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Q&A: How Quetzaltrekkers is taking ecotourism beyond Instagram pics

A group of Quetzaltrekkers volunteers celebrate with kids at a school in Leon, Nicaragua. Photo courtesy of Quetzaltrekkers Leon

A group of Quetzaltrekkers volunteers celebrate with kids at a school in Leon, Nicaragua. Photo courtesy of Quetzaltrekkers Leon

by Scott Brown

It’s midday. The Nicaraguan sun beats down on the lush green canopy above, colorful tropical flowers bloom on all sides, and in the distance a volcano towers, slowly spouting white smoke that melds into the clouds. You take a moment to breathe in the moist forest air, adjust your pack, and then follow after the tour group, excited to see more of this beautiful country.

What might not cross your mind is that, only a few miles down the dirt road you took to reach the forest, there is a town full of Nicaraguan people, living their everyday lives and struggling with the issues of a developing nation. Although the country you’ve come to visit is their home, most of the money made off its beauty isn’t flowing into their pockets. Instead, tourism companies profit from Nicaragua’s natural attractions, and leave any mention of local people’s issues out of the guided tour.

But one organization in the busy western city of Leon is doing more than just ecotourism. Like many tourist operations in the area, Quetzaltrekkers takes visitors on natural sightseeing treks, multi-day hikes and even a sleigh ride down the side of a volcano. But instead of pocketing the earnings, Quetzaltrekkers donates all of its profits to projects run by local Nicaraguans in and around Leon. From rehab for drug-addicted street children to after-school programs that provide a safe space to play and learn, the not-for-profit has supported these programs since 2004 in the hopes that they can improve the lives of people who often see little benefit from the tourists streaming into their country.

In Our Nature talked with Henry Espinoza, director of Quetzaltrekkers Leon, to find out more about how his organization is working to prove that ecotourism can provide more than just some pretty pictures and a profit.

ION:

Tell me about how Quetzaltrekkers got started.

Henry Espinoza:

It was two English guys, I don’t know their names. They came here and started it, were here for a little over a year, and then they left it being run by volunteers and a Board of Directors.

I think the idea was just to create something that was sustainable, and to work with kids. In Nicaragua, close to 70 percent of the population is under 30 years old. That’s a huge youth population. It’s a very young country, so it was sort of to work with that population.

ION:

What is the volunteer experience like at Quetzaltrekkers?

HE:

It ranges anywhere from 7-12 volunteers a month. Those volunteers need to stay for three months, and that sort of cycles. When they arrive here, they hit the ground running. We take a few days to go over first aid stuff, and then after two days they go on their first hike, and obviously they learn on the job more than whatever I can tell them.

ION:

Tell me about some of the projects you work with.

HE:

Number one, it has to directly benefit kids. The other is that these projects that we’re funding need to at least be close to the areas where we do hikes. So the idea is that people obviously see a lot of tourism and they see Quetzaltrekkers doing hikes in these different areas, but you see a lot of the times a lot of these communities are really poor. So the idea is we do hikes, and we do projects in these areas, so they see that some of that money that we’re raising goes back into their community. So they’re being benefitted by the tourism.

[For example], one is called Las Tias. It’s just a bunch of aunts who came together and they were adopting kids who were in the markets — basically stealing and who didn’t have a home — and sort of brought them in, and it’s grown into this big organization that has different workshops and schools.

ION:

And how much do you give to each project?

HE:

It depends on the project. Some projects we give a little bit more and some a little less, depending on how much they need. I think the most challenging thing is always trying to make sure that whatever project you’re trying to do, that you’re not creating this kind of dependence on a donation. A lot of the monthly projects that we have are dependent on the donation. But when we work with a project, we want to see that the project is really working towards not just depending on Quetzaltrekkers for money, but that they’re putting in the effort to make this happen, and it’s not just a handout.

[But] a lot of times, they’re not there yet, they need those donations just to kind of get through a month. They have so many needs that even if we doubled their donation, they’d still be running bare bones just to keep this project running.

ION:

So do you think it’s a good thing that you guys are kind of acting as a crutch for them?

HE:

I think these projects do amazing things. A lot of these kids need psychiatrists, they need people to talk to, they need an environment away from being in the streets doing negative things. I think these projects are not sustainable, but they’re doing great work and we really need it.

ION:

When you’re working with these projects, do you measure how much impact that they’re having, or make sure that the projects are actually doing good work? How do you navigate that?

HE:

That’s probably the hardest part of my job. They give us a report every month, and that report has where the money went, how many kids entered the project, how many left the project. We visit every project once a week, keeping our ear to the ground making sure we’re seeing how these projects are being run, so we work really closely with everybody there. We also work with the social workers who work with those schools and those projects to see if grades are improving. If the kids are consistently coming to the projects, that means we’re doing something right, and they like being there.

Boarding with Quetzaltrekkers down Cerro Negro, a volcano in Leon. Photo Courtesy of Quetzaltrekkers Leon

Boarding with Quetzaltrekkers down Cerro Negro, a volcano in Leon. Photo Courtesy of Quetzaltrekkers Leon

ION:

You talked about the kids you work with and the projects, and how they can actually see that tourism in the community is helping them. Do you ever actually take the kids out with you on the trips?

HE:

Yea, we’ve had some kids actually from our local projects, and some kids from the local communities there go on these hikes. We did a two-day hike to El Hoyo, and we also did volcano boarding with some kids. We also take them to the lagoon, Laguna de Asososca, so yea, we try to take them from time to time to go experience these areas. Because a lot of times they don’t have any money to do them, and they’re right there.

ION:

What role do you think tourists and tourism as an industry should play in developing countries?

HE:

I think Nicarauga’s tourism sector is growing a lot. There are a lot of operations that are just foreign investments, which I’m not saying is something bad, but a lot of these tour operators are not giving anything back. It’s just a way for them to make money, and that money goes to another country. I think a lot of these tour operators have a responsibility to help these communities that really need it and to help these communities that are around these sites, because they see that tourism is growing and they don’t see any of that money. It’s their land and it’s their country, but they get no assistance, they see no benefit from this tourism that’s coming in.

ION:

How do you think that we as tourists can contribute and promote that?

HE:

I think a lot people that come to Quetzaltrekkers, it’s by word of mouth, so a lot of tourists are telling other tourists. It’s just talking about it, promoting organizations that are doing great work.

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