Hikers with Condor Trekkers take in some of Bolivia's spectacular scenery. Photo: Condor Trekkers
When Australian Randall Howlett decided to set up a business in Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in South America, he had little idea of the patience required.
Howlett's concept was a non-profit trekking outfit, Condor Trekkers, that would pour all profits back into poor communities around Sucre, Bolivia's constitutional capital.
But getting it off the ground would be another thing: the first problem, the business licence. Howlett, originally from Brisbane, had rented a storefront, but an inspector wouldn't visit for six months. All up the process took 15 months.
Hikers visit the Crater of Maragua, in eastern Bolivia. Photo: Larissa Ham
Another bureaucratic headspin made it almost impossible to secure licences for his guides - who must be licensed to work, but have experience to qualify for a licence.
"It was probably the worst period of my life. I got so frustrated and angry. I went through 15 lawyers," Howlett, 41, says.
"For Bolivians, two years is standard to set up a business."
Randall Howlett ... "I like the fact I can say I don’t take a cent." Photo: Larissa Ham
At the time, Howlett found a World Bank report that ranked Bolivia the 16th-most difficult country in which to start a business.
"Bolivia has adopted an incredible number of requisites for doing anything. In my opinion, they are afraid of change," he says.
Howlett, a land surveyor by trade, had previously volunteered at a similar trekking business in Guatemala, and loved the idea so much he decided to recreate it elsewhere.
For about five years he volunteered for half the year in Guatemala, and spent the remainder working at bike tour companies in Germany.
"I was going to set this (trekking) up somewhere in Africa, but it just kept getting put off. Then this guy asked if I would come to Sucre to set up non-profit trekking," he says.
"I said 'Nah mate, sorry, I'm going to Africa'. I'd been five years in Latin America and I knew Bolivia would be similar but different."
But Howlett ended up visiting Sucre for two months in 2008.
"I came to check it out and loved it. I went trekking and saw it and I thought, 'Wow, that was beautiful'," he says.
"Importantly (unlike La Paz, a bigger city), it was an undeveloped tourist area. Here I knew there was awesome trekking that just wasn't being utilised."
So Howlett returned to Germany for six months to save the start-up cash.
Condor Trekkers runs single and multi-day treks through the spectacular scenery around Sucre, including through the Crater of Maragua. The treks also take in part of the Inca Trail, and visit dinosaur footprints said to date back 120 million years.
The profits support a number of foundations, kindergartens and more than 15 schools, many of them rural. Condor Trekkers has provided school materials, bought ovens, provided food, acccommodation and health services and built an ecological toilet.
The company employs only Bolivian guides, and volunteers from all over the world help in various roles that don't put Bolivians out of a job.
Howlett volunteers all his time, and spends three months working in another country each year to support himself.
"This doesn't make enough money to pay me. I like the fact I can say I don't take a cent," he says.
"Money means nothing to me. You need it to eat, but you don't need a big flat screen TV. When you live here you realise how little you actually need."
According to the 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, released by the US government, the average Bolivian wage three years ago was 647 bolivianos per month (just over $90).
Like any businessperson, Howlett has a healthy competive streak when it comes to the opposition.
"We're blowing them out of the water. One of the main reasons is they don't know what a backpacker is. They don't understand a backpacker's budget," he says.
Howlett is in the process of setting up a non-profit vegetarian restaurant in Sucre. A German man has provided the start-up capital interest-free, and the project has provided yet more red tape and frustration.
But the wheels are finally turning, with renovations expected to be completed by June 1.
Howlett hopes one day to take his non-profit trekking model to central Australia and, eventually, Africa.
He doesn't mind that success won't mean a personal profit, at least in monetary terms. He says it helps working with an "incredible group of people" to help communities.
"I love what I do, I don't even think about it (the money). I also love the flexibility of it," he says.
"I really don't accept the fact that people live in poverty. To me it's unacceptable."