Damon Corkin had taken only one year of Spanish at Lawrence Academy when, as a sophomore, he had an opportunity to go on a school trip to Ecuador for two weeks. Even though he knew he might struggle with the language, Corkin was eager to practice Spanish and explore a different part of the world.
Now, more than 20 years later, he recalls the experience as “life changing.”
“I really used my little beginner Spanish a ton. I talked with my guide every chance I could and wanted to learn everything I could about the country. The landscapes were amazing, there were incredibly diverse ecosystems, and the people couldn’t have been any nicer,” said Corkin, 39, who is from Concord and lives in Sudbury with his wife, Angela, and their two daughters. “We had an opportunity to spend time with people in their communities and really learn about their way of life.”
The trip’s impact was so great that Corkin majored in Spanish — and studied abroad in Spain — while at the University of Colorado, Boulder. After graduating, he traveled for a bit and worked for a couple of travel companies in Boston.
But that wasn’t enough for Corkin, who said that he “didn’t want to just go to salsa night” at clubs in Boston.
“That was nice, but it wasn’t enough,” he said. “I didn’t want it to just be a hobby; I wanted to be completely immersed in Latin American culture, speaking Spanish and being able to travel and check out all these places that are nothing like what we have here in New England.”
So, at 26, he packed his bags and bought a one-way ticket to Ecuador. Once there, he taught English and started a tour company “to help people have amazing life-changing experiences.”
That company, Maynard-based Andean Discovery, has grown into a thriving international outfit that arranges and oversees tours to Ecuador, Colombia, the Galapagos Islands, and Peru. In addition to offering tours for individuals, families, and groups, the company works with educational institutions to customize trips, many of which are service-oriented.
“Our evolving relationships with local communities, connecting with locals in an authentic way . . . that’s a big part of what we do,” said Corkin. “Many tour groups will, for example, beeline it to Machu Picchu and miss so many hidden gems along the way in the Sacred Valley. [Our guests] have extremely immersive experiences off the beaten path.”
Corkin calls his company team, which includes his wife, “family.”
“Our guides are all native professional guides who have their national licenses. They are not only people who we fully trust, but they are really passionate about sharing their country and their land with our guests,” he said. “And we are constantly traveling down there and working with our guides . . . looking for ways to improve our guests’ experiences.”
In addition to providing guides who meet travelers at the airport and accompany them on their journeys, Andean Discovery arranges accommodations that can range from high-end hotels to eco lodges. And some — especially school groups — will stay with families in indigenous regions and help make improvements to the communities in which they are living.
“Whether it is painting a school or helping build a clean-burning stove . . . both sides get a lot out of it,” Corkin said. Angela Corkin, who is from Ecuador and whom Damon met while living there (they married less than a year after meeting) agreed, adding that families who have hosted Andean Discovery travelers are often eager for new visitors.
“They are so passionate about their traditions and how they live,” she said. “It’s a very interesting cultural exchange of experiences. It can be about food, or even what the kids are playing. For example, in Ecuador, we don’t know what lacrosse is, but the kids will learn from their visitors and they will play together.”
“We feel travel is an amazing vehicle for helping kids grow and understand themselves, and understand their place in the world,” Damon Corkin added. “And there are so many learning opportunities in this part of the world.”
For example, he said guests young and old enjoy learning about the Galapagos tortoises found in the highlands of Santa Cruz. “They can weigh up to 600 pounds, and some are close to 200 years old,” he said, holding a picture of one he took on a recent trip. “They’re very passive and they get right up next to people. Because they have no predators, they have no instinctual fear of humans.”
Corkin said that because Andean Discovery arranges small, customized tours, it can give guests options and allow them to choose their preferences based on their interests and schedule.
“We want our guests to experience our home as [theirs] because we are from there,” he said. “I mean, I am not from there, but I spent many, many years living in Ecuador, my wife is from there, our first daughter was born there . . . so we have an amazing connection to this place and we want to give them the tools to be able to create the trip they want, to be able to have an immersive experience.”
Carolyn Malloy, 42, took an Andean Discovery tour last winter with her husband, Tim, their three children, and her parents, Marilyn and Ray Ruddy. The stay-at-home mom from Dover said the ages ranged from 9 to 74, and the itinerary Corkin and his team put together “could not have been any better.”
“There were just seven of us and we had our own little tour bus,” said Malloy, whose 11-day multi-generational family trip included Machu Picchu and Galapagos. “Our tour guide was great. We peppered her with questions and she was so knowledgeable; it was like having a scholar giving us a tour.”
Malloy said highlights included the Inca Trail and ancient ruins at Machu Picchu, white-water rafting in Peru, zip lining in an Andean cloud forest in Ecuador, and seeing sea lions and penguins while snorkeling off the Galapagos Islands.
“There was something for everyone of all age groups on this trip and I couldn’t have been more satisfied,” she said. “Damon lived in South America, so he knows the area so well and personally knows and hand picks all of the guides. I much preferred this to going with a big outfit where you don’t get that personal touch.”
Corkin said he and his team enjoy the challenge of creating a trip that is a perfect fit for travelers, and they are constantly making improvements to ensure that things go off without a hitch.
“It’s a big trip going to another country — especially a developing country — and it’s important to offer them a comfort level in knowing that we’re experts in this region and we’re taking care of everything,” he said. “From start to finish, we want their trip-of-a-lifetime to be a seamless experience so they can relax and enjoy every minute of it.”
Juliet Pennington can be reached at email@example.com.