Into the Wildland

For Kurt and Anne Kutay—and thousands of travelers—that first dance became a rumba round the world.

By Francesca Lyman December 20, 2008 Published in the September 2008 issue of Seattle Met

THE FIRST TREK they took together was more of a rumba—across the 1987 Bumbershoot main stage, to the beat of the Seattle salsa band Bochinche. The night was hot and sultry, and Anne Brown remembers dancing with a tall, lanky guy who approached her “like a jaguar in the jungle stalking his prey.”

The jaguar landed his prey, and six months later Brown and Kurt Kutay were married. They discovered they shared a taste not just for salsa dancing but for off-the-grid travel, plus a knack for sharing that sort of travel with other people. She’d led tours in Mexico, and he’d started a boutique travel firm, Lake Forest Park–based Wildland Adventures, the year before. Twenty-two years later they’re both at the Lake Forest Park–based company, running what National Geographic Adventure calls “one of the best adventure travel companies on earth.”

Wildland Adventures grew out of Kurt’s own travels in Costa Rica. He first fell in love with the country when he was just out of college, on a backpack trip to the then-remote Guanacaste Peninsula, an outpost of unpaved roads and spectacular beaches. He and a friend had one beach all to themselves until a family came and set up camp beside them. “It was my first introduction to a local tico [Costa Rican] family,” Kurt says with a laugh. “Instead of saying, ‘Let’s go as far as we can to the other end of the beach,’ as Americans might, they set about sharing food and fun.”

Kurt dreamed of someday living and working in Costa Rica, and years later he did. While completing a master’s degree in natural resources management at the University of Michigan, he returned to help design a plan for the country’s Cahuita National Park. Afterward he and a fellow grad student started an eco-tour company in Ann Arbor; finally, he came to Seattle and launched Wildland Adventures.

"They come to us with an open, honest desire to understand other cultures."

Anne took over the Costa Rican trips for a while, tramping through rain forests where jaguars still lurk. They’ve also sought out new destinations, most of which won’t likely show up soon on Rick Steves’s itinerary: Argentina, Mount Kilimanjaro, and Turkey, Kurt’s family homeland. Walking safaris with Maasai warriors. Gorilla-tracking in Bwindi, Uganda’s “Impenetrable Forest.” Touring the Belize coast with local Mayan guides. Wherever they go the Kutays try to cultivate tourists of a different breed: “They come to know what we call the ‘wild style’ of travel, the more personal, spontaneous kind,” says Kurt. “And they come to us with an open, honest desire to understand other cultures.”
For those who want to give something back to those cultures, the Kutays have established the Travelers Conservation Trust, which supports sustainability initiatives and community development projects in the -areas they visit. Anne considers it especially important to sensitize children to what she calls “our global habitat”—the differences between Third World levels of consumption and our own. Family trips—with their 18-year-old son Tarek as coleader—are a key part of the Wildland program.

Wildland sends about 1,500 such conscientious vacationers abroad each year, on 400 custom-designed tours. Twelve employees, plus a Costa Rica bureau, work with 40 different guides on seven continents. Like many travel businesses, Wildland suffered a downturn after 9/11, but it’s grown 12 to 17 percent each year since. Its community-based Maasailand Safari was named a Trip of the Year by Outside and one of National Geographic Traveler’s 50 Tours of a Lifetime. In Maasai-land, the Kutays promise a “profound cross-cultural experience that will change your perspective on life”—kind of like backpacking in Guanacaste, or meeting a Ballard girl on a Bumbershoot stage.