I met Jim Kane a few years ago at an Adventure Travel World Summit, which brings together movers and shakers in the world of adventure travel every year. He had started a company that would become Culture Xplorers, taking people on food-centric trips, an approach that has grown to include Ivy League alumni organizations. He was also making short films for a series called “Off the Table” (one episode was just chosen for the 2019 Sonoma International Film Festival). Kane is deeply involved in exploring the cultures of Latin America (and by extension, Spain and Portugal), and he refers to his approach as an adventure lab that creates one-of-a-kind experiences using food, the arts, and nature to connect more deeply to a place, its people, and its living traditions. I caught up with him to ask him more about his approach to the world of travel.
Everett Potter: What is the origin of Culture Xplorers?
Jim Kane: In my prior work, I had the opportunity to live in several countries in Latin America and in Spain. Participating in daily life and connecting with local friends, oftentimes around the table, transformed these places and moments into indelible, lifelong memories.
When it was time to start my own project, I dedicated myself to building experiences that gave travelers a similar slice-of-life sensibility, and the feeling of exploring a new place with a cultured, adventurous, and well-connected friend.
Potter: Is everything custom or do you have scheduled trips?
Kane: Most of our trips are tailor-made for couples, families or small groups of friends. In addition, we have two or three hosted departures each year. Our Founders Journey is one I personally host, typically to inaugurate a new destination. In 2018 that new destination was Chile.
We also typically have a chef-hosted departure each year. For 2019, we’ve designed a conscious travel journey to Peru hosted by two leading Kansas City chefs. It’s the completion of a circle of exchange that began last summer when we hosted two outstanding chefs from Peru in Kansas City. Over four days of events, we raised nearly $11,000 for a mold-breaking NGO in Peru called Por Eso that works with thirteen remote, high altitude Andean villages that suffer malnutrition and others diseases caused by indoor air pollution, lack of clean drinking water and lack of a balanced diet. Hand-in-hand with these communities, Por Eso builds greenhouses, community and school vegetable gardens, and installs clean water and clean cook stoves. The impact is life changing.
So this October, two of the KC Chefs who led fundraising efforts here last summer will host a dozen or so travelers to Peru. We’ll visit the Por Eso community we’re helping to see the positive changes first-hand and to break bread together with a community & chef hosted lunch. Of course, we’ll experience a variety of singular adventures, from coastal foraging alongside one of Lima’s leading seafood chefs, to walking Inca trails during a medicinal plant identification walk in the Sacred Valley.
Last but not least, we occasionally design professor-led trips for educational and cultural institutions such as Harvard University. This May, 20 Harvard alumni will experience the fascinating juxtaposition between Science & Cooking in Basque Country.
Potter: What is it about Latin America in particular that you found appealing for these kinds of programs?
Kane: Latin America is one of the most bio-diverse regions on the planet, with some of the world’s richest ancient and living cultures, combined with dramatic geography like the world’s two deepest canyons, its highest navigable lake and its mightiest river. In many cases, you can experience many of these on a single trip. For instance, each of the superlatives described above can be experienced in Peru.
I find having a narrative thread and focus helps me apply context to content as I explore new territories or revisit familiar ones. For me, food – in its broadest context – has become one of these compelling narratives. Food helps connect us to remarkable people on the ground, from farmers and foragers to artisan producers and world-class chefs. Beyond these remarkable personal connections, seeing the world through the lens of food has helped me understand the importance of protecting biodiversity – and how this is tied directly to sustaining cultural diversity. It has helped me understand issues as varied as social justice, climate change, rural development, gender equity and even creativity, design and philosophy. Food has become one of our keys for opening and sharing the world with others in a way that’s intimate, adventurous and meaningful.
Potter: How much awareness of Latin American food and cultures is there in North America?
Kane: I think there’s more awareness each year, but I’d like to see it grow even further. In the last decade, popular lists such as the World’s 50 Best, film series such as Chef’s Table and a host of cooking show competitions have brought attention to some of Latin America’s visionary chefs and varied cuisines. On the other end of the spectrum, delicious home and street foods from Latin America have been asserting themselves in waves around the US. I predict the growing exodus of Venezuelans fleeing the suffocating crisis roiling their country will spur a newfound appreciation for arepas, Venezuela’s favorite street food.
Potter: You’ve also branched out to Spain and Portugal. What are those programs like?
Kane: When I first began scouting in Spain and Portugal in 2010, I’ll admit that I was a bit skeptical of finding the intensity of experience, the openness of the people and the richness of the living traditions that I’d come to love in Latin America. Thankfully, I was dead wrong. The Iberian Peninsula is teeming with adventure, geographic drama, superb trails and deeply regarded traditions, and of course the architecture, history, arts, culture and amazing cuisine for which it is so justly beloved.
As both Spain and Portugal are heavily visited, we look for ways to dig below the surface. We’ll venture into the countryside to meet a heritage pig breeder and share a home-hosted lunch at his 17th century stone farmstead. We’ll surprise guests with a private Portuguese guitar session in Porto. We’ll arrange visits to quincentenary markets in Basque Country, private cooking classes with a chef in Girona and in Lisbon, and coastal hikes exploring the precious landscapes of Catalonia, Basque Country and the Alentejo Coast -- are these form part of our Iberian experience. And I cherish the special relationships we’ve nurtured with a handful of the world’s foremost culinary minds in both Basque Country and Catalonia.
Potter: Is there a physical adventure side to these trips or are they entirely cultural?
Kane: Absolutely! We love to layer food and cultural immersion with exploration in nature and physical adventure. One of my favorite active experiences that we launched this year is kayaking through the protected fjords of Chiloé Island and visiting a sea urchin harvester, where we stop to taste insanely fresh urchin plucked straight from his nets seconds before being cracked open and served.
One of the wilder physical adventures we’ve crafted is herding water buffalo on horseback -- side by side seasoned Brazilian cowhands -- through flooded fields on Marajó Island. While one of the more cerebral adventures is a nature walk along Catalonia’s stunning Cap de Creus accompanied by a gastro-botanist, tasting edible flowers, herbs and even seaweed along the ruggedly beautiful coastal route.
One of my recent favorites is a two-hour hike through rolling hills overlooking the Cantabrian Sea along the dramatic Basque Coast, and following a stretch of the famed Camino de Santiago. This undulating trail is quilted with patches of txakoli vineyards, the quintessential Basque white wine. Of course, a family-run vineyard visit and txakoli tasting rounds out our outdoors adventure.
Potter: In terms of a custom trip, can you give us an example of where you might go, what you might do, and for how many days? And a ballpark price?
Kane: We have a couple celebrating a 40th birthday in Spain next week. They’ll start in San Sebastian with a walking tour and ‘pintxos party’ in the old town, walking from bar to bar accompanied a seasoned local, to taste a signature pintxo and a drink at each place. Next day, they’ll walk it off with a six-kilometer coastal hike ambling through txakoli vineyards and ending in Getaria, one of Basque Country’s most storied and picturesque fishing towns. Another day, they’ll head inland to a village market that has been operating continuously for over 500 years. There, alubias (a type of bean) hold a place of honor in the pantheon of fresh produce that overflows the stalls. Smoky, nutty Idiazabal cheese is on display, and for tasting, as are fresh flowers, fragrant baked breads, live snails, and dozens of other regional & seasonal specialties. That afternoon, they’ll visit a heritage pig breeder and enjoy home-hosted hospitality with three generations of the family as well as taste some of the most sublime cured ham on earth. After a few fulfilling days in Basque Country, they’ll fly to Catalonia to roll up their sleeves at a private, market-to-table cooking class in Girona. Once again, eating will be balanced with physical activity, as the following day they’ll walk along the craggy Cap de Creus – the otherworldly coastline that so inspired surrealist artistic giant Salvador Dalí – this time accompanied by a gastro-botanist who finishes their walk with a pairing of edible flowers and a few of the region’s outstanding wines. To cap off their special celebration, they’ll dine at El Celler de Can Roca, named one of the two top restaurants on the planet a record 7 times in the last 8-years. A similar, private, eight-day program for two, staying in 5-star lodging throughout would cost approximately $7,500 per person.
Potter: Is there a favorite place that you love to return to?
Kane: There is always more to discover, learn, taste and experience, even in the places with which we’re most familiar. I love returning to a handful of favorite destinations: Peru, Chile, Brazil, Portugal and Spain, whether to re-connect with old friends, meet a compelling new potential protagonist, try a great new restaurant or hike a new trail. The challenge is I’m equally tempted to explore new territories, too! For instance, I can’t wait to delve into Sweden for the first time this fall. The trick is balancing some beloved favorites with new discoveries in uncharted terrain.
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