We really wanted to spend some time on the Río San Juan, which is known as a biological hotspot that runs from Lago Nicaragua and drains into the Caribbean and was once proposed to be the original location of the TransOcean (or ‘Panama’) canal. Having stored our bikes at a hotel in San Carlos we headed up the river with only backpacks to another beautiful colonial town, El Castillo. This charming village, accessible only by boat located about a third of the distance down river from Lago Nicaragua to the Caribbean Sea, sits on the edge of one of Nicaragua’s largest and best preserved national parks, the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve.

Original proposed route of the 'two ocans canal' now the Panama canal

Original proposed route of the ‘two oceans canal’ now the Panama canal

We were keen to explore this reserve and after speaking to a few people we found out about the Bartola Base Camp, situated on the opposite side of the Río Bartola (a tributary of the Río San Juan) to the biological reserve. There wasn’t a lot of information about this place but it promised an exhilarating canoe ride to get there and once in the Base Camp, you’d be in the middle of nowhere with only the animals and a few small communities of people near-by.

The Base Camp itself is a cooperative organization operated by 20 members of the Asociación de Turismo Sostenible de Bartola (ATSB) which consists of families in the area with some 50 members participating. The Base Camp has had some international funding  injected into the project to increase awareness, buy supplies such as wildlife and bird identification cards, the building of basic tent platforms and for the development of interpretive signs. The project is still at the beginning stages but foreign aid that is helping the project is being put towards the following:

“Asociación de Turismo Sostenible de Bartola (ATSB) is working on a new tourism product Bartola community adjoining the Indio Maiz Reserve, the location and its [local] attractions make this a potential for nature tourism. The ATSB is designing a package and where the members have the same roles as carriers, cooks, and guides. With the intervention will improve the basic conditions in the homes of the families of the association for women to have more time to train and participate in the activities of tourism (eco stoves and rainwater harvesting). Also to produce vegetables in their backyards to be sold for food from tourists. It will improve the ability to transport tourists to the development of wooden boats that are more comfortable and safer ([life] jackets and walkie-talkies). The intervention will improve the capabilities of the equipment with guided wildlife guides and educational panels nature interpretation, also strengthen the capacity of partners and communicate in English with tourists which will improve interaction with them. The capacity and creativity to the development of local crafts, currently there are some people who do crafts but low quality, this also generate more income families.”  Source

Entrance sign of the Bartola Base camp and affiliated foreign aid programs

Entrance sign of the Bartola Base Camp and affiliated foreign aid programs

Traditionally not persuaded by tour operators we decided to check out the Base Camp as it seemed the only way to explore the area and experience some of the amazing wildlife. Not sure what to expect, we began the journey which first involved motor boat transportation then onto canoe once the motor boat could no longer continue due to the the shallow river. The journey on the canoe was a true highlight and quite exciting as our two guides had navigate the canoe upstream often in rapids using a technique called ‘polling’. This is a traditional form of transport and basically involved the two guides standing in each end of the very tippy canoe and using large poles to propel us upstream against the current and some rapids. Unable to help we were left to maintain balance in the center of the canoe and take-in the amazing beauty of the river before us. It was a wonderful experience.

Trip up the Rio San Juan to the Bartola Base Camp from Two Wheeled Wanderers on Vimeo.

Upon arrival we soon found out we were the only guests and that the community adjoined the actual Indio Maiz Reserve but we would not be able to go into the actual reserve itself as it was on the other side of the river and only available to enter upon acquiring a scientific permit (with the exception of a few trails near the military check-point on the river). We were both a bit disappointed that we weren’t able to actually experience the reserve itself  but were happy to hear it is under such strict preservation.

Side Note: This makes us think of some of the issues with National Parks in Canada, for example Jasper National Park has a mandate of increasing tourism by 2% annually. Not only does the increase of tourists to the National Park increase pressures on the surrounding environment and associated wildlife but even more so is the developments in the park to sustain these numbers. In 2008 the United Nations Environment Program stated “One of the biggest threats facing the Parks is that of the development encouraged by increased tourism.” United Nations Environment Program-Wo 2008

The 'rustic' lodging

The ‘rustic’ lodging which is actually more swank than our set-up as there are great mattresses, pillows, towels and soap provided.

Being at the Bartola Base Camp allowed us to have some experiences we would not have had otherwise. We went in search of wildlife and went on a hike with a local guide that showed us a lot of the native vegetation and the crops grown near by. We were lucky to see a blue jean dart frog and a litter frog. We  attended a night tour looking for Caimans (with no luck) but saw some small species of bats and more amphibians. In the wildlife department, we didn’t have much luck with the amazing exception of seeing a three-toed sloth VERY close.

Thee toed-sloth from Two Wheeled Wanderers on Vimeo.

blue jean dart frog

blue jean dart frog

Besides the wildlife tours the Base Camp provided we were also given a glimpse into the lives of the people in the this remote community.  We were given a tour to a local house to see how chocolate is made from scratch which was delicious, and we visited a small farm where we shared some coconuts off the tree with the family.

Making chocolate!

Making chocolate!

The experiences the Base Camp has to offer are as follows (from their Facebook Page):

  • – Walking through the rain forest and appreciate its beauty;
  • – Observe plants and animals in the area, especially birds of all colors;
  • – Share productive work with community members;
  • – Learn to sail in canoes on the calm waters of the river Bartola;
  • – Visit cocoa farms and learn how to make handmade chocolate;
  • – Sleeping in tents with a beautiful view of the forest; and
  • – Support the development of our community.

It was very evident at the Base Camp, that the people involved guides, cooks, boat operators etc., were truly concerned that we were enjoying our experience. The project was relatively new and you could tell they weren’t always sure how to proceed plus the fact that not everyone in the community supported the project which we’re sure added pressure to those involved.

Unfortunately in our opinion, the experience was somewhat lacking to make it last. This was very troubling for us because those involved  showed such passion and were truly trying to make it succeed. The ideas were there but they needed to be developed further and limited by our Spanish we offered little help even though we wanted to so much. While our wildlife experiences were limited, we felt that there was so much potential. They just needed a little guidance and perhaps a bit more money to develop a truly amazing experience. Some suggestions include:

  • – a stronger network of hiking trails;
  • – small library or interpretive centre to help ID the critters that live around the area, and
  • – a viewing platform overlooking the river valley for early morning bird watching.

We wanted to write this section on the Bartola Base Camp because the potential is there and the community is trying. We have limited resources to make a real difference in this cooperative but truly do believe in it with hopes that constructive suggestions help build this organization into the tourism experience they are hoping for while reaping the benefits to strengthen and enrich the community at the same time.

We are writing this after cycling through Costa Rica which has a far more developed tourism industry than Nicaragua, especially on the ‘wildlife’ side of things. However, in our opinion it often hasn’t evolved for the better. The term “eco-lodge, eco-tour, etc.” is thrown around far too often usually used as marketing ploy rather than with true sustainability in mind. Ecology is the study of the connections in nature like how the bee is connected to the flower. We need to remember that we are also connected to nature and that when we choose to participate in an eco-tour or stay at an eco-lodge we are doing so to further understand that connection and re-acquaint ourselves with that connection which is often lost in our busy lives. We should also note that Costa Rica does have many operations that are truly “eco” minded and unfortunately are being discredited by the ones that are simply using the catch phrase. We’ve written this post in the hope that the Bartola Base Camp develops to the true sense of the word “eco”.

Well you might be saying that’s a lot of opinions for a business that you’ve got nothing to do with. True, however, we were really touched by the people and what they were trying to do and we hope that maybe this post will reach the right person who can visit the Base Camp and provide some further help.

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