NANDAIME, Nicaragua – Clippityclopping through the shaded virgin forest to the rhythm of the horses, tourists keep a careful eye out for tropical birds, deer or even a tigrillo (wild cat), all of which roam the woods lining the base of Mombacho Volcano.
The tree cover suddenly gives way to the bright sun and blue sky, cut on the horizon by the volcano’s rugged blue ridgeline. The sunglasses go on.
A waving cornfield on the forest’s edge seems to nod the way toward the first lake, and the horses quicken their pace in anticipation of a drink. The field slopes down toward the clear, calm waters of the lake, which stretch toward the volcano and forest on the other side. The horses’ heads dip for a sip, as the tourists dismount and kick off their shoes to wade in the cool water.
This is the tourism offering at Lagunas de Mombacho, part of a growing niche of rural tourism projects in Nicaragua.
“This is rustic tourism,” says finca owner Roberto Mejía, as he swings easily in a hammock tied in the shade next to JuanTalloLake. “We aren’t offering much infrastructure, so we don’t charge people extra if they want to spend the night.”
Mejía was smart enough to realize he didn’t have to fiddle much with his farm in order to provide a lovely day trip for tourists. Mother Nature had already taken care of the details.
Just 35 kilometers south of the colonial city of Granada, this 1,200-acre farm is the same it’s been for generations. It offers visitors a simple, adventurous and – at $20 per person – affordable day trip into the countryside.
Nicaragua has plenty of this stuff. In fact, apart from the capital and several other relatively urban areas, Nicaragua is mostly rural. On a map of Nicaragua, the country’s few cities take up about as much space as a couple of darts thrown at a wall.
With a lot of green space to roam in, Nicaragua, with its long agricultural tradition, is well positioned to take the plunge into rural tourism, also called agritourism.
Many rural tourism projects are on working farms as a way to supplement the farms’ incomes and offer tourists an authentic “agri-” experience. Worldwide, rural tourism is still a nascent market, representing only 3 percent of all tourism, according to María Nelly Rivas of the World Tourism Organization. But the niche market is growing, and becoming an increasingly attractive option for those seeking a different experience – and one that isn’t as expensive as other destinations.
Though the rural tourism market is new, there are already some very interesting examples of successful projects in Nicaragua, several of which have already won international accolades.
The first rural tourism project in Nicaragua – and perhaps in Central America –started tentatively in 1975, when Eddy and Mausi Kühl opened Selva Negra Mountain Resort in the cloud forests of Matagalpa.
“We didn’t know anything when we started,” Eddy Kühl acknowledges, but the German couple learned the ropes quickly and made Selva Negra an ecotourism pioneer.
Today, the mountain resort and functioning coffee farm has become internationally famous, winning the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s 2007 “Sustainable Award.”
The farm attracts tourists from around the world who come to explore the mountain paths, learn about coffee production and study the diverse virgin forest’s flora and fauna.
As Selva Negra’s reputation grows, Nicaraguan tourists are also becoming more interested in learning about their own environment, Kühl says – something many national tourists took for granted early on, he adds.
“Before, the Nicaraguan tourists would come here and sit in the restaurant, drink a bottle of Flor de Caña rum and make fun of other tourists who wanted to go hiking on the mountain paths,” Kühl says.
But today, Nicaraguans represent more than half the tourists who visit Selva Negra, Kühl says, and the attraction is nature.
“The environmental movement is working, and now Nicaraguans are showing a lot more interest in learning about nature and taking the coffee tour,” he says. “We also get lots of student groups that come to explore.”
To foster Nicaragua’s rural tourism market, Nicaraguan tourism leaders say the country needs to invest more in infrastructure and marketing, as well as train people how to serve tourists.
But as tourism continues to bud in Nicaragua – at a time when tourism numbers are wilting worldwide – the country’s underdevelopment is, once again, showing its curious fertility in times of economic crisis.
To contact Lagunas de Mombacho, call (505) 2552-4845 or (505) 8886-5626. To reach Selva Negra, call (505) 2772-3883, or visit www.selvanegra.com.