We’ve interviewed a lot of amazing people for this column. From scientists who study planets from the Air and Space museum to a former White House social secretary, but Katalina Mayorga, founder of El Camino Travel, might have one of the dreamiest jobs. A consummate traveler (she’s Colombian and traveled there regularly before starting El Camino), Mayorga was inspired to start El Camino after she saw a bunch of tourists missing out on the beauty of Latin America while they stared at their phones and after she had a conversation with a taxi driver about how much the tourism industry means to him and his family.
Since then, it has been non-stop traveling (and emails). When we met up with her, she had just gotten back from spending four days in Colombia’s coffee growing region and was in the middle of getting a Kickstarter project off the ground. The project, for which Mayorga teamed up with the Colombian company Makua Jewelry, is a series of modern and geometric earrings made using indigenous crafting techniques. As she showed me some of the brightly colored designs, Mayorga’s passion for the project was clear. Her love of travel and teaming up with likeminded entrepreneurs bounced off the walls.
As we settled into her dining room / office, we got into the details, including her Tory Burch fellowship, why she hates “doing it for the ‘gram” and what her vacations look like, now that she (kind of, sort of) vacations for a living.
all editorial photos: Jeff Martin, all travel photos: courtesy of El Camino Travel
Brightest Young Things: What was the first job you ever had?
Katalina Mayorga: The first job I had was a lifeguard at a wading pool. In my hometown of Tacoma, Washington they had just put out some sort of pilot project to see if teenagers under 16 could work. I was 14. It was so fun because it was the first time I had a job and got to make money and be independent. I could pay for my stuff. I’ve been working since then.
BYT: I’ve read a lot about how you were inspired to start El Camino on a trip in Guatemala. It’s a great story, but can you tell me a little bit more about what happened after this? When did things start to get real? When was it like, I’m going all in, baby?
K.M.: So I got on the plane, and I’m very self aware so I’m kinda all over the place. I couldn’t stop thinking about the whole idea and the conversation I was just like, oh my god, someone has to do this. This has to be done. I actually got home and just started pitching the idea to people like, “Would you pay for a trip that allowed more immersive, really cool, off the beat experiences? What if you had a photographer along?” and everyone’s like, “Yes!”. I started asking my photographer friends, “Hey, if I paid for your trip would you come on this trip and document?” and they were like, “Yes, yes, yes.”
So there was such a positive response that I felt like, okay… I have something here. This is always one of my first pieces of advice with people that are looking to start a business, ideas should live in the wild. You should talk about your idea because you’re going to start hearing feedback as soon as you start mentioning it. People are going to ask questions, you’re going to see where people are confused, you’re going to see where people get excited and some people are like, “Yeah, but I don’t want to share my idea, what if someone steals it?” And one of the best pieces of advice I got early on was by another entrepreneur. When I told him my idea, he said, “That’s a brilliant idea, but it doesn’t matter how good of an idea you have. Don’t think that someone else hasn’t had that idea. It’s about who runs faster and better with that idea.” That’s what it really comes down to. Also, I’m crazy. If I have an idea, I just go with it and sometimes to my detriment. I’ve had to learn how to slow down at times. At that point, that wasn’t something I was very self aware about, so I just went with it. I filed an LLC right away, I created a website and within a month I had launched the business and had this faux idea, or half baked idea. Not really knowing what was I doing or getting into.
A lot of people in the travel industry have told me it’s a great thing is that it’s that I came from outside the industry instead of from the industry. There’s another really accomplished female entrepreneur in the travel industry who started luxury travel line. She started off as a travel writer and journalist and came in to it. I remember when I talked to her she was just like, “The best thing that could’ve happened is that you weren’t from the travel industry.” because the problem with the travel industry is it’s super stale, it moves very slow, and it needs like fresh blood and people with other ideas.
BYT: Everything was done in a month? That’s an insane turnaround. Did you quit your job right away?
K.M.: No, no. So that’s another thing I always tell people. I was actually in a great position, I had started my own consulting business two years prior in international development. So I was taking different jobs, but it’d be like three months or four months. I had a lot of flexibility, so I didn’t quit that. I kept working and I would keep on taking really short term jobs that paid a good amount of money and allowed me to take some time off to play with this idea or go on a trip. I would say a year in was when I fully committed. It was working, we were making money, I could actually pay myself a little bit. I was like alright, let’s do this full time and see what happens. So it took awhile. That’s the other piece of advice I always give people is take risks, but take smart risks. Just be thoughtful, don’t just go into being like, “I have this great idea, lets do it.” You need to test the market, figure out what people want, you need to figure out if people are actually going to pay for it. You need to understand the best way to reach your consumer. At that time, I say it was in the golden age for us of Instagram. Before the algorithm and all of that, so we actually we had two years prior to algorithm and that was just like killer. Ee grew so fast during that time and now we’re… We’re still growing, but it’s a different world. These changes are happening, so we had to figure out quickly. You have to stay ahead of it or just figure out what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. Especially as technology advances and things change.
There are so many collaborative aspects of your company. You guys work with all of these entrepreneurs and business people in the various countries you go to and you obviously have good relationships with the photographers you team up with. How do you decide if someone’s going to be a good fit for El Camino and a good partner for you?
I think a lot of it is just personal relationships. Meeting them and understanding what they’re passionate about and what they care about. And really sharing out vision and seeing how they react to that. Luckily in Latin America, where we’re focused, there’s no shortage of passion. So we’re really fortunate. For us, the hardest thing is figuring out… There’s so much we could do in each place and figuring out, okay for this trip this isn’t going to work even though this person’s amazing. So for us it’s just more about like having to be flexible and all that stuff.
Now that we’ve grown to certain size, we’ll get tons of emails from people being like, “Hey, I’m doing this project.” or “I know someone who’s doing this project you should check it out.” Then we’ll follow up and start chatting with them. The big thing, again I think this is me just constantly thinking about why we’re different or what we’re providing that’s different… What I love about travel is that we’re always pulling in people that are normally not part of tourism. So designers, jewelry makers, architects, different types of entrepreneurs or dancers and creating experiences with them that allows them to share their passion and what they love and to an international audience. It allows our traveler to get a really immersive and unique perspective into the destination, but at the same time actually compensates that individual for their time and we pay them pretty well. That has always been a part of the core of our DNA. We try to cut out as many middle men as possible to make sure we can pay these individuals a really competitive rate. I think in a lot of the countries we’re going to, in the creative economies you have so many interesting people but the creative economies still aren’t as well recognized as in the U.S. where it’s blown up in the past few years. Where people can actually make money from what they’re passionate about and make good money. This is the first time a lot of them are able to make consistent money from something they love doing.
BYT: And speaking of your collaborations, you guys have a Kickstarter. Can you tell me about that?
K.M.: This is a perfect example of getting to work with awesome people in emerging creative economies. So we have we’ve been working in Medellín for awhile now and it’s an amazing entrepreneurial city in Colombia. It’s called the Silicon Valley of Latin America and there’s just a lot going on there. A lot of people are familiar with it, unfortunately. because of the show Narcos. They don’t really understand that was 20 years ago. Medellín has, as we say, pulled itself up from the ashes. It’s having a design boom, a culinary boom, it’s insanely stunning there. We worked on a special trip for an apparel brand out of California, they had come to us to ask to put together an influencer trip that was focused on the honest hustle and bringing influencers and pairing them up with their counterparts in the country to push their industries forward. One of them was Maria Paulina Arango, who is the founder of Makua Jewelry. She works with various indigenous communities throughout Colombia to preserve their craftsmanship, but also to integrate them into more modern design. She took this hard and difficult skill, very tedious and time consuming skill and integrated it into these fresh and beautiful designs. So I was obsessed with her jewelry from the beginning. It’s very much my style, bold statement pieces, a lot of them are very large and geometric.
I’m a Tory Burch fellow, so another fellow, I was venting to her and was like, “Ok this is what we’re struggling with” and she’s like, “You should create a product, like a collaboration product with one of the entrepreneurs you work with. You work with so many cool entrepreneurs that are creating beautiful things, what could you do?” and I was like, “Oh you’re right. I have relationships with them, I love them, I clearly integrate them into the trips because I love their perspectives and the way they’re doing things.” The first person I immediately thought of was Maria Paulina. So I reached out to her and said, “I have this idea, it’s totally fine if you’re not cool with it or you have too much on your plate.” She was just as excited, so in January of this year we just started plotting things out. We brought both of our design sensibilities to the table, she clearly has great style and I have my own thoughts, but they meshed really well. So that’s kind of how it started.
They’re the big bold statement pieces, even the smaller ones are pretty bold. It’s really a reflection of both of our companies because we both are into more progressive design. We both understand that while we both want to have social impact, we want to make a difference in what we’re doing, but we’re not a charity. We’re not charity first. Both of us know that for long time financial sustainability and to have a really actual meaningful impact in a lot of these communities, whether it’s through actual travel experiences or creating a product, you need to create a product that people actually want and are going to be excited for that just happens to also have a positive impact. So it’s almost like product and profitability are first, and not in the capitalism selfish way, it’s more of like okay that means that there won’t be a long term social impact. So that’s what we did and that’s what we’re about staying true to being very small business and being super scrappy and taking smarter risks.
This is the first we’re ever developing anything like this. We understand how people are reacting to the services. but we don’t fully understand how people are going to react to to a product and the price point. We’re doing handcrafted pieces, they’re not going to be h&m. It’s not fast fashion.
Part of it is, if we can put a huge order with them they’ll be able to start to do some loans they need to fix their houses. One of the leaders, there’s three different groups within the community, we’re working with one of them. For the women led group, she’ll be able to go get a further education and go to college and do some university courses. So that’s the big perk, if you want go get earrings and go on this trip with us.
BYT: If Kickstarter would’ve been bigger when you started El Camino, would you have used it?
K.M.: I don’t know. We get told a lot like, “Hey you should still do Kickstarter!” And we might do it for a trip. I mean, we’re always trying to think creatively. We have a lot of people who want to go on the trips, but if the group trips the dates don’t work exactly for them, they’ll be like, “Well what about this month? Or this?” So the way we’ve tried to respond to that is private trips, which people are interested in and you can book any dates you want.
When we started, we were really focused on the millennial traveler. We were like okay, millenials want off the beat experiences. They’re the ones that are more willing to travel to places like Colombia and Nicaragua and Cuba. They’re more open minded. But as we grew and became more well known, we were getting so many inquiries from parents, baby boomers, families that wanted to travel, but obviously don’t want to do the group trip. We realized we’re very much more for the experiential traveler. This is a much more common phrase in the industry, but when we started, no one was talking about immersive tourism. We’ve done that as more of a response and that’s been really successful but we’ve also realized how important our group trips are to a lot of people, especially the solo female traveler. A lot of emails are like, “I don’t want to wait for my friends anymore, I don’t want to wait for my partner to figure it out. I’ve wanted to go to Colombia for three years. i’m just doing it.” I’m going to go with the group and I don’t have to be as concerned about my safety. I don’t have to be looking behind my back. I can actually fully immerse myself in the experience because I know I’m with this crew. That’s been big and then we actually launched a sister company April that’s a luxury travel company. It’s a different price point, but now we kind of hit all areas of the spectrum. I’m really trying to diversify a little bit, so that’s been the goal this year, diversification.
BYT: You don’t want to turn anyone away just because the current model doesn’t fit what they’re looking for.
K.M.: Exactly, and for awhile we did. For three years we did, which was probably a big mistake. We weren’t as flexible and didn’t pivot as early, but we also the group trips were going well. Then we realized people were coming to us because they really wanted to travel the El Camino way, but for whatever reason our group trips don’t work.
BYT: Do you still consider yourself a start up?
K.M.: No. I would say we’re like a small business at this point. We know what we’re doing. We know how we need to grow and we are growing, but I think we always want to be in start up mentality. That’s will always be part of our DNA as a company. It’s also deciding how big do we want to get? As you can see, I’m still working from my house. We have one other person, a lot more of our contractors and consultants are in country, which I prefer because it’s ensuring that we’re getting people more economic stability, but you have to decide as a business owner what’s best for you. How big do you want to get? How do you wanna grow? Do you want to be the next Airbnb? Or do you want a great life and the flexibility to travel wherever you want and not be responsible for lots of employees? Which is a hard thing. I think it’s kind of looking like that, but I think we’re definitely past start up.
BYT: When did you cross over? Was there a defining moment?
K.M.: I think it’s when I left my job. It was like, “Shit we’re making real money.” We’re getting press and we’re getting approached for cool partnerships. We’re hitting some sort of pinpoint in the market. I think that is when we did it. That being said, I always feel like, “Is this really happening? Is this really my business?” I have to remind myself this is a real business. Even when I got the Tory Burch fellowship, it was very validating that this is a legit business that clearly is doing something right. We got this prestigious recognition that was a very intensive process to go through, and then meeting up with the other fellows and realizing that we’re all at similar stages… We weren’t at start up stage, we were at growth stage. We’re very open about revenue and where we’re at, where we’re going, who they were partnering with and it was like oh my gosh I’m part of we’re this community of women entrepreneurs that all have amazing ideas, but they’ve already passed proof of concept. They’re not at the idea stage, they’re actually growing, and yes they have their struggles, we all have our challenges to grow, but it’s a different level at this point. The conversations we could have were really different than if it was everyone with ideas or in the first year of an idea.
BYT: What do you spend most of your day doing for El Camino?
K.M.: At this moment, because we’re doing private trips now, it’s really customer contact. I used to not be in charge of that, but because we offer this new service we have never really had to think about our sales process. Things were growing organically and we got to a point where we were just growing glacially, so it’s like okay we actually need to be thoughtful about our sales process. So we’re trying out various sales processes. Most of my day is really experimenting with that and understanding why people are coming to us in the first place, what they want and understanding how we can have really actually meaningful conversation with them, even if it’s a simple email exchange about our Cuba trip in October. Whether they book or not, it actually doesn’t matter for me at this point. It’s understanding why are considering the destination and why did they reach out? What did they see in us?
BYT: I only ask because with BYT people assume we party non stop 24/7 and it’s like… Well, it’s a lot of spreadsheets and a lot of emails.
K.M.: It’s a lot of email communication. Spreadsheets are crazy, customer crn systems just tracking all of the conversations we’re having. I mean people are like, “Oh you get to travel as a job!” Which is incredible, I would not change it for a second, but it is the most exhausting thing too. And it can be so tiring. I mean last week, when I was scouting out the coffee growing region of Colombia. We were out in the field from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. that night. That’s a long ass day because they try to fit in everything. They told us they try to fit in three days worth of activities in one day. We were there for four days, so that was 12 days of activities we did in four days.
BYT: Are there any travel trends that you’re into nowadays? Any trends you hate?
K.M.: I want to end on a positive note, so I’ll start with what I hate. Instagram’s our main sales channel and what’s happening with Instagram is people are traveling for the ‘gram or traveling to the same destination, to the exact same spot to take the exact same picture. People are making travel decisions because of photos they saw on Instagram, but not knowing really about the destination or what it why it’s unique and special. It’s more of a I saw this really cool travel influencer take a photo there, so I want to take a photo there and post the exact same photo on my Instagram. There are articles written about this… there’s two hotels in Morocco where everyone takes the exact same photo.
I think that’s an awful travel trend. You see it happen when you travel, all the people going to the same spots and taking this one photo. It’s just like, do you even know about this? Why is it special? Why is it different? What do you know about the culture? So traveling for the ‘gram or “do it for the ‘gram” which was the precedent.
The travel trend I love is seeing group travel becoming more and more of a thing, becoming this exciting hot new thing that it was not when we were starting off. There’s a lot of companies that are coming out around group travel. Another thing I think people are realizing with a group, and this is one of our big things and this is why I love the group travel, is you can do so many interesting things because you can spread out the cost from an economic standpoint. So we can rent out a huge house villa outside of Medellín for a huge BBQ for our whole group. By yourself it’d be way too much, you couldn’t afford it, but when you split it across 14 people it’s definitely an accessible activity. A lot of people are realizing that. Seeing how different people are approaching group travel around very specific themes, whether it’s crafting even or artisanship or foo, like super focused on certain types of niche activities. I like that a lot.
BYT: What do your vacations look like nowadays?
K.M.: It depends. We have all different types of vacations, but for example, two vacations we’re planning now… One is, my husband and I are going to rent a really small house in a very rural town in Colombia. It’s a beautiful rural town, there’s cool things going on there and we’re just going to live there for two weeks and hang and work on some personal stuff. He’s trying to finish a book, so he’s going to finish his book, but go to a very slow pace life. Rent a little house with a pool, go to the same little like cafe to drink and eat every day. Just a very slow pace life because our life is so accelerated.
BYT: No planning!
K.M.: It’s really just about like recharging. Then, we’re looking to plan a trip to Egypt. He’s been so supportive the past year and has been going to all the El Camino destinations, so this is really his trip, but now being an expert in the industry, I know what to look for. I know what to do… But I realized immediately this is so much work, researching all of this. I was like, who are the cool group travel companies that are doing awesome things? I’m still trying to sift through basically who’s the El Camino of Egypt. Let’s just go with them.
BYT: Let them figure it out.
K.M.: Let them figure it out. Make sure that they’re hitting the main things we want to do, or some things that we had no idea about. Honestly, I want to land in country and have someone take care of everything. They just need to tell me what to do. Wake up at this time, have breakfast at this time and I don’t have to think about anything else. How do we get there? What bus do we have to catch? I don’t speak the language, what markets do we go to? We’ll have a guide with us the whole time who will go to the markets to help us get the right price, to make sure we’re not being ripped off, so I think that’s how vacations are now. I would never have done that three years ago, but now I’m realizing, oh shit, I want someone else to take care of it for me.