While surges in tourism might bring money into a country, that doesn’t mean they’re helping the country. Often, tourists change the country’s way of life, hike up prices to unaffordable limits, and trample all over the wildlife while their money benefits only the country’s richest as well as foreign investors. Perhaps ecotourism, if done right, can help reverse this?
As tourism really starts to take hold in Nicaragua for a number of reasons, including the combination of it being both the safest and cheapest country in Central America, it’s crucial that tourism benefit rather than harm the people of Nicaragua. Both tourists and tourism companies need to come together to create an industry that is socially and environmentally responsible.
As defined by the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”.
There are a number of organizations in Nicaragua you can support that either benefit the local people, protect the environment, or both. And, in return, they’ll offer you some great volunteer experiences too!
(To learn about opportunities to volunteer with animals in Costa Rica, check out my post here.)
Here are my favorite non-profits and ecotourism businesses in Nicaragua.
Eco-Nic Ecotourism & Cultural Tourism (Northern Nicaragua)
This ecotourism and ethical coffee organization, located in Northern Nicaragua, is worth checking out if only to meet its founder, Claudia, the coolest lady in Nicaragua.
She’s from Ocotal, a coffee town at the foothills of the farms she works with, and she does it all. She connects local coffee farms in the Dipilto region of Nicaragua with international buyers and roasters who want to buy high quality, specialty, ethically-sourced coffee from Nicaragua (this region produces some very good, very distinct beans). She owns one of the many beneficios in Ocotal where the coffee fruit comes in from the farms to be deshelled, fermented, dried, etc, and sent to roasters. She recently purchased and is running a coffee farm of her own (where I stayed for Eco-Nic’s specialty coffee program). She founded and runs Eco-Nic, an ecotourism and cultural tourism organization that connects travelers with homes, farms, artisanal goods producers, and more where they can stay and learn for a fee that supports the organization. She also has several hilarious children and regularly hosts Couchsurfers from around the world. Boss.
Get Involved: They have volunteer programs that include web, marketing, and translation for the organization, a coffee farm experience, and a permaculture homestay. They also offer shorter community tourism opportunities, such as a 2-day rural immersion for those who want to experience agricultural life in Northern Nicaragua, a trip to visit local artisans, learn about their process, and purchase authentic souvenirs, or a visit to a local man who makes beautiful handmade guitars that you can purchase.
Quetzeltrekkers (Leon, Nicaragua)
“Hike Volcanoes, Help Kids” is their motto. Done! In Leon, Nicaragua and Guatemala as well. This explosive ecotourism organization is run by volunteers, and all of their profits are given to locally-run organizations that benefit children in need. If you’re going to go volcano boarding, book it with this organization! They also have plenty of affordable 2, 3, 4-day treks through the mountains.
Get Involved: Buy your tours from this organization, or from a tour company operated by locals. Want to spend a few months hiking volcanoes? They also have a volunteer program!
Cafe Luz & Hostel Luna (Esteli, Nicaragua)
A non-profit hostel, ecotourism office, and cafe in Esteli, all of its proceeds go toward building the local communities through a variety of projects. The food and drinks are great and it’s filled with locals and tourists alike. They also organize all kinds of fantastic tours and homestays that are run by and benefit locals. We booked a Miraflor farm stay and Somoto Canyon tour through them and they were wonderful, and we got some great homecooked meals!
Get Involved: Stay with them in Esteli. Book cigar factory, Somoto Canyon, and farm stay tours through their office. They also have a volunteer program that has a number of positions open in administrative, office, grant-writing, and marketing positions as well as opportunities to work with some of their community building projects such as their library bus or their organic gardens.
Cafe de Las Sonrisas (Granada, Nicaragua)
A delicious cafe in Granada that hires all people with disabilities, most are deaf. The walls and menu are covered in instructions on how to say common phrases in sign language and the menu explains how to order in sign language. Next door they employ people with blindness to weave beautiful hammocks that you can have custom made according to the colors and designs you want. The Pope himself even bought one. Cafe de las Sonrisas, or Smiles Coffee, where “no language is more universal than a smile”.
Get Involved: This one is a big different than the others as it’s more of a local institution than a ecotourism organization. Nonetheless, if you’re in Granada, a stop here is a must. Support them by purchasing some tasty coffee and breakfast, and maybe even get yourself a handmade hammock.
Biblioteca Mobil (San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua)
The public library in San Juan del Sur is Nicaragua’s first free lending library, and it’s awesome. My favorite thing they do is the mobile library program. Every town needs one of these!
“Three days a week the library staff and volunteers fill a pickup truck with books for all ages and drive down dirt roads not labeled on Google earth. Children in schools hours outside of San Juan eagerly wait the arrival of the lending library truck on their designated day of the month. Only those that return their books get to check out a new one and most schools have perfect attendance when the library comes to their neighborhood.”
Get Involved: Donate! In addition to monetary donations, the library accepts book donations as well as other items listed out on their “wish list”. If you’re planning a trip to Nicaragua, pack an extra bag with items that some of the local organizations might need. Although not an ecotourism organization, they do accept volunteers to work in the library, teach English, teach arts and crafts, and more.
El Zopilote (Ometepe, Nicaragua)
Part hostel, part campground, part restaurant, part pizza place, part yoga studio, and part farm, deep in remote jungle on Ometepe Island, this ecotourism mecca is definitely rustic, but beautiful. It’s 100% carbon neutral, so prepare to poo in an outhouse and shower outdoors from a pipe. But the views are incredible, the people lovely, the vibe decidedly bohemian and eccentric (their farm shop is in a run down school bus, and I met a man from Guatemala who had been traveling for two years by selling crocheted dog collars), and the farm-to-table food and homemade liqueurs delicious.
Get Involved: Stay with them! There are also a number of other locally-run hostels and homestay options that are great. I recommend splitting your stay on the island between two locations, as there is a lot to see. Stay here, and then do a homestay on the other side of the island. They also have an extensive volunteer program that accepts yoga volunteers, permaculture volunteers, and more in exchange for room and board. Their permaculture program is particularly extensive and a good introduction for those who would rather learn by volunteering and don’t have a lot of money to spend. However, if you only have a few days, you can volunteer on the farm or helping them make some of the products in their farm shop for a few hours during your stay with them, which is awesome!
Up in the hills of Northern Nicaragua on the edge of the cloud forests, this organic coffee farm and eco-lodge is a beautiful place to stay, and also a great example of ecotourism. The farm and lodge employ and are run by locals and practice environmentally sustainable techniques. They offer a variety of activities, retreats, and hikes.
Get Involved: Spend a couple nights with them! They also have a volunteer program where you can either work on the farm or within local communities.
Know of any other good suggestions? Have you stayed at one of these places?
Post your thoughts in the comments below!