Eco-farm tourism brings economic boost to coffee country

Coffee country is becoming a new tourism attraction in Nicaragua (photo/ Tim Rogers)

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.

Lonna Harkrader holds necklaces made by people who work at the farm (photo/ Claire Luke)

“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.

Edita Gonzalez teaches tourists how to prepare traditional food dishes (photo/ Claire Luke)

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.”


  • amordeliteraturadeNicaragua

    This is the type of development Nicaragua needs. Not the environment destroying beach developments for rich greedy neo-liberalistic culture and history destroying Americans and Europeans trying to avoid paying taxes in their own lands.

  • Kelvin

    Yes, lets bring on more chemical guzzling, water consuming coffee production at a few cordobas per caja for the pickers.

    Whats next, come and sit on the porch in Chinandega and watch the cotton pickers? Do get to walk around with a whip telling people they missed one?

    BTW, how do you destroy history?….maybe by repeating it and calling it today. Let me think, where is that happening?…

    • Kelvin

      I was aiming my sarcasm at amordeliteraturadeNicaragua. It wasn’t meant to sound like I was criticizing the article so much.

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  • gunner

    Yo Kelvin- what have YOU done for the country lately? I’ve been to Selva Negra many times over the years and know the Kuhls have dedicated themselves to recycling everything they can and growing an organic product which is first rate with a world following. The workers are treated with dignity and respect and offered free clinics and schooling for their children. Instead of naysaying you might offer a little credit.

    • Kelvin

      As I Said Gunner, it wasn’t aimed at the article it was a far to rapid and not well thought out reaction to the amordeliteraturadeNicaragua comment. Which was best left ignored. If I could delete mine, I would. I was fortunate enough to bump into Claire last night so I was at least able to explain myself to the author.

  • Indio Jones

    Don’t know much about the details of this project. I appreciate the positive outlook. And as Kelvin is alluding to, is that there are avoidable and unavoidable trade-offs of ecotourism, agro-tourism, and commercial crop production. I have several resources that detail the controversy. But I am on a mobile without access. And I am on sabatical from my eco tourism business in el Ostional, Nicaragua. I believe it would be best to say, be diligent in evaluating your actions and the actions of others. Now I will finish my free trade coffee with processed milk products, read mail on my off-shore manufactured smartphone and tread on well beaten trails towards a threatened glacier in Alaska, wearing Walmart clothing.

  • gunner

    well said, sir– just explain what amordeliteraturade nicaragua is– I would bet that even the ever astute tim rogers doesn’t know.

  • amordeliteraturadeNicaragua

    Apparently, you did not delve into the hidden meaning of the comment. You do not look for metaphors, similes, and figurative language meant to reveal a point. It was meant to point out that the rapid industrialization of Nicaragua, that an economy based on non-citizens living in and controlling the economy and governmental and cultural policies of Nicaragua would eventually make Nicaragua less Nicaraguan. Just look at the Rico’s and Rica’s. Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, as well as Puerto Rico have become little colonies of the U.S. lifestyles and cultural values.

    Traditional food and drinks have been replaced by bread and coke. Traditional music forms are less popular with the youth who are listening to and watching more American songs and music.

    American style gangs like MS13 are now in Nicaragua. Traditional family values may be on the decline as the Nicaraguan economy becomes more Americanized.

    Less youth read classic books and literature, but rather watch more TV and play more computer games.

    The native Americans lived for thousands of years, as did the Maya’s and Olmec’s, and other Mesa Americans did by not destroying the environment, but rather took what it gave to provide a simple, but decent life. Having more does not always mean you are happier.

  • hans, germany

    I visited Selve Negra in 2010 and was very impressed by their convincing, integrated efforts in sustainability on a very wide range, including eco-farming, employment, eco-tourism, education, history etc.