Ana Figueroa, former contemporary ballet dancer and owner of Argentina-based Adventure & Landscape, says her approach to trip planning is very much like choreographing a dance performance, right down to holding dress rehearsals. “As director, I decide when the traveler will be in the audience observing and when they will be asked to step on stage and dance with the performers,” she says. “The whole time I’m weaving a narrative throughout the journey and coordinating surprises behind the scenes.”
Figueroa is a master at combining authentic cultural experiences with active travel throughout Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Bolivia. A bike tour around Salta, Argentina, for example, might end at a colleague’s family ranch where the mother will lead an empanada-making lesson around an outdoor wood-burning fire. She credits her creativity to years working as a local expert for active-travel pioneer Butterfield & Robinson, a client she now plans trips for.
Growing up in a small, conservative town in Argentina, the idea of having a career in adventure travel was inconceivable for a woman. “I used to tell my dad I wanted to have an Indiana Jones kind of job and he’d just laugh and say, ‘So you’re going to drive a 4WD around the middle of nowhere covered in dust dealing with guys?’” But that didn’t stop a young Figueroa from having her own adventures. When her mother would try to take her to sewing classes, she would escape and go horseback-riding in the mountains. Because she could speak English, hike, bike, ride horses, and “drive almost anything,” she was asked to be a translator on active trips. Her sportiness and smarts made it clear she was capable of more and she went on to become the first female adventure-travel guide in northwest Argentina.
When she became a mother, she turned to trip planning. “I couldn’t take my kids on three-week-long expeditions, but I could take them with me to scout hotels, at least when they were young enough so that we’d all fit in one room,” she jokes. In 2010 she founded Adventure & Landscape, with the goal of offering highly customized insider trips that combine 4×4, hikes, and bikes. Figueroa designs every itinerary herself, speaking directly to clients, and will test-run an abridged version of each trip with her guides to ensure they run seamlessly. A week-long trip in a new region usually takes three days of office research and 12 days to scout on the ground. “I need to visit the museums, eat in the restaurants, hike the trails, and meet the amazing locals who have a story to tell,” she explains.
Now that her children are grown, she occasionally guides but she largely relies on her network of 20 guides, whom she personally trains. Figueroa’s trainings go well beyond safety. She expects her team to be freshly shaved and have table manners. “Sometimes I just go directly to the wives and tell them their husband really needs to wear more deodorant,” she says. She’s also been known to pop up unexpectedly on trips led by new guides to ensure they’re up to par. “I’m witchy that way,” she jokes. “I need to know they are talking about the local history so our clients understand the region more deeply.”
Committed to running a sustainable, responsible business, she only works with local guides and locally owned hotels, ensuring money stays within the destination. This also means that when she designs a trip, she thinks beyond the client. “Most travel companies only consider the traveler’s experience and transformation. For me, it’s about everybody’s experience: travelers, staff, local communities, and local suppliers. If the trip is not good for everyone involved, then it is not sustainable,” she says.