Clockwise from left: Caitlin Ahern at Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán, photograph courtesy of Thread Caravan; aerial view of Panama, and Panamanian artisan textiles, both photographed by Karim Iliya for Thread Caravan

Thread Caravan isn’t your typical travel concern. Founder Caitlin Ahern’s aim is to plug her clients into a country’s culture and traditions while lending a hand — and giving a showcase — to the local people. So a trip to, say, Guatemala entails lots of sun soaking and volcano hikes as well as workshops with artisans to get an up-close glimpse at Mayan weaving; a Mexico jaunt, meanwhile, includes mezcal- and mole-making sessions in Oaxaca. Here, Ahern tells us all about this notion of “artisan adventures” and details the top five destinations she’s recommending for 2017.

The Thread Caravan is…
An art tourism company working to preserve cultural diversity, empower marginalized communities and educate travelers about the handmade processes behind the goods they buy. We connect cultures and bring people together through hands-on art experiences specific to different regions of the world.

And the initial inspiration behind it…
I studied Sociology with a focus on International Development, and have always been an artist. I combined the two by working with Fair Trade global goods companies, but realized they all seemed to face a similar obstacle — market demand. While the goods they were selling were beautiful, consumers were likely to opt for factory-made alternatives if they didn’t understand the effort that went into making each piece by hand. I wanted to bridge this knowledge gap, helping people have a better understanding of handmade processes and the impact artisan businesses can have on communities. I also wanted to find an alternative way to support the artisans in a way that wasn’t dependent on traditional consumerism. This model of selling experiences rather than goods does just that.

What makes a trip an “artisan adventure”…
While each trip has a focus on a cultural art, we also incorporate other activities specific to the regions — hiking volcanoes, visiting coffee farms and Mayan ruins, sailing and more. We want Thread Caravan travelers to feel totally connected to the place — from the land to the people and culture.

Favorite or most memorable trip we’ve done so far…
Living on a sailboat for a week during our Panama trip. The indigenous group we work with there, the Guna people, live primarily on an archipelago in the Caribbean. So to connect with the artisans there, we’re sailing around tropical Caribbean islands. Although we anchor close to the islands, we sleep and eat our meals on the boat. When we wake up in the morning, we go up to the deck to have our breakfast in the sun, and then swim (or take a little dingy boat) to the island to hang out with the indigenous women there. It’s such a unique way of life that puts you really close to nature. I feel super grateful to get to experience it and share it with others.

And one incredible thing we discovered there…
During one of our Guatemala trips we learned how to make chocolate, from the tree to the bar. I was blown away by how much the industry alters pure chocolate, and even more amazed to learn how simple is it to create pure, artisanal chocolate that can actually be considered a superfood. Also! The Mayans used to use cacao (the bean that makes chocolate) as currency. They had a totally different perspective on the food, and I loved learning about that side of it.

Caitlin Ahern atop a palm tree on a beach in Panama, photographed by Karim Iliya for Thread Caravan
The top five places I’d recommend for 2017…
Oy, this is a tricky one, because it depends on whom the recommendations are directed toward. Instead, I’ll share the next 5 places I personally want to travel:

1. Iran
So much of what I do with Thread Caravan is focused on arts that are specific to a geographic region. The Middle East was at the forefront of civilization in ancient times, being some of the first people to engage with the arts at a high level. The region has stunning rug weavings, tile work and more. I think now more than ever it’s important to emphasize the beauty of the Middle East and for Westerners to be open to learning more about Middle Eastern culture. We should be spreading awareness of the region’s positive attributes, creating bridges between groups of people different than one another.

2. Japan
I love places whose cultures are totally intact by their own doing and not just due to tourism. Japan is one of those places! I’m especially interested in going to learn more about indigo dyeing there.

3. Madagascar
I was meant to go to Madagascar a few years back, but the trip fell through. As such a large island, the nature has had ample time to develop, and there are many endemic plant and animal species. There are rock formations that exist nowhere else, and some of the best vanilla and silk in the world.

4. Baja
Mexico, marine life, wine country, mountains and desert meeting the ocean… it really doesn’t get much better.

5. Rwanda
Since the end of the country’s civil war a couple decades ago, the country has progressed in many ways. I’m especially interested in going to hike with the mountain gorillas and learn basket-weaving techniques.

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