Derren Patterson moved from Washington to Bolivia 12 years ago — fulfilling a bucket list item of living in every continent (apart from Oceania and Antarctica) before turning 30. He had heard amazing things about the country, so he relocated as a mountain bike guide for what he thought would be nine months.
These days he's helping promote a zany virtual tourism offering that lets armchair travelers enjoy a 15 to 20-minute call with a llama — yep, you read that correctly. CallALlama.com creates income for the tourism industry, promotes the amazing country of Bolivia and allows wanderlusters to return to the magic of travel momentarily during the coronavirus pandemic.
Seattle Refined: How did you get involved with CallALlama.com?
Derren Patterson: I work with and own several tourism companies here in La Paz, Bolivia. With COVID-19, we went from 2000+ customers a month to zero almost overnight. We thought a lot about what we could do and looked at a wide array of things.
In the end, I was working with the ministry of tourism to help with some ideas. Obviously, the traditional forms of publicity for a destination just don't work now. So I said, we should get people to Bolivia virtually. But just looking at pictures or Google maps didn't feel like enough. We needed something to make it live and over the top. Interestingly the word for call in Spanish is llamar. And here the llama [animal] is the national animal, and even on the flag. So it just made sense that we share the places where our beloved llamas live and the llamas themselves.
How does the call process works?
We love to make our time with you special and about what you are into. We have worked with students graduating, businesses looking to provide a bit of escape and fun to employees, Zoom birthday parties and education groups. First, anyone gets on our webpage or contacts us to book the meeting time and place. Currently, we are offering calls from three places: Isla Del Sol, where the Inca believed the sun and first Inca were born; Copacabana, the principal port of beautiful Lake Titicaca; or on the shores of Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flats.
All three places offer incredible views and fascinating history, as well as a visit with these beautiful creatures. We will soon have a couple more locations, like Valle de las Animas near La Paz. Then at the solicited time [on a platform of choice], an English-speaking guide and the llama herder join the meeting. After a brief introduction, the guide will show you on a map where we are going, and then we enjoy the spectacular views afforded in that destination. The guide will explain a bit about the destination and its importance historically and culturally. And then we meet the llamas.
While enjoying these beautiful creatures, the guide explains their importance to the rise of civilization, our culture and cosmovision and how they are still a part of our everyday lives. We also explain a lot about the llamas themselves as we watch and interact with them. There are a lot of questions and interaction between participants as well.
In what ways do these calls help Bolivians who have been negatively impacted by the effects of COVID-19?
These calls provide an opportunity for people in the tourism industry to work. For example, Rodrigo and his family, who live on Isla del Sol, have a small farm and raise llamas. They are one of 80 families living on the island. Rodrigo works for a hotel on the island, providing transport. As there are no roads on the small island with over 80 archeological sites on it, he transports goods, groceries, people's luggage, etc. using his llamas. This is their main income.
Etty, in Tahua, at the north of the salt flats has a farm and a herd of 80+ llamas (over the past month, there have been added several super-cute babies or crias as we call them). She also supplements her income by taking people on walks with her llamas, where they can learn about them. This important income was lost to her and her family. The people on the Call a Llama team are also tourism professionals and guides who went overnight from working regularly with international tourists to months without work.
We hope to provide enough work to our partners and staff to survive during these trying times and as we promote our amazing destinations. We hope that those who visit us will consider coming in person when they can to meet us and the llamas.
What makes this offering unique?
This is not your normal visit to a petting zoo, nor is it a virtual class or meeting. This is a way to share the best of traveling with the world — meet locals, learn about ways of life far different from yours, see the beauty of the Andes, share in Bolivia's living culture and enjoy our incredible llamas.
This is not a way to escape our current issues, but to remember that even during these issues, we can't let the beauty of life escape us. Let's travel, let's share, let's make those moments we remember forever, let's take a quick break and remember the joy, awe and wonder of travel — and llamas. We are pretty sure that llamas are one of the coolest animals in the world, and we want to tell you why!
What do you most love about Bolivia?
Hard question. It is one of the world's last great adventures, in my opinion. Even just crossing the street here is an adventure. I've always loved that sense of wonder, like being a kid again. Whether it's the vivid culture, living traditions, truly unique ways of life, or the spectacular natural wonders of the pristine Andes, Bolivia is unlike any other place on Earth.
Why would you encourage readers to visit (once travel restrictions lift)?
I think post-COVID, places like Bolivia, are where people should be looking to travel. Social distancing is basically how you visit many of our most incredible destinations. And there simply aren't that many tourists; it is truly still one of the world's few hidden gems.
In the future, how can we travel to Bolivia in a sustainable and mindful way?
For the time being, Call A Llama!
But I think it is important for travelers to realize how they affect the places they visit. Not just in terms of nature, which is, of course, incredibly important, but also culturally and economically. And to work with companies that are cognizant of that and work to provide experiences that conserve and protect nature and culture while providing economic opportunities to a wide base of people—and importantly those living in the [destination] to provide a sustainable way of life and development.
We believe that tourism can provide Bolivia with a sustainable and ecological way forward, away from the traditional extraction economy of the region. Travelers can help in this sustainable growth not just by visiting, but also by being conscious of how they travel.