Meet the Former Corporate Crew Setting Up a Regenerative Eco-Tourism Hostel in Colombia

Photos: Sam Price
Interview: Adam Pickering
Wednesday 10 November 2021
reading time: min, words

After living the corporate life in London, West Bridgford lads Stefan Harling and Sam Price, along with Colette Phillips from Somerset, set off to Colombia and bought a piece of land surrounded by rainforest on which to build a regenerative eco-tourism hostel - La Ponderosa. Our Environment Editor Adam Pickering speaks to Stefan and Colette about their journey, whether tourism can ever be eco-friendly, and their crowdfunding campaign to finish the job...


So how did you meet, and where did the idea for La Ponderosa come from?
 Sam and I are friends from West Bridgford Comprehensive School and Colette and I met at university. I was travelling in South America with Sam and we randomly bumped into Colette in Peru. We then all moved to London to start corporate jobs: I was an IT consultant working at IBM, Sam was an accountant and trained at EY, and then Colette was an environmental advisor working for Skanska, a big construction company. We were all very much in the corporate life in London, working for about four or five years. But after about a year, we realised this wasn’t what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives, we didn’t find it very fulfilling. So we decided to commit to opening a hostel in Colombia and started saving some money for that. That was about two and a half years ago that we left our jobs, no regrets so far.

What makes La Ponderosa different to other hostels?
La Ponderosa is what we're calling a regenerative hostel. There's a lot of hostels around which call themselves sustainable or eco hostels, especially here in Colombia where many hostels just use it as a tag if they have a garden out the back with a few trees in it. And we want to move the conversation away from this and even from sustainability because being sustainable at the moment isn't really enough, it looks only to stop polluting and maintain things as they are, but as we know we've caused a lot of damage and destruction to the world already, so if you maintain things at this level, it will still get worse. So regeneration and being regenerative is that next step up where you look to rejuvenate the land that you work on.
Colette: So yeah instead of just taking out you're kind of giving back at the same time, you're creating surplus and returning that to land, restoring ecosystems. It’s about allowing yourself to fit within the system whilst being a catalyst in restoring it’s health as quickly as possible. 


What’s the environmental situation like there, and how are you hoping to restore it?
Stefan: The plot of land we live on here is thirteen hectares, and a lot of that is damaged due to  deforestation. We designed our own restoration plan where we’ve left some areas to rewild naturally, in others we’re actively helping to restore soil health through the planting of legumes, composting, chop and drop techniques and reforestation. So far we’ve planted 1,000 trees. So we're not just opening a hostel, but exploring a regenerative way of living that restores the health of our land. Colette did a permaculture design course out here so she leads on that front; all of our design is based on permaculture principles and our goal really is to be as self-sufficient as possible. So the next step once we’re open is to really try and focus more on food production.
Colette: Yeah, self sufficient within our community, so we don't even want to be just self sufficient by ourselves because then, you know, you're just an island of paradise - you need to be supporting your neighbours too. So We're in a very remote area and at the minute what’s happening is our neighbor's are growing food, and then travelling all the way down the mountain, selling it to the market for a rubbish rate, getting very little for it, and then we’re buying it there and bringing it back up. So we're trying to break that link and just set up more of a circular economy with others living on the mountain.

And that’s how you’re hoping to be different, taking a more holistic approach?
I think the reason we're different is instead of just coming here staying a few nights I think we'd hoped that people would come here stay for a while, it'll have more of a kind of community vibe to it, but - you know, without ramming it down people's throats and losing the fun element - we'd like to make it an educational experience where guests become aware of why we do certain things the way we do to, and make them aware of these delicate ecosystem balances we're trying to restore within nature. The project is more than just a hostel for a holiday - we hope to be able to showcase a regenerative model of living, tourism, running a business and festivals, which can be copied and adapted elsewhere.

We want people who might not be sustainably minded to come here and see why we’re doing things in certain ways

Can tourism ever be “eco” when there’s so much travelling and flights involved?
Colette: This is a big concern of ours, and in the months before leaving this grew as an internal battle, as we felt some conflict between our vision and the promotion of international flights. We came to justify our decision through the idea of running the hostel alongside a reforestation foundation that can allow guests to offset their flights. But also giving people that first-hand exposure to the delicate balances of these rainforest ecosystems that our economies are destroying can be powerful. We also know that domestic tourism in Latin America is strong and is mostly done via bus, so we want to encourage that.
Stefan: On the behaviour change angle - we want people who might not be sustainably minded to come here and see why we’re doing things in certain ways. We're not offering meat, it’s all vegetarian (we keep chicken for eggs and our neighbours produce a lot of milk and cheese which we’re happy to use). An idea we have is to set up a type of green token scheme where guests can win points through environmental acts which can then get you drinks at the bar or something. For example, arriving here without flying could earn you enough points for a nights stay, or helping us in the veg garden for an hour could get you a pint! There’ll be different activities to get involved with to learn more about permaculture, the rainforest, cacao which we hope could change people’s mindsets.


How are you bringing the indigenous and local community into the project?
Colette: So the local economy was heavily based on the coca (cocaine) industry which involves a lot of deforestation, and when that was pushed out by the army, everyone moved towards beef farming, which stops the land from naturally returning to forest. We see tourism as an alternative to that. What we’re seeing in this region of Colombia is that the tourism industry has had a really beneficial impact on the community, and given them an alternative income. Locals are realising that people want to come and see the rainforest, so they’re actually restoring their land and making it more accessible for tourists. We’re trying to organically build a network of locals who want to bring those tourists to their land, which empowers them to start their own initiatives that are more environmentally focused. 
Stefan: From the indigenous point of view, it is a tricky subject. For example, the Kogi traditionally would not interact with “Younger Brother” which is the name they give all non-indigenous people. There are remote villages that no one has ever visited who don’t want tourism which we completely respect, but there are some that are more open to it. We’re working with our local village by helping them sell their hand woven traditional bags made from natural materials. So we promote these to our guests and volunteers. But I think we need to be careful with how we're supporting them.
Colette: Yeah, it's a very sensitive issue. Coming in and setting up tourism links with the indigenous population can have a negative impact if not done carefully. We've already had to turn down one proposal where we were kind of being pushed into setting up a a tour quite deep into the mountains, because it felt a little bit wrong. But we do have a very close neighbouring village, who actually moved further down the mountains because they’re interested in tourism. And so we’re treading very carefully but looking at what we could do with them. We’re keen to learn from them and to share their lessons with others, they have such a beautiful and important outlook on the world. So it's about trying to tap into that without exploiting it.

Once we’ve finished building, we want to put more energy into community projects like setting up English lessons and a community tree nursery

And you’ve been employing a lot of locals, and working on their projects too?
Stefan: Yeah we're still really in the construction phase of our project. We're coming to the end of that now hopefully, but we've been employing workers from the local community and we've also been helping out with community projects. We've helped maintain and build parts of the road that leads up to the community, and we've got a lot of our own volunteers here so we've been helping in numbers. We have a close relationship with the president of the community in the mountains, and once we’ve finished building, we want to put more energy into community projects like setting up English lessons and a community tree nursery. 

Tell us about your crowdfunding campaign and why you’ve launched it?
Stefan: We’re nearly finished with the build, but owing to delays from the pandemic and other things, we’re finishing about a year later than we thought we would and we’re over budget. The last thing we really need is solar power - however, to power the whole site including the house, accommodation and the restaurant we’ll run we need quite a sizable system. We can get electricity from the grid but it’s mostly coal-fired, so we want to go solar, and we need some support really to be able to remain off grid and help us support the next steps of our project.
Colette: The main reward people can get is to plant trees, but there are other rewards like an eponymous t-shirt - organically made of course, and the factory used to make them is solar-powered.

The La Ponderosa crowdfunding campaign is running until the end of November, you can find out more and donate online.

We have a favour to ask

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion

Please note, we migrated all recently used accounts to the new site, but you will need to request a password reset

Sign in using

Or using your

Forgot password?

Register an account

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.

Forgotten your password?

Reset your password?

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.