When Finca Esperanza Verde Ecolodge opened its doors in 1998, many Nicaraguans scoffed at the project to convert an abandoned coffee farm in the mountains of northern Matagalpa department into a tourist attraction.
Local campesinos, for their part, were long accustomed to living in a natural setting and wondered how a conservation-and-reforestation project could bring outside money to the impoverished community of San Ramón.
But Esperanza Verde perservered. And last month it won national and international recognition when Smithsonian Magazine named it the world’s best conservation project by an ecolodge. It beat other finalists from Ecuador and Kenya in the contest’s Internet voting, becoming the first Latin American ecolodge to claim the Smithsonian honor and US$20,000 prize since the award was established in 2001.
The lodge also was named Nicaragua’s Best Ecolodge 2004 by the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute, and was one of five ecolodges in the country to win certification from the pilot Central America Green Initiative (ICV), a public-private effort to distinguish true ecolodges from green wannabes.
Such success has given pause to many Nicaraguans, and is helping to change the country’s perception of ecotourism and environmental conservation, according to project manager Yelba Valenzuela. “Nicaraguans are now starting to learn the value of natural resources,” Valenzuela says. “This project has become a model of conservation.”
Attracting attention and tourists
Founded with help from San Ramón’s U.S. sister city, Durham, North Carolina, Finca Esperanza Verde is a modest 26-bed ecolodge in a mountainous 162-acre (66-ha) private reserve. It has a butterfly garden, nature trails, solar-generated electricity, natural spring water and an organic, shade-grown coffee operation that is being readied for fair-trade certification.
The recent media exposure has helped Esperanza Verde boost occupancy, build international group bookings, attract an average of 50 visitors a day to the park and increase coffee sales made under the San Ramón label. The project’s success also appears to have bolstered local confidence.
Johayda Escorcia, 23, a recent art-school graduate who takes part in Esperanza Verde’s host-family program, says she and other locals didn’t used to get much respect from residents of the Nicaraguan capital. “Now, everyone in Managua knows Esperanza Verde,” she says. “Now I stick out my chest in Managua. This project is a great source of pride for me.”
The project also serves as a model for other ecolodges. Since winning the Smithsonian award in December, Finca Esperanza Verde has been visited by organizers of other Nicaraguan environmental- tourism projects and by a delegation of government tourism officials and ecolodge owners from El Salvador.
Although the “ecotourism” label has been used increasingly as a marketing tool in Central America, not until recently did the region’s environmentalists and tourism operators agree on a common definition of the term.
That definition, drafted in Costa Rica last October at the International Forum on Central American Ecotourism, reads: “Ecotourism is a specialized segment of sustainable and responsible tourism that promotes and supports conservation of nature and cultural values, while favoring the socio-economic improvement of local communities in a way that is sensible, satisfactory and ethical to clients. Activities must be designed to an appropriate scale while putting clients in direct and personal contact with nature and the local cultures.”
Maintaining an “appropriate scale” of operations is a challenge Esperanza Verde already has had to face. Valenzuela says the lodge recently turned down a group of 30 University of North Carolina students who wanted to live in the community and study the environment and local culture for a three-month semester this year.
“We can’t handle a group that big for that long,” she says. “They would want to drink and party, and we couldn’t provide for their safety. Plus, they would be too much of an impact on this community.”
ICV representative Andreas Frerk, who accompanied the Salvadoran delegation during its recent visit to Esperanza Verde, explains that relationships with the local community, socio-cultural impact and security are considerations on par with environmental protection and economic feasibility when certifying ecolodges.
The ICV pilot initiative used 40 criteria to judge the 34 Nicaraguan ecolodges that sought certification last year. As the ICV prepares this year to expand the certification into Costa Rica—and perhaps El Salvador—it is modifying its criteria to reflect Costa Rica’s more advanced tourism development.
Esperanza Verde, meanwhile, is busy leveraging its 2004 success. It plans to use its Smithsonian winnings to start a local environmental-education center and to purchase more land for conservation, Valenzuela says.
- Tim Rogers