MATAGALPA—In the crisp, verdant hills of northern Nicaragua, coffee production has not only pinned Nicaragua on the global map as an exporter of world-class java, but it is also launching a new wave of ecotourism jobs in rural communities that have long been excluded from economic development.
Though many successful coffee farms were abandoned in the 1980s and 1990s due to civil war, political instability and economic ruin, the past 15 years has seen a resurgence of the country’s central highlands, where fresh water streams, lush vegetation and cool mountainous temperatures provide ideal growing conditions for coffee—and also ecotourism.
As Nicaragua continues to make a name for itself as an international travel destination, the country’s old and new economies are joining forces in the mountains of Matagalpa for a unique brand of coffee-farm ecotourism. Many fincas that were once dedicated exclusively to coffee production are now expanding their operations to include hotels, farm-to-table restaurants, research stations, bird-watching tours, nature hikes and other family fun that allows visitors to experience how a traditional farm works. The embrace of eco-farm tourism is opening a new door of economic opportunity in an area that didn’t get too many outside visitors before.
“People here didn’t know the word tourism when we started,” said Lonna Harkrader, who with her husband Richard founded Finca Villa Esperanza Verde on an abandoned coffee farm in San Ramón, Matagalpa, in 1998. “Now, we have artists who can sell their paintings and crafts to tourists, cooks and jewelry makers who offer classes to visitors, and dancers and musicians who can share their skills.”
Tourists visiting her international award-winning finca have spurred a new spirit of entrepreneurship in the nearby town of San Ramón, where residents are now finding ways to use their various skills and cultural practices to tap into the tourism market.
Blanca Ivania Escorcia now offers classes on making products such as lamps out of jicaro, a fruit that grows in her backyard, and gets tourists referred to her from Esperanza Verde.
“The farm has been a big help. It’s given me the opportunity to support myself,” she says. “Before the farm, there wasn’t the opportunity to do these things. People here didn’t have work before, but now we have alternatives.”
Sonia Vanessa Izaguirre, who teaches folkloric dance, says tourists visiting the farm get referred to her dance classes, bringing her new opportunities for economic growth. “Now I have more money so my kids can buy things for school. We didn’t have this money coming in before,” she says. The tourist traffic has also helped to preserve indigenous culture and dance, she says.
Neighbor Edita Gonzalez says she shows tourists volunteering on the farm how to make local indigenous food. “In my cooking classes, I share indigenous food like nacatamales and indio viejo,” she says.
North of San Ramón, between Matagalpa and Jinotega, the region’s original coffee eco-lodge, Selva Negra, has also received international accolades for its efforts to promote sustainable tourism and organic farming. Tour guide Jose Luis Garcia says the farm has allowed tourists the chance to relate directly with Nicaraguans, and given many local Matagalpinos the chance to earn a decent living.
“Coffee is the main industry here, and it has changed everything. Now we have a lot of opportunity because more people have visited over time,” Garcia says.
Garcia was able to study English and tourism thanks to a scholarship offered by natural food chain Whole Foods, which buys half of Selva Negra’s 400,000 pound annual harvest of coffee. The U.S. company visits the farm once or twice a year with staff to provide farming tips and offers 15 to 20 academic scholarships for Nicaraguans, says Selva Negra co-owner Mausi Kuhl.
Kuhl says the 600 coffee pickers working on the farm earn an average of $675 per month, depending on how fast they pick. Fulltime employees have the chance to work on sophisticated engineering projects such as converting the farm’s locally produced methane into electricity.
Kuhl says in addition to providing jobs to workers from Matagalpa, the hotel, restaurant, and tourist attractions provide an international showcase for organic farming.
As more foreign visitors trek up to visit the mountains of Matagalpa, the relationship between organic farming, eco-tourism and cultural preservation is proving to be symbiotic.
“The idea is to stimulate the local economy by having an immersion experience,” says Finca Esperanza Verde’s Harkrader. “Visitors don’t have to go out hiking somewhere to see something. The skills Nicaraguans have and projects they are doing can bring the tourists here.”