Sustainable Tourism (and how to travel while respecting the environment)

Being a tourist doesn’t necessarily need to be a synonym for being a careless, selfish douche bag. You CAN be a responsible traveler. You CAN help the environment. You CAN help the local economy (without your money ending up in the wrong hands). You CAN be a great person while being a tourist. But before I give you any ideas for what you can do to help the planet, here’s a brief summary of what’s going on that needs to be changed.

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It’s no secret that our planet is in danger. It hardly ever snows in certain parts of Norway anymore, we had 18 degrees and sunshine in Paris in March, and still a lot of people claim that global warming does not exist – while lighting their cigarette and driving their diesel fueled car on the way to the airport to take the fifth flight that week. We breathe in the dirty air, and we daydream about weekend-getaways to nice little cabins in the woods or cozy mountain lodges somewhere far away, somewhere where the air is fresh and the grass is green. Maybe even a picnic in the park. No, not the city park close to home. That one’s too dirty, too close to the noisy traffic and there’s trash everywhere. No, we don’t wanna go there. We wanna go somewhere remote, somewhere where we can be one with nature.

It’s no secret that rain forests are being destroyed. Partly because of climate change, but mainly because humans decided to deconstruct it for their own winnings. You know, to make all those cheap industrial biscuits, potato chips, chocolate, drugstore makeup, you name it – palm oil seems to always be one of the main ingredients. This is bad news for us, but even more so for the poor animals who die as a consequence of rain forest destruction.

It’s no secret that animals suffer from tourist’s selfishness. Generation selfie, I beg you, please don’t let yourself or anyone else get hurt just because you want recognition from strangers online. When you pick up those two starfish out from the water to take a cute photo – like the one’s you’ve seen on Instagram, you’re actually killing the starfish. And so did the people you wanted to copy. When you ride an elephant, take a selfie with a tiger, swim with dolphins or take selfies with cute little monkeys on a leash, you’re supporting an industry that profits from animal abuse.

It’s no secret that people suffer from other people’s greed. Generation selfie and the generation before us, we have become accustomed to the fast way of living. We want to keep up with the latest fashion, the latest technology, the latest food trends – and we are not willing to pay a lot for any of it, when given the option. But for every fast-fashion or fast-food item sold, there’s someone who has to work all night and day in terrible conditions and earning close to nothing, just so that you can save a few bucks.

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Here’s a guide to how you can travel while respecting the environment

  1. When traveling short distance, choose trains or buses over flights. Personally, I love traveling by train. I love looking out the window, noticing new places and wondering what they must be like to visit. Also, it’s easier to stretch your legs and take a walk around on the train than on a plane!
  2. If you’re planning to go to the park, to the beach or to a remote area where there might not be any trash cans anywhere in sight, bring your own recyclable bag for your waste. Hold onto it until you find a trash can!
  3. Instead of going to the supermarkets, go to the farmer’s markets. You’ll support the local agriculture, the local economy and you’ll know exactly what you’re putting into your body!
  4. If there’s an artisan market or bazaar in town, that’s where you should do your shopping! Handmade cosmetics, artisan jewelry, hand-woven bags, hand-sewn clothes – the money you spend on these items go to the people who created them. You’ll support the locals, their artistry and you get slow-fashion items completely unique from any of the stuff your friends have back home!
  5. Before signing up to any kind of tourist attractions with animals, use your web-browsing skills and read, read, read! Animal sanctuaries is an example of something that might either be completely fine or absolutely horrible, depending on the organization. Dig a little deeper than the basic tourist-reviews and you’ll find out for sure if this is something you should or shouldn’t spend money on.
  6. If you want to take a picture of a starfish, a dolphin, butterflies, birds, sharks, whatever creature it is that greets you on your travel, please do so. But please do it without touching them. They deserve to be treated with the same respect as you do.
  7. I said it before, and I’ll say it again. Support local agriculture! Visit a vineyard, go on a wine tour and purchase a few bottles of wine from the producer. If you’re more into breweries, visit a microbrewery and learn about the craft. Or maybe you’d rather see how cheese is made? Or coffee? Chocolate? There’s something for everyone in every country – and I can honestly say, the most fun tours I’ve ever been on were those where I was in direct contact with the producers of what I used to view as ‘everyday products’ until I realized how much work is put into creating them.
  8. Visit Botanic Gardens! Their role is to help address the issues relevant to restoring ecosystems. They provide knowledge and expertise in conservation biology, restoration ecology and ethnobotany, and raise awareness among the general public of the need for, and benefits that can come from, successful ecological restoration projects.
  9. Support the independent businesses. Instead of always going for the big chains for your accommodation and your meals, visit the independent ones. The owners put their heart, their soul and all their savings into their businesses and they depend on every costumer they can get. The big chains, the big guys, they’ll be fine. They’ll always have their following. But the little guys might not always be that lucky.
  10. If you see something, say something. If you witness someone abusing an animal, disrespecting the locals and their community or littering the streets – speak up. This planet needs a lot more everyday heroes to come to its rescue. You can be one of them!

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Me and my little friend, in a butterfly conservatory 

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I never laid a finger on this beautiful creature

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Coffee plantation in Boquete, Panama

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Woman making argan oil in Marrakech, Morocco

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Purcari Winery in Moldova

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Me, in Norway

 

 

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Panama Series: Educational Ecotourism in Boquete

If anyone ever asks me what my favorite part of Panama is, I’ll without a doubt say Boquete. Which may seem shocking to some people, as it’s not by the coast, it’s calm and quiet and absolutely not the place to go if you’re planning to party all night and sunbathe all day. In fact, your grandma might have a lot more fun than you will, as a lot of the people who have settled down in this idyllic little town are old, retired North Americans. 

So how can I possibly prefer Boquete over places like Panama City or any of the beach towns with a young cool vibe?

I have plenty of reasons for that.

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First of all, I’m not a party girl (anymore). My days of clubbing until dawn and daytime drunken shenanigans are way behind me. I’m turning thirty in two months. Thirty. That number tastes bitter on my tongue, even more bitter than the lemon or lime or whatever it is they serve with your tequila shot. I’ll rather sit down and enjoy an ice cold draft or bottled beer at Boquete Brewing Company (photo above) over a fun conversation with my travel partners (my boyfriend and his parents in this case) and move on to dinner and cocktails (or wine) at one of the amazing restaurants in town – such as Argentinian restaurant La Posada Boquetena (side note: they have the best coconut lemonade imaginable) and Italian restaurant RetroGusto Restaurant & Bar (excellent place for a romantic date). And the coffee shop in our hotel, Hotel Central Boquete, serve the most amazing coffee ever. You must try their raspberry mocha. It sounds weird, I know, but it’s magical. So is their plain, non-fancy black cup of Joe. Coffee in Boquete – no matter what coffee shop or restaurant you go to – tastes a hundred times better than any coffee I’ve ever had before. Trust me, I’ve had a lot of coffee these past fifteen years.  And no, frappuccino’s are not coffee. It’s liquid candy.

I will talk more about coffee later in this post, but first I’d like to talk a little more about our hotel – which brings us to my second reason for loving Boquete:

Tim, the owner, and his lovely wife.

After a night at the “strangers’ bodily fluids and hairs fest” hotel in Santa Catalina, it felt amazing to be greeted with kindness and professionalism, when arriving at Hotel Central Boquete. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in the US, it’s how easy it is to bond with Americans. Tim was no exception. He had a look at my ID and was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was Norwegian (at least half, anyway). “I am Norwegian too”, he said, and told me about his family in Norway, where they were from and which Norwegian specialties he’s particularly fond of. I love talking about food, and I love talking about my country, so my frown was turned upside down within seconds. Even more so when I got my coffee.

“Our room is so clean I can still smell the cleaning products!”. I couldn’t hide my enthusiasm. A clean room. What a luxurious feeling!

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After a night in the dirtiest hotel imaginable, I was probably scarred for life.

We returned to the reception and asked Tim to help us book a couple of day-tours for the following days in Boquete. We wanted to go bird watching and were also interested in booking a coffee tour. A lot of the tours scheduled for the following day were already fully booked, but as luck seemed to be on our side, Tim didn’t give up on calling every single tour company he knew – and managed to schedule us in for a bird watching tour the next day, followed by a butterfly, bees and honey tour in the afternoon, and a coffee tour the day after that.

The birdwatching tour (which I would’ve posted a link to, had I known the name of the company) was a 4 km hike up the pipeline trail in Boquete. It’s an easy hike as long as you’re not stuck hiking in the pouring rain….like we were. Whether it was because of the rain or just a matter of bad luck, spotting any birds was not an easy task. We were kind of expecting to see the beautiful quetzales, after reading guidebooks and articles basically guaranteeing that we’d spot these fascinating birds when in Boquete. We didn’t.

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What we did see, were the occasional bright green birds, yellow and some red ones (itsy bitsy teeny tiny birds) – and on our way back we discovered a family of monkeys jumping from one tree to another. My partner managed to capture a few shots from afar, although the quality of the photos are rather questionable and we had to be quick to avoid heavy raindrops from attacking the camera.

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We found a little lizard, as well. The little guy escaped quite rapidly, but we managed to take a photo with him before he took off. The rain seemed to be getting heavier and heavier, and the ground more and more slippery. Dragonflies the size of my index finger, hovered like helicopters before flying away. Thirsty mosquito’s attempted to come close but flew away when sensing the awful scent of the insect repellent.

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Although we hadn’t seen as many birds as we were hoping to see – and even though it was raining during the entire tour – we were still very pleased with what we’d seen. It was an amazing hike and the guide was professional and clearly passionate about bird watching.

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The second tour that day was even better. And it stopped raining. Now, here’s yet another reason why I love Boquete: the educational aspect. I don’t travel to “switch off my brain” and just rest. In fact, I hate resting – sleeping excluded. I love sleeping. And when I’m done sleeping, I just wanna get dressed, eat a nice big meal and get out there and learn some interesting facts that may or may not change the way I see things in life. Our tour with Boquete Bees taught me that there is such a thing as STINGLESS BEES. People who know me, know I’m terrified of wasps and bees – even adorable bumblebees. If they had seen me standing in front of a beehive without any protection, without freaking out and making a scene, they’d probably say the beehive is fake and the insects flying around are probably just flies or something. As soon as the guide informed us that the bees on this farm were all stingless and completely harmless, I managed to let go of my fears. Maybe this will even help me relax a bit more around the bees we have in Europe. I know how important bees are to the ecosystem. Without them, all life on earth will die.

The tour continued to a butterfly conservatory, similar to the one we had visited in El Valle de Anton. We spent a while admiring the beautiful creatures and photographing them as they were resting, eating or fluttering gracefully. I enjoyed every second of it – obsessed with butterflies, as I am.

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The garden of the property had a small coffee plantation, vegetable garden, pineapples and plenty of gorgeous, colorful flowers. Have you ever eaten a flower? We tasted some. Yup, they were good. No, I’m not crazy (not more than the average woman, anyway).

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We finished the tour with a grand finale inside of the main building. It was time for a real honey tasting experience! I don’t even remember how many different kinds of honey we had lined up in front of us, but it was a lot. Maybe thirty different ones?

Fun fact: Did you know that honey is actually bee vomit? 

Our honey tasting didn’t consist of just plain honey. There were blends of honey/cacao, honey/chili, honey/lavender, honey/ginger and a lot more. Even the basic honey didn’t taste “basic” or “plain”. It tasted divine. The guide poured us a glass of some sort of honey wine and some honey liqueur. I wasn’t a fan. We ended up buying some honey to take home, though. We would have been fools not to support these amazing people who work so hard to educate visitors on the importance of the protection of bees, protection of different butterfly species, growing organic coffee and vegetables. It feels good to spend money on good causes!

Our last tour in Boquete was another educational experience – and I can’t decide which tour was my favorite, between the previous one and this one. This was the coffee tour I had been looking forward to ever since we made it to Panama. I love coffee and I was interested in learning more about the farming, production and marketing of Panamanian coffee. Our tour was with a guide named Carlos at Cafe Ruiz. Carlos was the funniest tour guide I’ve ever met and I’m surprised he doesn’t consider becoming a stand-up comedian – because that guy has skills (check out Cafe Ruiz on TripAdvisor and you’ll see I’m not the only fan). Even when talking about serious subjects, such as how the coffee production in Panama is decreasing due to locals who sell their land so that North American migrants can build their gated communities there, he still added a little tongue-in-cheek humor to even the touchiest subjects. I can’t help but feeling sad for the locals, and I admire his ability to speak so lightheartedly about it.

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I didn’t know that little white flowers grow on the coffee trees. Nor did I know that coffee beans are green before they’re roasted. And I definitely didn’t know that light roast coffee is the strongest in caffeine and has no bitter aftertaste, whereas dark roast contains way less caffeine and has a strong, bitter aftertaste. You know, the taste that makes a lot of people put milk and sugar in their coffee.

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The tour finished with a trip to the coffee shop, where we did a coffee tasting. As you may have guessed, the light roast came out as the big winner. As if the coffee tasting and the stand-up comedy wasn’t already 35 dollars well spent, Carlos gave us a goodie bag with our own bags of coffee, some biscuits, a postcard – inside of a really cool Tote bag made from an actual coffee sack. We’ve kept them and use them for our groceries. Strangers have even complimented me on them. Thank you Carlos – for everything!

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Now that you’ve read this post, I’m sure you have a better understanding for why I love Boquete and why some of my most wonderful memories from my trip to Panama, were made here. I feel educated. I feel like I spent my money on things that matter. People that matter. People that contribute to making this world a better place.

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Next: Hiking and chilling in an ecolodge in Cerro Punta