Project Cordillera: Connecting adventure tourism with high mountain communities and local efforts to protect the environment

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Project Cordillera: Connecting adventure tourism with high mountain communities and local efforts to protect the environment

Project Status: Colombia
Location: October 2013 – Ongoing



Project Cordillera is an award-winning social enterprise that connects adventure tourism with high mountain communities and local efforts to protect the environment. Beginning our journey in the Cordillera Blanca, Perú, and having recently begun working in the Cordillera Central, Colombia, we are a group of passionate climbers, social entrepreneurs and development professionals aiming to create a scalable way for individuals to have sustainable impacts through their expeditions.

Our core aims are A) to connect conscientious alpinists and mountain enthusiasts from around the world with remote Andean regions, and B) to positively connect the people and places of the Andes with the outside world. With both aims, our objective is for a revolution in the way people perceive, understand and communicate the human experience of being among the world’s great high places.

Project Cordillera began as a small way to raise money and awareness for, and contribute towards, local development projects in the Peruvian Andes. We have impacted thousands of lives through focused and measured social, environmental and economic outputs. The ultimate aim is to impact millions, and to help create a world where mountain expeditions are sustainable as standard and where mountain cultures are always given the respect they deserve.

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Project Cordillera was born from our experience as mountain enthusiasts and a desire to find sustainable ways to protect mountains, and to do so in the form of supporting local communities who are doing this themselves. Mountains are complex environments with intricate, interconnected ecosystems. Millions of people around the world rely on these fragile environments for their agricultural security, food and resources, and – above all else – water. Moreover, one range can have radically different challenges from another, and even within a relatively small area there can be differing sets of priorities.

These complexities are even more profound when we consider culture, society and economics, and the critically important perspectives, traditions and myths associated with particular regions. The value of even the most remote peak or valley, especially for its local people, cannot be underestimated. Throughout the history of alpinism, the sublime has and continues to have a deep impact in the way we, as alpinists, contemplate and approach these regions.

However, exploration has long been tainted by ego, imperialism and the ‘conquering’ of nature and other people’s lands. Either we continue this narcissistic crusade in an era of mass consumerism, cultural homicide and environmental oblivion, or, we change direction. Many of the most inspiring climbers, explorers and writers – from Whymper to Hillary to Messner – paint a more empathetic picture of their relationship with mountains, as well as the people who inhabit them. The future of alpinism will be great if it holds, in no uncertain terms, absolute respect for these great features of our planet, as well as a deep understanding of mountain peoples and cultures.

Project Cordillera contributes to mountain protection by promoting and protecting the crucial place occupied by these peoples and their values. Our goal is to revolutionise adventure travel, create progressive social change and act as a catalyst for positive connections between people and places. We do not just want to sustain the planet; we need it to thrive. We are building a new paradigm centered on mutual learning, moving far from development that is too often tainted by neo-colonial ideals.

Our chosen category for this award is ‘A: promote environment protection through culture and education’. A concrete example of how we do this is through our Guias Locales Program.


The fundamental premise of our project is to collaborate with local communities. We are united by our shared aims to solve the problems that face Andean societies and environments. Our interaction and collaboration is underpinned by an extensive Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) programme. This dialogue of development is strengthened by regular visits by M&E professionals to our projects and a Theory of Change framework that ensures our collaborative strategies continue to evolve and effectively deliver on our social, environmental and economic commitments.

To exemplify, we are determined to break down the outdated international development narrative of ‘us’ helping ‘them’. And it is through this non-interventionist attitude that we have built and continue to build genuine partnerships with deep levels of trust that have led to significant benefits for Andean communities. We contract sustainability into all of our relationships: propagating labour and animal rights, employee welfare, fair wages and environmental responsibility. All the organisations with which we work are fully registered with their administrative sectors and the high standards of our partners are recognised by our Service, Safety and Sustainability Promise. This certificate recognises that our local partners are committed to building a sustainable future for mountain adventure travel.

Moreover, we are in the formative stages of a Human-Centred Partnership Program; a pilot program will be launched in a Peruvian university in August 2017. Putting people and relationships at the heart of our project has always been a core focus and continues to be an important driver for success. We are seeking to develop an organizational structure that will allow us to market, recruit and train talented individuals to promote and strengthen sustainable adventure travel in South America. This program will be based on mutual learning and will involve partnering exchange students with Peruvian students in order to support community projects.

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Our ambitious project strives to be an example of regional best practices. We continue to lead, learn and grow in our practices of protecting mountain environments in a number of ways:

  • Expedition quality and safety

First and foremost, we utilize our extensive networks and comprehensive knowledge to connect people to the highest quality expeditions. Safety is paramount and we go to great lengths to partner with the few regional inbound operators that deliver standards of certification, training, equipment and customer care comparable with European and North American services. Every year, adventurers die in the great cordilleras and we aim to change this.

  • Accessibility and sharing of content

We are committed to increasing the accessibility of sustainable, safe and exciting mountain adventure travel. We widely share information to promote, celebrate and safeguard the region. Most importantly, we share resources with local communities to expand our joint knowledge pool and to amplify the reach of our project’s impacts; for example, our participatory photography project was an educational tool that recognised the power of visual imagery to further the enterprise initiatives of local communities.

  • Social enterprise model

As a social enterprise, our business model is progressive; we re-invest 50% of our profits to local community initiatives and deliver on our social, environmental and economic commitments. Within these areas, we focus on education for development, protecting mountain ecosystems and promoting local knowledge, skills and expertise.

  • Lead on innovation

We use innovative processes to further our project’s aims. For example, we use technology to streamline our operations: most recently, we are in the formative stages of developing an easy booking widget for our website and our partners’ websites. Additionally, we have unique product offerings. Increasingly core to our operations is the facilitation of research and learning expeditions, which maximise the unique discovery and education possibilities to be found in the Andean regions.

  • Regional growth

2017 is especially exciting as we are launching our work in Colombia. We are replicating a business model that has already been proven in Perú. However, we are conscious every community has unique challenges and our Colombian offerings and partnerships will be aided by the involvement of our newly-appointed Development Officer in our Medellín office. As our project continues to grow, we will adopt an organic process open to continued learning that is responsive to an uncertain future and that will best realise our ambitious social, environmental and economic commitments.


Project Cordillera is managed by a team of volunteers with a wealth of skills and experience drawn from business administration, the international development sector and other valuable professional areas. Our team continues to expand: there is currently a core team of ten supported by two interns and a range of other highly skilled professionals who offer their time in a pro bono capacity. Financial planning, business strategy and governance are directed by a Senior Management Team of four directors, three of which are shareholders. We utilize an assortment of technology tools to successfully execute the shared vision of our remote team.

We set out in October 2013 with a pilot plan. The principal aims were to evaluate the effectiveness of our business model and to gain a comprehensive understanding of our current and future market; including detailed profiling of customers, networks, prospective partners and competitors.

In October 2015, we rolled out the second stage of our long-term business plan. This commenced with the launching of our new brand: comprising a new visual identity, a new website and new product offerings. It also involved carrying out a comprehensive funding review and laying the foundations to scale operations.

Phase two of this 2015-2018 strategy involves the launch of our project in Colombia. In line with this launch, our professional staff continues to expand. Our staff expansion allows us to offer high-quality, safe and exciting products while at the same time ensuring we continue to approach development sustainably. Our social, environmental and economic impacts are of the utmost concern. We also continue to consolidate and grow our work in Perú through our Human-Centred Partnership Program and by laying the foundations for greater technological innovation. We pride ourselves on continually learning and remaining flexible within our M&E work. Consequently, this enables us to identify the best opportunities for growth to fully realise our ambitious aims.


We support stewardship and volunteer opportunities in several ways. We work with our local and regional partners to connect skilled and highly motivated volunteers to community programmes, especially the Guias Locales Programme. This challenging programme delivers outdoor education to youth living in the mountains by providing an opportunity to learn how to be a tour guide and to develop critical life skills, knowledge and enhanced employability. It includes substantial curricular on issues of environmental and ecological importance. These issues range from local matters regarding water supply, agriculture and waste disposal, to global issues of climate change, interconnectivity and mountain protection. Additionally, we help with more specialised volunteer recruitment, using our networks to attract international talent to the Andean region. We foster a clear dedication to mutually beneficial cultural interaction and learning and we personally guide many volunteers through this sometime complex process.

Secondly, we run our own ‘catalyst programme’ enabling skilled graduates the opportunity to work with us in an internship capacity. Catalysts participate in a structured professional programme designed to help take their careers to the next stage. The programme includes a professional mentoring initiative, support entering not-for-profit, social enterprise and adventure travel sectors, associated expenses, and meaningful, relevant work. Often our catalysts seek to come to the Andes on their own volition in order to meet the communities and organisations with which we work.

Moreover, Project Cordillera is not just a business in the traditional sense. We support independent travel and all expeditions that value the places and people of their visit, even if they are not our paying customers. Our superlative passion and knowledge about the Andean region enables us to promote and facilitate expedition support as well as a platform to help independent adventurers work together. For us, a level of independence within adventure is critical as is the foundation of responsibility and understanding of our impact in the mountains. This is true socially, environmentally and economically.