A country defined by its lakes and volcanoes, abuzz with rich coffee harvests and influenced by the traditions of its indigenous peoples, Nicaragua is the ideal location for travelers interested in ecotourism.
Thanks to its mountainous landscapes, cloud forests teeming with wildlife, and Caribbean oceanic vistas, the term ecotourism takes on many forms here. In this guide we will be touring some of the most enchanting opportunities that await adventurers and culture vultures alike.
What makes Nicaragua such a great choice for anyone looking to engage in ecotourism is that its main attractions are already naturally inclined towards the concept. Cultivating ecotourism here hasn’t required any major overhauls in existing ways of life nor in its ecological feature. This invites more authentic travel experiences that are genuinely sustainable, and that’s what ecotourism is all about, right?
La Tierra de Lagos y Volcanes
With its national motto being, ‘the land of lakes and volcanoes,’ tourists would be missing out by not taking the time to get to know at least a couple of the features that distinguish this extremely biodiverse country.
Luckily, most of Intrepid’s tours that travel through Nicaragua make stops at Lake Nicaragua, the largest of Nicaragua’s bodies of fresh water. The lake itself is extraordinary in that it is dotted with isletas (small islands), each with its own defining features and characteristics.
Perhaps the most intriguing of which is the volcanic island, Ometepe, formed by the mountains of Maderas and Conceptión, the latter of which is still active today. It is easy to become enraptured in the scenery and to find oneself in the midst of serene tropical clearings while hiking across the mountainside.
In Ometepe, we recommend paying a visit to La Via Verde Organic Farm for some delicious homemade food, and tips on hiking, biking, bird watching, and fishing on the island. The farm also provides plenty of relaxing places to recline on a hammock for a nap.
If the idea of inhabiting an island with an active volcano doesn’t sit so well with you and your travel buddies, there are 35 other islands in Lake Nicaragua including Isla Zapatera, whose impressive National Park is also home to hundreds of species in addition to some of the oldest petroglyphs on the planet. Located in the lake’s northwestern region, it is the second largest isleta, but far less popular than Ometepe.
Zapatera is a little more off the beaten track. You can even enjoy a swim in one of the many trickling streams and quiet pools scattered throughout the island. How’s that for living la vida tranquila?
At the southernmost shore of Lake Nicaragua is the Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge. It contains the only officially protected wetlands in Nicaragua, and is recognized by UNESCO. Hundreds of different species call this place home year round, while thousands more migrate to it annually. Indeed, Los Guatuzos harbors a mix of fauna from lizards, amphibians, and butterflies to tropical birds, monkeys, and the country’s infamous and mysterious jaguar. As for the flora, one of the most intriguing features of this reserve is its repertoire of orchids, which includes 92 different species.
Coffee is one of Nicaragua’s proudest exports. Mainly grown in the country’s northern highlands, the sustainable cultivation of the crop has become the focus of the region’s ecotourism efforts in recent times.
Selva Negra, located in the northwestern district of Matagalpa, is probably one of the most quintessential examples of this type of ecotourism in Nicaragua. Nestled among lush and colorful tropical plants, it is a small compound with striking alpine architectural influences, a testament to the German immigrants who founded it at the end of the 19th century. Today, Selva Negra – which means ‘Black Forest’ – consists of an organic farm, coffee plantation, and eco-lodge.
Forest trails yield to spellbinding tropical scenery, flowing streams, and enormous trees as the low growl of howler monkeys drones overhead. Between the foggy, humid climate and the strange animal sounds, this cloud forest transported my friends and I into what felt like the prehistoric age.
Those interested in learning about the sustainable shade-grown coffee farming techniques that have taken hold in the region have the chance to witness every step of the process, from harvesting the berries to the processing of the beans. Once trekkers tire of their explorations, Selva Negra’s restaurant serves organic farm to table products. We recommend rehydrating with one of the many technicolor juice drinks on offer. (The resplendent pink pitaya (prickly pear) and glowing gold maracuya are among the most popular selections.)
Supporting the human side of ecotourism
Ecotourism has become an umbrella term whose meaning extends not only to the preservation of natural ecosystems but also to indigenous ways of life and to those of other local groups. To support the human side of sustainable tourism, the women’s Black Pottery cooperative, Cooperativo San Expedito, and Jinotega’s coffee collective, Soppexcca, make fantastic choices.
The pottery of San Expedito is made according to indigenous traditions that have marked the region for countless years. This even includes ritualistically walking several kilometers to harvest and haul the black clay across the mountainous terrain and throwing it on manual pottery wheels.
Profits from selling the ceramics to tourists support the women who reside in the Las Cureñas community. Meanwhile, visitors have the chance to learn the craft from the women and of course, to select from a wide array of different creations from incense holders to jewelry to dishware. In addition to picking out several whimsical animal statues to gift my friends back home, I learned how these women use different rocks and minerals to polish the clay, all while their hens and pet dogs zigzagged underfoot.
In the nearby town of Jinotega, the Soppexcca coffee collective is the place to go for anyone who wants to trace the stages of coffee beyond the harvesting and drying of the beans.
As part of a union of 12 other collectives like it, Soppexcca is small-scale and highly localized. The establishment works towards achieving the UN’s Development Goals by promoting women’s equality and helping to reduce childhood mortality. At the Jinotega location, they offer exclusive coffee tastings that provide insight into the commercial side of things as guests learn the finer points of selecting the best varieties for sale around the world.
This stuff is really a science! While my taste for Nicaraguan coffee has yet to leave me, I didn’t stand a chance in determining the finer points and flavor components that are key in ranking a given coffee crop. For now, I’ll leave that stuff up to the professionals.
But I will say that both Cooperativo San Expedito and Soppexcca are perfect for anyone looking to take home some souvenirs that make a positive difference in the lives of local Nicaraguans.
From its cosmopolitan cities to its breathtaking natural beauty, Nicaragua has something for everyone within its borders. Ecotourism, in particular, is flourishing, and these are just a few of the many options that the curious newcomer and veteran social impact globetrotter will find here.
Fancy a trip to beautiful Nicaragua? Check out our range of small group adventures.
(Image credits from top to bottom: iStock, Lily Cichanowicz, iStock x2, Lily Cichanowicz x3)