profiting from local natural resources without any benefit to the local economy. On the other hand, sustainable tourism businesses have committed to help to protect ecosystems, support local communities, and reinforce the value of natural and cultural heritage.

Many hotels and tour operators claim to be "sustainable" or "green," but how can you tell if they're actually protecting the environment and not exploiting their employees? The Rainforest Alliance is an international nonprofit organization that verifies tourism businesses against rigorous sustainability standards so you can be sure that any hotel or tour operator using the Rainforest Alliance Verified™ mark, featuring the little green frog, is truly a sustainable business. Look for this mark on a hotels website or promotional materials or ask the business directly if they are Rainforest Alliance Verified.

SustainableTrip.org is the Rainforest Alliance's directory of sustainable hotels and tour operators in Latin America and the Caribbean, so look no further!

Photo of the Week: Sierra Norte

Sierra Norte

The Sierra Norte, a range of mountains just north of Oaxaca, is one of the best conserved natural areas in Mexico. It is also one of the three richest zones in animal diversity in the country and one of the world's 17 most important areas for biodiversity. There you will find 50% of Mexico's plant species, the largest population its endemic terrestrial vertebrates, 63% of its bird species, more than 50% of its butterflies, and 40% of its mammals.

This area is incredibly beautiful, featuring a mosaic of different types of forests due to the varied climate and topography, including tropical evergreen forest, montane cloud forest, pine forest, oak forest, and pine-oak forest.

This photo shows the forests of the town of Cuajimoloyas, located at 10,500 feet above sea level. To learn more, visit Ecoturismo Cuajimoloyas, part of the Pueblos Mancomunados, a network of small communities developing initiatives for sustainable use of Oaxaca's montane forests.

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