Organic beans, bananas, and tourism

(article for Between the Waves, re: my last trip)

A trip back in time, Miraflor Nature Reserve reminds us of the original intent behind ‘eco-tourism’

by Megan Kimble

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The bus chugging up into the mountains above Esteli is full of passengers that appear as though they’re heading into the outback. 100-kilo bags of rice fill the aisles and sit in empty seats next to Nicaraguan men sporting leather cowboy hats and boots.

We ascend up higher and peer into the few homes along the road that shrouded within of a dense cloud forest. An hour and a half from the bustling streets of Estelí, we stumble out of the bus and step into the mist and into a community of another age.  

In the northern mountains of Nicaragua, 30 km northeast of Estelí, worlds away from the environmental rhetoric of politicians and policy makers, a cooperative of families invite visitors into their homes to taste life, food, and tourism at their most organic level.

Miraflor Nature Reserve is a nebulous collection of farms and fincas, a misty expanse of private land that is managed by the very community that sustains it. 5,000 Miraflorians lives scattered through the 206 square kilometers of the reserve, geographically isolated on farms and plantations, but part of a tight-knit social—and socially active—community.   

From the bus stop, we walk for an hour to get to our pre-arranged homestay and are passed by several folks, on foot and horseback, all of who stop to chat and tell us that we’re getting close. Although it seems we’re coming along at a hearty gait on the muddy road, a man carrying his gas for the week, purchased in Estelí and trekked to his farm, passes us with a smile and wave. Just as we decide that we must be lost, three girls emerge from the fog, call us by name, and escort us the rest of the way to their modest home.

The fincas in Miraflor are simultaneously relics of an age long past, and incredibly cutting-edge. Organic compost, natural pest management, crop diversification, and environmental education are routine parts of this campesino lifestyle. All food is organically grown, without chemicals, and much of what you’ll eat is produced within the reserve.

Meals are simple and Nicaraguan but fresh. A banana picked off a tree moments before, ripened on a branch rather than in a truck; coffee from literally round the front door, processed and cooked in a building down the road; scrambled eggs from the hen running around the kitchen; and of course, fresh gallo pinto.

Unabashedly unadorned, Miraflor demonstrates ‘eco-tourism’ at its most fundamental level: local, sustainable, and above all, personal. This is environmentalism for it’s own sake, not for pretense or advertisement, but because it just makes sense.

“We don’t treat this like a business. It’s an activity to help nature, to support the environment,” says Luis, the father of our family.

Visitors can stay with families in ‘homestays’ or in one of several lodges; both come with three home-cooked meals a day. The homestays are more rustic than the cabins, but comes with other perks. Despite the chilly wind whipping around (and sometime through) the house, the family’s warmth and generosity fully compensates. All host families were trained in the subtleties of tourism, of inviting strangers into their homes and lives.

“It was a bit awkward at the beginning, making conversation,” says Luis, but now, seven years after moving to Miraflor, he, his wife and two daughters welcome visitors into their home with an openness so often lost in the world below the clouds. “We were trained to have confidence and trust those that come to visit us. We treat you like family,” he says.

And like with your own family, you’re expected to pitch in to help with the family’s work. This weekend, though, our ‘chores’ only consist of making bread from scratch, warming our hands while we knead dough in the kitchen by a ceramic wood-burning stove. Luisa, the 14-year-old daughter of the house, hands me a ball of dough, which I roll out into a thin tube, attach the ends together, and add it to our growing pile of dough-rings. We fry the bread in a pan heating over the open flame, and minutes later, have a plate piled high, which we savor with delicious coffee from the tree out front. Eating fresh bread rings in this smoky kitchen, roosters and baby chicks underfoot, it’s easy to feel the decades melt away into the past.

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Besides simply watching and participating in the fascinating activities of day-to-day life of families in this community, Miraflor has a plethora of options, from hikes, rides, and swims, to educational programs about social justice, coffee production, or pre-Columbian culture.  

Luisa, the eldest daughter, takes us on a horseback ride down to the Laguna de Miraflor, a swampy sunken lake that according to popular myth, bestowed the area with its name.

“In the time of my grandfather’s grandfather, the land there erupted,” Luis says, stoking the fire under the stove. When the eruption settled, he says, “there was a basket of flowers sitting in the middle of the newly formed crater.”  Hence the name Miraflor—flower view.

Tourism is one of the many ways that this community remains self-funded and sustainable. UCA Miraflor (or, Union de Cooperativas Agropecuarias Héroes y Mártires de Miraflor) is a cooperative of 14 farms and 120 families in the reserve, founded in 1989 by a group of foreigners as they attempted to provide resources to families in the particularly worn-torn regions of northern Nicaragua.

Indeed, tourism is simply a happy side effect of this effort. After years of quietly practicing sustainable and responsible farming in their corner of the world, UCA Miraflor’s diverse programs in community health and education, cooperative coffee production, and conflict resolution began to generate interest from outsiders, and thus did tourism come to them. Visitors’ financial support is now one of the principal ways to preserve this eco-friendly way of life.

At 1,400 meters above sea level, and quite rainy in the winter months (August through December) Miraflor can be cold—and not just cold for Nicaragua. Bring lots o’ layers, and a raincoat.

Once in Estelí, pay a visit to the UCA-Miraflor office to arrange your stay, located a block north of Hotel Chico. Pay there and present your voucher upon arrival to your lodgings. Visit www.miraflor.org to learn more.  

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