Five Questions for Leo of Refresh Ecotours
Refresh Ecotours is a new company offering adventure tourism in the relatively unexplored rural area of Serra da Canastra National Park, Minas Gerais, Brazil.
Starting this month, Leo and his partner Simone will be offering two different tours per month – ‘The Mountain Bike Challenge’, eight days of mountain biking around the National Park, and ‘The Trek-Bike Traverse’, which brings trekking and biking together over eight days of unforgettable contact with the nature and culture of this beautiful area. Both tours have English speaking guides, a support vehicle, high-spec mountain bikes and accommodation included.
BICIKLO: Is it true the whole idea of cycling tours in Serra da Canastra stemmed from your Latin American Studies MA while you studied in Liverpool?
LEO: That’s right. I had always been interested in the culture and peoples of the area, so while I was studying a Latin American Studies MA at Liverpool University, I decided to conduct my research and do my dissertation on the area. I was studying tourism, its development and sustainability, and saw an interesting opportunity to look seriously at the relationships between the environment and people of Serra da Canastra and the encroachment of tourism.
I’ve always been into cycling and know how popular it is as a sport and holiday activity in the UK and Europe. The more I spent time in Serra da Canastra I realised what a great way cycling is to experience all its beautiful mountain scenery and waterfalls, share the region with others and at the same time offer something that can have a positive impact.
BICIKLO: BBC Worldwide has called the Serra da Canastra “utterly astonishing”. Tell us about the area – what makes it special for you?
LEO: The area of Serra da Canastra is made up of Cerrado, a type of vegetation is unique to Brazil. There are some tropical transition forests, especially by the rivers, which form an intense green gallery. It is important due to the many endemic species of animals and birds to be found there, as well as the various types of flora that make up Cerrado.
Another special feature of Canastra is its great source of water. The region is absolutely full of springs, rivers, waterfalls and crystal clear pools, and is a beautiful and refreshing place to visit and enjoy.
However, this astonishing place is in danger. Everyone has heard of the deforestation happening in the Amazon rainforest, but actually the Cerrado is in greater risk of disappearing, as mass agriculture and cattle ranching have been destroying large areas of Cerrado for many years. Serra da Canastra also has a third major industry threatening this environment: mining. Serra da Canastra is said to have great diamond reserves and today there is a strong lobby in the Federal Brazilian Congress to gain access to part of its protected area to exploit for mining.
BICIKLO: There aren’t many tour companies operating in such a defined area. Does this allow you to get to know the area more intimately?
LEO: Because it is still off the beaten track, there is the opportunity for tourism to be developed in a sustainable way. Meaning communities can get involved in its project, development and benefits; nature to be not only preserved, but taught and experienced; and local culture to be celebrated and shared.
BICIKLO: Taking a responsible approach to tourism is very important to you. Are you having a positive impact on the local culture and economy?
LEO: Well, I hope so. And this is the main reason I was inspired to start the business. My dad was born on a farm and lived for part of his life in the area of Serra da Canastra. This has helped me to come into contact with the rural culture of Cerrado since my early childhood: their traditional farming methods, way of life married with their intrinsic knowledge of the land, their food and their local environment.
Unfortunately, today I see this rural culture being slowly but steadily adapted by mass agriculture, encroaching tourism ventures and land speculators that have no regard for the local people, and who sometimes forcefully bring their modern urban and fast changing approach to this delicate environment and culture. Thankfully, there are also those who take positive actions in helping Canastra, such as the Chico Mendes Institution, a few NGOs, some tour companies, local people and visitors.
Our tours are designed purposefully to interact with the local people, to see and share their way of life, as well as bringing them into contact with people who are interested in travelling and visiting places in a responsible and healthy manner. Our tours make a positive economic impact on the people we visit, helping to support them and their way of life; at the same time they have the chance to be actively involved and gain from tourism activities.
As tourism is still happening on a relatively low-scale in the area, we believe that we have the chance to demonstrate to people a type of travel and tourism that is considered and responsible, and with low impact on the environment, so that others see the benefits of alternative forms of travel and/or opportunities of developing activities in a different way. Refresh wants to help to give a respectful, responsible and horizontal ground for these relations between humans and the environment to happen: we are confident that cycling and walking are great ways of doing just that.
BICIKLO: What are your plans for the future?
LEO: We are looking to develop further tours in and around Serra da Canastra and in a couple of years time we hope to offer other cycling tours from Minas Gerais: taking in mountains, colonial culture and heritage, rural areas, en route to the ocean! With Brazil being such a vast and diverse country that has so much untapped potential for international visitors, we want to help share more of this beautiful country in a responsible way.
We’re also hoping to set up a foundation, taking a percentage of the profits from our tours which can then be invested in causes and projects in the local areas where we work, such as with the rural schools in Serra da Canastra. Educating the children about the importance of the place is something that concerns us. Enabling them to be proud of who they are and appreciate where they come from, so that they may work even more towards their own goals as they help protect their environment and fortify their culture.
You can find out much more about Refresh Ecotours on their site, refreshecotours.