Virtuoso – A Vacation Based on Service in Ecuador

Costas Christ

March, 2018

There’s a growing trend of travelers who seek out opportunities to give back to local communities: souvenir shopping at a handicraft cooperative, visiting a village school to deliver supplies, or dining in locally owned restaurants, to name a few. All are worthy endeavors, but ME to WE, a social enterprise turned tour company, flips the balance, placing service and giving back at the center of each day. Travelers on ME to WE trips spend the bulk of their time volunteering on community projects; an array of engaging activities, from guided nature walks to exploring cultural sites, complements the experience. This notion – planning a family vacation around purposeful travel – inspired Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch and his wife, Jessica, Virtuoso’s ambassador for sustainability, to take their sons, Clay (12) and Benji (9), on a ME to WE adventure in the Ecuadorian rain forest. Virtuoso Life checked in with the family after their stay at Minga Lodge in the Amazon.

What was most rewarding about your experience in Ecuador?

Jessica: So much of what we did was unique, even life changing. Travelers on ME to WE trips can contribute according to their abilities and interests. For two to three hours each day, you can don a hard hat for some heavy physical labor, such as mixing concrete, or you can choose something less intense – say, hammering together a frame for pouring cement – all with the guidance of ME to WE staff and community members. We served the actual needs of local people and felt a great sense of accomplishment in completing these daily tasks.

Matthew: We met with a farmer who shared how he lost his daughter to disease from contaminated drinking water. He has become an advocate for establishing safe drinking water, and he spoke to us about the important resources ME to WE provides to communities in the area. It’s incredibly inspiring to connect in such an authentic way with local villagers.

Your sons were born into Virtuoso-style travel. What did they think about a service-based holiday?

Jessica: They loved it! Like most children, our boys are very hands-on, so the more they can do, the more fun they have – including the volunteer work, as well as other activities. One afternoon, after we finished shoveling concrete, Clay and Benji brought out a ball they like to travel with. Within minutes, they had a pickup soccer game going with the local kids and the staff. One of the great things about ME to WE is that there are a lot of ways to have cross-cultural interactions, combined with fun and learning.

What were some nonwork highlights?

Matthew: One night they brought in chefs from Quito, who sourced local ingredients and prepared one of the best gourmet meals I’ve ever had. Other times, we made s’mores around a campfire, visited a cacao farm to learn how to make chocolate, took a night hike in the jungle to see nocturnal wildlife, and even participated in a cultural ceremony led by a local curandero .

You spent the past year traveling the world to learn more about sustainable tourism. What spurred this interest?

Jessica: We’ve always believed in the power of travel to make the world a better place, and we wanted to share this with our boys through real-life examples, so they can find their own passion for helping others and protecting the environment.

Matthew: We knew that firsthand learning would teach our family new things – and boy, did it do that. One of the most important lessons: We now understand the totality of what sustainable tourism means; it goes far beyond being “green” and embracing conservation, to supporting cultural heritage and improving the well-being of local communities.

How have the trips changed the way you think about vacations?

Matthew: Sustainability is now a lifestyle choice that influences all our decisions. Having fun and traveling with purpose aren’t mutually exclusive. We’ve learned that you can take a great vacation that’s enjoyable, relaxing, and sustainable.

Any advice for other travelers interested in trips that make a positive impact?

Jessica: Start planning now – these trips enhance your mind and enliven your spirit. A new adventure just might bring out a part of you that you never realized was there. You may walk away really liking the new you!

ME to WE designs nine-day service-based vacations for ages 8 to 80 in Ecuador, Kenya, and India, as well as four-day pre- or post-trip extensions in partnership with other tour companies. Volunteer activities can range from helping to build a school or a health center to digging wells, plowing fields, and planting crops. Ecuador departures: Saturdays through 2018.