SAN RAMON – Whereas people were more likely to see Kalashnikov-toting guerrillas along these verdant mountaintops two decades ago, today visitors come to see the migratory birds, learn about organic coffee and hike through tropical forest that comes alive with the putter of butterfly wings.
A non-profit organization based in the U.S. state of North Carolina bought this abandoned coffee plantation 11 years ago and has since converted it into a combined bird sanctuary, forest reserve, organic plantation and one of Nicaragua’s model ecotourism destinations: Finca Esperanza Verde.
Today, this ecolodge is helping to redefine not only Matagalpa’s rural mountain range,
but international ecotourism in general.
-“I believe it’s one of the most sustainable hotels in Nicaragua and the world,” said Danilo Valerio, Nicaragua’s tourism coordinator for the non-profit Rainforest Alliance, which is helping this ecotourism operation certify its organic agriculture program.
A year ago, the London-based Virgin Holidays validated Valerio’s opinion by awarding Finca Esperanza Verde with a Responsible Tourism award for best small hotel in the world.
The solar-powered hotel not only exceeds local standards for waste and water treatment, but it is almost completely run by Nicaraguans and has helped improve theirquality of life by building a local school and water-supply system. With its guided hikes to tropical forests and waterfalls, its butterfly house and breeding project, and its cookouts with local music, the ecolodge offers visitors a slew of activities that educate visitors about local culture and ecology.-
What started off more than a decade ago as a project by a North Carolina couple to help create local income has since become one of the most decorated ecotourism projects in Nicaragua. In 2004, Smithsonian Magazine med Esperanza Verde the world’s best conservation project by an ecolodge (NT, Jan. 7, 2005). That is why Nicaragua’s Tourism Institute recently chose this finca, along with several other hotels, as one of the exemplary destinations for a group of foreign journalists visiting Nicaragua as part of last week’s Central American Travel Market, held for the first time in Managua.
“I think Nicaragua really has a future in ecotourism,” Esperanza Verde manager Gifford Laube told a dining room full of visiting journalists, who presumably will be providing some positive tourism press for Nicaragua in the weeks to come.
But doing ecotourism in Nicaragua isn’t as easy as it looks, he said.
“It’s not an overnight success,” Laube told The Nica Times. “The people who started the process had longterm vision and a lot of patience. The first six years it lost money.”
History of an Ecolodge
When it was bought in 1997, Finca Esperanza Verde was an abandoned coffee farm that was accessible only by climbing up a muddy, potholed road. The Sister Communities of San Ramon, the North Carolina-based NGO founded to manage the project, renovated the farm and replanted the coffee plants, whose harvest it began selling in North Carolina as part of a sister community project with Durham, North Carolina.
NGO founders Lana and Richard Harkradar decided to give the profits back to the community, which used them to improve the muddy road, build a coffee-processing facility and an ecolodge with room for 26. Today, the coffee farm is all organic and produces some 150 quintales (about 15,000 pounds) of coffee beans each year. Though the farm earns a small amount of income for the project, it mainly serves as an educational tool for local growers as well as visitors wanting to learn about organic agriculture, Laube says.
Most of the finca’s coffee is now exported to North Carolina and sold by Counter Culture Coffee. Last year, the lodge began planting other organic crops, such as lettuce, tomato, squash and papaya.
The finca has also become a wildlife sanctuary, a biodiverse destination for bird watchers and butterfly fans alike. U.S. experts have come to train butterfly breeding to local farmers, who now export butterfly pupa to the Museum of Life and Science in North Carolina. Some 200 species of birds live in and around the 150-manzana reserve.
Laube says that between November and May, birds migrate from North America-as well as South America to escape the respectively cold and hot climates, converging on the finca, where the hilly landscape gives bird watchers plenty of chances to get a glimpse of the canopy at eye-level.
Birding groups have recorded first official sightings of rare bird species at Finca Esperanza Verde, including the 2003 sighting of the Yellow Headed Caracara and the 2004 sighting of the Streaked Xenops.
All the more reason to preserve the wildlife in this mist-shrouded corner of Nicaragua, says Javier Davila, who oversees the finca’s
“We’ve learned not to destroy the forest. To take care of the birds,” said Davila, 40, slowly swinging a machete by his side.“If we don’t, what will future generations have left?” For more info, visit www.fincaesperanzaverde.org.