Travel Sustainably | CHILE | How I Tried to Travel Responsibly
Travel Sustainably is a Teja on the Horizon article series reviewing my efforts to travel more responsibly. This article reviews new things I tried when I travelled to CHILE and sustainability-related things I encountered while there. It covers what I did well, what I would keep doing/using, what I learned, and what I failed to do. In Chile, I travelled to Easter Island, Atacama Desert, and Valparaiso.
- 1 The Journey to Sustainable Travel
- 2 Intentional Habit Changes to Travel Sustainably
- 3 Travel Sustainably in Easter Island and the Atacama Desert: The Basics
- 4 Travel Sustainably: (Dis)Honourable Mention
The Journey to Sustainable Travel
Chile was the third country I travelled to, following my transition towards sustainable travel in Nepal and India. (Technically it’s the fourth, since it was sandwiched in between the Netherlands and Australia on a long, round-the-world trip. But I don’t think a business trip really counts, since it is not as challenging as tourism travel.
Then again, my first Chile travel fail didn’t happen in Chile. It happened in France, while I was still travelling for work.
An early travel fail – I lost my water bottle :(
What happened: I always travel with a water bottle, so that I would never need to buy plastic bottled water. But on an overnight field visit to Rouen, I accidentally left my Blue Temple metal bottle in the hotel.
I enquired after it later, but the hotel claimed it was not found in the room. I was quite sad, because it was a wide-necked bottle, meaning that it could be used for more complicate drinks like mango smoothies and coconut shakes.
As a result, on this Netherlands-Chile-Australia trip, I used two plastic bottles.
How I improvised: I obtained one bottled water in the Netherlands, which I re-used for the remainder of my time there. Then I bought bottled juice on Easter Island, and re-used the bottle as well, bringing it to Australia for the remainder of my round-the-world trip.
It was two more than I expected to use. Oh well. At least I didn’t lose the portable filter!
Intentional Habit Changes to Travel Sustainably
There were two new travel habits that I acquired to travel more sustainably, starting from this trip. Both of them relate to travel toiletries.
Stop Plastic Pollution: Switch to a bamboo toothbrush
How: I had already tried out bamboo toothbrushes at home, and was quite satisfied with the product.
So, feeling satisfied with it at home, I switched my travel toothbrush to a bamboo one when my last plastic toothbrush became frayed. (It didn’t take too long).
Additional Benefits: Not only are bamboo toothbrushes less damaging to ecosystems than plastic toothbrushes, they last longer too!
My toothbrushes used to fray out in 3 months, tops. For some time I had begun to feel that toothbrushes fray faster, more like 2 months for the past few years.
But the bamboo ones that I bought online easily lasted beyond 4 months. I began to suspect that toothbrushes could in fact be manufactured so that the bristles don’t fray as quickly as it usually does…
Bamboo toothbrushes are a bit more expensive. At the time when I bought mine, there were none available in Malaysia, so I ordered online from Germany. I found one supplier who had reasonable prices and I bought several to reduce the cost further.
Secondly, while not so much a downside, but more of a caveat, are the bristles. Many bamboo toothbrushes have bristles made of pig hair, especially if the product is made in China, where pig bristles are an abundant by-product.
From a strictly eco-sustainability POV, this is a plus, as it creates a purpose for the by-product. However, if you’re Muslim, this renders these toothbrushes haram. I guess it would also make them non-vegan.
Even when the listing states that the toothbrush is vegan, I did not feel comfortable that the sellers truly understand what that means, since they never say what the bristles are made of.
The alternative is a bamboo toothbrush that may not be entirely plastic-free, since the bristles might be plastic (nylon). So I went for the slightly more expensive German seller who was able to say that the bristles are of cellulose origin. I’m ok with this, since at least it’s a drastic reduction in plastic, and I am replacing them a lot less frequently too.
Do again? It is a default in my travel toiletries bag. This is a very easy switch to make.
Stop Plastic Pollution: Silicone squeeze bottles for travel toiletries
How: For many years, I have been guilty of saving ‘travel size’ toiletries. I would always recycle the bottles, but it is not exactly the best approach if you truly aspire to travel sustainably. A very low proportion of plastics sent for recycling actually gets recycled.
Later, I began saving only those bottles with necks wide enough to be refilled. I stayed with liquids because I still had a lot of liquid personal care products that I wanted to use up while slowly testing out plastic free versions at home.
However, free plastic toiletry bottles with refillable necks are rare. In addition, if you drop it during use, it’s easy to spill the liquid. So I bought silicone squeeze bottles to replace them (I went with GoToob).
I found the silicone squeeze tubes durable, easy to refill, easy to squeeze out, and leak-tight enough to deal with pressure changes in airplanes for (almost) all liquids. The bigger tubes even have a rotatable neck band with common liquid types embossed so that you remember what you’ve got in it. I have used it for shampoo, conditioner, lotion, sunscreen, facial cleanser, and toner.
Additional benefits: I think it’s a good option for people who are not ready (or can’t) switch to solid/plastic-packaged free versions of their personal care products. The silicone tubes are more aesthetically pleasing than mismatched and odd-shaped cheap plastic, while being lighter and easier to travel with than glass.
There are a few, but not terrible ones.
- The problem with being so versatile and mainstream-friendly, not to mention cute, is that the bottles are more likely to be stolen. I lost one recently in a Sydney hostel. I accidentally left it in the extremely cramped shared bathroom. Even though I remembered it not too long after, and even though there were other bottles of shampoo on the sills, my GoToob was gone. By contrast, I don’t think people would steal bar shampoo. I mean, usually bits of your hair will be stuck on it.
- Secondly, it is less leak-tight across airplane pressure changes for very light, semi-volatile liquids, like facial toner. You’ll lose some of this in air transit.
- Thirdly, if you want to swap the liquid type, it’s not that easy to clean out properly.
- Fourth, I’m not sure what will happen if you bring sunscreen in a GoToob into territories that ban non-reef safe sunscreens. Without the bottle, you can’t show what the ingredients are.
Do again? I’m still using them.
Travel Sustainably in Easter Island and the Atacama Desert: The Basics
The main portion of my trip to Chile was spent in two remote locations. If you’ve read my article on the top 3 sustainable travel habits, you would wonder about what arrangements have been made regarding basic tourism impacts. I present a few considerations here, so that you can make more informed preparations to travel sustainably to these two major Chilean destinations.
Accommodations: An eco-resort may not be the most sustainable!
If you are an eco-conscious traveller, it may not cross your mind that an eco-resort is not necessarily your most sustainable accommodation option.
I came across an Easter Island eco-resort that looked well-designed and built with environmental sustainability principles in mind. Earthship-like, and grassed roofs. The buildings looked like they would have things like rainwater capture and all sorts.
But black protest flags and banners ringed its fenceline. They were put up by local Rapa Nui, the indigenous islanders. The grievance is that the resort is not Rapa Nui-owned, nor even Chilean. It is a European resort, and perceived as not benefiting the local people.
Of course, I don’t know the legal facts of the issue. But, bear in mind that sustainability is as much about social and economic impacts as about environmental ones. Check out my other article for more on Easter Island accommodations.
Water sustainability and potability
One of the first questions to consider for remote or island locations, is where the water comes from. It is very likely that the place is water-scarce, so being frugal in water use is usually warranted.
Additionally water source is also relevant when you are making decisions on drinking water solutions. So I’ll tell you about the typical water sources in both Easter Island and Atacama desert.
What is the water supply in Easter Island (Rapa Nui)?
Despite attracting as many as 100,000 tourists a year, Easter Island relies on rainwater. Volcanic craters on the island hold the rainwater supply, and that’s it. They’re not that big, and the water is also needed by the last remnants of Rapa Nui native ecology.
I filtered this water for drinking purposes and found no issues. Water quality is reasonably good on Easter Island.
What is the water supply in the Atacama desert?
I asked my hostel host about the water supply in the driest place in the world. He had previously explained how he had to lobby the bosses of the Chilean telco companies directly, so that they would actually process his fiberoptic cable application. Apparently, these things are not reliable in Chile.
Anyway, that’s why my hostel had really fast WiFi.
On one of the tours, I had seen what looked like water pipelines descending from the high plains. There was an industrial water tanker taking water too. Spying a water conservation sticker on my hostel’s office wall, I thought to satisfy my curiosity.
It turns out that water supply in San Pedro de Atacama comes from the geysers which flow into creeks. The water at the geysers is not potable, since there is toxic mineral content. But, they told me that the water at the tap is filtered and safe to drink.
I took them at their word and used the tap water as is. I figured that precisely because of its geological source, the town has no choice but to treat the water very well to remove the hazardous contents.
Zero Waste: Recycling and plastic pollution
Chile supermarkets do not give out plastic bags. I learned this before I went, because a friend of mine had gone bike touring there the year before. He told me about it, knowing my interest in sustainability.
I verified this during my own trip. Therefore, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of bringing a reusable carry bag before your trip to Chile. That said, Chile is not low on plastic waste, and not all shops refrain from giving you a plastic bag.
What happens to waste on Easter Island (Rapa Nui)?
For the most remote place on earth, and a small island as well, how does waste collection and disposal work? My Airbnb host requested that we recycle, so I figured it must go somewhere. Easter Island is generally clean and tidy.
It was on my return flight to the mainland that I discovered where. LATAM flies waste back to mainland Chile for recycling. So actually, there is a point to separating your waste on this remote little island!
That said, the less waste you generate, the more manageable it would be! I’m not 100% sure what happens after LATAM unloads the cargo. Not all waste you send for recycling really gets recycled.
That said, my second travel fail happened in Easter Island.
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While considering whether I should go to O’rongo even after spraining my ankle, I decided to treat myself to an ice cream. Not from an ice box, scooped right then onto a wafer cone. So far, so zero waste… until the guy slammed it into a plastic cup and jammed a tiny plastic spoon in it. 😦😐😨 But why, Easter Island, why???
#easterisland #icecream #icecreamcones #icecreamtime #dessert🍰 #treatyourself #zerowaste #zerowastefail #plasticpollution #singleuseplastic #beatplasticpollution #travelchile #earthlingmovement #sustainabletravel #itried #zerowastetravel #sigh
Travel sustainably by going zero waste in the Atacama desert
Despite being on the mainland, with a good road connection to Calama, it is San Pedro de Atacama that has a plastic waste problem.
Like Easter Island, San Pedro gets a high volume of tourism. But the vacant areas by the roads are littered with plastic waste. It tells me that basic waste recovery is an issue in San Pedro, never mind recycling.
All the more reason to travel as zero waste as you can.
Travel Sustainably: (Dis)Honourable Mention
Sometimes, you only learn about local tourism impacts after you’ve already arrived. Two of these sustainability issues in Chile were highlighted to me on different occasions. One is about the do’s and don’ts of hitchhiking, and the other is about holidaying in party cities.
Respect local people: Hitchhiking in Polynesia
I was surprised when a newly-arrived traveller flagged down my taxi as we passed by the airport gate, headed towards Tongariki for the sunrise. My driver Alex stopped to hear what she wanted. She asked him something in foreign-accented Spanish, which Alex refused. When we drove away from her, I asked him if she wanted to share the cab. I didn’t mind, if it’s just along the way.
Alex replied that she said she had ‘no muy dineros’. She wanted a lift for free.
Hitchhiking is common across the Pacific islands. I read about this when researching trips to the South Pacific, and confirmed it during those trips. Easter Island is a Polynesian island, so you might assume that hitchhiking is also common here. Indeed, if you happen to be walking while a local car drives past, you’re likely to get a hitchhike on Easter Island.
That said, the island is very small, with only one town. The other locations on the island are moai sites, which are not daily destinations for locals. Most traffic to these places are by tourist rented cars, or taxis.
Obviously, Easter Islanders rely on tourism income, as they are so remote from everywhere. So, I thought it was quite over the limit to ask a taxi for a free ride. Especially when the taxi already has a passenger, who presumably paid for the service. For me, that is the line where you are no longer a hitchhiker, but actually a begpacker. While hitchhiking can be, begpacking is not among the ways to travel sustainably.
Seriously, please don’t go to remote bucket list destinations reliant on tourism if you’re just going to mooch from the locals. Travel sustainably, or accept that you really can’t afford to go there.
Respect local people: Responsible partying & overtourism in Chile
I spent quite a bit of time simply roaming around the streets and alleys of Valparaiso’s old quarter and downtown areas. I knew that Valparaiso is a university city, and has a reputation for being the party city for Santiago. On one such foray, a laminated printed sign caught my attention. It was stuck onto a corrugated metal wall of a Valpo side street.
Overtourism is a growing issue in the tourism industry, and is very subjective. 10,000 tourists in a big city with efficient infrastructure and good regulations may be palatable. 1000 tourists in a small village could be too much. In all cases, the point when the local residents begin to resent tourists, is when their lives begin to be negatively affected.
It could be a difficulty to get housing, because apartment blocks get rented out as Airbnbs by real estate investors instead of housing local families. Or when a stream of insensitive tourists continually disrespect the local culture or important sites. Maybe it’s the excessive partying by weekenders and gap year travellers, that disrupt sleep and family/community life. Whatever it is, it’s about travellers treating the place they visit as a ‘theme park’ that revolves around their holiday, without considering what would be appreciated by people who live there.
Yet, if you yourself live in a neighbourhood back home, surely you can imagine what these things would be. If you want to travel independently, staying within communities instead of dedicated hotels and resorts, then travel sustainably.
Be a good neighbour – even in someone else’s neighbourhood.
PIN THIS for your upcoming sustainable trip to Chile!