The Interview: Kurt Kutay, Wildland Adventures
Wildland Adventures might be described as a blue chip adventure travel company. They were taking people to remote places in the early 1980’s, a time when the concept of “adventure travel” was in its infancy. Founder Kurt Kutay continues to “keep it wild” today, with adventurous trips with a deeply cultural component that connects travelers to the people, not just the place. I caught up with Kurt not long ago in New York City.
Everett Potter: Kurt, what are three of your favorite places on earth, places where you’d gladly drop everything and go this afternoon?
Kurt Kutay: To a hillside thatched roof bungalow of Lapa Rios Rainforest Lodge in Costa Rica where I’d sit in the hammock overlooking the “Pan Dulce” beach break watching the birds fly by waiting for the tide to rise until just the right time to surf the warm tropical waves.
To kick around the neighborhoods of Istanbul, dining at a seaside restaurant on the Bosphorus, having a sunset cocktail at a rooftop bar overlooking the Golden Horn and then hitting a local café with lively gypsy music with a clarinet and violin!
Eating, drinking, hiking and biking our way throughout the northern Adriatic, together with the love of my life, through regions we’ve never explored together.
EP: How did you become an adventurous traveler? You’ve told me that you were in Costa Rica in the early 1980’s, about the same time I first visited.
KK: I became an off-the-beaten-path traveler after traveling to Turkey and Europe with my family as a teenager. My dad was Turkish so we visited our family there on several occasions and one trip to Turkey we hop-scotched from one major European city to another staying at Hiltons and taking city tours everywhere. I realized at the end of that trip that we never really got to meet local people living in the hinterlands and didn’t connect with local culture or see how people lived as we did living for several weeks with our Turkish family in their apartment. I hated the early mornings waking up early to step on a bus and have my day all laid out before me.
I learned in those formative years of visits in Turkey was how easy it is to communicate with others of another culture even when you don’t speak the same language, especially to communicate love. I realized during these visits in Turkey that our time together with my Turkish relatives was going to be very short in this life, so we were all very focused on the joy of being together and wanted to get to know each other as much as possible.
After college at the University of Oregon I worked for the Oregon Wilderness Coalition, traveling throughout the state hiking and camping in wild lands of our National Forests and BLM taking an inventory of road less areas over 5,000 acres that might be protected within our National Wilderness Preservation System. When I finished that three year stint and we had protected several forest from logging, I backpacked through Central and South America with a special interest in exploring the wild lands of Latin America, especially the national parks system of Costa Rica and hiking the Inca Trail of Peru.
EP: How did Wildland Adventures begin?
I visited the national park office of Costa Rica on my first trip there in 1978 and met the director of the Costa Rican National Park Service a few years later as a graduate student in the School of Natural Resources of the University of Michigan where I was studying national park planning and management. I was invited to live and work in Costa Rica to help plan a national park there whereupon I learned about the country, its parks, people and how to get around. When I returned to Michigan to complete my Master’s Thesis, I got together with a colleague from grad school who had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. We realized that other people would pay us to organize trips to see the places and people we loved, so he started organizing treks to remote Himalayan villages and I started taking people to see the rain forests of Costa Rica and hike the Inca Trail in Peru. I wanted to use the travel business to support conservation and community development where we traveled, and so I launched the Travelers Conservation Trust as a non-profit affiliated organization associated with Wildland Adventures to which donations from our travelers and profits from the company would support conservation and community development in host communities.
EP: Have your trips always had a strong cultural focus?
KK: First and foremost, it has always been about people. I called upon my friends in the national parks of Costa Rica to be our guides and introduce us to their country. It was truly travel with friends sharing their love of nature and country rather than a trained tourist guide. As such, we were taken to their favorite places to see wildlife and to meet local people including as invited guests into their home. As the business expanded into new destinations the most important goal was to find guides to work with who would help us develop these same grassroots connections working around the existing tourism infrastructure.
EP: Why should someone choose a Wildland Adventures trip over that of another operator?
KK: Our sweet spot is creating a personal experience for each traveler at a fair value. It starts with a genuine and honest relationship with our travelers, taking time to listen to their wishes and understanding how to meet their needs, goals and dreams within the context of the destination they are visiting. Today, this takes real knowledge and expertise among our destination program directors. It’s one reason we have limited our trips to selected destinations we know personally, where we have deep roots into the communities, and life-long relationships with guides and operators with whom we collude to create personalized experiences for our travelers without the surcharge for special experiences and luxury amenities that other highly specialized tour companies wage.
For example, many Costa Rica itineraries include overland travel from Arenal in the highlands to Manuel Antonio on the Pacific Coast. So Grettel Calderon, our Central American Program Director, traveled along the route to find a local Tico family who would be interested in receiving our guests for lunch in a local rural home. It’s been a great way for the family to make a bit of income and highlight for our travelers to have the most authentic experience and understanding of rural life in Costa Rica. We also purchase a soccer ball in Costa Rica for every young Wildland traveler and at the start of the trip our guides task every young person to give it way somewhere during the course of their Wildland Adventure—you can imagine lots of pickup games and fun times in which our travelers find themselves momentarily part of the local community, school or family. As a result of his level of familiarity and authenticity in Costa Rica, they come back to Wildland to embark on their next greater adventure to Peru, Patagonia, Africa or beyond!!
EP: You started Wildland Adventures back in the 80’s, so what sorts of changes have you seen in the travelers you bring around the globe?
KK: In 1981, I led my first group trip to the Amazon of Peru. We were motoring up the Amazon River and in the distance straight ahead I saw some local Yagua Indians run into a hut in jeans and t-shirt and come out to greet us in grass skirts with blow guns. I vowed at that moment that authenticity would be the hallmark of what I wanted to create for our travelers. Mainstream tourism is too much about “staging” and recreating events and lifestyles that may or may not be consistent with contemporary reality, and even worse if indigenous peoples are not in charge of how their culture is presented and not benefiting from it directly; and, most importantly, they should have the opportunity to deny the entry of tourism into their community if they so choose, but this is often out of their control. The growth of ecotourism and adventure travel into remote regions of the world has helped transform the negative impacts of tourism, brought great benefits to local communities, and equally important from my perspective we have created an open, authentic and honest exchange between travelers and hosts. Our clients can visit a native community that shares their old customs and life style, but it is no longer staged as something other than a proud people who have decided to earn income by a respectful sharing of their culture with interested visitors who are there to learn about them in the context of present day life. In this way there is a mutual respect and equal exchange of entertainment, ideas and benefit.
As we grow older ourselves, and travel with our own children, the infrastructure of transportation and accommodations has evolved allowing for our adventures to be more reliable and comfortable. Today we carry our own toilet and tent up and down Kilimanjaro for comfort and to manage our own impact. (We have to almost stand guard to keep all the other trekkers from using it because the public heads are disgusting!)
And, I must say, the variety of amazing boutique style accommodations just keeps getting better. In fact our selection of accommodations has become ever more important in the design of our trips and the experiences we create because they lend so much to the nature and culture of a place such as cave hotels in Anatolia, Lapa Rios rainforest lodge surrounded by wildlife in Costa Rica, spacious heated yurts in Patagonia, and traditional gulet yachts along the Turquoise Coast of Turkey.
EP: What destinations are new for Wildland Adventures this year? Or are there places you’re looking at for trips in the near future?
KK: New for Wildland are trips to Borneo, Slovenia and a special women’s adventure in Barcelona and the Costa Brava of Catalonia. And, there are always more ways to experience places in destinations to which we already travel, even countries as small as Costa Rica we are always finding new wildlife areas, new communities and boutique beach hotels like on the southern Caribbean coast. We continue to expand our itineraries in the vast Indian sub-continent especially including southern India and combining the Himalayan regions of India, Nepal and Bhutan. For Wildland, we have always focused more on the experience than the place, and as such it takes a great deal of insight, on-ground exploration and development of personal contacts in local regions. That’s limited the range of destinations we offer in the world. It also takes a great deal of time and effort to develop the pre-departure information and expertise necessary to fully inform and prepare travelers to get the most from their trip in a new destination.
EP: With all of your traveling, where do you find your center of gravity?
KK: At yoga, rollerblading around Lake Washington in Seattle, or sitting outside a surf break anywhere waiting for the next wave…
For more information, contact Wildland Adventures