The inspiration behind the Neotropic destinations: An interview with Alfredo Meneses, co-founder of Neotropic Expeditions
Alfredo Meneses was supposed to be a lawyer. But, as he would learn throughout his life and career, things don’t always turn out to plan. Sometimes, they turn out better. From an earnest law student to adventure tourism kingpin, Alfredo’s path has been anything but obvious.
An adventurous introduction to tourism
Alfredo’s introduction to tourism began as it would go on: with an adventure. In the midst of a law degree, the young Ecuadorian student needed money and began knocking on doors offering his services as an English speaker. His proposal was taken up by a tour operator who sent him into the jungle for three weeks to translate for a German tourist and his indigenous guide. This would be Alfredo’s first experience of the Amazon, where he’d spot dolphins, jaguars, monkeys and venomous snakes. He explored the lakes of Cuyabeno and Lagarto Cocho, and befriended the shaman, Cesario, a wise man from the Secovias tribe. Alfredo, the German and the guide became firm friends as they hunted, fished and explored. The young Alfredo was staggered to discover so much happiness among the tribes living in the forest, who found everything they needed for survival right there among the trees and rivers.
“This had a great impact on me, because I had come from such a material world. All my friends were going to be lawyers; all of them were competing about which car they drove or what clothes they wore. And when I saw in this experience that happiness could be so simple, I changed my life completely,” says Alfredo.
A fresh start
Acting on this new realization, Alfredo became a guide in Cuyabeno. But it wasn’t long before new opportunities came his way. When tourism in Peru became untenable due to the danger posed by the guerilla group, the Shining Path, George Fletcher, a friend of Alfredo’s who had a rafting company there decided to move his business to Ecuador. George took Alfredo down his first river, a moment that would once again change the course of the 19-year-old’s life. From the first moment he began his descent of the Toachi River, he was hooked. He remembers the pristine rainforest, the flowers, the wild pigs and the otters.
“For me, that adrenaline was really important and I fell in love with rafting - completely in love. I only wanted to be a rafting guide,” he says.
Trained by American rafting experts Mountain Travel Sobek, the company that did the first descents in the world, Alfredo became a partner of George’s new Ecuador rafting company: Explore Andes Ecuador, getting to know the rivers of the Andes, Cotopaxi, and the rainforest in intimate detail.
His lust for adventure took him rafting and kayaking in the United States and Chile before he decided to start his own company. Going out alone, he began building up the multisport concept of combining hiking, biking and rafting tours.
“When I separated from them I was completely alone, selling tours in the street,” he says. “I remember that I had a raft, six bicycles, six sea kayaks, and a jeep to take the passengers wherever. I was ready!”
At that time, what Alfredo was offering was unlike anything else in Ecuadorian tourism. In the early 1990s, foreign travel consisted of boarding a bus, listening to a guide with a microphone, and traipsing off to see a market. But over time, tourists’ expectations began to change. And he was ready for them.
“When I started doing this it was very out of place and I was the only one doing it. But thankfully adventure tourism was increasing and getting broader, which played into my hands. We were considered the company with the most experience in adventure,” he says.
The brothers unite
It was around this time, in 1999, that his brother, Marcelo, joined the company full time. The first years were a struggle, as the brothers worked tirelessly to get their idea off the ground.
“We were just waiting with the door open for people to come. We weren’t yet well known. It was a difficult start,” he says.
The brothers’ quickly learned that their opposing personalities were a great match.
“I do things with my heart, not with my head. Marcelo is always thinking and planning. I have the ideas, and Marcelo makes it happen. My movements are from my heart, not from business,” he explains.
The brothers started attending the major trade fairs and befriending the owners of the most important adventure companies in the world. Then came Alfredo’s breakthrough moment: he decided to take multiport tourism to the Galapagos Islands. Having fallen in love with the archipelago on a fifth-grade trip and after graduation when he worked there for a year, he noticed that no one was doing combined hiking, biking and watersports tours – just cruises.
“I can truly say I was the pioneer of multisport in Galapagos,” he says.
A sustainable future for Galapagos tourism
Having watched tourism in the islands grow exponentially over the years, Alfredo has a unique insight in what the future should hold for the fragile environment there.
“The only way to create sustainability is with tourism. If we do things well, I think that we all can live off tourism,” he says.
Alfredo advocates eco and community tourism, consistently basing Neotropic’s plans around what will benefit the environment. Throughout all the tours, the company works with local people, from fishermen to chocolate and coffee producers. Not only does this contribute to community development, but it gives guests the added benefit of the life experience of locals.
“We might go out with a fisherman, catch a fish, and at night he makes us a ceviche. There’s a lot of interaction between us and the people. This kind of communication is a way to realize who lives here, and that’s just not the same as getting on a cruise. You could go shopping for three hours and never see how the people live. Who is the true galapageño? What motivates them? Discovering that is all part of our philosophy.”
History, food and people: the true meaning of adventure
For Alfredo, all these experiences combined are what make a true adventure. In his own travels, he always brings together adventure sports with history, archeology, food and meeting people, to get a true feel for a place.
“To me, the word ‘adventure’ means go, explore, risk, get to know, feel, see, smell - different things that are outside your daily life. Don’t just do one thing - do lots of things!” he advises.
But Alfredo is also what you might describe as a ‘classic adventurer.’ He’s been lost in the Amazon and found by local tribes. He’s flipped kayaks full of vital supplies in gushing rivers. He’s even been on a light aircraft when a wheel fell off during landing. But it’s these very experiences that have taught him the most valuable lessons.
“I think that that’s the risk that we take, all of us who like adventure sports. But you could be in a city, walk out into the street and be hit by a bus. You’re doing something that you love, something that motivates you,” he says.
“But you have to use your head. You can’t do adventure with someone who doesn’t have experience. Or go out and do it on your own. There are cases of guys who go out on a river on their own and get caught out because they don’t know what they’re doing.”
An adventurous legacy
There’s no disputing that Alfredo and his team know exactly what they’re doing. Throughout their 26 years of business, they have amassed more experience and knowledge than just about anyone else in the industry. And now that his children and nephews are getting involved, become proficient kayakers and tour leaders, he has created a lasting adventure legacy.
“Our children are the future guides in Galapagos, the future guides of this country: people who have a lot of experience in adventure,” he says. The adventurous story of Neotropic Expeditions and of Alfredo himself is far from over.