Totoco, deep in the Volcano Island Biosphere

Totoco Ecolodge Ometepe Nicaragua

The largest lake in Central America is in Nicaragua. And exactly in the center of this lake you will find a lovely treasure: the quiet island of Ometepe and its two daunting volcanoes. The first is still active, rises 1,600 meters high (almost one mile), and threatens to explode from one day to the next. Therefore, it is on the slopes of the second volcano (very soundly asleep) that Martijn and his fellow investors chose to develop their responsible tourism project, “Totoco“, where I am staying this week. Totoco is an eco-lodge comprised of 8 bungalows, but not only that: it is an organic farm, and a foundation for multiple local development projects … let me explain!

First, let’s go back to the “Nicaragua” case study

Révolution Sandiniste NicaraguaNicaragua is a country which has known a long—and still rather recent—period of civil war and internal strife. However, we can say that since 1990, the country is presently relatively stable. Incidentally, it is considered one of the safest countries in Central America.

Costa Rica, its little neighbor, has become a favorite and fashionable “eco-tourist” destination. Just think: Nicaragua is somewhat “all of Costa Rica’s natural treasure for half the price,” and with much less tourist traffic, with certain areas that have hardly been explored (apart from the golden triangle of Granada/San Juan del Sur/Ometepe, and a few all-inclusive resorts on the Atlantic Coast). In fact it is said to be one of the five “new destinations” throughout the world.

I had the opportunity of attending a very interesting presentation in Managua on a CBI project (Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs) (cf the PowerPoint presentation in spanish following this link) for the benefit of INTUR, the national tourism institution in charge of promoting Nicaragua internationally. It was on a comparative study of tourism strategies in Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador and Guatemala. The goal is to help inspire Nicaragua through best practices applied in these four countries that share, more or less, the same attractions: volcanoes, nature, adventure activities, colonial towns, and surf. I have absolutely no doubts as to the great success that is in store for this destination … and I am not the only one!

NB: CBI has also published a great number of studies (in English and Spanish) expanding on advice and detailed marketing action plans to better target and work in different “niche” tourist markets (i.e. bird-watching, eco-tourism, volunteering, etc…). Good news: this gold mine is free through their website! And since I am a really nice person 😉 , here is their link:  Abra-ca-dabra, and here you are:

Totoco, the virtuous triangle

Florie et Martjin Totoco Ecolodge NicraguaMartijn is Dutch. He studied international business, travelled a lot, and even lived in Madrid a few years. Ever since his student years, Martijn had been mulling over an idea for a project: to develop a tourism project that would be truly responsible. So he investigated what opportunities (and dangers) existed in various destinations throughout the world, and his attention was quickly drawn to Nicaragua. (Well, well—first we meet CBI in Managua, and now here we have a Dutch person again! Martijn explained that The Netherlands was one of the few countries that did not follow the United States in declaring a full business embargo against Nicaragua in 1985, and so it maintained international relations with the country, and even closer ones under the circumstances.)

So in 2001, Martijn goes off to discover the country, and finally decides on the Island of Ometepe. He returns to The Netherlands, prepares a solid business plan and gets a few investors together. In 2009, Totoco welcomes its first clients.

The eco-lodge produces sustainably almost all the energy it uses, and has put in place a system of used-water and garbage management that is entirely responsible.   However, Totoco’s concept is more global. It is comprised of three separate entities that are each completely financially autonomous and that work together in a responsible manner, towards the same goal:   the organic farm (which emphasizes the ecological aspect); the foundation (social aspect), and the eco-lodge (economic aspect). Martijn explains the importance, as he sees it, of having three independent entities in order to nail down the commitments towards respect of the environment and the local development of the project. It can always happen that a hotel, whose mission was at first quite ethical, might change its policy in time due, for example, to decisions made in favor of a more advantageous income in the short run (especially during an economic crisis). The fact of having three autonomous entities would make it possible to avoid this type of thing in this case.

I invite you to learn about Totoco’s best practices for ethical tourism on Hopineo by clicking here, from the video, and from two presentations in English (sustainable practices and e-marketing strategies) that you will find below, at the end of this article.

And what about that Chinese canal project?

Totoco Volcan Concepcion NicaraguaHa-Ha! At the moment it is the subject of great debate, and generating a lot of anxiety throughout the whole country (see an introduction to this subject in video form thanks to a super program « Le Dessous des Cartes » in French). What’s more, all ships would thus pass just south of the Island of Ometepe, right through the lake …

Unfortunately, I do not have a clear answer to give you.

Some say this whole thing is just like a soap opera that causes a lot of controversy, but that the canal will never be dug; that the Chinese would take advantage of the situation to create duty-free zones, and to build huge tourist meccahs, with ports on both sides linked to a rail line … but without really digging an enormous canal thus transforming the San Juan River into a concrete area, or destroying villages and flooding huge tracts of land… annihilating fauna and flora in its path, and polluting Lake Nicaragua: in short, an enormous ecological blunder (catastrophe) on the part of Nicaragua to generate fortunes for foreigners. No way! They will never do all that … that is the version I would really like to believe.

Others also tell me that if the Chinese (“officially” we are talking about a private company and not the Chinese Government) are there on the spot, it is in fact because they believe they are about to move in. When Beijing wants something, Beijing usually gets it (a case in point: the Olympic Games). They can afford it (economically, technically and in man-power), and the idea of being able to control such a vantage point, a passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic, both for their commercial … and military … fleets, what a fabulous strategic asset, don’t you think?

In the agreement signed between “Daniel’s” government and the Chinese lease-holder company, it is stipulated that the lands needed to build the canal will be put at the disposal of the company at their “assessed value”, which would be rather (much too?) ludicrous… In gas stations, buses, grocery stores, people are beginning to talk … is the next Nica revolution on its way?

Translated by Hélène Masson from Quebec
volunteering in Nicaragua to teach English

Below are the two presentations as well as the Totoco video28: