Wellness in South America does not have to be exclusively focused on yoga or meditation, though those can certainly be included during your trip. But, focusing on your health can also mean taking peaceful hikes through stunning landscapes, reconnecting with nature, and relaxing in world-class spas or natural hot springs. Find a deeper Zen with a wellness excursion to South America.

As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mery Calderón.

Mery Calderón is Founder and CEO of Kuoda Travel, an award-winning, Cusco, Peru-based boutique tour operator specializing in personalized private travel experiences throughout South America.

In her role, Calderón oversees all operations, including sales & marketing, travel design, guest relations, responsible travel initiatives, and initiating and maintaining relationships with local tour guides and carefully chosen luxury partners to ensure travelers enjoy truly transformative and unforgettable experiences while traveling across the continent.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As long as I can remember, as the oldest sibling in my family, I helped out in my mom’s souvenir shop in Cusco during my spare time. Doing this, I met visitors from all over the world who were looking for gifts for their friends and families back home. Some of these visitors told me their favorite travel stories, about the places they visited the day before, and so on. My fascination with the travel industry started by listening to these stories and seeing my country through their eyes. Through these stories, I could feel the profound respect and admiration inspired by our history, our landscapes, and the friendliness of our people. It was evident that these visitors were collecting memories, and I developed a profound desire to be part of such fascinating experiences.

When the time came to apply for university, I took a vocational test that suggested that I would do well as an architect or engineer, as I was good in numbers and logic, but inside of me, I knew I was a people person. I crave people’s stories and perspectives gained through their travels. So, ignoring the advice of those around me, including my parents, I decided to major in tourism. I happily finished the program in just 4 years and started a wonderful career in one of the most prestigious hotel chains in Peru. This led me to eventually join the best luxury tour operators around, before deciding to start my own project of curating truly personalized journeys for guests wanting to travel with their loved ones enjoying itineraries designed just for them. This was a decision that I have not regretted at any point and brought so much joy and satisfaction to my life.

Through Kuoda and the travel industry, I know I can help provide quality trips to our guests, bring dignified jobs to our local people, supporting local economies and small projects while leaving the smallest trace possible in the places we visit, keeping our home as a legacy for future generations. I can’t imagine myself in any other career. This is what calls and fulfills my heart every day.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Several years ago, we had a client who was a very nervous traveler and was very apprehensive about traveling internationally, especially to a place where she didn’t speak the language and had such a different culture and way of life from her own. After working with her travel designer who put together a clear itinerary, answered all of her many questions, and reassured her every step of the way, she was excited to get on her flight to Peru rather than scared.

During her trip, we made sure she was well taken care of, and any time she was nervous or had a question, we were there to support her, whether her guide during tours or her host during her downtime. Because she knew she had this safety net, she felt at ease exploring new places and trying new things. When we spoke at the end of her journey, she profusely thanked me for all of the work we put in to make sure she felt safe and secure, which allowed her to get out of her comfort zone in a way that she never had before, and then she told me she would contact us when she was ready to start planning her next South American adventure!

After that encounter, I gained much more respect for the importance and influence of what we do. We not only curate and operate amazing journeys for our guests, but we actually have a positive impact on our guests’ lives in ways that are beyond our knowledge or imagination. Only each guest can measure what is important to them, and when we do a spectacular job, we might help them accomplish their own personal goals or fulfill what really matters to them! We are fortunate and honored to be able to have such a positive and lasting impact on our travelers’ lives.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

While sending a proposal to a guest whom I had a great rapport with, I was a bit excited to send his proposal because I wanted to see what he thought, and in my rush, I wrote, “We will include your infernal flights to the Scared Valley.” Fortunately, he had a wonderful sense of humor, and candidly responded: “Ok, but I trust you just because you were highly recommended (LOL).”

Of course, I had meant to write that “We will include your internal flights to the Sacred Valley…”, a very different meaning from what I initially wrote. The guest ended up booking with us and had a wonderful time, but I was incredibly embarrassed for weeks for having made such typos. The client also good-naturedly teased me about the mistake several times. So, while this did bring some laughs, I did learn that details matter, communication has to be clear, and it is worth taking the time to read through your emails and messages one more time, just to be sure.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are too many to count, but the first that comes to mind would be Mr. and Mrs. Deshler, who were one of our first guests in the early days of our business. They were looking for “tailor-made journeys “, as we had advertised on our website”, and they wanted to know just how tailor-made we’d really make their trip.

They started with the question, “So you claim to tailor-make trips for your guests. Prove it. Here is who we are — a couple from Portland who have sheep and like to weave and want true immersion with local communities, not just a quick visit. We want to be “seen” and learn from them, we want to learn ancient techniques in weaving and want to visit truly off-the-beaten-path places during our visit. We do not want to necessarily spurge in hotels, we will be happy to do some homestays in our visits, etc. Connect us with the locals! We are not merely visitors, so do not want to be treated as such” Now, go and make it happen!”

We ended up exchanging more than a hundred emails which resulted in them sleeping in a weaver’s home, building a bathroom for their weaver hosts (the Quispe family), implementing a kindergarten in a weavers’ community, and spending two full days with their population, taking part in activities, parties, cooking lessons, workshops, Pachamama blessing, and immersive activities. This resulted in them building a strong relationship with the community, and now they visit the community every year. Every time they visit it’s such a huge celebration for the community who are always happy to host their “Papa Tom and Mama Lynne” as they call them with care and love. The Deshlers even celebrated their 30th anniversary with the community in a huge Andean celebration that none of them will forget ever. And thanks to technology, they remain in touch even today.

To me, the Deshlers were an inspiration on how we can truly personalize each journey, not forgetting where we come from and where I want to go, and what my purpose really is within Kuoda. I want to be sure that I can deliver on my promises, constantly think out of the box, and treat the lives of the guests we are fortunate to touch every day with care and respect. As a result, I now have a business that is sustainable, has great values, and genuinely cares about each and every person involved with each journey, including our valued guests, talented guides and drivers, and all of the staff members who make each trip come to life.

Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?

At Kuoda, we have been amply recognized as leaders in personalized travel industries, understanding that true personalization is not only putting your name in your itinerary but actually understanding that there should be a balance between our love and passion for our destinations and care and respect for our guests’ individual interests. Therefore, we encourage our guides to continuously read our guests’ moods, energy levels, and interests, and be flexible by adding certain stops on the way, suggesting small changes in schedules or activities that enhance their experience, and reading the guests while they are traveling and not adhere too strictly to an itinerary which was been made months before. We have our Customer Care department, whose only job is monitoring the experiences of our guests before, during, and after their trip. I want them to feel like they are traveling with the care and respect only cherished friends can provide.

Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?

In a modern world, where so much information is available at your fingertips, being truly listened to as a person with individual interests and goals is so important. Today, more companies are more driven by numerical results — sales quotas, KPIs, and data that they forget the true goal is something more intangible such as valuable time with loved ones in a destination far away from home. Our Customer Care hosts make sure that our clients don’t forget that their experience is our true goal.

As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?

All travel companies, including luxury ones, are currently being pitted against AI technology developments such as Chat GPT, with spectators hoping to see a fight to the death for travelers. Many assume that because AI is cheap readily available to everyone, it will prevail. However, the luxury and travel connoisseur know that intricate itineraries with a great number of destinations and activities require the touch of an experienced agent that can weave them seamlessly based on realistic timelines, knowledge of logistics, and expectations derived from past experiences.

The peace of mind that travelers look for when going abroad can be achieved by working with a certified travel company such as Kuoda which ensures their safety at all times proactively reaches out throughout the trip to make sure it exceeds expectations and can create real-time alternatives when unforeseen circumstances arise.

You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?

One that leaves you as a storyteller, with many travel memories to share and digest in the following weeks, months, and even years. One that leaves you with a hunger for more chances to expand your horizons and seek out new destinations and experiences. One that strengthens our connection with our planet, and everyone who calls Mother Earth ‘home’.

Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.

We invite readers to unplug from the normal day-to-day stress and escape to South America for a wellness retreat that will help them find a new sense of inner peace and re-energize themselves.

Wellness in South America does not have to be exclusively focused on yoga or meditation, though those can certainly be included during your trip. But, focusing on your health can also mean taking peaceful hikes through stunning landscapes, reconnecting with nature, and relaxing in world-class spas or natural hot springs. Find a deeper Zen with a wellness excursion to South America.

Enjoy yoga retreats in the southernmost tip of the South American continent, indigenous superfoods in the Andes, and a blissful natural terrain to help you find inner peace during a holistic wellness trip.

For example:

Restore your body with an active retreat to the Sacred Valley

Peru’s Sacred Valley is highly praised for the outdoor activities that allow travelers to experience the beauty of nature while engaging their physical bodies. Start your wellness journey on the shores of Lake Piuray with yoga classes to connect your mind to your body. Then, take advantage of this optimal location by trying an assortment of relaxing sports, including trekking, biking, and paddle boarding on smooth waters.

Take some time to unplug in Ecuador’s jungle

Ecuador’s Cloud Forest is one of the most beautiful, peaceful places in South America. Here, you can truly disconnect from the outside world as the cool air envelopes you and lush greenery dances with the wind. Stay at the famous Mashpi Lodge to indulge in the gifts of the Samay Wellness Center. At the spa, pamper yourself with enriching treatments and massages before sinking into the hot tub surrounded by jungle foliage.

Explore Colombia’s Rosario Islands for a week of serenity

If the type of wellness you seek is pure peace of mind, then you need to visit Colombia’s Rosario Islands. This small collection of islands is located just off the northern coast of the Caribbean, with white sand beaches and pristine aqua oceans that transport you to an unbelievable oasis. While you explore these isles of wonder, you will get the chance to soak up the sun, swim along the coast and relish your luxury hotel.

Destress with a trip to Argentina focused on self-care

In most Argentinian destinations, you can find something to provide wellness and healing in one way or another. Start your trip in Mendoza, where you can visit the Termas Cacheuta Thermal Spa for a naturally rejuvenating treatment. Then, explore the unique wellness centers throughout Buenos Aires, including the Tédelūpulo Beer Spa. It’s one of the most atypical spa experiences, but very fun for couples and friend groups who love trying new things on every excursion.

In the past few years, we have been a silent advocate of slow travel, encouraging our guests whenever possible to visit fewer destinations and smell the roses in each of them, encouraging them to have their own free time to spare and just walk on their own. We are against “as many activities as possible in order to stretch our day”. We also include lunches at interesting and stunning restaurants and haciendas where clients are invited not only to savor exquisite dishes but also to be awed by the atmosphere and history of the places they are visiting. We also encourage our guides to allow some time for our guests not only to take photos but actually be present where they are (visiting). Wellness has much to do with presence.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

Listen carefully to what motivates them to travel, which can help us determine the pace of the trip.

Ex. Some people are looking to check items off of their bucket lists, like visiting Machu Picchu or staying at the Sacred Valley’s Skylodge, and for these guests, we know that they will most appreciate doing the most well-known and popular activities; others are looking to see experience things that few people get a chance to, and for these guests, we know to include things that don’t appear on most itineraries, such as a hike to the Perilniyoc Waterfall or a visit to the South Valley.

Connect with travelers. Only that way one could truly organize a tailor-made trip.

Ex. One example of this would be to pay attention to what is said about the dynamics of a group — perhaps there are some who want to climb to the very top of a site while others would prefer to learn all they can from the bottom. We always include a second guide when a group is over 8 people. Sometimes a second guide can make all the difference even in much smaller groups, with one climbing the mountain with the adventurers in the group and the other staying to provide interesting information to those who prefer to keep their feet on the ground.

Learn from past experiences, which leads us to what to avoid or include in a trip.

Ex. Memorable past travel experiences, good AND bad, are invaluable when planning out an itinerary… one may find that someone had a bad reaction to altitude while visiting Denver, so we know to make sure to give them all the tips and tricks they need to combat altitude sickness when visiting the Andes. Other times, you learn about that time a guest had a wonderful time trying all of the interesting street foods in Seoul, so we know to include a food tour as part of their itinerary, anticipating a need and aiming to give the best experience possible.

Know the travel style that accommodates each traveler. That allows you to set realistic expectations during the trip.

Ex. This is very important especially when working in areas that are inherently more isolated or rustic. One great example of this would be the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia. Uyuni is an incredible, otherworldly place to visit, and we, of course, will do everything possible to keep people as comfortable as we can; however, the reality is that the salt flats are a very harsh environment, and even the best-maintained vehicles will have salt damage on them, and in many parts, roads are not just ‘rough’, but actually nonexistent. It’s our job to make sure that our clients are prepared to get comfortable with being a bit uncomfortable in order to see and experience some of the items on their journey and know when to perhaps recommend against a certain experience based on the client’s comfort with discomfort.

Ask as much as you can about the people traveling; details matter, and we really want to get to know you!

Ex. A person is more likely to be able to trust a friend than a cold voice on the phone. One of the best ways to connect and help someone looking for travel information and advice is to be as open and honest about yourself and your own experiences and know how to navigate when your own personal preferences are not the same as your client’s. A good example of this is ATV tours; many people enjoy ATV tours; however, I know at least one of my Travel Designers is terrified of ATVs. She is aware that some of her clients would enjoy exploring the Sacred Valley on an ATV, and so when she has people ask about these tours, she will honestly say that, although they scare her to death, if you’re a thrill-seeker, she’s got just the ATV tour for you; and our guests enjoy those tours every time.

Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?

At Kuoda, we dedicate ourselves to responsible business practices just as much as we encourage mindful travel practices. For this reason, we spent the last several years committed to minimizing our environmental impact as much as possible.

Forest Conservation

Thanks to Green Initiative, in 2019, Kuoda became Carbon Neutral as the first step towards bold climate action and protection by signing the Glasgow Declaration. In 2022, we took it one step further and became a certified Climate Positive business, going beyond neutrality alone and instead finding ways to actively benefit and improve the environment by removing harmful gasses from the atmosphere.

As part of our efforts to replenish and heal the forests of South America, we have planted 120 trees throughout the last year, prioritizing native species that will allow South American environments to thrive. A few of those species include cacao trees which produce the essential ingredients for products like chocolate, sangre de grado trees which produce an organic medicine used to treat various digestive illnesses, and ishpingo trees which are harvested for their cinnamon-like spice enjoyed throughout the region.

Local Communities

The Kaypi Kunan Association was founded in 2011 by Kuoda with the aim of leaving a positive footprint in the world; strengthening and empowering Andean children and adults by developing enriching educational activities that promote learning with values.

Recognizing an opportunity to stimulate the growth and empowerment of this community through education, we devised a plan to expand our reach. The Kid’s Learning Center was inaugurated as a way to give children the opportunity to empower themselves through education.

Today, more than two-thirds of school-age children in the community visit the Kid’s Learning Center to receive educational support and counseling daily after school. We have had an uninterrupted presence in Umasbamba over the last few years, making it possible for many of the children who started in the program to be attending higher education.

Our Peruvian-based non-profit is oriented in social assistance and focused on education and support for Andean communities. Our motivation is to leave a positive footprint in the world and invite you to take part in this beautiful project by actively participating in the change that the world needs

Our Projects:

Kid’s Learning Center

The Kid’s Learning Center was started as a way to give children the opportunity to empower themselves through education. Today, more than two-thirds of school-age children in the community attend the center to receive educational support and counseling daily after school.

Computer Center

Our training centers are established in six independent Andean communities, offering computer classes to residents five days a week. Our goal is to maximize computer access to increase self-sufficiency and computer literacy, creating greater opportunities for personal and professional development.

Strings For Freedom

Art is a powerful tool to transmit the ethical and moral values that help shape life in society. Through violin lessons, the Strings For Freedom project aims to awaken interest and love for music, based on the aptitudes and artistic vocation of people of all ages, regardless of their training.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

“Connecting ourselves by connecting with MY people”. What I mean to say is: Connect with at least one profession-hobby-activity-related peer on every trip you make, whenever possible.

One could gain so much perspective when and if we have access to an in-person chat, meeting, or conversation with someone who shares the same passion, activity, profession, etc. It is like looking at the world through the eyes, lenses, or shoes of someone else. I imagine the wonderful and endless conversations that could happen, leading into new ways of envisioning ourselves or our activities, sharing stories with people who “get us” (OUR people), bringing ah-ha” moments, and in some cases, opening the doors to long-lasting friendships with people around the world.

Traveling implies connecting with others to ultimately connect with oneself. If we could take it to the next level by purposely connecting with people who share our same passions, that could bring more empathy, compassion, and happier travelers, leading naturally to a happier and better life and world.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Readers can find us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Pinterest as @kuodatravel

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


  • Savio P. Clemente

    TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor

    Savio P. Clemente, TEDx speaker and Stage 3 cancer survivor, infuses transformative insights into every article. His journey battling cancer fuels a mission to empower survivors and industry leaders towards living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle. As a Board-Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), Savio guides readers to embrace self-discovery and rewrite narratives by loving their inner stranger, as outlined in his acclaimed TEDx talk: "7 Minutes to Wellness: How to Love Your Inner Stranger." Through his best-selling book and impactful work as a media journalist — covering inspirational stories of resilience and exploring wellness trends — Savio has collaborated with notable celebrities and TV personalities, bringing his insights to diverse audiences and touching countless lives. His philosophy, "to know thyself is to heal thyself," resonates in every piece.