The Splendor and Squalor of National Ecotourism
From Somoto to San Juan del Norte, Pacific Coast to Caribbean, I’ve visited and stayed in all the places I mentioned in this article. I had preconceived views, yet was surprised by every one. What I learned both distressed and amazed me.
This travel journal, showing all the flaws and ironies, represents a conscious prodding strategy.
José Luis Rocha
The twin-volcano island of Ometepe, emerging out of the legendary Lake Cocibolca, also known as Lake Nicaragua, was nominated as Nicaragua’s candidate for inclusion in the Seven Natural Wonders of the World by the government and private national sectors linked to tourism.
Without even looking to other continents, many natural wonders in the Americas could leave Ometepe miles behind: the flowery Atacama desert in Chile, the Amazon jungle, the Andes mountain range, the Galapagas islands, Colorado’s Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Iguazú Falls, Guatemala’s Semuc Champey, Honduras’ Bay Islands, California’s Sequoia forests, the snowcaps of Ecuador, the Bogota Savannah, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range, Cauca Valley, Tequendama Falls, the xenotes in Mexico... the list goes on and on.
“If the Homeland is small, one dreams it big…”I don’t doubt this famous line by Nicaragua’s national poet Rubén Darío, but you have to keep fanciful fantasies in check, and above all mark the difference between lyrical invention and chimerical derailment. Most of the website promoting Ometepe’s candidacy is still under construction, and completing it could only be an improvement because what’s available so far is rife with spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and the most liberal use of logical concatenations. If you’re going to sell lies, you should at least do so with a little elegance, so it could cynically be remarked that Si non è vero è ben trovato (if it isn’t true, it’s well contrived).
Nicaragua, whose prestige as an ecotourism destination is based on its exaltation as the “land of lakes and volcanoes,” has a great variety of places to marvel at, regardless of whether they could aspire to the rank of “wonders.” They may not have the caliber to compete on the global level, but they can certainly delight, amaze and stimulate a thirst for knowledge, esthetic sensitivity and enjoyment of nature. These places include the Sibylline cloud forest of Mombacho, the crystal-clear waters and multiform corals of Corn Island, La Flor and its mass turtle nestings, the dense Indio-Maíz and Bosawás nature reserves and the smoldering mouth of the Santiago Volcano.
With the Seven Natural Wonders of the World Competition—which should be interpreted as a strictly market-oriented event—appearing to be an attempt to redistribute ecotourism in the world, it is worth recalling that this race, with its tricks, cheating and ingenuous banking on Ometepe, doesn’t represent the whole future of Nicaraguan ecotourism. But it does prove the need to sing the praises of what we have appropriately. Whether or not the whole truth is told, Nicaragua’s wonders must be well expressed, cared for and accessible. But are they?
The official Central American figuresIn the midst of our stubborn national dissidence, tourism has been one of the key issues on which recent governments that either had or pretended to have a development plan all agreed. But judging by the figures, the results of those plans could easily vie for a place in the Guinness Book of Records for minimalism. The webpage of the Central American Integration System (SICA) contains a set of statistics that suggests Nicaragua hasn’t extracted the slightest advantage from its lakes and volcanoes. Costa Rica heads the race to make tourism a bastion of the regional economy, with Nicaragua bringing up the rear. Between tourists and sightseers, Costa Rica received 2,224,000 visitors who spent a total US$1.92 billion. Nicaragua received just 44% of the number of Costa Rican visitors and 9.8% of the greenbacks they spent.
Nicaragua’s share of the regional tourist dollars is even smaller than its share of the tourists because, to cap it all, we’re obviously the country where the tourists spend least on average. As the efficient SICA presents some of the figures for 2007 as “preliminary,” we decided to take the 2006 figures when we visited the web site in August 2008. According to those figures, each sightseer or tourist spent an average of $266 in Nicaragua, while those who went Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama shelled out an average $674, $787 and $1,079, respectively.
This gap can be explained by the existence, or even confluence, or three factors: Nicaragua must be a cheap place, must be receiving the country’s most restrained or poorest tourists and must host them for very short stays.
Not everyone included is a tourist,If we really want to dissect these figures with a healthy degree of skepticism, it’s also worth considering that maybe not everyone included in them is a tourist and perhaps not all tourists are included. The former is particularly true. The figures mention 281,085 Nicaraguan “tourists” who visited Costa Rica in 2006. But how many of them really went to work hard for a wage harvesting sugar cane, melons, strawberries and bananas, rather than splashing about and relaxing on the beaches of Tortuguero?
and not all tourists are included
And while we’re at it, what were 4,135 Peruvians and 2,194 Columbians doing as tourists in Nicaragua? It’s no coincidence that Cuba and the Dominican Republic contributed 1,572 and 1,880 “tourists,” respectively, to Nicaragua in 2000, as the Caribbean countries also contribute the most “deportables.” In the same vein, why were there just 59 Puerto Ricans? Based on these figures, it seems fair to suspect that many of the 204,265 American tourists in Nicaragua in 2006 may really have been Nicaraguan-gringos: Nicaraguans who adopted US citizenship and register as tourists at the airport when they fly in to visit their relatives.
The same could perhaps be said for many US citizens who visit El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, but not for those visiting Costa Rica and Panama, whose citizens have not migrated or adopted US citizenship in such enormous numbers as those from the other countries in our isthmus.
It’s perhaps also worth placing into this binational category many of the 92,308 Costa Ricans who visited Nicaragua in 2006, because the predilection of Costa Rican tourists for this little country is really surprising, in that they relegate to a second level the wonders of Guatemala (35,842 Costa Rican tourists) and the neighboring Panama (31,248), which are currently more powerful countries in the field of tourism from all points of view. All of these dissonances distort our appreciation of what’s actually happening with respect to tourism in Nicaragua.
We can draw a few, albeit rather limited, conclusions from these figures. First, the Nicaraguan tourist industry is lagging behind the other countries in the region, and a lot of what is called tourism, income from tourism and tourists could actually be migrations, remittances and migrants. In 2000-2006, the amount of tourists and tourist income increased encouragingly (479,267 tourists and $127.7 million), but our increase in income was well below that of the other Central American countries. The average spent per visitor shows an important rise, although only in relative terms and in the national aggregate.
All aboard for Somoto Canyon…There are no disaggregated figures on the specific sphere of tourism—ecotourism—that interests us here. This is undoubtedly a significant limitation, but as “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,” according to Einstein, let’s talk a bit about what can’t be measured in figures, thus teasing out both the squalor and splendors of ecotourism in Nicaragua.
Let’s start in the extreme north of the country with one of the most recently discovered wonders: the canyon of Somoto, or Namancambre, a gigantic crack carved out of the volcanic rock over millions of years by the source of the Río Coco—known as the Wangki River by the Miskitu people. Despite being just kilometers from the city of Somoto towards El Espino, this majestic narrow ravine of white, gray, brown and greenish rocks, a full three kilometers long, was only “discovered” in 2004 by a group of Czech and Nicaraguan geologists.
For two years ministers of the Bolaños Cabinet and National Assembly representatives debated whether or not to declare it a national monument or natural reserve. It ended up officially declared a protected area under the National Monument category through Law No. 605, passed by the National Assembly on November 29, 2006. According to that law, it covers 170.3 hectares starting from the entrance of the Río Tapacalí, a zone known as La Playa, passing through the area where it meets the Río Comalí—known as Los Encuentros—before reaching the headwaters of the Río Coco in the zone known as La Zopilota. A buffer zone of 473.4 hectares has been added to this area. A total of 13 families distributed in seven farms live within the 170.3-hectare area.
What we found in the Somoto “Straits”Although the Institute of Tourism began promising to start “organizing around this resource” in February 2005, little was done in the following two years apart from certain training sessions and the municipal certification of improvised guides. These guides depend more on their knowledge of the zone and their ability to swim and jump from sandstone slab to sandstone slab than any knowledge they may have been endowed with by any state organization, and do not appear to have any greater advantages than their self-taught and self-certified counterparts.
They and many others mill around on the lookout for tourists in this unexpected source of jobs that is the Somoto Canyon, a wonder that for decades was know by locals as “The Straits.” According to 71-year-old Adolfo Sandoval García from the community of El Guayabo Viejo, the place wasn’t important to people from Somoto: “For us it was like any other place in the mountainous zone of our municipality.” It was simply “The Straits.” Now, thanks to YouTube, around 2,600 people have seen an insipid video filmed in the canyon, the only way knowledge of its gifts has been disseminated.
That fragile computer-based glory, as light as soap bubbles, doesn’t free the canyon from defects that are a constant in almost all of the national ecotourism destinations. The signposting to the site is insufficient and confusing. There are three entrances—El Guayabo, Valle de Sonís and Playa del Tapacalí—with just small signs at their respective turn-offs. But the signs disappear as soon as you start down the tracks and come across numerous forks and paths that rainy season, cattle and the capricious course of the rivers erase with incorruptible efficiency. This is a very effective system for ensuring that travelers socialize with the locals and end up contracting their services… although it doesn’t always have that effect.
Stingy tourists in the third world... Once they reach the fabulous landscape of the canyon, clusters of white foreigners from industrialized countries—known in Nicaragua as cheles—manage to frustrate all the job creation mechanisms. Under no circumstances do they contract the services of the local guides. Canadians, Americans and many Europeans take on the canyon, and, once there, recklessly pass along it without the help of the local pathfinders, who are anxious to earn more foreign currency. “The cheles don’t want to hire us,” some say. “They’re good swimmers and go it alone.”
Cheles who have to fork out over five pounds sterling for a return trip in the London underground’s narrow zones one and two, three for a vile hot dog, three dollars for a coffee in Starbucks and two for each Coca Cola they drink with compulsive frequency, fall prey to a sudden fit of austerity when they visit Nicaragua, wanting to live here like anchorites. They refuse to pay the measly dollar it might cost them to hire a guide for over an hour, taking them along the passes or helping them navigate the cold river in comfortable truck inner-tubes. Nicaragua is dogged by the fame of being a cheap country. Many tourists come seeking to spend the minimum, determined to make their pesos stretch as far as dollars. And often that’s exactly what happens.
...and the informal service providersAt sites such as Somoto Canyon, where the bureaucratic fabric is light as a spider’s web and there are not even embryonic public services, almost everything depends on the informal sector, and it’s only fair to pay for it. Someone has to clean up the waste and untidiness left by the movements of so many tourists. The canyon can’t magically break down plastic bags and water bottles or beer cans.
Another sphere that has to be valued—and assessed—is that of safety. If tourists are in danger—due to a snake bite, falling stones, sunstroke or too much alcohol—it is locals from the informal sector who would rescue them and guarantee their safety. The non-existence of formally-established services should not be confused with the total non-existence of services. Clean-up, advice and safety are services highly valued in the societies of those visiting the canyon, which does have its providers concealed beneath the cloak of informality and the beggar-like appearance of badly-paid day laborers. The resistance of certain foreigners to remunerate such services denies many Nicaraguans access to the market, so they end up subsidizing the cheap holidays of more than a few cheles.
A clever family of peasant managersAlthough this problem is widespread, in the case of Somoto Canyon it is related to the government’s attitude. When he was still a National Assembly representative in 2005, the current Vice President, Jaime Morales Carazo, explained that the canyon would be “co-managed” by the state and the owners of the land were it to be declared a natural reserve.
It was another romantic assertion. Up to a year ago the members of the family that lived and sowed crops around the canyon and claimed to own both the canyon and the land around it were worried that they would be dispossessed. They had received no communication ratifying them as the canyon’s legitimate owners and administrators save certain ominous signals from the municipal government. The family is never mentioned in news or debates about the canyon, but it diligently adapted its agenda to the new opportunities that emerged, alternating its agricultural work with a newfound vocation for tourism.
These people are peasants who have reinvented themselves as guides, life guards, cleaners, instructors and managers… and do a better job than many managers of caviar and penthouse hotels. Ready and willing to provide everything needed to travel down the canyon, they bought boats and inner tubes to take those willing to hire them on a safer, less tiring trip. They don’t turn away anyone. The countryside has no doors and no one can install any if it belongs to the poor. Their attention is friendly, timely and varied, and they still have more services to develop and opportunities to create; they’re not just waiting for opportunities to come along. The canyon could be better digested, for example, with a cup of Segovian coffee and Somoto’s particularly prized version of the crunchy corn biscuits known as rosquillas.
What will Somoto CanyonWhat does the future have in store for the magnificent Somoto Canyon? What will it be like in 10 years? Will it be confiscated by the government or bought up by some transnational? For the moment, it is being threatened by the contamination of the Río Comalí due to the dumping of sewage from the Honduran city of San Marcos de Colón and three small communities to the south of it. The government has still not responded to this threat and hasn’t even put up trash cans for the garbage generated in the canyon, which has increased along with the site’s reputation and the increasing flow of national and foreign tourists. The informal sector can’t resolve these problems, especially with such meager payment in both money and thanks.
be like in ten years’ time?
Next stop is the coffee and mountain routesVeering off eastwards, travelers can make their way along the “Coffee Route” toward other mountain destinations, which are pleasant for those seeking to flee the hubbub of worldly life and rest. The departments of Jinotega, Matagalpa, Estelí and Nueva Segovia are full of some old and many newer lodges and hotels, of which the best known are the Selva Negra Hotel, the Esperanza Verde Farm and lodges in Cantagallo and Miraflor.
The Esperanza Verde Farm boasts of being the best eco-lodge in Nicaragua, nestled in a cool climate 1,200 meters above sea level among mountains that seem like enormous humps of vegetation. It has the particular merit of being a community project run by local peasants, one can discern the more experienced influence of cheles behind important touches such as graphic and detailed narrative explanations; the identification of possible points of interest for tourists who are amateur naturalists; a menu with balanced, low-fat dishes; management with ecological pretensions, including solar-powered electricity and hot water, spring water; organic coffee and mountain hikes.
Exhaustion tourism?The Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR) ranked the Esperanza Verde Farm in first place in 2004 as part of its promotion of the Central American Green Initiative, although the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport hasn’t lifted a finger to improve the highway leading to the prize-winning farm. The last stretch is navigable only by goats and high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles. It can’t even be traveled by buses or taxis—unless driven by suicidal drivers going behind their owners’ backs. I suspect that the market of tourists so thirsting for raw ecological delights that they’re willing to shell out for a four-wheel-drive vehicle is rather small.
The same problem is true of various destinations in Cantagallo and Miraflor. The fact is that many Nicaraguan wonders are hidden and distant, and some can only be reached after tiring trips along tortuous, obstacle-littered paths, the pot at the end of a new genre of exhaustion tourism.
Is Miraflor a peasant lifestyle The Cantagallo ecological park is 22 kilometers east of Condega, while the Miraflor reserve covers 254 square kilometers near the city of Estelí, including nine communities that produce vegetables, basic grains and cattle. One web site advises that “The road to Miraflor is irregular and gets very dusty during summer. A car with a high road clearance is recommended. The park is 32 kilometers from Estelí and will take approximately 45 minutes in your vehicle.” But how many vehicle owners or renters will want to go to Miraflor?
or peasants to hire for tourists?
Lodges have been fitted out in many of the communities so tourists can get to know peasant life. True to that task and the limited infrastructure, the rooms and cabins tend to have no electricity or drinking water; just an abundance of mosquitoes and mud. The architecture of the lodges generally sets them apart from the houses of the peasants with whom the tourists have contact, who tend to cater to them, staging the more merchandisable episodes of peasant life. In the end, the experience is a kind of middle road that doesn’t let people see the rawness of peasant life, but does provide some idea thanks to the discomfort involved. Neither ordinary tourists nor anthropologists will be entirely satisfied unless some drastic changes are made.
Off to the Caribbean for something more realMore likely to please anthropological and naturalist tourists alike are the authentic lodges in the Sikilta communities of the Mayangna indigenous people in the Indio-Maíz Reserve, and in the Miskitu indigenous communities of Awas and Raitipura, near Pearl Lagoon in Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. These are common, garden variety indigenous homes rented out by the communal councils or by individual residents looking to cash in on the arrival of so many development promoters, teachers and researchers. All of this happened without mediation from any NGO, government or multilateral agency, which may explain why the diet, architecture and daily life experienced there is more genuine. The prices are much more reasonable than the mountain ecological tourism as well; or at least they’re more in line with what one gets, short of the coast’s normal tourist fare of lobster and crab.
A quick visit to the Estanzuela FallsReturning once more to the “diamond of Las Segovias,” located very near the city of Estelí, is the 30-meter-high Estanzuela waterfall, which plunges down into a rock-rimmed pool. The people of Estelí are rightly proud of Estanzuela, which is charming and ideal for a day in the countryside with the family. Nearby is the El Jalacate stone gallery, a rock mountain with over 100 sculptures and 87 drawings by Alberto Gutiérrez Jirón. Also close by is the marble mine of El Quebracho, famous for its beautiful sculptures. And a little further in is La Garnacha, renowned for its lodge, goat-milk cheese and other delicacies of irrefutable quality.
But once again we run into confusion over which routes to take and the lack of signposts. At the entrance to the waterfall we’re met by an indolent and surly gatekeeper, unwilling or unable to indicate how far away the pool and waterfall are. The absence of trash cans leaves its mark in a profusion of cans, bags and other litter. Judging by this sad spectacle, it seems that the spontaneous administration in the Somoto canyon has had better results than the government administration here. Being promoted to the rank of national park, monument or reserve is sometimes an honor that leads to a morass of negligence.
Onward to Playa La FlorThis isn’t always the case, however. Jumping southward to Playa La Flor on the southernmost Pacific coast department of Rivas, we discover a pleasantly effective example of a state area, jointly administered by a neighboring ecologically-minded NGO. La Flor is one of the most fabulous ecological sanctuaries in the world. Thousands of Olive Ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) arrive to lay their eggs there every year. The famous mass nestings and the tender hatchings are an indescribable experience. La Flor has no real infrastructure, nor does it need it. The neighboring Playa El Coco has an array of cabins and houses run by Austrians for tourists who don’t want to camp out under the stars.
La Flor is only possible due to the unbribable local wardens who look after the turtles and their eggs as well as after the tourists and their excesses. They’ve been trained, but more importantly they have a knowledge built up through longstanding immediate contact. They can identify hatchings in a turtle nest on a dark night by detecting the first, almost imperceptible swirls in the sand. They know how to show, guide and explain. Knowing and knowing how to explain is an inexplicably limited art in a country whose oral culture produces more orators than writers. The tourist industry has done little to exploit this cultural gift.
Back to OmetepeOmetepe is an example of our limited gracefulness in singing the praise of what we have. Its natural blessings—a volcanic crater lake, an active volcano, fauna and flora—are poorly described in the leaflets distributed by hotels, restaurants and tourist offices. Brochures don’t provide more or better information if written in language that is either clumsy and flat or more suited to 19th-century lyricism.
The fervor for Rubén Darío’s poetry could best be displayed in farms, lodges, restaurants and even at crossroads with signs containing verses such as “How happy and fresh the early morning! / The air catches my nose, / the dogs bark, a lad shouts / and a fat, pretty girl / grinds corn on a stone.” Wouldn’t it be inspiring to cross a hill surrounded by pastureland and cattle and come across a sign quoting, “The light fades through the hills / beneath the clear and endless sky; /over there the cattle chew the leaves, / and there in the stalks of the green pasture / are golden carmine beetles.” Only the signs on Mombacho volcano, one of the country’s best organized ecotourist destinations, display any effort to combine sensitivity for nature, biological erudition and literary taste.
Because Ometepe is an island, it produces the feeling in the tourist of being in a clearly delimited complex. The fact that one can cycle around its whole figure-eight perimeter is an attraction seldom taken advantage of, and the population has not been taught to be in contact with the tourists. Most locals haven’t taken the touristic possibilities on board; while warm and friendly, they don’t know how to sell what they have. Waiters are hesitant and timorous, while receptionists don’t have under their belt all the information they’re likely to be asked.
What’s lacking in this tourist bubbleWe could attribute many hypothetical factors to the prostration of Ometepe’s tourist industry. Again the tourists here want their pesos to match the buying power of their euros, and given such meager incentives few islanders rush to get involved in the tourist industry. Then there’s Nicaragua’s administrative culture, marked by centralism and improvisation. In such a culture, only the main man—the caudillo in politics; the manager in business—controls all the information, making arbitrary decisions that his employees can’t even guess at. In a market still very marked by haggling, final prices—the bottom line of the bargaining game—can only be decided by the person who wields the power in the business.
Meanwhile, the dearth of personnel with a good grasp of English in an island that is a magnet for foreigners represents a black hole down which vanish many clients and opportunities for deals, explanations and tours. How can you offer something you can’t express and how can the tourist ask for what they need or want to know more about from people who can’t understand or be bothered to listen?
Moving along to the islets of GranadaWe move from the big twin-hilled island of Ometepe to the tinier islets of Granada that make up an archipelago of 365—366 during leap year, goes the joke. The boat tour around the islets is a classic part of Nicaragua’s ecotourist canon. But it’s becoming increasingly less pleasant thanks to the oil slick that covers the water and the small palaces built on their private islet by national magnates, replacing the world of flora and fauna with a mineral one of cement and stone.
Beached on the coast near Granada are the remains of a swift hydrofoil, a reminder of better times for ecotourism and commerce, when it took just three hours to cross Lake Nicaragua from Granada to the headwaters of Río San Juan at San Carlos. Since the demise of that boat, we’ve returned to the traditional twelve-hour overnight trip more in line with the indolent national rhythm.
F.K.’s touristic tragedyLike many other destinations, the islets need more polishing, more prose and verse, more taste, a better nose for business and a greater sense of proportion. This would help avoid the kind of misfortune that befell a US couple, whose visit to the islets is unfortunately their only impression of ecotourism in Nicaragua. F.K., director of one of the most prestigious US NGOs, bought an exciting package on the Granada pier: a tour including lunch on one of the most beautiful islets, of volcanic origin.
The only attractions on the islet were a restaurant, a couple of boulders and a view across the serene and unruffled lake. The restaurant had just one table, which was already taken by a group of tourists. F.K. and his wife spent the whole day starved of both food and entertainment, bitten by mosquitoes and stung by the anger of feeling they had been well and truly fleeced, as they waited until sundown for the late return of the boat that had taken them there.
Last stop: San Juan del Norte San Juan del Norte is the first town any visitors who enter from the southeast come across. In my case it is the last stop on this hardly exhaustive tour.
The journey from San Carlos downriver to San Juan del Norte on the Caribbean coast takes 12 hours to complete on the motor-boat that plies the Río San Juan. This old boat belongs to the Calero family. The new one, belonging to the Peñases, takes half the time but carries fewer people and can only make the trip during the rainy season, when the river is high enough that its frenetic propeller doesn’t get stuck. Many wonders await tourists who make the trip to San Juan del Norte, including the San Juan delta, Blue Lagoon, Greytown’s four cemeteries (mason, military, British and Catholic), the Río Indio, river alligators, howler monkeys, a Rama indigenous community and traditional fishing people.
The government of Arnoldo Alemán created a “Bed and Breakfast” neighborhood, selling two houses with soft repayment loans to each beneficiary family: one to live in and the other to rent out rooms to travelers. Few of these B&Bs have survived as such. The best is the unpolluted, family-run Hotelito Evo, owned by Norberto Enrique Gutiérrez, who like all the others can no longer serve breakfast because that would involve applying for yet another license from the municipal government. During his presidency, the now convicted Alemán created great expectations by promising to build an airstrip to make it easier for tourists to reach the town from Managua. After arriving and eating and drinking like a Gargantuan in the luxurious Río Indio Lodge, all at the cost of the unwary owning partners, Alemán took off again, handing out juicy tips and deceitful promises. But not a lick of tar ever arrived for the promised runway.
Marta Obregón and Emigdio el Zurdo have the friendliest restaurant in the area. And Marta is the best cook. But all her knowledge of spices and cooking are of little help given how hard it is to get to San Juan del Norte, which dissuades any tourists who fancy a good meal but not such an exhausting trip. The town is filled with chele backpackers who “go around looking for pulperías to lunch on Coca Cola and a roll.” [A pulpería is the typical Nicaraguan solution to bolster the family income: a house-front area given over to selling a few non-perishables.] The plethora of young limited-budget backpackers attracted to Nicaragua’s minimalist tourist exploitation is another cause of the meager per-capita spending attributable to tourism in Nicaragua.
There’s still a lot to doAlthough my tour has been one of broad brush strokes and giant leaps, it offers a look at the many virtues and defects of ecotourism in Nicaragua; its splendor and its squalor.
Ecotourism—and any other form of tourism for that matter—will never move out of first gear with restaurants that close at seven pm, guides that don’t speak English, bureaucratic paper tangles that bog down the best initiatives, managerial centralism, poor and confusing information, cartloads of filth and garbage, rip-off tourist packages, terrible signposting, roads that are impassable virtually year-round, and, to top it off, anchorite tourists looking for bargain paradises. There are, however, signs that some are aware of what’s needed and are capable of putting it into practice, including incorruptible wardens, quality restaurants, patient and knowledgeable guides, poetic information signs, tidy hostels and more.
But there’s a need for more imagination to exploit opportunities near at hand. Many tourists come with ideological motivations, visiting Nicaragua because there was a revolution here. There’s no contradiction between ecotourism and revolution. The two interests can be linked, offering talks, leaflets and books about Nicaragua’s history, selling T-shirts with ideological motifs alongside nature walks, butterfly farms and organic coffee plantations.
There’s also a religiously motivated form of tourism that can be combined with ecotourism. And of course there’s literary tourism. The poetry festival organized every year in Granada by Nicaraguan poets, which includes the participation of poets from around the world, is the maximum expression of this and is becoming a highly significant point of reference in Latin America. There’s no reason why this can’t be associated with ecotourism and other experiences of solace and contentment.
Once upon a time in Solentiname...Literature, craftsmanship, music and socio-political or theological reflection once all came together in Father Ernesto Cardenal’s ecotourist paradise of Solentiname. Creating similar experiences isn’t easy; they are born of inspiration and creativity, not cloning. But at the very least, we have to overcome the squalor that sprouts from routine, myopic vision and idleness. The Solentiname experience was successfully put together and more opportunities are waiting. We’re not starting from zero.
José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.