July 16: Siuna, North Atlantic Autonomous Region, Nicaragua
I have seen the future of ecotourism in Central America, and its name is Bosawas.
With the Contra war now over (mostly), a few Nicaraguans have realized that they have Central America's largest intact rainforest in their backyard: the Bosawas Reserve, weighing in at 2.5 million acres. Nearly the size of a New England state. Established in 1971, then a paper park until a few years ago.
Tanner and I are climbing a massive limestone monument that looks like a piece of geologic litter left by God on his way south to erect the Andes. As it turns out, I am right. Sort of. But it's hard to know for sure.
The white, sheer, and scalloped rock face is covered with dense primary rainforest. We climb straight up, hand over hand, at the rate of 6,782 machete swings per minute per millimeter. Leading the way is Felicio, our local guide and human chain saw, and Hans, a Colombian German Jew who works for a German development agency in Nicaragua.
Between the bugs, the heat, the glare, the thrashing machete, the throbbing in my temples, and the bits of Spanish, German, and English, I learn this: We are ascending Waylawas. To get here, we went downriver on the Rio Prinzapolka in a dugout canoe for an hour, and hiked another hour more through the campo. To find seashells. Everywhere. Hundreds of miles from the Pacific and Atlantic. Felicio grins wildly with handfuls of bleached white shells. Waylawas is a coral reef remnant left high and dry when the land bridge was created by tectonic fury.
Another hundred feet up, and Felicio uncovers an entrance to a cave, hidden from view by the jungle. Big. The size of a gymnasium. With the squeak-squeak of bats echoing in the void. Flashlights are out to ward off the flying mammals (Rabies! Ebola!) and to make out the lines of marine fossils and human markings on the walls. Countless chambers, bones, calcium deposits, more fossils, more markings. And now a few sweaty gringos are stomping up the joint. If Waylawas were in Costa Rica, 57 international foundations would have lined up millions of dollars in personnel and resources to help them declare it a biological sacristy.
As goes for all of this region.
Tanner and I got here by flying in a ten-seater north out of Managua yesterday, north to the tiny campesino pueblo of Siuna, near Waylawas, the distance of a contra's mortar round from the Honduras border.
Land of slash-and-burn subsistence farming. Machete-hacked and hand-hoed. Planted with a pole and a small brown hand dropping each seed one by one. Rice and beans, coffee and corn, manioc and yuca.
It's the kind of dirt-floor, no running-water poverty that breeds revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries. And a lot of lean, dirt-blackened mestizos and indigenos who'd rather forget the whole political mess for a couple of good harvests and new clothes for the kids and maybe even a few new teeth for the spouse.
The vision for the Bosawas, among the few Nicaraguans who care, is this: a multi-use protected area of enlightened land management. Where a few people, mostly indigenous, will live sustainably within the reserve's boundaries. Still with their machetes, but without their disposable lighters. And hopefully, through economic activities like ecotourism, they'll add to an annual per capita income that hovers at $100.
Activities like guiding visitors to Saslaya National Park, which is inside the reserve's boundaries. However. (It's always "however" in Nicaragua.) Infrastructure problems: no roads. No visitor center. No maps. No guides. No hotels. No restaurants or stores.
Tanner and I get a tour from Bob Carey, a Peace Corps volunteer working with The Nature Conservancy. He's training the local guardabosques (forest rangers) on trail construction and interpretation, as well as trying to slow down the number of jungle-burning squatters moving onto the reserve.
We hike the first trail into the park, less than 10 kilometers, to a waterfall. Tanner and I swim and have lunch and listen to the howler monkeys and birds and think we are Adam and Eve. Ecotourism. If any wild land needs it, the Bosawas is prime.
Other info on travel in Central America
| Notes of an accidental eco-tourist
Postcards from Central America. Our correspondent
rambles in search of answers to the eco-tourism myth.