25 Years of Tucan Travel

We love a birthday here at gapyear.com. That's why we're celebrating Tucan Travel's 25th anniversary. Yes, they've really been around for that long. We thought we'd see what's the story behind the brand and how they've changed over the years.

Tucan Travel is company that offers tours all over the world. Drawing upon their own experiences, they've got some truly unique trips. In fact, they're one of the few companies that offer trips to Antarctica, but that wasn't always the case. Their mission is to "give you the adventure of a lifetime!" They've come a long way in their 25 years. We thought we'd find out just how far...

In the beginning

On 27th March 1987, Pip and Liliana Tyler released a four-page brochure that contained just one tour called 'La Gran Aventura', and with that Tucan Travel was born. The first year of business was difficult, but with the assistance of a small government grant, the first 'La Gran Aventura' tour left Bogotá, Colombia on 25th November 1987 with seven clients. Pip and Liliana ran the first trip themselves and it was a great success. From it they trained Tucan's first tour leader during the second tour. His name was Joel Thihy, a French chef who passed his training and worked with Tucan as a tour leader for approximately 18 months.

Pip had the inspiration to run public-transport-based tours in South America while he was working for a different tour company that used private buses that kept breaking down. "As we ended up having to use public transport most the time because the bus kept breaking down, and clients really enjoyed the authentic experience of travelling with locals the way they do, I realised that this was the best way to experience this fabulous continent", Pip said.

Importantly, this ethos for offering genuine travel experiences would continue to shape the company in the years to come.  

Tucan Travel in the 90s

As each trip returned, the word on Tucan began to spread and bookings steadily increased. It wasn't long before it was decided to expand tours in to Central America. The first tour there was from Mexico to Panama and was completed in July 1991.

By 1994 Tucan had run more than forty 'Grand Adventuras' through South America and three 'La Costa y Selvas'. The 'Gran Adventura' tour went for 70 days, starting in Bogotá then heading south through Peru via Lima, Bolivia across to Rio de Janeiro, then linking with the 64 day 'La Costa y Selva's' tour heading north along the coast of Brazil into the interior then up through the Guyanas to Trinidad, Venezuela and back to Bogotá. This was truly travelling.

Shorter tours and sections were introduced, including a 21-day Andean Experience tour, which travelled through Peru and Bolivia and would became Tucan's biggest selling tour.

In February 1991 Pip and Liliana decided it was time to look at the merits of overland vehicles and decided to team with two directors from a London-based company, Topdeck Travel, and bought a truck, which was converted into an overland expedition vehicle (one that wouldn't continuously break down). A new company called Adventure South America was formed and Pip and Liliana continued to run the company from their home in Spain.  However, in 1995 the partnership dissolved and Pip and Liliana continued operating tours in Latin America returning to the original name of Tucan.

At this time on another continent, a young Australian named Matt Gannan was driving overland trucks for another overland company. In early 1997 Pip and Liliana would join forces with Matt, who brought with him to the relationship two of his own converted overland trucks. It was the start of a long and fruitful partnership.

Tucan Travel in the early days

An ongoing journey

Early in the new millennium Tucan established Budget Expeditions to cater to a niche in the market for uncompromising 18-35s looking for good value adventure tours. The first Budget Expeditions tour was run in South America in 2004 to such a high reception that the first departure was doubled.

Only a year later Budget Expeditions expanded into Europe and Egypt in 2005 with equal success. With momentum on their side, they extended their brief even further the following year by introducing tours in Russia, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

By December 2007, the expansion of Budget Expeditions as a separate brand was complete and on 1st April 2008, Tucan Travel took Budget Expeditions under its wing with Tucan Travel now operating worldwide tours in six unique travel styles. In total the company offers over 400 tours in 70 countries on five continents.

In all that time Tucan Travel has retained its independence, meaning that it has retained complete control on its tours to ensure that the founding ethos of not just offering a service, but introducing people to authentic travel experiences.

The road ahead

Like a keen traveller that never likes to be too long in one place, Tucan Travel is always looking forward to what new frontiers it can take travellers and what innovative services they can provide. With the beginnings of a tailored travel programme already established, with Independent Travel options available as well as the option for clients to run Tucan itineraries with a just select group of friends and family, the natural progression from here was the introduction of a fully tailor-made service, which Tucan Travel unveiled just this year.

While pausing to stop and celebrate what it has achieved in the last 25 years, the company is looking now to take the lessons it learnt on the way as it looks forward to the next 25 years taking other travellers on the adventure of a lifetime.

Pip Tyler of Tucan Travel

We interviewed Pip Tyler (he's the one of the left), part-owner of Tucan Travel and original founder, and he had some pretty inspiring answers...

What was it like first working at Tucan Travel 25 years ago?

It was just Liliana (that's her in the photo - Pip's wife) and myself working on reservations and then running the first few tours which were from Bogota to Rio. To supplement our wages we both worked behind the bar in a pub before starting our first tour in the November of 1987. Our first tour had just seven people, the second just four, same for the third, and then on the fourth trip we had 17 passengers, what a wonder that was. On that same trip we trained our first tour leader, a French chef of all things!

In your opinion, how much has the company changed?

Well we used to look forward to having 50 bookings in a year at the very most, so what a change that has been. 

And how much has the company grown?

I think that the above has described the growth but I also remember we were just running four tours a year (3 months long each). This until we added another by running a tour on local transport along the Brazilian coast, visiting the Guayanas, Venezuela, Trinidad & Colombia. We then moved into Central America to be followed by island hopping trips through the Caribbean. All these tours were previously worked out by Liliana & I doing them beforehand. We then bought our first truck and about three years later joined forces with Matt and Imtrav, and then things really started to grow.

So, you're a travel company - how many countries have you travelled to with Tucan?

Too many to count, every country in Latin America, some in Africa, Antartica and many others on business for Tucan in Asia and Europe.

Every country in Latin America! That's pretty impressive! What's your favourite and why?

I think to be quite honest Guatemala was my favourite as I love the markets and the vibrant colours, not to mention the friendly people. I also love Colombia as I have spent more time there than any of them as Liliana is Colombian and I know the people really well. My other favourite countries in the world are Japan and India, what a contrast between the two but I love them both.

What's the most fun thing you've done on the road?

Too many to mention. My whole time as a tour leader was fun, including when we ran our first Tucan tours. We met some great people and had lots of fun. I remember at the finish of our first tour we had a break in Rio during Carnival for about a month between tours. So virtually the whole group and ourselves rented an apartment in Copacabana for the whole time. We used to stay up until the early hours playing cards as it rained the whole time but when a procession used to pass by we all used to go out and party with the locals; a great time. I've actually done seven Rio Carnivals over the years.

A nosy giraffe

What's the worst problem you've encountered on the road or what's your scariest travel experience?

The scariest was when we went in the wrong direction down a one-way street in Bolivia. The chief of police (who was drunk) of that town came on board the bus with young teenagers holding machine guns and threatening us. They put the whole group under house arrest for a couple of days; it was very scary in those days, as things were far less organised and far more dangerous. 

Teenagers and guns; that's enough to scare anyone! Have you met anyone on the road that you've thought "yep, you're totally awesome. I love what you're doing..."?

Yes, I thought that when Liliana and I first got married and she joined me on tour (camping), she became what we termed the 'super-cook'. She did no actual cooking but what she did do was take all the cooks of the day shopping each day, teaching them Spanish and how to bargain in the markets etc, she was pretty awesome, and all the passengers fell in love with her too. 

What are your 5 top tips for anyone attempting a gap year?

  1. Enjoy every minute of your time, as it probably won't happen again in your lifetime.
  2. Don't get paranoid listening to all the negative stories you'll hear; as long as you're sensible, nothing will happen to you.
  3. Don't show off your obvious Western wealth; just wear a plain plastic watch and no jewellery.
  4. Learn a bit of the language so you can get to know the locals as that is the best part of travelling.
  5. Try all of the food before saying it's horrible, as much of it is quite delicious.

And to finish with, what's your best travel story?

My best story, or at least most unusual, was that I got bitten in the head by a fly that then laid eggs in my head. Six weeks later or so a passenger picked a maggot out of my swollen head. The maggot had hairs on it so wasn't too far from changing into a fly, Yuk. I then went yellow and found out that I had Hepatitis, which took the wind out of my sails for three months (Ed's note - this is a sick, sick story...)