Fortunately years in the outdoors has taught me to always “be prepared”, so after the sea turtle encounter we set off into the jungle with more than enough food, our Steri-pen and what we thought would be enough 100% DEET to kill every mosquito in the area. Feeling like real adventurers for the first time on this trip, we motored up the Rio Platano. Not densely populated, but clearly inhabited, we were often greeted along the river banks with “Hola” and a wave, the children at least seemed excited to see us. As we journeyed further up the river, the shelters spread out significantly and it became clear that we were beyond the reach of the every day Western world. In our motorized dugout canoe we slowly moved upstream for almost five hours before reaching our jungle hospedaje.
Arriving at the hospedaje felt something like a national geographic documentary. As the canoe pulled up to the sandy bank the children ran down the hill to greet us. Quickly settling into our rooms and introducing ourselves to the extended family, we explored the village of Las Marias. Nestled in the jungle, the village is a cluster of about 500 families, many of whom are part of an eco-tourism cooperative. Formed more than a decade ago, the cooperative provides guides and tours of the Rio Platano Biosphere Area for visiting tourists. Organized so that the work is shared amongst the guides and boatmen, a saca guia (head guide) greets incoming tourists and provides an overview of the activities and tours available in the area. We were the only tourists at Las Marias at the time, so chatted with the saca guia and our hosts for a while before deciding on two day jungle hike to Pico Balitmore.
Setting out the next morning, the saca guia picked us up at our hospedaje to introduce us to our guides, Jose and Har. Indigenous men from the area, they showed us the way up Pico Baltimore through deep mud, jungle heat and humidity. Walking and chatting with the guides, we learned about their families, culture and their experience with tourists. Both of our guides had grown up as a part of the eco-tourism cooperative so their perspective on tourism was incredibly interesting. Well aware of the potential negative impacts of tourism, both men felt that the increase in tourism over the last several years had been good for the village and had provided many families with a decent income. Excited not only to be having the conversation in Spanish (thank you spanish teachers in xela!), but that we were in a place where our tourist dollars were making a palpable positive impact in the community I continued to press them on the subject and the impact of tourism development. Las Marias lack running water, electricity and communicates with other villages through two way radio. For the most part Jose and Har wanted basics that were currently unavailable, mainly medical care and a better education for their children. Aware of conveniences of the outside world, not just from tourists but also from family living outside of La Moskitia, Jose replied that they did not need electricity or kitchen appliances, what they needed was a cell phone tower to communicate with each other. Initially I scoffed at the idea that a cell phone town should take precedence over electricity or running water. I later came to realize that this was the true impact of tourism, that they should understand their own needs better. Jose did not want to change their way of life so much that it became like ours, he just wanted to be able to communicate better.
Trekking through the jungle was tough. It was hot, humid and extremely muddy. Although there was a faint path through the foliage, the jungle was dense and more often than not our guides macheted a path for us. I had to keep reminding myself that it was about the journey not the destination. Just before reaching our evening accommodations deep in the jungle, Jose stopped us silently in our tracks. Listening intently to the sounds of the jungle we heard a loud screech. White faced monkeys swung through the trees off to our left, screeching and playing. Reinvigorated, we continued on to the thatch roofed cabana where we promptly collapsed from the heat. Waking a few hours later we found dusk had descended and with it the onslaught of mosquitoes and other unidentifiable large jungle insects. Not to mention the 4 inch scorpion in the cabana….
Cooking dinner on an open fire, we shared our food with the guides, introducing them for the first time to chicken hot dogs. Without buns, veggies or even ketchup (everyone from Chicago is now cringing I know), the guides proclaimed the hot dogs “muy rico” (delicious) and encouraged us to save the rest for the following morning.
Hiking out the next day in a torrential downpour we pulled into the hospedaje wet, exhausted but very happy. Despite scorpions, spiders, and hundreds of mosquito bites it was an incredible cultural experience that I will never forget. As we motored downriver early the follow morning I felt protective over the people on the riverbanks silently hoping that sustainable tourism continues in this region, bringing prosperity without destroying their culture and way of life. Although we’ve been to a number of small communities on this trip, we haven’t been in a community on the edge of sustainable growth like this before. The ability of this community to band together and form a cooperative (with the help of a NGO) and continue to grow in such a way is a great template for other emerging tourist communities throughout the world. I hope as we continue to travel we find more of these unspoiled cultural gems.