San Antonio Women's Cooperative Belize

Empowering Maya Women at the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative in Belize

I woke up to the singsong sound of birds as the sun burst through the drapes, casting a zigzag of light across my room. After two carefree days at the Black Orchid Resort near the tiny village of Burrell Boom in Belize, I’d finally been brought back to life with a newfound energy that had long disappeared. I jumped out of bed, excited for the day ahead as we were heading to San Ignacio, the heart and soul of the Cayo District in Western Belize where we’d be swallowed into a world of thick, lush jungle, mysterious caves and extraordinary Maya ruins. But first, we were making a stop in the village of San Antonio, home of the largest Maya community in all of Belize.  In San Antonio, we would learn about an exciting initiative helping to empower local Maya women called the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative supported by our tour company G Adventures and their nonprofit partner Planeterra.

As out group gathered into the van, I sat up front next to the driver so I could learn more about the four different ethnic groups in Belize. Our driver Carlos was Mestizo (a mix of Spanish and Indigenous decent) which is the largest ethnic group in Belize making up approximately 34% of the population. After Mestizo, the next largest group is Creole followed by Maya and Garifuna. The Creole and Garifuna population both are descendants of African Slaves whereas the Maya population is centered within the tropical lowlands of Central America. Over time, the Maya spread out into parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize. The Maya make up about 11% of the population in Belize and there are three different linguistic groups: The Yucatec Maya who came from Mexico and live in the north, the Mopan Maya who live in the Southern Toledo district, and the Kekchi Maya who live in Western Belize.

Nestled in a verdant valley, about a 20-minute drive from the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena in the heart of the Cayo District of Belize lies the village of San Antonio. Populated by primarily Yucatec Mayas, the village is known for its beauty and art, and has a strong farming and agricultural heritage. When we arrived at the co-op, the first thing I noticed was the beauty and lushness of San Antonio. We were surrounded by tropical trees and flowering shrubs. It was no surprise that the Yucatec Mayas chose to settle in San Antonio for its fertile land. Agriculture is king in San Antonio yet it has its downfalls especially for the women who have large families and don’t have the means to earn an income outside of farming.

The San Antonio Women’s Cooperative was founded in 2001 to help promote and conserve Maya heritage, culture and tradition within the community and provide women with an alternative, sustainable income outside of farming. Since most Maya families have on average seven children and education is not free in Belize, girls are often the ones left behind and have few options besides raising a family. Poverty is a big issue and finding employment (especially without an education) in a small village is challenging. The San Antonio Women’s Co-op offers education in traditional pottery making, embroidery, cooking and serving guests through sustainable tourism as a means to preserve their culture and make a living. Today, there are 25 women in the co-op and they are working to encourage youth to participate as well.

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Blackett's Ridge Hike, Sabino Canyon, Tucson, Arizona

Tucson Travel Guide: How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Tucson

Tucson, with her laid-back charm and sunny disposition, has long been a top destination for travelers craving a visit to the American Southwest.  With an average of over 300 days of sunshine, four different mountain ranges to choose from, a vibrant University scene and a mecca for golf courses, resorts and spas, Tucson, Arizona’s second largest city, offers a great escape from a cold Minnesota winter or quite frankly winter anywhere.

I have been visiting Tucson for over 25 years and have always adored her vibrant desert landscape, rugged mountains, and bewitching southwestern charm. It is no wonder that Tucson is the perfect year round destination for outdoor enthusiasts who come to play golf, bike, hike, and explore nature. The options and opportunities to be outside are endless. For those seeking culture, Tucson’s rich Native American, Spanish and Mexican heritage as well as her Wild West past can be discovered within Tucson’s architecture, food, arts and overall vibe. Perhaps I’m slightly biased given Tucson is like my second home but in my opinion Tucson is a fabulous place to visit.

Why Tucson?

Tucson has a lot to offer given her size compared with her much larger neighbor Phoenix. At under a million people, Tucson is fairly manageable and you don’t have to drive too far to see great things. Although getting from one end of town to the other (such as driving from the Sonoran Desert Museum to Sabino Canyon) can be a bit tedious due to the lack of a freeway system, Tucson is a piece of cake in comparison to massive Phoenix. Furthermore, you are much closer to the mountains and hiking which is huge on my list. There are also some very nice museums to check out and enough luxurious resorts and good restaurants to keep you busy.

There is plenty to do for an entire week whether it involves relaxing at a spa or pool, hiking, biking, birdwatching, exploring culture and arts or taking a few scenic drives. Less than 90 minutes from Phoenix and a little over 3 1/2 hours to Sedona and five to the Grand Canyon, Tucson can easily be added on to an Arizona road trip. However, trust me there is plenty to do for an entire week in Tucson especially if you time your visit right with the weather.

Best Time of Year to Visit

Tucson can be visited year round however it gets very hot in the summer so that is the one time of year to be avoided if possible. If you do visit in the summer, plan on rising early to do your outdoor pursuits and spending the hottest hours of the day either in the pool or checking out some of the indoor attractions. My favorite time of year to go to Tucson is late March or April in the Spring when all the desert flowers and cactus are in bloom, the water is rushing through the streams and canyons and the weather is delightful with highs usually in the 80s. Another wonderful time to visit is in mid-Fall. October is still warm yet not as hot as September. This is also a nice time to consider a visit to Sedona or the Grand Canyon as it is not nearly as crowded as other months. Winter months (December – February) are nice as well but you can occasionally get cooler weather and rain.

Top Five Things to Do

There is a ton to do in Tucson and it all depends of course on your interests. Here are my top five things to do that cannot be missed when visiting Tucson.

Take a Hike

Tucson is a hiker lover’s paradise. With over 300 days of sunshine a year, a desert climate and four different mountain ranges surrounding the city, there are endless opportunities to take a beautiful walk or challenging hike in nature. Whether it be to the Santa Catalina Mountains in the north, the Rincon Mountains in the east, the Santa Rita Mountains in the south or the Tucson Mountains in the west, you will find no shortage of trails to explore.

One of the best places to hike in all of Tucson, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area with tons of hikes through both Sabino and Bear Canyon.  The best hikes to do:   Walk any distance along the paved road through Sabino Canyon (7.6 roundtrip) , take Phoneline Trail (7.6 miles) or hike to Seven Falls (7.9 miles).

If you go: The Visitor Center is open 8-4:30 pm daily and the cost to park is $5 per vehicle. Location:  5700 N Sabino Canyon Rd, Tucson, AZ 85750. To learn more visit US Forest Service website for Sabino Canyon Recreation Area.

If you really want a challenge, you can spend a day climbing Tucson’s highest peak, Mount Wrightson but be prepared as this is a 5-6 hour challenging hike to almost 10,000 feet.

 

Hike to Seven Falls, Tucson, Arizona

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Backpacking with a Purpose with Operation Groundswell

For the past two years, I’ve been a proud member of Impact Travel Alliance, a global community of change makers, passionate about transforming the travel industry into a force for good. Through this amazing network of sustainable travel organizations, writers and travel enthusiasts around the globe, I’ve learned a lot about how we can use travel to make the world a better place.

For the next several months, I am working on putting together a searchable database of the best ethical impact-focused and sustainable travel organizations on the planet. While I’m researching these different organizations, I will be sharing guest posts to uncover each organization’s unique mission and how you can travel for good. This guest post is written by fellow Impact Travel Alliance Media Network member Marissa Sutera (creator of Little Things Travel Blog) who introduces us to Operation Groundswell a Toronto-based organization whose mission is to create a more equitable, just, and sustainable world through travel and backpacking with a purpose.

Operation Groundswell

Operation Groundswell Ecuador trip

Backpacking with a Purpose

When seeking out more purposeful work to do while traveling, it can be challenging to dig deep enough to find the best route to take and the organizations that are truly carrying out positive work. In this interview you’ll hear from Justine Abigail Yu, Communications and Marketing Director at Operation Groundswell, who will be sharing her insight into what questions to ask when volunteering abroad, where to begin, and how to know what sort of impact you will make.

Operation Groundswell is a non-profit organization that facilitates experiential education programs on a host of social justice issues around the world. With ethical travel at the crux of their philosophy, they always work in partnership with local non-profits and charities on community-requested projects to ensure true sustainability. Their aim is to build a community of “backpacktivists” that are socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the communities they travel to and live in. Their programs are intentionally designed to uncover the intricacies and on-the-ground realities of each region they go to. With ethical travel at the crux of their philosophy, they always work in partnership with local non-profits and charities on community-requested projects to ensure true sustainability.

Their aim is to build a community of “backpacktivists” that are socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the communities they travel to and live in.

Operation Groundswell

Meeting with our partners at De La Gente, a coffee cooperative in San Miguel Escobar in Guatemala

How can someone seeking a volunteer program abroad determine if they will actually be making a difference?

First and foremost, whatever volunteer project you work on abroad should be done in partnership with the local community. If you want to make even the slightest difference, be sure to find an organization that puts the needs of the local community first. Contributing to a project that your host community actually wants and needs is the first step towards responsible international volunteering.

But it’s also important to set realistic expectations of what exactly “making a difference” means. For many people, this requires a bit of a rethink. You’d be surprised (or maybe not) how many volunteers going abroad expect to “save Africa”, or Asia, or Latin America. And that’s just not the reality.

The majority of volunteer programs are often short-term projects that range from one week to a few months. So when you’re seeking a volunteer program abroad, consider the time you’ll be spending abroad and align that with your expectations. Because real talk – if you’re only going to be spending one or two-weeks in any given country or community, you may not actually make that much of a difference.

You’ll accomplish some things, of course: you’ll likely gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of development and what it takes to actually achieve social change, you’ll make a strong connection with a handful of people who you will hopefully stay in touch with, and you’ll contribute in some small way to a project.

But honestly, you’ll likely leave with more questions than answers. And that’s ok. This is a process.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight or even in a couple of weeks or months. Often, the work that you do when you return home, as a result of what you learned abroad, will be where you make the most difference.”

Just remember to have humility when taking part in work like this!

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The Five Best Family Hikes Along Minnesota’s North Shore

Less than four hours away from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, lay hundreds of opportunities to explore pure and relatively untouched nature. Extending for 150 miles along the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior from Duluth to Canada, the North Shore is a place of unspoiled beauty and pristine nature. Home to a multitude of scenic waterfalls, rivers, state parks and the 310-mile long Superior Hiking Trail, it is a hikers paradise and offers a treasure trove of opportunities to explore wild, relatively untouched nature.

The North Shore has been a special place all my life. Every fall since I was a baby, my parents would pack up our old station wagon and do the drive north to spend a weekend enjoying the splendid fall colors and hiking the wonderful trails. This tradition started before I could walk and ended when I left for college at the age of 18. Fast forward several years, the North Shore has once again become a place I visit often with my own family and our family hikes have continued.

For the past four years, we have been visiting with my children and have discovered the very best hikes that the entire family will enjoy.   This list of my top five favorites is a great start to creating family memories of your own. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments section.

 

Map of North Shore

Photo credit: NorthShoreVisitor.com.  

 

1. Gooseberry Falls

Description: Gooseberry Falls is a beautiful hike along the Gooseberry River which affords stunning views of waterfalls and lovely forest. There is a nice easy hike along the falls for all abilities and more moderate hiking if you prefer to go further. It can be slippery when wet.

Location: 12 miles northeast of Two Harbors along highway 61

Length of Hike: About five miles roundtrip (however entire park has around 18 miles of trails if you want to go further).

Highlights: The best part of this hike is exploring the cascading waterfalls and stopping to enjoy the fascinating roots of the tree trunks and forest flowers along the trail. It is a nice place to also bring along a picnic.

Tip: The trail alongside Gooseberry Falls is relatively easy and somewhat kid-friendly given the steps (but remember no guard rails or safety fences!). If you want to really explore this fabulous park, there are footpaths for miles on end on the other side following the river upstream.

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Gifts for Good Tackles the Corporate Gifting Industry to Give Back

Today, U.S. corporations spend over $60 billion every year on corporate gifts but donate less than a third of that to charitable causes. For Jerry Eisenberg and Laura Hertz, this offered an amazing opportunity to tap into this market with the launch of their unique business, Gifts for Good. Gifts for Good curates premium corporate gifts that give back. Each product supports one of 40 non-profit and social enterprise partners tackling the world’s most pressing social, economic, and environmental challenges.

Since their launch last fall, Gifts for Good has generated impact in over 19 states and 65 countries around the globe supporting such causes as children in need, women at risk, environment, economic development, homelessness, health and wildlife conservation. Gifts for Good believes that if every corporation purchased gifts that gave back―without spending any more money―they could redirect billions of dollars every year a year to create sustainable change. I had the opportunity to chat with Gifts for Good’s Chief Impact Officer Jenise Sterverding to learn more about this exciting new organization. Here is what she had to say.

You have an interesting educational and business background mixing sociology, business, and philanthropy and went back to school in 2005 to receive a Masters in Public Management. Why did you want to combine all of these disciplines and what benefit has it been for your career?

It’s funny, I never really felt like I fit in when I graduated college because it seemed that if I cared about making the world better I had to go into non-profit and if I wanted to go the business route, it was mostly about creating high profits for the business owner.  At the time there was nothing in-between and not a lot of people using business for good. 

As someone whose personality is more of a hybrid, when I looked at roles in non-profit, they were mostly about running programs and doing service delivery and that didn’t feel like the right fit.  I started my career in small businesses, but was not fulfilled because the sole focus was on profit.  After about 5 years, I quit and moved to San Francisco and ended up going to work in higher education at Stanford University School of Medicine.  Again, after a few years, I was frustrated by the bureaucracy of higher education as I have an entrepreneurial mind.  I decided to go back to school but didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into one field.  At the time, in the United States, my choices were a Master’s in Business Administration, Master’s in Nonprofit Management, or a Master’s in Public Administration. Each one of those felt too specific for me.  I did some research and found SDA Bocconi University in Milan, Italy that had a Master’s in Public Management which was combining business, government, and nonprofit.  So I quit my job and moved again, this time out of the country. 

After you received your Master’s degree, you worked for a non-profit organization called Giving Children Hope and then at TOMS in the giving department. Tell me a little bit about your role and what you learned. How has that experience helped you in your job today?

I first went to work for a non-profit called Giving Children Hope, a faith-based non-profit organization that works to alleviate poverty, both domestically and internationally, through disaster relief, health and community development, vocational training and advocacy. Shortly after being deployed to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, I was put in touch with TOMS’ newly hired Director of Giving.  I had been watching TOMS grow and was interested in their model but I wasn’t certain they were really interested in making an impact.  At first I declined talking to them, but later changed my mind.  What I discovered is that TOMS wasn’t a marketing ploy but was truly working to drive impact.  Additionally, my background in gifts-in-kind from Giving Children Hope uniquely positioned me to help them grow since that was such a specific niche; I had been moving product around the world for 4 years into impoverished communities.  By the Spring of 2010 I jumped in as the second hire in the new Giving department.

Like any fast-growing company, you learn a lot.  I was hired to manage the relationships between TOMS and it’s non-profit Giving Partners, but we were growing so quickly that I could not do it alone.  By the end of the year I had hired someone in Ethiopia (where TOMS was doing quite a bit of work), inherited a team member in Argentina, and hired two direct reports in the office.  Within 6 months I had a few more direct reports in HQ.  I remained solely focused on building and scaling shoe-giving as the Director was building out new programs like TOMS sight-giving. 

On the shoe-giving side, we had numerous challenges we had to decide how to handle: at what point would we put a cap on giving in any particular country; how did we ensure kids weren’t being given shoes by more than one organization; how did we ensure we weren’t hurting local economies; how did we know what sizes to send since we were doing custom orders; could we give additional funds to cover the expenses of shoe-distribution; and so many more lessons and challenges.  It was like getting a second MBA only you weren’t reading a case study and when you are living it out, emotions and people are involved.

Gifts that Give Back SOCIAL GOOD
Parque Andino Juncal, Chile

A Magical Hike in Chile’s Parque Andino Juncal

“Frigid winds blow as we turn into the glacier’s gorge. Without foreseeing we begin to step on ice that shines in between the fallen rocks of surrounding towering mountains” – Nicolás Echenique, our guide and the founder of Coigüe Expeditions. 

One of my absolute favorite things to do is to hike and there is no one I’d rather hike with than my dad. Growing up, my dad instilled a deep love of hiking and being outdoors. Over the years, we have continued to hike together as much as possible when I visit my parents in Arizona or on one of our annual trips. Together, we have hiked the Andes of Argentina, Peru and Bolivia, and there was no way we were going to Chile without doing some hiking on our trip.

I was thrilled to discover that many amazing day hikes are reachable right outside of Santiago. On our first full day in Chile, we did an incredible “warm-up” hike to El Morado Hanging Glacier with our own private guide, Nicolás Echenique (Nico) of Coigüe Expeditions and it was a wonderful adventure. We knew we were in for a special treat when we signed up to hike with Nico again in the pristine Parque Andino Juncal, home of the largest glacier in Central Chile.

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Transfăgărășan Highway

A Drive along Romania’s Stunning Transfăgărășan Highway

I fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it) tend to be that traveler who has to try to see it all no matter what. I think half of my obsession with seeing and doing it all is that I normally don’t have a lot of time in a given place. Usually my trips last under ten days and in the case of Romania, I was literally on the ground for only five full days before I had to begin the long day and a half journey back home.

Despite only having five short days in Romania, I felt that I truly got to see quite a bit of this magical place. I had a full day in Bucharest, several days in Brasov, saw the Bran Castle and the Rasnov Fortress, went hiking in the Carparthians and on the last day took a crazy adventurous drive back from Brasov to Bucharest via the world famous Transfăgărășan Highway.

It may have been a little bit crazy but deciding to take the Transfăgărășan Highway on our last day in Romania ended up being the highlight of our trip. This says a lot for someone who hates car trips and gets carsick on windy roads. But the drive along the Transfăgărășan Highway was one of the most stunning drives I’ve taken in years and it gave me a wonderful glimpse into Romania’s majestic countryside. A place of sheep herders, men in horse drawn wagons, and women clothed in traditional long dresses. Old churches, stone walls and terra cotta rooftops awash in greenery and flowers were just as I had imagined it would be in the nostalgic Romanian countryside.

“Also labeled “the Road to the Sky”, “the Road to the Clouds”, “the Best Driving Road in the World” and even “A spectacular Monument to Earth-Moving Megalomania” the Transfăgărășan climbs, twists and descends right through Moldoveanu and Negoiu – the highest peaks in Fagaras Mountains and in Romania. This is no pass through a gap but a frontal assault, a stark and spectacular reminder of unchecked power stamping itself on an obstreperous landscape”. – Romanian Tourism

The Transfăgărășan Highway (DN7C) is the second highest paved road in Romania, after the Transalpina further west, which travels for 56 miles/90 km through the southern section of the Carpathian Mountain across the Făgăraş Mountains. The road twists and turns up to the altitude of 2,042 metres (6,699 ft) with enough hairpin curves to make your stomach leap and adrenalin rush with excitement.

Constructed from 1970-1974 during Ceaușescu’s iron-fist rule for presumably military reasons, this amazing feat of engineering required lots of money, manpower and dynamite making people question the true reasoning behind its very existence. At the time, there were plenty of other high mountain passes that could be used for strategic reasons yet  Ceaușescu instead that the Transfăgărășan Highway be built.

Today the Transfăgărășan Highway is one of the most touristic drives in Romania and driving enthusiasts, bikers, hikers, tourists and locals alike flock to this spectacular road making it one of the top scenic drives in the country.

Romanian countryside

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Trinidad Cuba

Trinidad: The Color of Cuba

Tucked away atop the hillside of the surrounding Sierra del Escambray mountains in Central Cuba lies one of Cuba’s most precious colonial jewels: The beautiful colonial city of Trinidad. Founded in 1514 as Villa de la Santísima Trinidad by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, a Spanish conquistador, Trinidad has rightfully earned the reputation as one of the most beautiful and well-preserved colonial cities in all of Latin America.

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