As you probably know by now, The Manual is all about experiential travel. From biking Bolivia’s “Death Road” to “cannabus” trips through Colorado, from road tripping the Arctic coast to pearl diving expeditions in Bahrain, we seek out adventures that allow us to connect meaningfully with our destination.
This isn’t unique to us—since 2014 at least, experiential travel has been steadily climbing in popularity. Experts say this trend is the reason that tourism revenue has remained steadily on the rise, even as other industries fizzle.
With experiential travel blowing up, independent companies are looking for ways to stand out in their field. One company particularly caught our eye: Cohica Travel. Founded and run by two American expats living it up in sunny Valencia, Spain, this company is making a mark on the travel industry by building social and environmental responsibility into the trips they design.
This doesn’t mean sacrificing comfort, style or adventure. Far from it—Cohica’s emphasis on supporting local economies and ecosystems means that travelers have to opportunity to go deeper, explore farther, and experience a culture more closely than they would have dreamed possible. For adventure-loving travelers who value culture, nature, food and drink, Cohica makes it possible to come home with not just great memories, but with a better understanding of the world.
We were lucky to connect with Megan Hardesty, co-founder of Cohica Travel, for an inside look at the travel design business and a sneak peek at Cohica’s newest travel packages.
What is sustainable travel?
Sometimes when you use the term sustainable, people just think “green.” However, we have always seen sustainable travel as the social impact we have on a destination—in other words, how we support local economies. One big way is by not giving our money to the giant booking companies or corporate hotel chains, but finding local, independent hotels and homestays. We particularly seek out hotels that offer education programs or other important benefits for their staff.
Sustainability plays a natural role in experiential travel. Staying at a LEED-certified western hotel chain might be more environmentally responsible than a conventional hotel, but it definitely doesn’t offer the experience of staying at a locally owned hotel or doing a homestay with a local family.
How did you discover the connection between sustainability and outstanding travel experiences?
The company actually started as a blog that Ryan and I kept while traveling the world together for a year. We visited so many destinations and found partner organizations that were all about our passions. We trekked Macchu Picchu with a trekking company that takes people on a variety of alternative routes, providing unique adventures while lessening the environmental impact of traffic on the Inca Trail. We did voluntourism at a henna cafe in Morocco that offers education and empowerment initiatives for local Moroccan women. In Hoi Anh, Vietnam, where they’re known for their beautiful paper lanterns, we told the owner of our homestay that we were interested in seeing where the lanterns were made. She took us over to her family friend’s place, where they had all the components of the lanterns laid out: the bamboo frames, hundreds of different patterns and colors of silk. We got to actually see the lanterns being made in front of us.
Our experiences that year showed us that when everyone in a community joins together, it means a one-of-a-kind trip.
What does it mean to be an independent travel designer, as opposed to a travel agent?
There’s a big difference between a travel agency and a travel designer. It comes down to the details—pulling together all the elements in a new, thoughtful way.
To accomplish this, we design trips around places we’ve visited and experienced personally. We’re always on the lookout for activities that are off the beaten path. We went to Scotland last spring and planned a trip. Same with Portugal—we went in the summer and then planned a trip.
It comes down to the details—pulling together all the elements in a new, thoughtful way.
We have lots of criteria that we look for when we design a trip—that it’s culturally driven, active and participatory, featuring independent and hard-to-find activities. We even create activities with our personal contacts, that you can’t book any other way. We can back it, because we know who’s going to be there.
As IATAN-certified travel designers, we have access to unpublished rates on hotels and activities. Because we’re not tied to any corporate suppliers, we’re better able to seek out non-mainstream activities that give travelers a richer experience of the places they visit.
Our independent status also means fewer incidental fees in the booking process. Our fee actually pays for itself, based on the discounts we’re able to secure on our client’s behalf. It also provides us the time and flexibility to thoughtfully design a unique travel experience specifically for a specific individual.
Throughout the booking process, we clearly communicate all of the costs associated with a client’s trip, so that they always know exactly what they are paying for. We even offer two booking models—clients can book their entire trip through us, or they can use the travel plan we’ve created for them to book their trip on their own.
Our ideal clients are people who are up for adventure—they’ve traveled internationally before, they’re into food and drink and culture. They want really cool trips, but they don’t have the time to seek out those experiences for themselves.
It’s a tough business—it’s very up and down. But it’s so rewarding when you can put together a trip for someone and put together experiences that they might not normally have. For us, traveling the world this way was so inspiring. It’s super rewarding to create that opportunity for other people.
Are Cohica clients limited to the trips listed on your website?
We offer Cohica planned trips that people can take it as is, but the majority of our business is custom travel. People calling us and saying, “Hey, I want to go to Greece—what should I do there?”
Almost everyone wants to see the main attractions when they go somewhere they haven’t been before. I just planned a trip to Hawaii for a couple, where the woman said, “We have to go snorkeling and visit the volcano on the Big Island. After that, though, we want your recommendations.” So we designed a trip that sent them to the volcano, but we had them stop at a secret waterfall that not many people know about. We gave them hiking trails, shave ice stands, all this off-the-beaten-path stuff that we know about.
You started the company just as you were leaving the US for the expat life in Spain. How is living in a new country different from living as a global nomad?
When we first left our corporate jobs, we were always thinking about how we could have a different type of life. Our goal was to not have the travel experience be just something we did one time. We wanted to have an ongoing life of adventure.
We got all the business paperwork done, moved to Spain and just started. It was fun but crazy.
We’ve finally started to feel more comfortable, but it took a lot longer than we ever anticipated. I don’t know what we thought! It takes a lot of energy and effort. It’s hard to make friends. Everything works differently. It’s overwhelming sometimes, and much, much harder than traveling. But it’s also everything that we wanted—new experiences, new culture, new language. It’s been kind of a wild ride, but one that we’re sticking with. We just adopted a puppy, so it feels like we’re going to stay here for a while. It feels like we did it!
What are some of your favorite trips so far?
There’s a freedom in leaving everything and hitting the road.
I’m really excited about the new trip we’re launching: “Live Like an Expat.” It’s a completely new type of trip, something we’ve never done before. People will come to Valencia and experience what it’s like to live here. They’ll have an apartment in the historic El Carmen neighborhood. We’re going to have a paella workshop that takes them on a visit to where the rice is grown for Valencian paella. There will be a craft brewery tour that’s not open to the public. There will be a cultural tour of Las Fallas, an iconic folk festival that brings visitors from all over the world. Along the way, we’ll meet with them and show them around to our favorite spots, with the goal for them to experience local life.
What is important about travel to you?
There’s a freedom in leaving everything and hitting the road—it brings an openness to meeting new people and experiencing new things that you just don’t get on a short vacation. In everyday life, you can lose the taste of freedom, where everything’s new and raw and exciting and scary. Travel is all about recharging that part of yourself, restarting the inspiration that makes life fun. I think it’s the best thing in the world.
A few of the Cohica trips that have us packing our bags already:
This trip is organized around learning about regional Scotch malt whisky. Stay in a cozy boutique hotel, explore the art and architecture of Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital since the 15th-century, and venture out for visits to Hadrian’s Wall, the Isle of Skye and the legendary Highlands. Throughout the trip, you’ll visit distilleries in and around Edinburgh and learn their subtleties through–what else?–tasting.
Sidestep the “ugly tourist” stigma by connecting with the spirit and soul of Thai culture. This trip starts with a quest through Bangkok’s markets for ingredients that you’ll bring for your afternoon lesson at the Thai Cooking School. Next, you’ll explore the many temples of the Kingdom of Lanna along a private almsgiving with Buddhist monks. But the true heart of the trip is a once-in-a-lifetime visit to the Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary, where you’ll spend the day feeding, bathing and walking Asian elephants that have been rescued from the abusive tourism industry. The trip finishes with three days on the white sand beaches of Koh Samui.
Aptly name, this indulgent 16-day tour includes wine tasting in Chianti, gondolier lessons in Venice, and a Vespa tour of the Tuscan countryside. All are threaded together by insider experiences of Italy’s most iconic delicacies. Make gelato in Florence, pound pesto in Cinque Terre, tour the Parmigiano Reggiano dairy where you get to taste cheese right off the wheel…this only scratches the surface of this exceptional package.