A toucan glances at a group of people walking below, but half are busy opening a pod of raw cacao and half are watching a sloth crawl slowly along a branch. This is nothing new for the toucan, and nothing threatening either – he sees groups like this almost every day.

It wasn’t always like that though – despite a diverse jungle, and many acres of shaded cacao trees in close proximity to a touristy Caribbean island, the community of Rio Oeste Arriba (‘Upper West River’) had few visitors until a local cooperative started turning the cacao into organic dark chocolate. Now, the community receives groups of tourists almost every day, which has resulted in renewed conservation efforts, a minor cultural revival, and new economic opportunities for multiple families.

Yaku Runa, Indigenous, Eco Travel

 

Despite some changes in our approach, we at keteka have always been about promoting authentic experiences, like the chocolate tour in Rio Oeste Arriba, that connect curious travelers with locals. Now, after years of working with communities, tour operators, and travelers, our goal is to give offline tour operators an online presence, and travelers the opportunity to book with them. This gives the tour operators more opportunities to sell their tours and activities, and travelers a convenient portal for booking authentic experiences online, so all they have to worry about during their trip is showing up.

Rewind to late 2010. Co-founders Kyle and Jack were in small, rural communities in Panama, 10 hours apart, but hearing the same feedback from community members: we’ve got something here, and we think tourists would like it. In Kyle’s case, it was unprecedented access to the protected jungles around Lake Gatun (which is part of the Panama Canal) and to traditional Caribbean, Afro-Antillean culture. For Jack, it was a community in the western mountains, with thick forest and waterfalls, and an indigenous culture with unique food, artisan work, and sport.

 

Lake Gatún

A view of Lake Gatun from Kyle’s community

Kyle and Jack both helped start tourism groups that prepared day trips and activities, and were soon receiving tourists that found basic print advertisements on hostel bulletin boards. And from the first few fledgling tours, travelers kept giving the same feedback – “we loved it,” “it was the most authentic experience of my trip”. So the founders knew they had something and that other towns had similar potential, the trouble was, it was difficult to get the word out about the communities, particularly online and in English.

Keteka was born of the need to connect travelers with off-the-beaten-path communities like these. It was originally a website where Peace Corps volunteers could submit information about their community so that they had a web presence. Thanks to submissions from around the world, it morphed into a travel guide, with unique information on adventures in Panama, Peru, Ecuador, Cambodia, and Thailand.

Ecuador

 Jack in Cajas National Park in Ecuador

During a trip to South America to get more such communities on keteka, Jack experienced another obstacle between travelers and authentic experiences – most of the local tour operators are operating offline, which means most travelers only find out about them once they are in country, looking at a hostel bulletin board. Bulletin boards are a great system for backpackers, who choose their adventures on the fly, but for the great many travelers who want to maximize their limited vacation days, it helps to be able to search for and book tours and activities ahead of time, with the same ease as booking a flight or hotel room.

Yet almost 98% of tour operators do not receive payments online.

This is an unnecessary obstacle for travelers and tour operators and keteka is working on becoming a portal for booking authentic travel experiences online. We leverage our worldwide connections in the Peace Corps to validate tours and have begun small in Panama, a country we know almost as well as a local, with tour operators that we have met and trust to bring you a quality experience.

The chocolate tour in Rio Oeste now has a 5 star rank on Trip Advisor and receives tourists almost every day. It is a great example of the type of tour that we aim to feature on keteka, of how responsible tourism can benefit the traveler and the community, and of how an online presence can mean the difference between a great idea, and an experience that you will brag to your friends about when you get home.