Briefing Notes for 2009 Volunteers at Piedra Blanca

Go back to the main page about voluntary work

Below is an edited version of the briefing notes currently being sent to volunteers due to work with the Piedra Blanca community ecotourism project in 2009. It has been uploaded to our website to give other potentially interested volunteers and interns an idea of what type of work they could be getting involved with if they choose to work in this part of Ecuador.

Our advice would be to read these notes both before you arrive in Ecuador, and a couple of weeks after your volunteer placement has begun. What doesn’t make much sense before you arrive, almost certainly will do once you have familiarized yourself with the project and the area.

Action plan

As of May 2009, the following plan of action is suggested. It is important to remember that things do happen slowly in Ecuador, and the achievement of the final goals will be a long process.

1. Finalize the cabana. The cabana has been essentially ready to accommodate tourists for many months, but due to apprehension on behalf of the local community, and a lack of effective local leadership / volunteer guidance, the local community has been unable to take the final step to prepare the cabana for use by visitors. At the time of writing (May 2009), what is lacking is the finalization of the bathrooms/showers and the ongoing cleanliness of the cabana. It is important to note that the cabana could accommodate tourists without the bathrooms being finished, by way of tourists using the schools toilets (20 metres from the cabana) and a large bucket of water being provided inside the shower rooms (which already exist) for tourists to use to wash. However, it is far more desirable to finalize the bathrooms, and money exists to do so. It is also important to effectively camouflage the new roof using local palms (“Paja toquilla”) to improve the aesthetics of the cabana – again funding exists for this. Finally, the cabana must be maintained in a constantly clean state. It is our, and CRACYP’s, opinion that it is of the utmost importance to soon begin paying a member of the local community to clean the cabana at least every other day, even if tourists are not staying. It has been suggested that the payment of $1 or $2 a day should be made to a member of the local community to maintain the cabana clean at all times. Again, there is sufficient money to pay a member of the local community to carry out this work.

2. Organize the community. Upon finalization of the cabana, the local community needs to be effectively organized to start receiving tourists in their ecolodge/cabana. Roles need to be established with regards to who does what. Various challenges are presented that need to be overcome: issues of communication between San Luis and Piedra Blanca; how to efficiently organize the transfer of tourists from San Luis to Piedra Blanca; how food is both purchased and provided to visitors; how guides are contacted to take tourists on day trips; and who is overseeing and managing the entire process. The local community is unlikely to be able to overcome these challenges without guidance from volunteers. It’s important to be able to “think out of the box” about how to overcome these challenges. The local community may present these challenges as difficult to overcome – your role as a volunteer is to explain to them that they are, in fact, not serious obstacles, and that the solutions are relatively simple. You as a comparatively well travelled volunteer will likely have a different way of analyzing these challenges, and be able to advise the relatively poorly educated population about how to overcome them.

3. Attract more tourists. When the local community is sufficiently organized, more tourists need to be attracted. The period of June to September has traditionally seen by far the greatest number of enquiries from potential visitors as it is high season in Ecuador. We hope that this high season might see a decent number of tourists visiting Piedra Blanca. There are likely to be teething problems and new difficulties or problems that need to be overcome as a result of tourists arriving – this is all part of the learning process for the community. For marketing ideas, see the latter section on marketing.

4. Invite Ecuadorean (National) Tour Operators. When the entire process of receiving and attending to tourists has been streamlined and operates in an efficient manner with content guests, it is time to invite Ecuadorean tour operators to visit the project on what is known in the travel industry as a “familiarization trip”. It is important to note that this should not be done too early – everything must be functioning efficiently and without problems before tour operators are invited to visit. The plan is to invite a handful of operators (please consult Chris for suggestions – many are interested and he has details) to visit the project in the hope that they will start selling the project at a commissionable rate. Ultimately, it is our opinion that bookings should only be taken by a handful of select tour operators who have offices in Quito and can sell the project on behalf of the community. The current system of taking enquiries and bookings, whereby Claudia responds to interested tourists, is neither sustainable nor particularly efficient. Ultimately, the Piedra Blanca website will be able to direct all enquiries to tour operators/travel agencies in Quito (plus perhaps Guaranda, Guayaquil and Cuenca) to take all the enquiries. When a booking is certain, the tour operator will simply call the community to advise them of the arrival, thereby overcoming the communication problems that currently exist (eg. sporadic electricity provision in the region and no email service in Piedra Blanca).

Marketing ideas

The Piedra Blanca website already receives over 200 hits per day, though most visitors to the website do not match the target market. Nonetheless it is important to remind the local community that a lot of people are reading about them and their community project, if only to motivate the locals. The website is a valuable marketing tool, but the best way of attracting more tourists is likely to be via word of mouth, and inclusion in travel guidebooks.

Ideas for more effective marketing follow:

  • Photos of the rooms inside of the cabana/ecolodge need to be taken and included on the website. This is especially important – many people don’t want to visit a place if they cannot see where they will be sleeping. We need photos of the finalized cabana ASAP. Likewise, photos of the rooms in the hotel in San Luis de Pambil would be useful.
  • A promotional video of the region should be made using a regular digital camera and uploaded onto the website. This is likely to dramatically increase the conversion rate of people who visit the website compared with those who actually enquire about visiting Piedra Blanca and the region. Do please make short video clips of Piedra Blanca and its range of surrounding attractions, including those higher up the Andes and of rafting trips, and email them to Chris. Some good videos (long distance shots) of the rafting tours would be particularly useful in promoting the region. If a variety of clips are collected, Chris can edit them into a promotional video.
  • Piedra Blanca is off the beaten track. However, there are various destinations not far away that are regularly frequented by relatively large numbers of travellers. Tourists visiting more established tourist destinations nearby need to be attracted to spontaneously visit Piedra Blanca and San Luis. The two most established tourist destinations nearby are the Quilatoa Loop and Salinas (de Guaranda). It is possible to walk from Salinas to San Luis/Piedra Blanca in one long day – this is a very scenic and highly memorable trek down the Andes that needs to be pushed to visitors who visit Salinas. Local members of that community (hotel owners, local guides etc.) need to be encouraged to push their clients in the direction of Piedra Blanca – they are more likely to do so if they are given a monetary incentive to do so (ie. commission, or Piedra Blanca sending tourists their way). A regular contact in Salinas needs to be established – ideally a local guide or travel agency who knows the route down to Piedra Blanca (we regularly receive enquiries about people who want to make this trek down the Andes from Salinas, but currently do not have a contact there – hence the potential visitors are lost). Likewise, the Quilatoa loop is not far away – it is possible to travel from there to San Luis (or vice versa) in a day by changing buses in a couple of places. Tourists need to be drawn in from here too – the best way to do so will be to encourage local tourist providers and hotels to send tourists in the direction of Piedra Blanca. Likewise, tourists might be attracted from slightly further afield tourist destinations such as Manta (on the Pacific coast) and Guaranda (the capital of the Province). All of these places might be constructively visited by you – network with the local tourist providers if you do visit, ideally with a member of Piedra Blanca’s community alongside you.
  • Word of mouth tourism is likely to be crucial to Piedra Blanca’s success. Invariably you will find yourself taking time off from your work with the project and visit other tourist destinations in Ecuador – be gregarious and encourage people to visit!
  • Major travel guidebooks (such as Lonely Planet, Footprint and Rough Guides) need to be approached and encouraged to mention Piedra Blanca in their guidebooks. This has already been attempted with limited success (though Piedra Blanca now receives a mention in the Rough Guide to Ecuador) - persistence from a variety of sources (ie. different people/visitors/volunteers) will hopefully lead to inclusion in other guidebooks in the future.
  • Well designed promotional posters and brochures might be designed and left in places (eg. hostels, internet cafes, etc.) to encourage more people to visit Piedra Blanca. This has been attempted in the past but with limited success – the lesson learnt was that the right type of audience must be targeted for this approach to be effective. Our opinion is that the right people to target are adventurous backpackers or those wanting to spontaneously get a little off the beaten track, most of whom will be staying in hostels, whether in Quito, Guayaquil or the nearby destinations already mentioned. Such brochures and posters should be effectively targeted, otherwise the effort is wasted.
  • Other actions that need to be taken

    None of these following actions are likely to be taken unless they are instigated by a volunteer. The local community are unlikely to understand the importance of undertaking these actions unless the reason for doing them is clearly explained. Hopefully you will understand why all the following are of crucial importance to the long term success of the project, and you will be able to make the local community understand their importance.

  • Signposts need to be designed guiding visitors to/from the cabana to the waterfall, and the three natural bathing pools found in the valley of Piedra Blanca, so that these sites can be visited without the need of a local guide.
  • A welcome book needs to be designed for visitors so that they can read about the area when they arrive, and decide what they want to do. A map should be included in this welcome book – the map should be of both the valley of Piedra Blanca, in addition to nearby villages / places of interest such as the villages of La Guajurco, Moraspungo, San Luis de Pambil and Bella Vista.
  • A fire extinguisher must be purchased and kept either in the cabana or the kitchen. This is very important - firstly because if there were to be a fire, years of work would be lost; and secondly because tour operators view such things very favourably. The locals are unlikely to consider this an important point – it will probably have to be forced upon them by you as a volunteer.
  • Information needs to be collected about people who visit. A visitor book that is consistently used might suffice. We need efficient information about: numbers of visitors; nationalities; age; where visitors heard about Piedra Blanca; which destination in Ecuador was visited prior to Piedra Blanca; and which destination in Ecuador tourists are travelling to after Piedra Blanca. Such information will enable more effective marketing in the future.
  • Information also needs to be gathered about visitors opinions with regards to Piedra Blanca. A feedback questionnaire should be given to all tourists to complete on the final day of their visit. Tourists should be asked to rate various points on a scale of 1 to 5 (eg. food quality, accommodation quality, accommodation cleanliness, guide quality, overall enjoyability of their stay etc.). Tourists should be specifically asked how the project/experience can be improved.
  • Important points to consider during your placement

  • Always try to liase with as many members of the local community as possible when any decisions are being made. Seek their input and advice whenever possible, if only to make them feel more involved in the project.
  • The idea behind the project is that it is a community owned and operated project, whereby as many families are involved as want to be. In the past, the project has at times been viewed by the local community as being dominated by one family – the Calero family. This has proved problematical for the project in the past, and the issue has to be managed carefully. When tourists visit and prefer to stay with a local family, each time it should be with a different family – there should be no bias towards the Calero family in terms of receiving guests.
  • Adverts on the Piedra Blanca website raise money for the project. The locals describe this money as “La plata de Google”, as most comes from Google’s Adsense program.
  • CRACYP receives 15% of this “Google Money” – this is used as Raul sees fit.
  • Familiarize yourself with the website, as you will better understand the range of activities available to visitors. You will be replying to tourists’ enquiries during your placement.
  • It is important to note that the local community are perhaps too focused upon attracting national (Ecuadorean) tourists (rather than international tourists). National (ie. Ecuadorean) tourists are far more demanding than international (or Western) tourists/backpackers. The local community do not really understand the wants, needs and desires of international visitors – they incorrectly assume that they are the same as those of Ecuadorean visitors. It is important to consider this, and help the locals better understand what international visitors will expect of them – generally, much less than demanding Ecuadorean tourists! Considering this point helps to understand the local community’s attitude in many ways (eg. it helps one to understand why certain members of the community have the ridiculous idea that they should construct a small “conference centre” next to the cabana). You as an “outsider” will invariably have a different way of viewing many issues when compared with the locals and their opinions. Your role as a volunteer is to help the locals see from your point of view – as your point of view is likely to be similar to that of the international tourists Piedra Blanca is trying to attract.
  • In the past, the locals have sometimes decided that only local people should be involved in construction work to do with the project. This attitude is sometimes problematical and should not be encouraged, as there is not always someone from the community with the necessary skills to carry out complicated work. At times it is necessary to bring in experts from outside the community – and the community needs to understand this. Likewise, it has always been the aim of the project to use local materials for construction work. However, sometimes the necessary materials cannot be found locally, and for this reason the locals have decided not to carry out the necessary construction work. As an example, the cabana’s roof was in need of repair for many months, but the necessary materials needed to repair it (a palm leaf called paja toquilla) could not be found locally. Instead of bringing in the material from elsewhere, the locals decided that they wouldn’t carry out the reparation work. This kind attitude should not be encouraged – if a material is not available locally, get it brought from where it is available!
  • Be prepared to be frustrated at times. Things happen slowly in Ecuador, and people’s time-keeping is awful. There will be times when you are sitting around not sure what you should be doing. Hopefully these briefing notes have offered suggestions for what might be done during such times. It’s important that you are pro-active during your volunteer placement – don’t always expect that Raul, or Marcelo, will tell you exactly what you should be doing – take it upon yourself to decide what needs to be done.
  • Notes about a few members of the local community

    A few notes about some of the key players in the community follow.

    Raul Cabrera is president of the NGO CRACYP, and will oversee your volunteer placement. You will soon discover that he is always very busy with a variety of projects, all of which require his time and attention. The Piedra Blanca ecotourism project is just one of the projects with which Raul is involved – it’s important to understand that he only has a proportion of his time to dedicate towards Piedra Blanca, so please do not be surprised (or offended), if sometimes he is off working on a different project when you would have liked to have been working on something with him. If you have a problem with anything, Raul is the first person to speak to about it.

    Marcelo Calero is by far the most pro-active, and enthusiastic, member of the community when it comes to the ecotourism project. You are likely to do most work alongside Marcelo. It is important to note that Marcelo’s only real source of income is his small farm – and he needs to work on it, so he cannot dedicate all of his time to the Piedra Blanca project. By speaking to him, encouraging him, giving him additional confidence and further building his enthusiasm in the project he will likely dedicate more of his time to the project.

    Angel Sosa (or Don Angelito) lives very close to the cabana/ecolodge in Piedra Blanca. His family is very poor, but enthusiastic about the project. His various daughters are ideal people to work in the cabana/restaurant in the future – their confidence and self esteem needs to be increased, and they need to be encouraged get more involved with the project.