Posted by: Jerry Garrett | November 18, 2009

Eco-Tourism: A Developing Concept in Nicaragua

The beach at Morgan's Rock is deserted, except for a lone paddle boarder


We were standing in the lobby of the Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Eco-lodge – a gorgeous hideaway along a breath-taking stretch of the Pacific Ocean that looks like it was built for Robinson Crusoe – and we were debating what the best way would be to get to the property.

“The road sucks,” commented one colleague. It is less than 20 miles from picturesque San Juan del Sur, the southernmost big city in Nicaragua and a cruise ship port of call; but it takes a good hour to drive here on crummy dirt roads. (It takes nearly 20 minutes just to negotiate the driveway, after entering the property.)

The deep-water port at San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

“Some people come by sea,” noted an employee of the lodge. “We also can arrange boat transportation, as well as airport pick-ups in Managua.” The drive down from Augusto C. Sandino International Airport, the country’s only international facility adds another two hours to the equation.

“How about helicopter?” I asked, half tongue-in-cheek.

“Yes, some people come by helicopter,” the girl from the lodge answered. “We have a heli-pad on the property, near our farm.”

“Now that would be the way to get here,” I said. “What a beautiful flight that would be.” Indeed it would, past rows of Nicaragua’s steaming, active volcanoes, freshwater lakes and wild coastline.

Smoke and ash streams from one of Nicaragua's many active volcanoes

”Wait a minute,” interrupted Bob Howells, a National Geographic writer, “this is supposed to be an eco-lodge experience. How big a carbon footprint do you want to make?”

Good point. Morgan’s Rock generally gets high marks for its eco-management; in fact, Trip Advisor ranks it in the top ten worldwide among eco-lodges.

The restaurant and bar area at Morgan's Rock

Yet, even a standout property like Morgan’s Rock can stumble occasionally; we ordered a cheese plate in the lodge’s tiki-style bar, and were served a fairly standard-looking platter of cubed goat cheese and olives.

“Is this the famous cheese from the dairy on your property?” asked our tour guide.

“No,” said the waiter, “it is from the supermarket.”

I also noticed much of the lodge is constructed of precious hardwoods, such as teak, cedar and rare mahogany.

Tree-house style rooms of teak, cedar & mahogany

“Was this sustainably farmed lumber?” I asked.

“No,” an employee told me, “it was from trees cut down on the property.” The owners say they are in the process of replacing the harvested trees.

Eco-lodges are hot commodities – especially in Nicaragua, which is an emerging eco-tourism destination. Everyone seems to be building one. But there doesn’t seem to be any set standard for what defines one.

We also visited a fairly new eco-resort at Punta Teonoste (near Popoyo, a renowned surfing beach), where the owners are trying to nurture sea turtle eggs, as well as a few guests.

The main lodge and pool area at Punta Teonoste eco-resort

“How do you generate your power?” we asked the proprietor.

“Oh, we are hooked up to the electricity grid in town,” was the reply.

Guests who need transportation from the Managua airport, about three hours away including 40 miles of dirt road, are whisked to the property in style, in a new Toyota FJ Cruiser 4×4.

At Jicaro Eco-lodge near Granada on Isleta – a tiny pile of volcanic ejecta in Lake Nicaragua – the rustic-looking housing units were pre-fabricated in a factory, and trucked to the property.

Other eco-lodges we toured seemed more like a foot in the door for future real estate developments – in formerly pristine wilderness. One developer even spoke of a planned shopping mall nearby.

Eco-lodges are meant to provide authentic experiences in very natural surroundings, to travelers willing to leave civilization and rough it for a few days. There is a fascinating array of new eco-lodges being developed in Nicaragua; many of them I would highly recommend – especially the sublime Morgan’s Rock.

The eponymous landmark at Morgan's Rock

Just don’t be disappointed, however, if you find that your 600-thread-count sheets come from a catalog, your liquid refreshments from the local liquor distributor, or the ingredients for you dinner not from the natural surroundings, but from the supermarket.

Jerry Garrett

November 18, 2009

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