The Interview: Allie Almario of Myths & Mountains
This month’s giveaway to Hacienda Cusin in Ecuador is thanks to Myths and Mountains, which is not your typical adventure travel company. For starters, it aims to get you inside a culture, not merely stop by for a visit. The company was started a quarter century ago by Dr. Antonia Neubauer, who went on to found READ Global, a nonprofit global organization dedicated to empowering communities by increasing literacy and access to education through the creation of sustainable libraries. Toni, as she’s known, is still at the helm, but the day-to-day work of devising new trips, keeping travelers happy and making sure things run like clockwork in South America and other destinations falls to Allie Almario, vice president at Myths & Mountains. I’ve known Allie for years and she’s as warm, savvy and dedicated a person as you will find in the world of adventure travel. I caught up with her recently to ask about her role at the groundbreaking company.
EP: What is your background and how did you get into adventure travel?
AA: I fell into adventure travel purely by accident. My first “real” job was at the Philadelphia Zoo, which had a burgeoning travel program introducing its members to wildlife all over the world. In my early 20s, I found myself leading African safaris or traveling anywhere from Borneo to Ecuador scouting out potential destinations with great wildlife conservation projects. I’ve never quite fit the mold of what a stereotypical adventure traveler might be – I was born in the Philippines but grew up in suburban South Jersey. My idea of a hike as a teenager was grudgingly walking to a friend’s house three blocks away if I didn’t get a car ride. And then in college, I did an exchange program in London, eventually backpacked my way through Europe, went back to live and work in London, then started traveling for the zoo – and I never looked back.
EP: Am I correct in assuming that you handle the day to day operations of Myths & Mountains?
AA: We’re a small company, so everyone here is a jack-of-all-trades. On a typical day, I’ll be speaking to someone about chartering a Galapagos ship for a family reunion, negotiating contracts, calming a client down who’s nervous about her first overseas trip, talking to our website developer about designing a new website for us, or explaining what best practices for eco-tourism are in Madagascar to a travel journalist. I am a master at juggling!
EP: How much time are you still able to devote to travel?
AA: It really depends on each year. There have been times when I’m out in the field quite a bit doing site inspections or research in some of our new destinations. I remember a memorable trip when I started from Tahoe, where we’re based, to Dallas, to NY (where our plane made an emergency landing at JFK at 3 am), to London, Scotland, Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore, San Francisco, and back home. I’ve been to the Galapagos perhaps 13 or more times, Africa a dozen times, Peru at least five times. I’m proud to say I’m a member of the Seven Continents Club.
EP: Myths & Mountains celebrates 25 years as an adventure travel company this year. How has adventure travel changed since 1988, when Toni Neubauer founded the company?
AA: There’s a huge difference. Adventure travel back then meant going to remote destinations with an understanding that anything can and will happen because you really didn’t know that much about the areas you were going to. Now, travelers are much more educated and come to us prepared with a list of things they want to see and do after doing some initial research. The internet has replaced guidebooks. TripAdvisor has replaced your neighbor’s recommendation about where to stay. People expect a trip to go flawlessly rather than the spontaneity of experiencing something new and different with joy. There are many more places that in 1988 seemed off-limits but are now available to almost anyone with a passport – the Himalayas, Tibet, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, the Amazon jungle. It’s a startling to realize that the word “rustic” doesn’t necessarily mean a bad thing. “I want a rustic experience” means the same thing to some people as “I want an authentic experience”.
EP: What is your clientele like? I’m guessing that as a rule, this is a pretty seasoned bunch of people who elect to go with you.
AA: Sure, we have travelers who’ve been everywhere are are always looking to go above and beyond the next “hot” destination. But we’ve also got people who over the years have really become more like friends. We’ve got favorites like Rick, who’s a toll booth collector in NJ and saves up religiously every year to do one trip with us. I had a guy who just finished up a stint in Iraq and realized he wanted to go to Machu Picchu before his next deployment. We know people’s birthdays, wedding anniversaries, we know when they get hip replacements, even when they get divorced. We’ve had people planning a honeymoon with us now who first started traveling with Myths 15 years ago when they were still teenagers on a family trip.
EP: There’s a perception that when you use the word “cultural,” that the trip is umm, let’s say, less than rigorous. But in fact, when I traveled with Toni in Nepal, I found that trekking every day at altitude was a real workout. So how tough are your trips?
AA: We’re pretty aware that everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to the outdoors. That’s okay – just let us know and we’ll pace the trip accordingly. There’s no reason to race up a mountain. One of my favorite accomplishments was helping a gentleman from the UK who had called just about every tour operator listed in London, and no one could help him achieve his dream of being able to go to the Galapagos because he had MS and switched between using crutches and a wheelchair. Everyone told him no, it can’t be done. I found a ship that had a wheelchair friendly design, and I set up a three-way conference call between him in London, the director of operations for the ship in the Galapagos, and me in Tahoe, and we hashed it all out – we discussed hallway widths, shower set-ups, how we could get him off the ship and onto a panga to go shore, all of that. We were able to work out what he could do and set up alternative activities on other days. It wasn’t easy and it took time, but we did it for him.
EP: The giveaway with Hacienda Cusin is special indeed. I was lucky enough to visit back in the early 90’s, not long after it opened. What do you like about the Hacienda and about this part of South America?
AA: I love how Hacienda Cusin was “rescued” from the ruins. Its owner, Nik Milhouse, has lovingly restored what was once a run-down old inn overrun with weeds and and brought it back gloriously to life. He told me a story that one day he was walking around a nearby village and saw that one of the old churches was being demolished. Many of the beautiful antiques, vestments, textiles and statues were just being thrown out. He took them back to the hacienda, had local artisans work their magic, and they are now displayed respectfully within the inn. When you walk into your room, you really feel the love that went into everything from handcrafted beds to handwoven bedspreads. Meals are served with organic vegetables grown in a garden behind the kitchen. The Otavalo area is so lush, yet rife with things to do. You could spend days horseback-riding, hiking to volcanic craters, hitting nearby villages for handicrafts, visiting sacred waterfalls, being blessed by mountain shamans….
EP: There seems to be a trend towards custom trips, where an extended family or a group of friends get together. What kind of numbers are we looking at – how many people do you need to make it cost effective, and what would a ballpark price per person be for a given trip?
AA: We consider it a group when you have at least four people, and you’ll see a price difference in groups in a couple of ways. First, the type of transportation needed. With two people, a sedan works, but when you have three or more, then you’ll need a mini-van or a small bus. Those costs are split between the number of people who are on the trip so prices will drop. We usually have private guides and drivers, so again, their costs (their lodging, meals, salaries, etc.) are shared among the guests. We do a lot of customizing, so numbers will vary widely depending on how you like to travel, what style of hotels you like, if there are a lot of distances involved. Depending on the length of time and what type of accommodations, the land costs for our itineraries average about $4,000 per person. We’ve got some trips that start at about $1995 per person, and other custom-designed longer trips that can go up as high as $9,995 a person.
EP: What do you think your most unsung destination is – anywhere on the planet?
AA: Right now it’s Cambodia – beautiful boutique hotels, gorgeous beaches, lots of adventurous things to do at reasonable price in the mountains, and other than Angkor Wat, no sign of crowds anywhere.
EP: I know that opinions will vary, but in your opinion, what is your coolest trip, the one that would make the short list of many adventurous travelers?
AA: We’ve got an award-winning itinerary called Untamed Cambodia – it gives you a chance to be a bear or elephant keeper for the day at wildlife rescue centers, there’s jungle trekking, freshwater dolphins on an Irawaddy river cruise, and of course, exploring wats and temples.
EP: Where are you looking next to expand to?
AA: We are delving into creating itineraries in Colombia, Panama and Nicaragua – all destinations that are attracting lots of attention in areas that are still developing.
EP: How about you own dream trip – where would you go tomorrow if you could?
AA: I’ve been spoiled, having been to close to 70 countries and all seven continents, but one place that I need to go someday is Papua New Guinea. I know it’s a place that will challenge me in many ways. It’s tough to get to, it’s a steamy jungle filled with lots of bugs and spiders, but it’s still untouched in so many ways. I’m attracted to its raw beauty and seeing a culture so different from any other place I’ve been to. You wanna come with me?
For more information, visit Myths & Mountains