Heroes around the World: Playa Inclusiva

Have we mentioned that Arica is in the desert, yet? Yeah, it gets pretty hot here, so we head to the beach, walking the half-mile south along the coast to what we’ve been told is the closest accessible shore. When we get there, it’s already packed with beachgoers, even though it’s only 10:00 am.


We’ve brought a backpack and we’re worried about theft, so we look around for lockers and don’t find any. A group of neon-orange clad people notice our plight and one of them approaches us. “You can leave your stuff with us,” she says cheerfully, “we’ll watch it.” We follow her over to a canopy where the orange-clad people are standing and drop the bags off. Then we notice that they have some odd vehicles with them.


We ask them what they’re here for, and they explain the amazingly cool work they do. Everybody loves playing in the ocean (especially in Arica’s heat), but it isn’t accessible to everyone. People who can’t swim because they are wheelchair-bound or differently-abled have a hard time swimming in the water. To ensure that these people also get a chance to enjoy the ocean, their organization Playa Inclusiva provides these giant bikes that can be pushed through the water. The differently-abled person sits on the seat with a life jacket and one of the volunteers pushes them through the surf, meaning they get to enjoy the cool ocean waters alongside everyone else.


The issue of accessibility at the beach was one I had never thought about, so it was amazing to see that the people at Playa Inclusiva had not only thought about it, but also created a solution that relies only on a volunteer, a life jacket, and one of these bikes. Thanks to them, everyone at Arica can enjoy the beach. And that is badass.


Heroes Around the World: Wayramachay Edition

Heroes Around the World highlights amazing people we meet on our travels. From pursuing their dreams to changing the world, we find their stories inspiring. We hope you do too.

The valley where Wayramachay sits, as seen from the Salkantay pass. There are no vehicular roads to the village.

On the far side of the Salkantay Pass, 30 kilometers from the nearest town, there sits a little stone hut with a corrugated aluminum roof. It huddles at the base of the mountain pass less than a kilometer from Wayramachay, a tiny rural village of a few dozen scattered houses. Wayramachay is the kind of place that turns up no results on Google Maps, a place where the nearest vehicular roads are more than 10 km away. It looks like many other towns in the Andean highlands, a few dozen stone dwellings with farm plots and some scattered horses. But if you hike the Salkantay, you’ll notice the little hut near Wayramachay because it hums. It’s the only sound like it out here in the isolated Peruvian Andes.

The hut, as seen from the trail, humming away happily

We arrived at this hut on the second day of our hike, exhausted and soaking wet from rain. As the steep mountain trail gave way to gentler slopes, we heard that odd hum over the patter of the rain, and within minutes the hut faded into view through the mist. Three men were working around it, but when they saw us they stopped and excitedly waved us over. We were wary at first, as we remembered a rather visceral warning we had received the previous day of dangerous men on the trail. But these men seemed friendly and not the throat-cutting type. We slogged over the wet trail to greet them.

A closer look at the hut, the source of the now nearly deafening humming noise

The men introduced themselves as engineers and then invited us to look into the hut for the source of the noise. Here, the humming sound was nearly defining, drowning out even the patter of the rain. It became a high-pitched whirr, filling our ears, filling the whole hut, bursting forth and filling the whole countryside. It was a generator, belt whirring away madly, assembled from scratch and powered entirely by the water rushing down the mountains around us.

A generator creates electricity from water flowing in through a pipe (upper left)

Stoytcho and I used our Spanish to talk with one of the men and got this story. The three of them were originally from Wayramachay and wanted to make life better for their village, to bring it the modern comfort of electricity. But without a way to build power lines out here, they decided to harness the only resource they knew their village had in abundance: flowing water. With financial help from the Peruvian government, they had purchased machinery and building materials and carried them here on foot and horseback along the Salkantay trail. After several months of construction, they were finally putting the finishing touches on the system, which harnessed flows of water down the mountain to create the first electricity Wayramachay had ever seen.

A river flows by fields in Wayramachay. With clouds often obscuring the sun, flowing water is one of the few constant energy sources in the area.

When we asked an engineer if we could take photos, he gestured with gusto and beamed. “Of course!” he replied, radiating with pride. He pointed uphill along a white pipe that ended in a stone wall. “There’s still some work to do. Right now, we can’t control how fast the water flows. We’re building a dam system so that we can better control the water flow and the electricity,” he explained. “But this,” he pointed in the opposite direction, to a thin wire running from the front of the hut to a building several hundred meters away. “This is already carrying electricity. It already powers lightbulbs over there.” He then explained that once they could control the system, they were planning to extend the wire further into town. They hoped to eventually bring electricity to the entire village. We wished them good luck and bade them farewell, continuing along the Salkantay trail, past the stone houses and fields of Wayramachay.

A stone fence near Wayramachay. The people here have always lived without electricity.

It’s hard for me to imagine how the people of Wayramachay live now because it’s so vastly different than anything I’ve ever experienced. They’ve lived with sunrise and sunset since the beginning of their village. They’ve endured the Andean chill with no means of heating besides burning fires. With no other source of light, their work is limited to daylight hours with tools that don’t require electricity. And the only ways to communicate with the outside world are to talk with those passing on the Salkantay trail, or to make the long hike yourself to the nearest town. If there’s an emergency, there’s no way to get help. All that is about to change for these people if they get electricity. They can have emergency phones, electrical heating, and light after the sun has set. They might be able to use some electric tools that make farming easier, giving them free time to make handicrafts to sell or to learn new things.

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The first lightbulb in Wayramachay

The future for Wayramachay is embodied within a flickering lightbulb high in the Andean mountains. And by the hard work and love that these engineers have for their hometown, and it’s getting brighter.

Heroes Around the World 2: Tinka Plese and AIUNAU

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Tinka rehabilitating sloths at AIUNAU. (Photo Credit: Tinka Plese)

Internet fact: everybody loves sloths. They’re universally adored, with a conservation society, fanpages, infinite gifs, and the sloth-or-chocolate croissant meme. There’s even a wikiHow article on how to be a sloth lover. That’s a lot of sloth support, and I think these people are on to something. There’s something endearing about seeing their cute little faces, and so relaxing when watching them climb slowly through the trees. It’s like watching an animal at peace with the world.

Sloths still exist in the wild in Colombia, so we were excited at the chance to see them. But nature isn’t always cooperative and we hadn’t seen any on our hikes in the jungle. Though we still wanted to see sloths, I wasn’t keen on just going to the zoo–we could do that in the U.S. On a whim, I looked around for a wildlife sanctuary for sloths online. That’s how I found Tinka and AIUNAU, the nonprofit foundation she directs to help rehabilitate sloths, anteaters, and other wildlife. We reached out to Tinka about visiting AIUNAU and after a brief exchange of emails, one morning we traveled to rural Antioquia to visit her.

Men installing telephone lines near our bus stop in rural Antioquia. Increased development in rural areas is one of the many threats to sloths.

We met Tinka at a bus stop and she drove us to her home, which doubles as a site for AIUNAU’s rehabilitation facilities. She doesn’t normally do tours – as she puts it, her work is in helping the animals; she’s not here to run a tourist attraction. All the same, she was cheerful and more than happy to answer our questions. We had many, of course – what she does, how she founded AIUNAU, and what she sees in the future for the sloth species.

Tinka hadn’t intended to found AIUNAU when she arrived in Colombia 30 years ago. Originally from Croatia, she came to Colombia to study sloths as a doctoral student. The locals knew about her research, and soon people began bringing her injured sloths. At first Tinka cared for them informally, but after a decade she founded AIUNAU, a portmanteau of the local names for the two- and three-toed sloths. Through AIUNAU, Tinka and other members now not only rehabilitate Xenarthrans (the animal group comprising sloths, anteaters, and armadillos), but also advocate for policies that protect them.

A sloth peers out from its rehabilitation enclosure at AIUNAU.

Sloths face two major threats in Colombia, Tinka explained. The first comes from habitat loss, which increasingly brings sloths into contact with civilization. Sloths can be hit by cars when crossing roads, or electrocuted if they mistake a power line for a tree branch. And sometimes they’re just picked on by people – she’s received a few sloths injured by curious children who knocked them out of trees.  The second major threat springs, ironically, from the love that people have for sloths. Sloths are the most-trafficked animal in Colombia, with an estimated 60,000 sold as pets in 2013. Many of these sales are to tourists, who are told that sloths are easy to care for and will eat anything. To make matters worse, poachers will often target baby sloths, taking them from their mothers at a young age because their cuteness sells. Many sloths die this way, either abused at the hands of poachers or malnourished in a tourist’s house, far from their Colombian home.

A sloth rests on a branch in its rehabilitation enclosure. The enclosures, made of wood and plexiglass, measure several meters on each side and provide places for the animals to seek privacy.

Through AIUNAU, Tinka has successfully cared for over a thousand animals in the past 20 years, although not every story has a happy ending. Sloths often arrive at AIUNAU so weak or ill that they’re beyond recovery. Especially for young animals, she says, “often the best you can do is provide a peaceful place for them to die.” Many animals have also recovered under her care, though, and she then releases them into the wild. She emphasizes this strongly to us; in contrast with some other rehabilitation facilities, the animals are not kept as tourist attractions for revenue. Beyond rehabilitation, Tinka has also successfully advocated for better wildlife protection throughout Colombia. She tells us about writing letters to the Colombian Government’s Ministry of the Environment each year, highlighting places where sloth trafficking was prolific and demanding legal action. “I wrote to them for more than a decade, over and over, and finally they reached out to me and we addressed the issue,” she laughs, “finally.” She notes that because of government intervention, sloth trafficking has dropped, “but there’s still so much work to do.”

A tamandua in her rehabilitation enclosure at AIUNAU.

Tinka continues advocating for wildlife protection in spare moments between the daily rehabilitation of animals in her care. She monitors the poaching situation through local contacts and visitors who submit sightings of poachers selling sloths. She then works with law enforcement to shut poaching operations down. Beyond this, Tinka has also worked tirelessly to increase the number of animals being rehabilitated by sharing her knowledge on caring for them. She’s teamed up with engineers to create better tools for animal rehabilitation. “Take a look at this,” she beams, as she shows me a picture on her phone. “It’s a new rehabilitation enclosure we’ve invented that can be assembled and disassembled anywhere. It’s large enough to allow us to care for an animal on site and for an animal to recover in familiar surroundings, which should reduce their stress and lead to a faster recovery.” Amazingly, Tinka’s desire to help sloths has created new tools, ones that could be used to rehabilitate a wide range of animals and improve rehabilitation outcomes.

In bed early: a sloth sleeps in her blanket-covered basket at AIUNAU.

After more than two hours of talking to Tinka, we took a walk on the grounds to see the animals currently at AIUNAU. Tinka led us around the side of her house to four large enclosures. At the time, she was caring for three animals in these enclosures: two three-toed sloths and a tamandua (a species of anteater). As we approached the enclosures, Tinka spoke in a quiet whisper to avoid agitating the animals. “Because it’s overcast out, they may already be asleep.” We peered into the first enclosure and saw a small clawed hand hanging out from a blanket-covered basket. This sloth had turned in for the night. The sloth of the next enclosure hadn’t yet drifted off, but was clinging sleepily to the top of the branch in his enclosure. His head nodded slowly up and down, and watching him I felt a bout of somnolence creeping on.

A sloth prepares for sleep in his rehabilitation enclosure at AIUNAU.

The guest of the third enclosure, a tamandua, was far more active. On our approach, she rustled and climbed from the floor of her enclosure onto a shelf, and then gracefully reached over and pulled herself onto a branch. Within seconds she had reached the wall of the enclosure closest to us. “She’s excited because she senses us,” Tinka explained, “we shouldn’t stay too long.” After a few minutes of observation, we pulled ourselves away and walked with back to the house with Tinka. We chatted for a few more minutes, and then said our goodbyes. When I asked her what message she wants the world to know, Tinka says: “Don’t buy wild fauna, and don’t torture wild fauna. Let them be wild.”

A tamandua excitedly greets us from her enclosure.

As we walked back to the bus stop, we passed by fields and pastures that were once jungles inhabited by sloths and other Xenathrans. While sloths are not currently in danger of extinction, continued habitat loss and poaching pose serious threats. But these animals are lucky to have Tinka and AIUNA looking out for them. After all, many people love wild animals. But few have gone as far as Tinka in ensuring that they stay wild and free.


If you’re inspired by this story and want to help Tinka and AIUNAU continue their amazing work, consider making a donation here.

Homebound: all animals rehabilitated at AIUNAU are released into the wild.


Heroes Around the World: José of La Tiendita de Chocolate

Heroes Around the World highlights amazing people we meet on our travels. From pursuing their dreams to changing the world, we find their stories inspiring. We hope you do too.

The street leading to La Tiendita de Chocolate.

Down at the end of this street, near the base of the stairs, is a little chocolate shop that goes by the apt name of La Tiendita De Chocolate. Located in the Colombian town of Guatapé, La Tiendita sells delectable chocolate desserts of all kinds, from bars of pure dark chocolate to creamy bonbons. The chocolate bars shimmer in their clear wrappers, boasting flavors like Himalayan sea salt and pink peppercorns. The bonbons, wrapped in tissue paper and foil, carry equally refined taste combinations: almond, rum, tequila, or caramel with roasted cacao nibs.

Every piece of chocolate is handmade onsite by the owner and man behind La Tiendita, José, his wife, or their assistants. When we visited, José was busy behind the counter showing off some new chocolates. We had initially planned to make a quick purchase to nibble on our walk through town, but the panoply of options made it hard to choose which. José laughed at this, and handed us a piece of chocolate. “Try this,” he said. It was a dark chocolate truffle flavored with tequila and cream.

Bon-bons filled with caramel and cacao nibs sit in a display case at La Tiendita de Chocolate. The store sells a panoply of chocolate bars and flavors, with a focus on dark chocolate.

I’ve encountered a lot of chocolate in my life, both commercial and gourmet, but nothing quite like what José makes. His focus is on dark chocolate, which he makes from personally-sourced cacao beans. He says he spends a lot of time looking for new bean sources and interesting flavors, which occupies him whenever he’s not shopkeeping. I’d believe it. Biting into a piece of José chocolate reveals complex and fruity flavors. There’s a tang of citrus at the front, followed by a more mellow cherry taste, and the unmistakable bitterness of a dark chocolate that somehow lacks the harsh burnt flavor I’m used to finding in other dark chocolate. I find myself longing for a glass of wine instead of a glass of milk to accompany the chocolate.

Piece after piece, we sample several chocolates in José has on offer. Each is fine blend, with additions to the chocolate playing on its fruitiness. We discuss the flavors with him, and he guides us through his sources for beans on a flavor map of South America: He points out regions that produce cacao beans rich in chocolatey flavors, and other regions that produce beans with lighter, more floral profiles. His knowledge on chocolate is incredible, and we stay with him for hours, taking a virtual trip of South America’s cacao growing regions. At one point, he even pulls a fresh cacao pod out of storage and shares some of the fruit with us.

Bars of dark chocolate are studded with spicy pink peppercorns. José, the owner, makes his chocolate from bean-to-bar at La Tiendita and has developed all of his own recipes.

We learn that José wasn’t always a chocolate-maker. “I used to work as a field producer for FoxTelecolombia,” he says in perfect English. But he was always experimenting with chocolate. “It was my passion!” he laughs, “And eventually my wife asked ‘Why don’t you quit your job and follow your passion?’ That’s how we got started.” José has been making chocolate ever since, experimenting with everything he can get his hands on and eventually opening La Tiendita here in Guatapé, his wife’s home town. Now he spends his days managing the shop, creating chocolates from his recipes, and crafting new recipes.

But the most inspiring thing about José is his goal of building a gourmet Colombian chocolate an international sensation. He sees a future for Colombian chocolate like that of Ecuador and Peru, whose gourmet chocolate industries have exploded in the past decade as consumers seek higher quality. “Right now, there are very few gourmet chocolate-makers in Colombia and it can be difficult to get supplies,” José says, “We have (the company) Luker, but that’s it, so I make chocolate to show the world how great Colombian chocolate can be.” He tells us how visitors to Guatapé have found his shop and have become obsessed. Once, two Japanese visitors left with two full cases of his chocolate bars. Visitors have also sometimes sent him ingredients he can’t get in Colombia, like flavored liqueurs. All of it has helped him grow La Tiendita and make better chocolate, although he still makes chocolate out of love rather than for profit. “The store may fail, but I will always make chocolate,” he says.

Truffles flavored with tequila, an alcohol you wouldn’t normally imagine pairing with chocolate. José’s goal is for gourmet Colombian chocolate to be as renowned as chocolate from Ecuador or Peru, but he still makes chocolates out of love for the art, pushing him to create new flavor combinations.