Nicaragua birding

Several months ago four friends from Canada came down to visit me for two weeks. All of them are dedicated birders who have been on birding vacations all around the world and asked me whether I could line them up with a sidetrip. I'm not a birder so I had to do some research and eventually came up with a sidetrip of 5 days split between two privately-owned locations north of Matagalpa; Reserva Silvestre Privada el Jaguar, and Selva Negra.

My friends, who knew next to nothing about Nicaragua before the came, were truly delighted by their trip and are planning to come back at Christmas to go on another birding expedition here. They've also been talking up their experience among birding circles in Southern Ontario and since then I've gotten e-mails from more than a dozen strangers over the past four months asking me for info about tourism here with an emphasis on birding, but not exclusively so.

What turned on my friends and has sparked interest among other people, is firstly the diversity of birds here, which includes the diversity of species that are endemic to Central America which one finds in Nicaragua; and secondly, what Nicaragua has to offer birding tourists when they hang up their binoculars for the day and go looking for other things to do.

Now, the discussion about the tourism potential of Nicaragua has been done to the death on these pages so I don't see a reason for revisiting the subject. But I think most reasonable people will agree to one conclusion: the vast majority of tourists from the developed world won't find much in Nicaragua that they want which they couldn't get better and/or cheaper some place else. Nonetheless, there does exist a niche market for tourists who appreciate the fact that Nicaragua is a charming place for people who want to get off the beaten path and experience a culture and a way of life that is much more authentic and less westernized than places like Costa Rica.

This niche is quite small, but the people in it are well-heeled and don't balk at spending good money on what they're looking for.

I believe this fact is very relevant for the development of Nicaragua. Based on what my Nicaraguan friends tell me about how they want the country to develop, Nicaragua needs to do more than a hundred small things very well rather than hit a few home runs. This applies to tourism as well as any other subject, including birding tourism.

What I have learned from my Canadian birding friends is that the large majority of birding tourists won't find what they are looking for in Nicaragua. This segment of the market wants immaculately-groomed trails dotted with canopy towers with cafes at the top where they can grab a Starbucks-style crappacino while writing down their bird-count, and frosted strawberry daiquiris and filet mignon waiting for them at basecamp before they turn into bed in crisply-laundered sheets in air-conditioned hotel rooms.

But their exists another niche in the birding tourism market, much smaller but nonetheless quite well-heeled. And it is a niche that has the potential to make a real difference in the standard of living and quality of life of many Nicaraguans.

I hear through the grapevine that there are people who are working to develop this niche. I think they are right on track and deserve support.

For those of you who are interested in trips to the El Jaguar reserve, and all that it has to offer besides birding, here is their website:

http://www.jaguarreserve.org/

Also here is a link to an article about El Jaguar in Audubon Society Magazine: http://audubonmagazine.org/features1105/food.html, and another to an article in American Bird Conservancy Magazine, http://www.abcbirds.org/newsandreports/birdconservation_pdf/MagFall09.pd....

El Jaguar will appeal to tourists who want to a quiet time in an intimate, small, family-run resort whose owners are passionate about integrating the protection of wildlife into a model that promotes sustainable agriculture and social responsibility. The road into the reserve is rather rough, but once you get there you will find very comfortable accommodations, including superb reserve-grown coffee, the best tortillas I have ever eaten in my life (they truly are things of beauty), and the owners, whose vision for sustainability is infectious and charming.

Selva Negra, very close by, is at the other end of the scale. It's a much larger, more luxurious resort, including an organic farm and bird-friendly coffee estate perched amid the cloud forests above Matagalpa. It has a much wider range of activities on offer, including birding guides who have been at it for decades and are fully fluent in English. The owners of the resort, Mausie and Eddie, are still on the job but have recently handed day-to-day responsibilities to their daughter Karen, who has really spruced up the place. For what you get, the prices are amazingly affordable.

Both Selva Negra and El Jaguar are just a hop and a skip outside Matagalpa, easily reachable by bus from both places. Matagalpa is a big city with all the amenities of big-city life, so that's the place to go to stock on fine wines, fancy liquor, and specialty foods to take with you on the way Selva Negra and El Jaguar.

The five days I split with my Canadian bird-watching friends between El Jaguar, Selva Negra and Matagalpa was the best vacation I ever took inside Nicaragua. I look forward to doing it again soon.

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For the dedicated birders...

...what's missing are guides and information on line about them.

"Hi, we've got great birds -- bring a guide book and binoculars" is like telling people, "Hey, we've got great bonefish, bring a shallow draft skiff and a fly rod." As several people have said, and as I've experienced, a guide will show you more birds than you'd have seen on your own. They know habitats and habits, what the various birds sound like.

Getting one first rate guide to set up shop and getting him or her enough business to live as an independent guide and to develop the contacts with various birding sites and acquire knowledge of a range of habitats would do much to make Nicaragua a birding destination. If one guide can make a good living from birding and starts having too many people to accommodate, then another trained guide will stay in Nicaragua and not move to Costa RIca or Panama.

When my friend was looking, Nicaragua doesn't have a single professional birding guide who advertises in the places where birders expect to find information about guides.

Rebecca Brown