Community tourism in Nicaragua is the topic of this article by Tracy Johnson, whose website Green Nicaragua aims to showcase products and businesses in a region under significant pressure to diversify its economic activities and to become more resilient against global economic market dynamics. As Tracy reports, a focus on sustainability and community tourism in Northern Nicaragua has helped local communities cope with the Coffee Crisis.
The Rise of Community Tourism in Nicaragua
While the world was gripped by the fear of a possible Y2K catastrophe, the turn of the millennium would mark a much graver problem for the farmers of northern Nicaragua. The year 2000 saw the beginning of a coffee crisis that caused widespread poverty and unemployment in an already struggling country; the effects of which are still felt to this day. No longer able to depend on their crops to provide a livelihood, rural communities have been turning towards tourism to fill the bellies of their families and offer a better life for future generations.
These communities, with the help of organizations and tour operators in the region, are leading the movement towards sustainable, community-based tourism in Nicaragua and positioning Northern Nicaragua as Central America’s new ecotourism epicenter.
The Coffee Crisis
As the millennium came to an end, global coffee prices plummeted due to increased production by countries like Vietnam and Indonesia. The coffee prices went from $140 per pound in 1999 to just $50 per pound in 2001. With an average production cost of $83 per pound, many farmers couldn’t even afford to reap their harvests.
The pain caused by the Coffee Crisis was felt throughout Central America. But, in Northern Nicaragua in the regions of Matagalpa and Jinotega – where the majority of the country’s 45,000+ small-scale farms produce 80% of the annual crop – the results were devastating. While the crisis threatened many farms, it was the over 400,000 landless coffee workers that felt the brunt of the devastation. Poverty and starvation ran rampant as whole families filled the highways towards Managua begging for food, clothing and medical care, forming small slums on roadsides and in parks along the way.
As unemployment spread, the region could no longer afford to offer basic social services. The ripples of the crisis were felt throughout the country, as banks closed due to unpaid coffee debt and bad investments.
Fast forward to the present, and while the worst of the crisis is over, coffee prices still remain lower than in past years due to consistent overproduction. To make matters worse, in 2012, an outbreak of Coffee Leaf Rust hit Central America resulting in a 20% drop in production and a layoff of 17% of the regions coffee workers. It is still causing widespread damage in farms in Northern Nicaragua to this day.
Rising from the Ashes: Community Tourism in Nicaragua
Once again, coffee farmers and workers are forced to look to alternative ways to support their families. But instead of taking to the streets to beg for their livelihood, many have turned to community tourism to supplement their income.
While volcano boarding, surfing and colonial architecture have put Nicaragua firmly on the Central American tourist trail, community tourism is the North’s claim to fame.
Organizations such as UCA (La Unión de Cooperativas Agrícolas or The Union of Agricultural Cooperatives) have formed various agricultural cooperatives in the region to help strengthen production, workers’ rights, fair trade, sustainable farming practices and to promote small-scale tourism. They have worked with local communities to teach them guiding techniques, English, hygienic food preparation and even helped them convert spare rooms into guest accommodation.
Some cooperatives date back as far as the 1940s, and community members have had to overcome conservative politics, industrial strife and even civil war. The diversification into what they call agro-ecotourism has helped secure their position for decades to come and reignite the sense of self-sufficiency and entrepreneurialism that originally made this region so prosperous. Recent years have even seen the creation of all women cooperatives, such as the Cooperative El Privilegio in the community of El Roblar.
Now, sprinkled throughout the mountains around Matagalpa, Jinotega and Estelí, there are communities offering tours, workshops, volunteer opportunities, homestays and cultural exchanges. They offer tourists the chance to experience rural life in the rich green region of the north, learn about sustainable agriculture and fair trade practices and explore a temperate paradise of mountains and waterfalls.
The guides are members of the community, some as young as 17, and are well-trained, professional and, most importantly, passionate. The tours offer guests a firsthand perspective that most commercial tours lack, while providing important alternative sources of income for local families.
Nicaragua Community Tourism Example: La Corona
One great example is the La Corona community outside of Matagalpa. This community and its 64 member Cooperative Café Orgánico have opened their doors to tourists, sharing their food, their homes, their nature and their wealth of knowledge.
Guests can stay in a clean and comfortable homestay or in one of the two hostels built in the community for as little as $15 to $20 per person including 3 home-cooked meals.
Activities include hiking to nearby waterfalls, cooking classes, sustainable agriculture tours and even a course on natural medicine.
But, La Corona is just one of many community tourism initiatives helping fuel the economic revival in the north. Others include:
There are also several tour operators working with these communities:
To learn more about community tourism in Northern Nicaragua, visit:
Raised in a small town in Ohio, after earning a Bachelors in Journalism and Spanish from New York University, Tracy has spent the last decade living in 12 countries and traveling many more. Along the way, she completed a Masters in Tourism Business Management at ESERP Business School in Barcelona and became fluent in both Spanish and Swedish.
She has worked in several positions within the travel industry, including two years at the Swedish Ecotourism Society, and seen firsthand the need for sustainable practices in order to turn tourism into a force for conservation and economic development not destruction.
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