“What, that wooden shack?” I exclaimed, when Journey Latin America founders, Chris Parrott and Brian Williams, asked my opinion about a modest hotel at Iguazú Falls in Brazil. They smiled in agreement, and I think it was that which got me the job: obvious first-hand experience. This was back in 1987, when I was interviewing as a tour leader. Chris and Brain had founded JLA as a two-man band back in 1980, with the aim of offering escorted group holidays exclusively to Latin America: I was keen to jump on board.
Latin American tours? Now that was a big ask. In the 70s and 80 few visitors set foot on what was still a rugged and pretty much unexplored (in tourism terms) continent. JLA was virtually alone escorting groups across wild terrain, riding wobbly public buses which rocked along unpaved roads. Hotels and hostels were modest affairs where occasionally guest rooms turned out to be sold, er, by the hour, or where you’d be very lucky to have access to a private bathroom. In jungle lodges a shower would consist of a tin can with perforations, while on Galápagos cruise there may be just one tap shared between 16 guests. Socio-political and economic conditions were decidedly dodgy, tour leaders had to negotiate delicately with strikers and border guards: to finish a tour, on time and without incident, was a great achievement.
(The snaps below were taken when I led JLA tours in the 1980s. Apologies for the quality of the images – I only had a Brownie – but you get the idea).
But with the experience accrued by the founders and a small team of Latin America enthusiasts, the company not only took off but flew. Aided by documentaries, books and improving political stability in Latin America, the continent earned a more glittering reputation and people flocked to join the party.
In the 1990s, JLA launched what was at the time another innovation: tailor-made holidays, where we create private itineraries designed around the individual dreams and aspirations of our clients. To be able effectively to do this we need constantly to increase our contacts and partners in the region and to expand our knowledge with countless trips out to Latin America to seek out new places to visit, places to stay and things to do. The place is awash now with chic boutique hotels, luxury cruises, smooth paved highways, as well as discreet corners of the old, authentic Latin America. We know them all.
Now of course, we have far more tools at our disposal, with the internet, social media and the like. But one thing has not changed - over four decades, we have consistently chosen to be single-minded about Latin America. Our continuing tunnel-vision means that as we grow and progress, our ever increasing bank of knowledge and expertise shines through.
Our founders have earned their retirement; we have new partners now, but our close-knit team continues to operate with the freedom and independence which has always sparked our imagination and defined our brand.