If someone could have heard Vance Cook discussing his newest business idea a couple of years ago, they probably would have told him he was up a tree. And they would have been right. In Cook’s case, being up a tree, or several trees for that matter, has led to the creation of a vacation spot unlike almost any other in the world. He owns and operates the Treehouse Lodge in Iquitos, Peru. It consists of eight open-air bungalows high in the trees above the 400 acres of property he owns in the Amazon. Now open for just over a year, the lodge has hosted visitors from around the world who can eat, sleep and explore the jungles near the Yaraba River.
“I’d been to the Amazon before, and loved it,” said Cook, who has lived in Bountiful for 16 years. “The people are happy there, and I knew I would enjoy working with them.” He admits to never having had a treehouse as a boy, “and I wanted to create something that was unique,” he said. “So I began envisioning treehouses connected by suspension bridges, with a central lodge where visitors could dine. From there, the concept of the Treehouse Lodge was formed.”
Cook traveled frequently back and forth from Utah to both Peru and Ecuador, looking for the right spot to build. He concluded that northeast Peru was the perfect place, and he discovered Iquitos, which he calls “a charming little town—there’s nothing like it anywhere else.” He found 400 acres of property that the previous owner had clear title to, made the purchase, and began forming a plan. He also found the perfect Peruvian architect to help design the lodge—just down the street in Bountiful. “Andres Aldave is literally my neighbor,” Cook said with a smile. “He is a Peruvian structural engineer. We also found an arborist who knew the trees in the area and how they grow. That helped us as we designed the lodge.” Once construction began, it took about a year to complete.
Since its opening in October 2013, Treehouse Lodge has been featured on the Discovery Channel’s “Treehouse Masters” series, and received coverage on other travel-related websites. If solitude is something you’re seeking, it can be found here. From Iquitos, the journey to the lodge – first by car, then by boat – takes approximately 2 1/2 hours. The boat ride begins on the Marañón River, crosses the Amazon River, and continues up the Ucayali River before connecting to the Yarapa River.
Cook, who has traveled the world extensively himself and can count his climbing to the summit of Mt. Everest among his many accomplishments, says building the lodge has proven a great benefit for both guests and the local economy in Iquitos. “We were able to use a lot of local craftsmen when we were building it, and most of our staff is local,” he said. “We also provide medical services, and when I visit every couple of months, I often take clothing with me for the local residents.”
Though he has no current plans to expand, Cook definitely has his options open with the other property he owns. “This has turned out to be everything I’d hoped,” he said. “We’ve had great feedback from those who’ve stayed at the lodge. I’m very pleased.”
How do the experiences you offer at Treehouse Lodge give guests a unique perspective on the history, people or culture of your region?
Treehouse Lodge is close to a couple villages that live essentially as they have for hundreds of years. Some of them work with us. We live amongst them – not for them or because of them. We let our guests visit and interact, but we don’t ask them to behave any differently than they would otherwise. No dressing up and no dancing for the guests. We have the same goal as the community, unlike many of the businesses they encounter in the region. We want to see our environment preserved and protected. So they allow us this glimpse into their lives and the world they live in.
How have the experiences that you offer evolved since their inception?
Our experiences have become more varied and adapted to season and condition as we’ve come to know the area and patterns. We are better at predicting where and when certain species can be found. Our guides come with many years of experience, but that specific knowledge and experience in our area has expanded.
What is one detail of an experience you provide that may go unnoticed by guests, but which you feel is important?
I’ll give you a couple. We have running water and electricity in each treehouse 35 – 67 ft in the air. At night, you hear the peaceful sounds of the jungle instead of a generator because we’ve collected solar power all day.
What do you wish every guest knew as they consider participating in the experiences you offer?
I wish they knew how amazed they should be at all the life that exists in the Amazon Rainforest. Sometimes it’s obvious like when they see a pink dolphin surface in the fresh water Amazon. Some of the time, it’s not, and you have to slow down and look at the tiny. But it’s no less amazing.
What is one travel trend that really excites you?
I’m really excited about 2 trends. 1 is that younger generations want to do more than get something out of an experience. They want to give something to the experience. They want to spend a little time doing humanitarian work or giving in some other way. 2 is that more people feel comfortable traveling out of their comfort zone and are willing to experience an adventure. They’re realizing that adventure travel is not just for extremists.
What sets Treehouse Lodge apart from other jungle lodges?
Every bungalow at Treehouse Lodge is a real treehouse. All are connected by cable bridges and you literally live in the trees. It’s a truly unique experience to live in the canopy at eye level with monkeys and other wildlife.
What is one insiders tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel vacation?
Go looking for adventure however it comes. Don’t schedule it. It comes in many ways and places. It may come before you even get to your destination, but it’s all part of the experience. An unplanned hurdle is often not pleasant in the moment, but it makes a fantastic story when you get home. Accept it all as part of the experience.
What is one strategy that has helped your business to grow?
We decided to go all-in on a unique concept: living in the trees in the Amazon. We didn’t build a couple treehouses to compliment the traditional bungalows. We didn’t build high bungalows supported by columns. Every bungalow is a real treehouse. People get bored with “same” and “sort of”.
What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?
Maybe it’s not a habit, but an attitude. I adopted the attitude that everything in life that happens, both good and bad, is good. If something good happens, I enjoy it. If something bad happens, it becomes part of my experience and I’m better for it.
Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.
I took my siblings and their spouses to Treehouse Lodge last year. After many hours on a plane and then a few more by car and then boat, we finally all arrived at Treehouse Lodge just before dark. As we walked down the wooden pathway and came to the main building all lit up and beautiful and jungle sounds playing in the background, my sister started to cry, overcome by the experience. Yah, she’s my sister, so I’m cheating, but I was moved by that.