Venezuela jumps on eco-tourism bandwagon

CALDERAS, Venezuela — Isidoro Valera never imagined that one day his home would become a tourist attraction.

It's located three kilometers up a muddy track that even at the best of times is a struggle for four-wheel drive trucks. Most of the grounds are devoted to growing coffee beans.

It took a local NGO to point out that his home had all the assets that appealed to a certain kind of tourist. His farm backs against an imposing slab of rock known as El Gobernador, a national park that is home to rare animals such as the Andean bear and the spectacular-looking Cock-of-the-rock.

Below the coffee planations and bamboo forests, Venezuela’s cattle plains stretch to the horizon like a placid sea.

The impact on his pocket has been impressive, said Valera, who often hosts groups of students or bird-watching aficionados and charges about $17 per person for full board accommodation.

“We were looking for an alternative income,” said Valera, who runs the coffee farm with his mother and two brothers. “Now we earn about 50 percent more than when we just cultivated coffee.”

Valera’s inn is part of a chain of "mucuposadas" ("mucu" means "home" in the local indigenous language) set up by the local conservation NGO Andes Tropicales. The aim is to create a form of tourism that gives money back directly to locals.

But most importantly, mucuposadas are a way of promoting a new form of tourism that guarantees the area’s cultural and environmental integrity, said Marie Christine Martin, program director at Andes Tropicales in Merida. It's a form of tourism that has been gaining popularity since the late 1980s and has become particularly prevalent in Latin America whose countries boast a rich biodiversity.

“As a tourist you will penetrate a world that would be much more difficult to access if you stayed in any old inn that offers nothing more than lodging,” said Martin. “You share with the family their culture and an affinity with nature.”

At mucuposadas, the hosts act as guides and introduce guests to traditional food.

Andes Tropicales has set up 21 such inns across the Andean region of Venezuela. In Calderas, an important coffee growing region, the idea is to link it with Niquitao, a small village in the foothills of the Andean mountains which has succeeded in preserving much of its colonial architecture.

In eight hours hikers can walk between mucuposadas in Calderas and Niquitao by crossing over a moor.

By opening up new areas of the Andes to tourism, Andes Tropicales hopes to relieve some of the environmental pressure that is placed on traditionally popular areas in Merida state.

In Calderas and Niquitao, Andes Tropicales has also begun an initiative to promote the cultivation of shade-grown coffee. For some years now coffee growers in the region have been moving toward the more commercially profitable sun-grown coffee.

Shade-grown coffee requires more trees, which stimulates water levels and boosts birdlife, said Anselmo Berrios, a coffee farmer from Calderas who recently converted his plantation to organic methods with help from Andes Tropicales.

Since joining the Cafe del Bosque program Berrios has learned how to make his own fertilizer from local plants and has taken out a small loan with the NGO to buy a machine for drying his coffee beans.

He hopes to earn extra income by charging for guided tours of his coffee farm. The project now has its own brand of coffee that is sold at the mucuposadas.

Battone Pujol signed up to the mucuposadas program two years ago. His home in Niquitao dates back to at least 1880, though he thinks it could be older still.

As this Andean village’s historian, preserving local culture is important for him. That’s why he was particularly pleased when Andes Tropicales loaned him an architect to advise how to convert his home into an inn while preserving its original details.

“We have not lost the customs and traditions that we have,” he said. “The constant fight is to make sure that is not lost and is maintained because we understand that Niquitao has a great tourism potential — it has a special charm.”

Martin said that the benefits from the programs are already visible: families have been able to add an extra bathroom in their home or build a septic tank.

But some of the gains have been less tangible. Martin believes one of the most significant changes is that local families have learned a new appreciation for the natural and cultural treasures they are sitting on.

“Today those families we have been working with have gained empowerment from all of this and they are more aware of the value of everything they have — and they feel proud to have it,” she said.