TICUANTEPE – The bright green chocoyos peer peacefully out of their cliff-side cubbies like nature’s version of Hollywood Squares.
Suddenly, they get spooked and fly out of their rocky nooks with a tirade of squawks, painting green with commotion the sky above Chocoyero Waterfall. Somewhere in the semi-dry forest, a howler monkey lets out a fierce belch.
The little-known Chocoyero-El Brujo natural reserve is a green respite from the PacificBasin’s urban reach. Just an hour drive from Managua, in the municipality of Ticuantepe, the reserve has been receiving international aid to help build up a local ecotourism economy, which revolves around the area’s protected biodiversity and two dazzling waterfalls.
The 184-hectare reserve houses 170 bird, 140 plant and 58 mammal species. In 2006, the reserve, which the government was comanaging with the Managua-based environmental organization CENADE, was handed over to a local farmer’s cooperative.
With help from the Nicaraguan government and the Inter-American Foundation (IAF), the cooperative has since been able to make an array of improvements to the visitor’s center, hire 10 tour guides and six park guards, and is now in the process of building a butterfly and orchid farm.
Phil Walsh, the Nicaragua country director for IAF, says giving local farmers the responsibility of developing the reserve is an educational experience for the community and leads to a sense of local ownership. On the contrary, he says, when outside groups are put in charge of running a reserve, they often “make new rules that create new tensions” with the local community.
Created in the 1980s as part of the first Sandinista government’s agrarian reform policy, the Juan Ramon Rodríguez Perez cooperative is older than the 12-year-old reserve, which it co-manages with the Environment and Natural Resources Ministry (MARENA).
IAF’s three-year $350,000 project here includes funds for microcredits for small pineapple, pitaya and coffee growers in the buffer zone surrounding the reserve, as well as financing for small ecotourism-related enterprises, such as horseback tour guides and handicraft vendors.
“They give us financing to buy wood, mud, colors (dyes), everything,” said sculptor Tomasa López, a mother of four from San Juan del Oriente who sells her ceramics at the reserve’s visitor’s center. She received a 3,000 córdoba ($156) loan through an IAF-sponsored program to help her buy raw materials for her pottery.
IAF is like the U.S. government’s “little sister” aid program to U.S. Agency for International Development, explained IAF President Larry Palmer on a visit to the Chocoyero reserve last month. The foundation primarily funds “grass-roots” projects that are managed by non-government organizations and community groups “We make sure our projects are sustainable,” he told The Nica Times, adding that the goal of each project is that it runs itself after three years of aid.
After locals welcomed Palmer and other IAF officials at the reserve’s visitors’ center, the group took a walk in the semi-dry forest, which was lush from the rainy season’s first downpours and brought to life by birds whizzing through the tree cover.
As a local tour guide explained how the native Chichicaste Blanco tree can cause a skin reaction if one brushes up against its spiky stem, a guatuso hopped along the trail, drawing gasps from visitors who had never before seen the rabbit-like rodent before. Verdant vegetation hangs over the hiking trail, urging the visitors to explore deeper into the wilderness – an adventure the local community guides are proud to lead.
El Chocoyero-El Brujo is about 30 miles southeast of Managua. From the capital, take Carratera Masaya to kilometer 14 and take a right on the Ticuantepe highway. Then, take another right toward San Marcos on La Concha road.
At the entrance of the reserve, hang a hard right onto a dirt road and follow the signs to Chocoyero. The 7 kilometers from here on out are dirt roads with breathtaking views of pineapple filled valleys; four-wheel drive recommended.
There are also regular buses from Managua to Ticuantepe. According to the travel Web site Vianica.com, you can then take a $4 mototaxi from Ticuantepe to the reserve, though there are also hourly purple microbuses to the community of Los Rios near the reserve entrance.
What to Bring
Bring some money because it’s $1 to get into the park, and $2.50 to hire a tour guide – or to pay them to come look for you if you don’t return.
There are several campsites along two major hiking trails, and you can rent a tent for $5.
Morning and afternoon hikes are a great way to spot local wildlife, like the chocoyos that hang out on the cliff next to the Chocoyero Waterfall, or white-faced and howler monkeys.