by Sarah Gilbert

When it comes to eco-tourism in Nicaragua, it may sound like an outlandish trend, something that most foreigners can only afford to get in some of their own first world countries. However, recent economic growth in Nicaragua has fostered the fast-paced development of the tourist industry in the country. According to Sarah Gilbert, picture editor for the Guardian US, tourism is this Central American nation’s largest industry, which increased by 20% last year.Mrs. Gilbert’s visit to Nicaragua inspired her to write about our country and recommend some of the eco-friendly tourist resorts where she stayed. The following is an abridged version of the original article featuring in the Guardian:

Nicaragua’s landscape of lakes and volcanoes, lush rainforests and deserted beaches is a nature lover’s paradise. With 76 protected areas covering over 20% of its landmass, it outstrips its more popular neighbor for eco-tourism, Costa Rica. Containing the largest area of primary rainforest north of the Amazon, it is home to 7% of the world’s biodiversity, including many endangered species such as howler, white-faced and spider monkeys. Jaguars and crocodiles, meanwhile, are plentiful, as are a multitude of birds, butterflies and orchids; the Indio-Maíz reserve alone has more species of trees, birds and insects than the whole of Europe.

As the Nicaraguan government struggles to meet the challenges of deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution and poaching, it has been left to forward-thinking individuals to develop a sustainable tourism industry. There is, of course, a danger that visitors will be “greenwashed” in the scramble for the eco-tourist dollar, but as long as the International Ecotourism Society’s definition of eco-tourism (“responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people”) is kept in mind, Costa Rican-style excesses such as “eco-car hire” will hopefully be avoided.

Options for the green tourist in Nicaragua

1. Finca Esperanza Verde (Green Hope Farm)

The setting of Finca Esperanza Verde – lush green mountains interspersed with wisps of cloud – couldn’t be more conducive to relaxation.

Founded in 1998 by a non-profit organisation based in North Carolina, the farm ploughs its profits back into the nearby town of San Ramón, funding community projects such as a school for local children and reforestation and fresh water schemes.

Hikes through the nature reserve with local guides – all ex-agricultural workers- offer spectacular bird-watching opportunities. A visit to the butterfly farm is also a must. The altitude also lends itself to shade-grown arabica coffee and from November to February you can help with the harvest and witness the wholly organic process in action.

The lodge and cabins are built of handmade brick and local materials. All waste is composted, showers are solar-powered and the electricity comes from a hydro scheme. The meals are healthy and delicious and visitors can even get their own environmentally friendly napkin for the length of their stay.

2. Domitila Private Wildlife Reserve

One of the last remaining areas of dry tropical forest on the Pacific coast, this private reserve – the first in Nicaragua when it opened in 2001 – is owned by Doña Maria Jose Mejia. A feisty and determined lady, she’s passionate about conserving the biodiversity of the land that has been in her husband’s family for generations. She’s equally determined to foster an ethos of conservation in the surrounding communities, beginning with the education of her staff.

As well as containing over 200 howler monkeys, Domitila is the habitat of numerous species of birds, butterflies, insects and flowers, and is a flourishing centre for specialist scientific study.

3. Morgan’s Rock hacienda and ecolodge

Morgan’s Rock is the antithesis of the condos springing up around nearby San Juan del Sur. Beautifully constructed from a variety of sustainably-sourced woods, the fifteen solar-powered cabins were created to blend into their surroundings. There’s no air conditioning, but the walls are open to allow the Pacific breeze to filter through. There’s no TV either: just the sound of the crashing surf. The alfresco shower is perfect after a day on the beach, while the alfresco swing bed is perfect anytime.

Visitors can hike, cycle, ride, kayak, boogie board or simply lounge by the pool safe. The land was bought by the French agronomist Clement Ponçon in 1998, and its 4,500 acres include tree-farming, reforestation and conservation schemes. The Ponçons have planted over 1.5 million trees and tourist can even plant their own.

4. Rio Indio Lodge

“Monkeys here and there; birds warbling; gorgeous plumaged birds on the wing; Paradise itself, the imperial realm of beauty – nothing to wish for to make it perfect.” That was Mark Twain’s description of the Rio San Juan in 1866 – but little has changed since then.

The Rio Indio Lodge is set in the Rio San Juan wildlife reserve, within sight of the one remaining dredger from the abandoned shipping canal. One can dine on fresh fish and enormous river shrimp in the impressive lodge before going to sleep in family-sized wooden cabins surrounded by lush vegetation and separated by thatch-roofed walkways.

The Indío-Maiz reserve is a wild and wonderful network of rivers flanked by mile upon mile of virgin rain forest. The lodge, from where it is easily reached, donates petrol to the Nicaraguan Ministry of Natural Resources to help them fight illegal poaching in the area, and works with them to control gill net fishing.

Rainforest hikes, bird watching, river kayaking and sport fishing are all on offer. The guides are Rama Indians. Indigenous to the reserve, they’re ex-hunters with a knack for seeing the unseeable. They also speak English, a legacy from the days when the area was a British protectorate.