A visit to the tranquil guest house of Andrés Gonzalez and Julia Buschmann equals a short vacation from the hustle and bustle of the region’s nearby capital city. Here it’s all about life in and with nature. Only this year the Colombo-German couple founded their ecological tour business Aventur Eco Tours, began to run their small guesthouse Villa Pepita and became parents to an entertaining pack of four shepherd dogs all on a 25 hectar finca one and a half kilometers away from Yopal in Colombia.
On leaving the tropical forest one crosses a field of cows following a path for about half a kilometer before entering a paved driveway leading up to the awing house.
A lofty veranda, a pair of hammocks gently swinging in the wind, huge butterflies passing by, hummingbirds drinking the flowers’ sweet nectar, which so colorfully frame the veranda along with herbs and palm trees… oh and palm trees! They line the driveway like majestic posts leading up to the front porch, a few steps up into a colonial style country mansion that’s dotted with rustic wooden furniture, a wardrobe here, some armchairs there, a dining table so massive and rustic that any Southern French home would go green with envy – imagine having your extended family here for a Sunday lunch with wine and nibbles!
And then there is the upstairs guest room, more like a ball room, with high ceilings, wood beams, a handcrafted en suite bathroom where the window frame is made from homegrown bamboo and the sideboard from a tree trunk that was found on the property. A wooden door with glass panes goes out to a spacious outdoor room, surrounded with mosquito proof nets and decorated with plants and an upholstered bench for lounging.
Downstairs on one of the wooden benches at the dining table dozes a black and white cat. A big German shepherd sleeps on one side of the house in the shade of a palm tree. Sleepy, dozy and relaxed, that’s the overall atmosphere of ‘Villa Pepita’, an oasis in the shade of countless fruit trees, palm trees and flowery bushes in an otherwise hot climate. A mild breeze regularly sweeps the villa’s corridors.
It’s not hard to see why Andrés Gonzalez and Julia Buschmann have returned from life in Europe to make their home surrounded by Colombian nature in Yopal, Casanare. The renewable energy engineer and the communications professional have lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Edinburgh for a couple of years before moving to Andrés’ native Colombia.
Julia: I think socially driven enterprises are the future. They are the only sustainable and acceptable way to run a company and they can be highly competitive benefitting their communities, their clients, their employees and the environment. Ultimately they may overtake conventional businesses due to their social credentials, their values and beliefs. After all society is much better informed and well connected today. Any bluff is easily discovered and publicly shamed.
What is the difference between a conventional business and a social enterprise?
Julia: Social enterprises are founded to fill a gap, to address a certain social or environmental issue. That can be a missing service in remote communities such as transportation, it can be a wind farm in communities that lack a good enough energy infrastructure or it can be a sports club for kids to keep them off the street and healthy. It basically is a socially motivated business, the interface between a charity or community service and business. Social enterprises are run just like businesses with the difference that profit is reinvested into services that benefit the community.
Andrés: At Aventur, for example, we use small local businesses’ services from farmers to restaurants, from small shops to craftsmen and artists, to serve visitors and support the local community at the same time. We pay above average to those who help during the tours such as stable hands or cooks. This way people feel motivated and see tourism as a sustainable and alternate source of income. In the long run they will hopefully turn away from the unsustainable petrol or palm oil industry and focus on maintaining natural habitats and serving visitors instead. It’s very idealistic and politicians will need to back this development, too, of course. But it’s a small step into the right direction.
Julia: And then, of course, we do the obvious: Provide locally grown fruit and homemade delicacies from the llaneras (the local women) in reusable boxes as snacks during the tours, provide reusable drinking bottles, recycle at the guesthouse, up-cycle stuff we find in the streets or in the shed behind the house and keep any environmental impact as small as possible. Andrés made a window frame from bamboo and a local carpenter crafted the sideboard in the bathroom from a Yopo tree trunk. Both the bamboo and the trunk we found on the property. Throughout the tours we are also looking to connect visitors with locals by embedding natural encounters into our tours, either on farms with the llaneros (local cowboys) or when enjoying some nibbles in one of the local eateries.
Is there a social enterprise scene in Colombia?
Julia: There is but people aren’t aware of it. There have to be social enterprises in order to fill the many gaps the government fails to address. Corruption is a huge problem here, too much money mystically disappears in the public sector. Communities, especially poor communities which make the majority in Colombia, do not see much of the tax and other money the great corporations and international investors leave here while exploiting their land and cheap labour. Much of it goes into the pockets of politicians, of criminal gangs, terrorist groups even. It’s very much like in other emerging markets – frustrating because there is so much potential.
You have strong ethics regarding your own business. What motivated you to start Aventur Eco Tours?
Andrés: Many things. First of all I want to run my own business, be my own boss (laughs). But I felt that the region we live in has much potential for tourism. It is so beautiful and unique that I want to show it to the world. Also with tourism I think we, us Colombians, can protect our natural and cultural heritage, maintain and nurture it. There already is tourism here in Yopal where we live but a lot of it is very commercial, very much tailored to the main stream Colombian family that appreciates entertainment by the pool, lunches and rumba music. Sometimes businesses call themselves ‘eco-touristic’ and then entertain visitors with captivated monkeys. That’s cruel and absolutely not ‘eco’ in our opinion, it’s just as bad as riding elephants or watching orcas perform in pools. For international visitors or for Colombian’s who like to explore nature and culture in an authentic, tranquil, ecological and individual way, there wasn’t anything in Yopal – especially no one who speaks enough English to lead a tour of international visitors. We saw the potential. I am a local, proud of and knowledgable about the heritage and I speak English. Julia speaks German, too, and she has also worked in the press office at the Scottish tourism board previously, promoting Scotland to European media. So now she does that with Casanare! (laughs)
Julia: Yes! Other than Scotland though Casanare is an off the beaten track destination. Where Scotland sells itself thanks to Braveheart and Games of Thrones, Casanare is an almost blank spot on the international tourism map. Colombia even is exotic and has only been on the international stage for a few years, slowly polishing up its demolished image of cartels, cocaine and guerilla. We have to be patient. Now the trendsetters and innovators are heading to Colombia, the individuals and backpackers, and soon the rest will follow. That is if it stays peaceful.
Is Casanare peaceful?
Andrés: Yes, now it is in most parts. It had its rough times. Over a decade ago paramilitaries terrorized Yopal in the bloodiest way. It’s now peaceful but some people are still traumatized and the image of the region has not fully recovered yet within Colombia – another challenge we are facing.
Julia: I think that with more and more internationals traveling here or living here like myself, this also sets a sign for Colombians. I personally have never felt any threat. The city is safer than the large cities and I ride my bike out alone into rural areas in the dark without it getting nicked – so far. I would worry more in my German hometown (laughs). I also walk alone everywhere – although being a woman I prefer to take a dog with me. Catcalls are very unlikely in Germany and so this still irritates me. However there are also many days where I do not leave the house at all but only walk around here, work in the garden, look after the animals, plants and the house itself. It’s a lot of work. Visitors only tend to see how pretty it looks and that it feels relaxing to be here, and it does, but they hardly see how much work goes into maintaining it.
The house is mind blowing. When did you move here?
Julia: We moved here five months ago. The house had been abandoned for eights years. It belongs to Andrés’ uncle who kindly granted us to take care of the house and run it as a guesthouse. We had already founded Aventur Eco Tours and done a few tours when we moved here and so the house was a nice plus in our tourism portfolio. I think our company also convinced the uncle that the house would be in good hands.
Andrés: We immediately invested in maintenance and refurbishment because we saw the potential of this as a guesthouse. However, the guesthouse is not a business, we still have too few rooms, it just pays for the maintenance. Our main business are the tours and activities packages we offer, guided cycling tours, hiking trips and riding tours to experience the llanero lifestyle, the local cowboys’ work and culture, and to explore the scenery and nature of Yopal, Casanare. I also recently have created foot paths around the property and mountain biking tracks and these will be exciting for day visitors wanting to do mountain biking, birding or gentle walking. The house then will be more like a museum on weekends and we’ll offer organic refreshments here.
Julia: We also want to cultivate more vegetables and fruit and to have more animals here. I am thinking goats for milk. I love goats cheese! We already have chickens, mango, lime and star fruit trees, some tomatoes, aloe vera, lemon grass and herbs but there is potential for much more.
Andrés: And sustainable energy! In the long run I see us to be mainly self-sufficient, having our own power, food and resources. We are only taking baby steps still but we are dreaming big. Yopal and Colombia need this advanced thinking. It was always my goal to travel and learn abroad and then return to the land of my grandparents and make things happen here.
Julia: Colombia must not make the same mistakes as Europe and destroy its last natural habitats. It’s beautiful and rich in resources, it still is very virgin. It can be smarter and use its resources more carefully, more sustainably. Aventur is just a drop in the sea, of course, but hopefully we cause a ripple effect that reaches other businesses in the region. On a national level already much is happening in terms of eco-tourism and that’s fantastic.
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You can also write to Andrés and Julia at email@example.com