Anthony Pearce talks to Raúl Garcia – who runs Advantage Ecuador on the Amazon – about working in harmony with local communities and the environment
Raúl Garcia is the real deal. The owner of two tiny ships based in Ecuador – the Manatee Amazon Explorer and the Anakonda Amazon Explorer – is an environmentalist and explorer who has combined conservationism and adventure in a way few others have.
For 25 years, Advantage Ecuador – sold in the UK through eWaterways – has been running cruises through the Ecuadorian rainforest on the narrow Rio Napo tributary, exploring one of the world’s most fascinating and biodiverse regions – all while encouraging guests and indigenous people alike to protect the environment.
After disassembling the original Manatee, he built another, more luxurious version, which carries 30 guests, in July 2017. The 280 tonne ship has a draft of just 75cm, allowing it to navigate the difficult passage, where water depth fluctuates. Itineraries explore the upper basins of the Napo and Aguarico Rivers, around Limoncocha National Biological Reserve and the Yasuni National Park, Ecuador’s largest animal reserve.
“The Amazon rainforest is very rich in wildlife,” says Garcia when we meet in London. “It was covered in ice millions of years ago, but Ecuador was without ice, allowing the plants and animals to survive.
“It is why Ecuador, this tiny country, is so mega diverse. One part of the Amazon is totally different to the next. In the whole of the US they have just 700 species of birds – we have more than 1,680.”
In the whole of the US they have just 700 species of birds – we have more than 1,680
Guests on these three, four and seven-night itineraries learn about the geological formation of the Amazon, the culture of its inhabitants and, of course, its wildlife: grey and fresh water pink dolphins, stingrays, snakes, sloths and elusive manatees, to name just a few. “Sloths, all the animals, the monkeys, they can swim,” says Garcia of the unique ecosystem. “They have to. It’s a water world. We have a lot of rain.”
A key part of Garcia’s work is conservationism, which crucially involves working with the region’s indigenous people.
“I just have the ship on the river. The community is the owner of the land. I’ve started to do a deal with them – no contracts signed. Your word is better than a contract.
“One project we’re running with the community is protection of river turtles. In season, they used to pick up all the turtles’ eggs and eat them. But now, every week, we go with our guests and release a turtle into the wild, and we pay the community for that.”
Then there are the remarkable pink river dolphins. Garcia says that getting up close to them will “change your life – believe me”.
“They live like a family, eight members. But they are often killed and used as bait to catch the small catfish, which are sold by the indigenous people to Peruvians. That’s how they make money.
“We’ve spent eight years working on this project to protect them. We started out with six dolphins, now we have 18.”
By paying the community and protecting the dolphins Garcia says they create a “magical circle of conservationism”.
It’s proof that cruise tourism can have a positive impact.