Stories to make you smile

Turning 21: Pura's journey from triumphant chillies to Travel Positive

Tom diego xabi cake topper

What a difference a year makes.

12 months ago we were gearing up to welcome pioneering conservationist Kristine Tompkins to London for the official European launch of the world's most ambitious conservation project. Now, it's been six months since we've been allowed to take anyone on holiday, in what has been the most unpredictable year in living memory.

But there's still plenty to celebrate and plenty to look forward, even as Pura turns 21 in the oddest of ways. We've got a new website in the oven, new trips to unveil and a bold vision for the future of travel that we're excited to share and put into action.

In between it all, I found a bit of time to quietly Zoom-toast the anniversary with Diego, and reflect on a story of ups, downs, twists, turns and the BBC's hidden fart machines.

Happy birthday to everyone in the Pura family and thank you for being a part of our story.

On turning 21

Thomas Power: Well Diego, we did it. Pura is 21. We're finally old enough to adopt a child, buy booze in the US, and drive a truck in Argentina.

Diego Martín: Sounds like a niche holiday concept! No matter, I'll drink to our turning 21.

TP: It is a funny old time to be celebrating isn't it, not least because we can't be in the same place? How do things feel to you, six months on from the last time we took anyone on holiday?

DM: Challenging and frustrating. I think I said it to you in March, it felt like we were finally getting the hang of the business with the right team in place across the board. But I have the feeling that the lessons and difficulties we have overcome along the last 21 years will help us survive and come out of this better than ever.

TP: For me, it's a bit of a strange mixture of stress and tranquility. The stresses are obvious enough, planning for our survival and 'thrival'. The calmness comes from the fact that we were already committed to that path, of changing the way people travel to something more sustainable and meaningful and it feels like that's more relevant than ever. So the room's dark but there's lots of light through the doorway.

weavers of the sacred valley

Yours truly trying to spin yarn at the Sacred Valley's female weaving co-operative.

On lessons learned

DM: We've already overcome many challenges to keep the company running for many years through highs and lows, at the same time learning how to run a company well. This is the biggest lesson for me, but we did it by constantly trying to do things better and by keeping together as a team.

TP: That's it - we were always really good at making great holidays but for many years we - well me in reality - were clueless about the business side of things. I call them the 'donkey years'. We got through them with a curious mixture of great product, loyal clients, wonderful partners, an increasingly strong team in the office, supportive family, passion, belief, determination, resilience and ignorance. I think ignorance is an undervalued skill in this context - it is far easier to walk a tightrope if you don't know you are on a piece of string high above the ground.

DM: You aren't inspiring much confidence in me right now...

TP: Let me put it another way then. Focusing on the task ahead rather than the 'what ifs?' is sensible, you need to know what's down there but your energy should be dedicated to getting across to the other side, not worrying about how much it's going to hurt if you hit the ground.

DM: Better. Reminds me of the crash of 2008 when we really had to concentrate to survive. That's when the learning really started. I guess we'll learn a lot this time round too? For one thing, how we want our travel to look in the future.

Diego overcoming a challenge of a more physical kind in his beloved Picos mountains.

On the early days

TP: Going back to the start for a moment... I bumped into you on the side of a lake in Torres del Paine back in the mid-nineties. We got chatting and the rest is history... OK, it's not going in the British Museum any time soon but it's our history.

DM: Do you remember the first brochure we made?

TP: How could I not!? Partly because it has sat in a frame next to my desk for the past few years and partly because it had a great big chilli on the front of it.

DM: I don't know what we were thinking with that one...

TP: There was a map of Chile embedded in the picture of the chilli. Geddit? It was a classic. You know when I first saw Simon speak and went to find him with a view to his eventually being our non-exec, he knew exactly who we were because of that cover? He was running Explore Worldwide at the time and used to get all the brochures, our one still stood out 16 years later. So there.

DM: It was pretty. And it was one way to convey our niche offering (southern Chile and northern Spain). Still, we were boldly going out with a big chilli and offering holidays to places most people had never heard of and with no real business experience to rely on. It seems so naïve to me now.

TP: Brave? Speaking of which, about a year later when the phones were dead I was thinking how to get things moving. It was a sunny summer day and I was looking up at the blue sky (see what I'm doing here?) thinking 'what's the best thing that could possibly happen for us right now?' The answer came back to me: 'A headline slot on the BBC Holiday Programme'. I picked up the phone to the BBC and left a message, totally cold, a complete throw of the dice. The series producer called me back that afternoon. You couldn't make it up.

DM: I remember the programme but I don't remember how we got on it in the first place. Was it really that simple?

TP: Yes. Well, getting all the excess baggage past the Easyjet check-in people at Stansted was quite a task. I seem to remember their filming gear weighed somewhere over 250kg. But once we were on our way to the Picos, it was simple. Mainly because you'd done all the arranging.

DM: We were basically just their gofers weren't we?

TP: And drivers.

DM: Oh yes, and the sound recordist had a remote controlled 'fart' machine which he'd hide around the place to surprise Craig Doyle while he was doing pieces to camera.

TP: And the scene at the cider barn where Craig was trying to explain about how locals pour the cider from height and drink it down in one. He kept trying to look straight at the camera so the cider was going pretty much everywhere. Whatever made it into the glass he'd chuck down his neck then get the giggles and have to re-do it. By the time they got a useable shot from that we had a proper crowd of locals and a significantly tipsy presenter.

DM: It worked though didn't it?

TP: Yes, they loved the area and it showed. We got 1,500 phone calls off the back of that seven-minute film. It's the thing that really got us going.

The first ever Pura Aventura brochure.

On sticking to the path

DM: But for me one thing I'm really proud of is that we are still doing today the holidays we wanted to create 21 years ago, we have not changed what we believe is a good holiday.

TP: I had that same thought, pretty much a year ago today, at the RIBA launch event of the Route of Parks. It was such a big moment for us as a business and I remember one thing that really struck me in the run up to that night - that we are still true to the core nugget of an idea which came to me back in 1995. That was a real moment for me, to think that, despite all the stormy seas we have sailed, we have kept on going towards the same point on the horizon. Not because we're relentlessly stubborn but because it's still the right goal.

DM: The right mission...

TP: Right, and whilst we've got more holidays to more places involving more people, we have never gone for quantity over quality and that makes me really proud.

DM: Yes. It's just as well, the amount of work and organisation behind the scenes means that it had better stay that way! That lovely glass of wine watching the sun set over a sand dune on the far side of the world needs a finely tuned machine behind the scenes.

TP: That's not helpful. I want to go to Chile but I'm not allowed out.

On each other

DM: I have great memories of an early days trip we guided together through France and Spain for a group of American students. It was eventful and fun. Didn't we have to abandon our minivans on the sidewalk next to the station in Montparnasse because the rental office was underground and didn't have enough clearance?

TP: Oh yes. They weren't happy but they should have told us. You know the lead organiser of that trip is still a loyal traveller - hi Teresa!

DM: Looking back, I really enjoyed seeing you as a guide since you are a very good one indeed, something that we missed because of the organization of Pura.

TP: You mean because you locked me in the office while you were galavanting off in the hills? Apology accepted.

I still laugh at memories of our first recce trip to Chile back in 1999. Some of the places we stayed were truly dire but equally, climbing to the top of a smouldering snow-capped volcano to then watch you strap on your skis and shoot off downhill was pretty fantastic.

DM: That was a great moment for sure. Not as good as you and Xabi stripping off to swim across that icy lake so I could take photos for the brochure.

On the more day-to-day, my best memories are the times shared in my visits to the UK, for travel shows, meetings, events...and seeing how, behind all the numbers, strategies and complications of running a company, you still get the most passionate when talking to clients about travel.

TP: Linda always teases me about that - 'he's in his zone again'. I'm a simple soul really. What I like about us is that we two random people who bumped into each other in the wilds of Patagonia back in 1994 effectively hitched our lives, and those of our families, together. The path of Pura has not been an easy or straight one and yet you and I have remained true partners, friends, brothers and that's special. So there.

Celebrating our 20th anniversary in 2019, in slightly different circumstances!

On sharing

TP: What are you most proud of, Diego?

DM: For me, it's probably the network of people - the guides and hotel owners, our clients and employees - that we have kept working together for so many years now, all sharing similar values.

TP: Absolutely. Early last year, when you and Maria put together a two-day guide convention bringing together all of our main guides from across Spain and Portugal, we had such a spectacular dinner, part Catalan, part Andalucian, part Asturian all delivered by Maria, somehow. I loved the event and the camaraderie of that evening in particular. As you say, it's so special to be able to bring people together in that way.

DM: Seeing everyone together in one place, watching guides from Andalucia making friends with the guides from the Pyrenees or Picos really makes it feel like a family, and so when our clients come to Spain or Portugal, they know they'll meet people who are part of the same Pura family as you and I.

TP: Talking of which, last week I had lunch in Lewes with five of our most loyal, lovely, clients. They know who they are. It was a day absolutely filled with laughter and memories, including a toast to dear Christine who passed away earlier this year.

Also, I haven't told you this yet but I got a message from a friend who was spending the weekend in Devon. She was dining in a restaurant which seated just eight people. In such close quarters, they ended up chatting to the table next to them about the amazing Picos de Europa mountains in Spain. My friend has been in the Picos with me, the table next door were clients of ours. Because we set out to share places that we love, the idea that this passion is infectious brings me enormous pleasure and pride.

Bringing together the Pura family in the Picos de Europa, February 2019.

On success

DM: So what do you choose as our biggest success after 21 years of growing up?

TP: Gosh, there are so many ways to answer this. A rather grand one is our being host to the Route of Parks European launch last year. A less grand one is that I picked up the phone to one of our hotel partners over in Patagonia last week and we had a long and lovely chat about what is going on, when we think things are coming back, how their team were. Business partners and friends. That's hugely rewarding.

I should also add that the way our team has responded to Covid and the current situation I would consider enormously successful. On the one hand dealing with our customers with honesty, integrity, patience and kindness. On the other hand, their willingness to work more, work less, work on different things, help out - just in order to keep Pura going and to keep being part of our mission, that's success.

Then there's the success of having been careful with fixing the roof in the good times, we have accumulated reserves which allow us to get through a pandemic, the likes of which none of us could really have conceived.

Welcoming pioneering conservationist Kristine Tompkins for the official European launch of Chile's Route of Parks in September 2019.

On the future

TP: Let's finish with a peek into the future then. Once the world has been put the right way up again and dusted down, where are we in the 'new' travel landscape?

DM: I think - I hope - Pura will have a bigger role, as the values we had stood for since the beginning are nowadays more important than ever. The world needs a kind of travel that focuses more on the environment and the people that make their living out of small scale tourism that creates income in the local areas. From the traveller´s point of view I think Pura's experiences will be more meaningful than ever, as we are all in need of grounding ourselves in the beauty of the natural landscapes of the world and the quality human exchanges that a slow holiday time can provide.

TP: I couldn't have put it better myself. Come on then, let's set an ambition - one thing we want Pura to achieve before it turns 30.

DM: I'll say a recognition, both in the market and the destinations we work in, of the link between the Pura name and our Travel Positive values.

TP: I agree. Let's change the way people travel. It should be personal, exceptional and planet-positive. Simple. 9 years...we can do this!

DM: I'll raise a glass of cider to that.

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