I sat down with Rusty Johnson and Stephan Jablonski of the Travel Channel’s Hotel Amazon. They are childhood friends on the journey of a lifetime in the Peruvian Amazon. Their goal is to build a world-class resort in the heart of the jungle.
Hotel Amazon follows them in this docuseries as these two New Yorkers try to make it in Peru. Believe it or not Stephan won big on the Wheel of Fortune and was able to finance Rusty’s plan to build a hotel in the Amazon of Peru. Rusty, and experienced wildlife expert, knew Stephan shared his adventurous spirit and that’s when the journey began.
I asked Rusty and Stephan what inspired this idea, how it all got started, and learn all about their incredible experience building a hotel in the Amazon.
TH: Tell me a little about your backgrounds?
Stephan: I’m a firefighter and EMT in Kingston, NY. I have been friends with Rusty since our teens. We met in a martial arts class. I’ve been dabbling in martial arts most of my life.
TH: How did you stay in touch all these years?
Stephan: Well Rusty and I met in our teens but we’ve been able to stay in touch through our adult lives. We both had children and relationships but we get back together just like brothers would, like it was yesterday.
TH: How long have you known about Rusty’s Passion for Peru and animals?
Stephan: I’d known about his Amazon adventures for a long time. Prior to Hotel Amazon I had plans on going down to actually see it for myself. Then everything changed. I went from just being a tourist to a business partner with Rusty.
TH: Rusty, tell me about how you got started going to the Amazon.
Rusty: I’ve been going down to the Amazon for about 15 years. I was freelance filming and started guiding immersion tours right into the village and they’d stay amongst the locals. I met my wife there and ended up buying the property from my wife’s grandmother.
TH: When did you decide to turn it into a resort in the Amazon?
Rusty: I always wanted to do something with the property but I didn’t know when. I sat on it for about 5 years and I thought let’s expand this guiding thing and make a nicer place for the tourists to stay. That was about the precise moment Stephan ran into a lot of money.
(Believe it or not Stephan won big on the Wheel of Fortune and that was the moment they were able to turn this dream into a reality.)
TH: What brought you to this exact location in Peru?
Rusty: Well for about 25 years I’ve taught at schools and universities. I train falcons and eagles, alligators, and poisonous snakes. I would talk so much about the Amazon but I never was there, it almost felt hypocritical.
Fun Fact: Rusty wrote a book about his 3,000 mile overland trek through Africa with a pop-tent. This guy is a badass. Check out his book: Twilight of the Wild.
Rusty: So I went down there and wanted to do the same thing in Peru (as in Africa). I went down to the Amazon. As soon as my boots hit the ground I fell in love with the place. I returned every couple of months for years and eventually I met my wife there.
[quote]As soon as my boots hit the ground I fell in love with the place.[/quote]
TH: What is tough adapting to the way of life in the Amazon?
Rusty: I have a way about me that I can go into a place that I know very little about do my best to fit in and vibe with them. I don’t mind being out of my comfort level. But in time I fit right in and kind of an honorary Peruvian.
TH: You guys have been friends for 25 years. Rusty, how hard was it to convince Stephan to invest in your idea.
Rusty: Not really that hard. He has a very adventurous mind. As far as wanting to do it he was game from the get-go.
TH: Stephan, what did the guys say at the firehouse? How did you get this kind of time off?
Stephan: Actually I was very fortunate to build my time up and I had a lot of support from the guys. If I needed shifts covered I got help and I was able to go down with Rusty. A two week trip turned into months. If I hadn’t had the time there I couldn’t have done it.
TH: Serious question, Stephan. Whey did you bring a rolling suitcase to the Amazon!?
Stephan: Well…it was a carry-on. It was the only carry-on I had. I thought there would be some sort of trail at least. I was fully aware how ridiculous it was! 🙂
TH: Is there a way to prepare for an adventure like this?
Rusty: You try and prepare but you have to realize it’s not going to go the way you prepared for.
TH: Stephan, how about you?
Stephan: I did some research on how this process works in Peru. I was given good advice that Peru is a good country to work in and that they are putting money into infrastructure. I did research on Eco-tourism and the timing was right. With Rusty’s experience and knowing the region I felt comfortable with our plans. There is a lot of unforeseen events you will see on the docuseries and how we will able to overcome this obstacles.
TH: Tell me more about Jungle Time?
Rusty: I don’t mind it.
Stephan: I’m surprised he’s (Rusty’s) not part of the ecosystem. I’m an energetic guy and a little bit of a hot-blooded New Yorker and I had no idea what it was going to take. Luckily, I have a construction background. I started at 15 working for a mason and have worked for carpenters and done run my own renovation business as well. I’ve been swinging the hammer and working a saw 25 years.
TH: What is the building process like in the Amazon?
Stephan: Everything is hand tools down there. Hand planes, hand saws, and hammering nails.
TH: Who are you tying to attract to your Eco-resort in the Amazon?
Stephan: There are other lodges in the area doing the same thing the same way. I told Rusty from the get-go we’re not going to do it the same way. We’re going to do it better and help the local people out. We want to give them sustainability and an economic future. The more people we can bring in the more we can give back to the community. We’re targeting adventure seekers, students, Eco-tourists, and we want to show people how important this ecosystem is to the entire planet.
[quote]The more people we can bring in the more we can give back to the community. [/quote]
TH: Responsible Tourism is very important today. How are you making sure you fit that description.
Stephan: It is a very important subject. We’re very careful to use locally sourced materials and local techniques. We’re doing rustic-chic. We’re making sure that we are having as limited impact on the property and the environment.
TH: How did you deal with the Food and the Everyday life in the Jungle?
Stephan: Chicken and rice is great for the first 3 weeks but seriously the chicken is the best I ever had and same goes for the fish.
Rusty: The paca is a large rodent or bascially a guinea pig on stilts. It is delicious. And I’ll tell you tortoise is really really good.
TH: I spoke with the Booze Traveler and he told me about the Peruvian spit beer. Did you have a chance to try it?
Rusty: I’ve had it many times. Stephan is a guy with hand-sanitizer holsters so I made him try it.
TH: Did you watch the process of the Beer Being Made?
Stephan: I was trying to be polite but I knew something was wrong when I tasted it. It was warm and the tasted a little like paca to be honest. I respect the Peruvian culture and understand it, which is why I just had to try it.
TH: What can you take away from this experience? What did you learn from your time in the Amazon?
Stephan: The biggest thing is I know how important traveling is but this is my first time not being just a tourist. This is my first time actually immersed in another culture. What I thought I knew I realized I didn’t really know. I got a new understanding of another of another people and a better understanding of myself. I am a high-strung guy but I learned to be more tolerant and understanding. It was a growing experience. It was a very positive experience for me.
Rusty: I lost sense on how jungle I actually got. To the point where everything seemed normal to me. When Stephan came down was pointing things out I realized the past Rusty would have said the same thing.
TH: When can I come visit?
Stephan: What are you doing tomorrow?
TH: Thanks, guys. Check out Stephan and Rusty’s in Hotel Amazon on the Travel Channel every Monday at 10PM Eastern.
See more photos and videos from Hotel Amazon on Travel Channel