This is from a series of reports written in 1997 for an NGO, Mopawi, exploring their efforts to promote sustainable development in the native Miskito and Garifuna populations in La Mosquitia, a rainforest in eastern Honduras.

eco o tourismo
las marias
martin herrera

the way ecotourism works in las marias, I simply arrived, elected to stay at one of the town's four or five hostels, and martin herrera came to visit me. martin herrera is the 28 years old, saavy president of the town's committee for ecotourism. i made sure he didn't know i was with mopawi - he handled me deferentially, coolly like i was one of many, maybe kinda unique, but confidently in a system.

he offered me two types of tours: the river and the forest. the river is most popular - sit in a boat, the guides do all the work. lots of wildlife visible at the water's edge. the forest excursions take a lot more effort. the most work of all is the pico dama trip, a three day / two night stout hike up to a jungle peak the northwest of las marias.

i wanted to do everything. we arranged for a four day trip - one day onthe river, to see the petroglyphs, three days hiking and camping out in the forest, to make my way up to pico dama. i would have one trail guide, an older fellow who would know lots of folklore and plantlore and stories and culture to share with me, and two younger guides to carry stuff and guide me and paddle the canoes.


the whole thing would run me, for three guides, and renting a pipante (square hulled, shallow canoe, hewn from a single tree) for four days (a little extra cuz one was sunday) - 1310 lempiras, just about exactly 100 dollars, or 25 dollars per day. compared to the prices i'd seen for package jungle adventure tours, that was cheap. heck, i'd been living modestly in honduras, so i had bastante dinero for just this type of experience. i readily agreed.

roy, abran, justin, rene
did i have boots? yep. tent? nope, but what would the guides use? they would sleep under plastic tarps. well then, so would i. food? i had only some crackers and half a jar of peanut butter. martin was used to unprepared gringos, he was immediately helpful in drafting a list; estimating pounds of beans and rice and salt to bring. i wanted to wait till i could talk with my guides, work out food in conjunction with them that it might all be shared between us.

in the morning i met my younger guides, roy and rene. we set about scouring the town; we had only a few pounds of beans and a few pounds of flour. actually, in this town of 500, not much more was available. we purchased some spaghetti, some salt, some more beans, some more flour, some yeast. there was no rice, no vegetables, no lard or butter.

roy wanted me to buy some bullets - he was going to bring a gun, a .22. on the longer trips, they allow the guides to bring rifles: protection, "in case of tigers."

things that appeared early as charming eventually became a bit disconcerting. abran, 58, my older guide, who seemed the soul of easygoing confidence, did indeed laugh a lot, to punctuate his infrequently intelligible spanish. rene, 18, my appointed head guide, paid scant attention to me, unless giggling at my mistakes, busy as he was wandering up ahead of me on the trail - his first time near pico dama too.

roy, 23, was a bit better, more consciencious. he had his gun, and since there weren't really any tigers, he planned to do some hunting. i was all in favour, granted our abysmal food supply. he killed two birds - one the second day, a pava, a kind of endangered turkey of the forest, and roy shot a wango lona for himself the last day. afterwards, mopawi people were not happy to hear this; as a tourist i should not encourage hunting, and the guides are supposed to know better. on the other hand, half the tourists i told afterwards were enticed by my having eaten food of the forest, particularly the endangered kind. (one group asked if my guide had used a gun, or some kind of blowpipe dart deal. whatever "indigenous people" makes you think of, these miskitos are clothes wearing, darker skinned hondurans. one of my guides had on a t-shirt from a maryland nuclear power company, "A little Nukie never hurt anybody!")

need some nukie?
rene in his nukie t-shirt.

ultimately, my guides taught me very little. there were times when i knew they were talking about plants and places and directions and plans, in miskito - i would ask them que paso sometimes, and recieve a largely unintelligable answer in unenunciated crude spanish that would be repeated with more emphasis if i "no intiendo"ed. i did learn to interpret some of the "local folklore" i was supposed to be learning, but i felt like i needed a guide for my guides.

more often i felt like i was sponsoring a trip for four guys. which was alright, except they talked to each other all the time, and even about the "miriki" (gringo in miskito, derived from "american"), but had not much to say to me, except to marvel at my hardware (my nice flashlight, my nice boots, my knife, my notebook, my pens). not the kind of learning connection i hoped for, or that i was promised.

leaf to at the same time, the lack of polished approach made this a trip closer to the edge. literally, near the peak, swinging across ravines on fallen trees, or climbing up rockface waterfalls using vines. there were no shelters of any sort the second and third nights - we had to cut poles and cut leaves and build lean-tos ourselves. this i did with my shirt off - i felt very manly and very cool.

but ultimately, the lack of professionalism, simple patience, was discouraging, and at times dangerous. roy and rene would so seldom wait for me, or even check to see where i was or what i was doing. i was made aware of a venomous snake with large teeth that i'd just stepped over by abran, who didn't want to step over it after me; not by roy or rene, who'd already crossed over it safely. i was about to walk through a burgeoning nest of matchstick length black ants reputed to have quite a mean bite, roy and rene having proceeded ahead, but abran "cuidadoed" me. razorgrass, my hands were cut, and trees with spikes on them, i grabbed for balance yeilding bastante blood until i finally had to ask roy and rene to start using the machete to cut back dangerous plants, and to warn me when i could easily hurt myself. this they did only halfheartedly, when they could stir themselves out of their own instinctive seeming avoidance of dangerous stuff. maybe they didn't see it and i'm just clumsy. either way they were rarely there to tell me anything, being more than ten or twenty feet in front of me; paid by me to guide me, they did little to discharge their responsibility.

perhaps this was a function of their youth. martin later told me that rene was not yet a certified guide. las marias has over 86 certified guides, and 16 more are in training. when the town has a collective ecotourism enterprise, everyone wants a piece.

but not everyone can be guides - there wouldn't be that much steady work unless the place is burgeoning with tourists, and more than 100 people are just not qualified or proficient. so mopawi and the peace corps are working with people in las marias to develop other industries; some of which complement the tourism, some which sustain people through the gringo dry-seasons. an example of the latter is cocoa farms, interspersed with mahogany; both a long term and short term investment.

while i was there, in the two hours before martin and i met, i was approached by two other folks at my hospedaje. one person had a bag of organic cacao from his own farm, another was selling a small model pipante. mopawi has brought in experts from the rio patuca to train women here how to harvest the tuno tree, and turn its bark-fabric into colourful cloth posters that sell as la mosquitia souvenirs. from experience in las marias, when small souvenirs or perhaps tools or other implements made from forest products are available, people buy them.

visitors appreciate and want to help the tourism committee: the committee has been collecting donations for just over two years now; enough that they've almost completed construction of a visitors center. the idea there is to solve a few of the information problems i ran up against - collect pictures and warnings and maps and stories in one building where tourists can go to look over the options and arrange their trips. also, local artisans can vend their goods there as well.

each visitor leaving is asked to fill out a survey: how was their trip, how much did they pay, what would they like to see for the future of las marias. most all say they wish the guides had communicated a little better with them, that more information on the forest region had been available.

much of that information does not readily exist in las marias. how many feet above sea level is pico dama? how many species of bird appear on the river? what are the bird names in english? with lauri boxer and ethan macomber of the peace corps, the committee is collecting these facts, and hopes to provide pamphlets in town, and signs at the head of each trail. they're even considering putting numbers along the trail itself, so that a guide can have a printed information card and look things up; number 5 is a good view of las marias, number 8 is a large fire ant hill.

i'm more in favour of better guide training, and leaving the trails de-signified. the best kind of guide knows the dangers and the details along the path, and can communicate these effectively to visitors. during my four days, i got a taste of this kind of tour. my first day i went up to see the petroglyphs at the same time as eight folks, two families, from holland, led by a professional guide from puerto lempira, reputed in the region, jorge salaverri. for a few hundred dollars more than what i paid, he brings folks in from ceiba to las marias, with food, medical kits, snike bite antidote and life jackets, and helps them trek, camp out, or river raft. in this case, we were all paddling upriver to see these rock carvings. about 2/3rds through, we met some rapids, a shallow part where the guides prefered not to have extra weight in the boat, so jorge lead a brief walking tour through the jungle.

it was as close to disneyland as i got in the jungle: overweight white people walking slowly, and in the front of the group were two kids, between 6 and 10, constantly bugging jorge about everything. he displayed commendable patience. he waited for the slow folks. he identified something every ten feet; a relative of the pepper plant, wild cilantro, bark that makes a flavourful tea.

if that's value added service, i think i'd go for the value add. i certainly wouldn't want to sacrifice the bare chested leaf lean-to building, but i wouldn't want to traipse through that kind of nature without learning about what's going on in some kind of concerted way. it is an incredible classroom, given the right teacher. i was stuck trying to vibe my way through it. fortunately the vibes are quite strong.

that is also reflected in the visitors surveys. while many bemoan the lack of information, nearly all mark that they had a good or excellent experience. the forest and river are just too stunning to be denied. accordingly, many folks write that they hope it stays pristine - thomas gahl, from germany, wrote in october of 1996, "Don't eat your forest." agnes post, in august of 1995 wrote "Great place! We hope it doesn't get like Costa Rica." (costa rica is the capital of central american eco-tourism; in some parks you'll walk through rainforest parks with as many as 15 or twenty other tourists, with hundreds more lined up at the gate.)

one thing that might keep it raw is the difficulty of reaching las marias. it's six or seven hours up the rio platano from the coast to get there, walking, or by boat for almost $100 round trip (which can be split between persons). las marias has been blessed with little possible land for an airstrip - as a result planes only land there in an emergency.

but if too many locals try to grab too large a piece of the visiting pie, the resulting tourism could prove to be unsustainable. carlos molinero of mopawi drew me up a graph - as soon as the prices become high enough, people come expecting a higher level of services and facilities. if i'm paying 100 lempiras a day for lodging, i'm not going to sleep in a plank hewn bedroom with 10 people, i'm going to want privacy, and maybe a fan. it's this kind of movement that pushes ecotourism into full-fledged tourism. we might differentiate the two by the infrastructure; the resources consumed by the community and the tourists, and the resulting effect on the environment.

for example, ovidio, owner of the oldest hospedaje, secretary of the ecotourism committee, and rene's father, is accelerating the pace of change by expanding and individuating his hospedaje. instead of the customary large room sleeping eight to twelve, he has two rooms, and is building a third; each for three people. as a result, each room needs a light, a door; more resources. accordingly, he wants to raise the collective price to 40 lempiras a night, but the other folks in the town are not ready to go along with it; some of the more "rustic" hostels do not justify that rate.

as well, there is a problem with food in las marias - the people have traditionally planted for small yeilds, barely enough for themselves. anything beyond the basics is imported from the coast: six hours upriver by pipante. legions of hungry hikers are not in the meal plan, and this further strains the town's resources. for example, my trip was impactful in part because i was not prepared. if i had brought in my own food, we would have had no excuse to hunt, and i would not have been leeching off the town's regularly depleted supply of basic foodstuffs.

as badly prepared as i was, the day after i returned, i ran into one american and three brits travelling after teaching english to the upper class of el salvador. they were leaving the next day for las marias, and they wanted to make the exact trip i did - three nights, river and forest. while they did have food, for four days of mud and water trudging three had only sneakers. for the tropical jungle, they all had sleeping bags, only one had a sleep sheet. none had water bottles. they asked me if they could find boots there. they asked me how to say water bottle in spanish; only one kind of spoke the language. to accomodate these travellers, casual adventurers, las marias will need more infrastructure: a place to rent boots, tents; a supply of food imported from the coast.

ethan and lauri of the peace corps, with help from mopawi, are working with the committee to publish pamphlets to distribute at coastal waystations en route to las marias, to let people know the kinds of things they should bring with them to have an experience both more comfortable and less demanding on the resources of the village.

while more demanding, these types of travellers end up giving more of their money directly to the town. they pay in full for their hospitaje, their guides, and perhaps in the future, for their supplies. that is markedly different from most ecotourist operations, where the indigenous people typically see under 10% of the foreign monies. fortunately, they've held off that kind of business in las marias; one group of foreigners started to build a hospedaje on the edge of town here, and the people ran them out when they realized they wouldn't get a piece of the action.

ecotourism is assumed to urge the community to place a value on sustaining the pristinitity of their natural resources. peace corps volunteers plan to start environmental education in for the children of the village next year; explaining why the reserve needs to be protected, why the tourists come.

while ecotourists demonstrate that maybe this forest stuff is important, they add strain and encourage local consumpution. a lot rides on their attitude. granted the lack of infrastructure, these early adventurers have had to experience privation somewhere along the line, before they get to las marias. now, many of the tourists who pay more and expect nicer service are handled by tours that import for each adventure the food and safety equipment to meet their expectations. while this lessens the impact on the community, it often sends more money into the pockets of foreign companies. fortunately, the committee system is established in such a way that visitors can not avoid using guides from las marias to visit the river, regardless of their supplies and safety.

there is an appropriate intermediate level, perhaps, where people are safe and more comfortable, but the sacrifice in convenience is still acknowledged as part of the experience. the most saught after commodity now seems to be information.

mopawi | hondo | trip | life

justin's links by justin hall: contact