AKA, Chalalán part I
You don't get a lot of conservationist guides who can tell you the names of animals (and plants) in 4 languages (quechua, spanish, english, and latin) AND how they taste. We just came back from Chalalán, which was a splurge for bolivia (but not really expensive compared to say, hotels in chicago or new york) but which will probably be the best part of our trip. Lots of places in south america say they are eco-lodges or do community based tourism, but Chalalán is the only one that is completely owned and operated by an indigenous community. To keep people from leaving their community, they turned to tourism, and actually started out doing "adventure tourism" where they would basically hack down the jungle and hunt as much big game as possible. Then there's a whole long convoluted story in there involving an israeli guy who got lost and helped by them and wrote a book and came back and tried to help THEM and then tried to buy their land and got kicked out, but somehow they came out of it with a vision of a real ecolodge. We heard a LOT about how "their dream became reality" and how grateful they are, but thats no exaggeration. With international help they put together a beautiful lodge in pristine primary forest around a lovely lake, got a whole national park declared (the park madidi - check out this page for mindblowing statistics about one of the world's most diverse protected areas!) and eventually assumed sole ownership and direction of the lodge! Right now 10% of the money goes to the booking agency, 45% goes directly to their community where it funds schools, etc, and 45% goes back to the lodge where it also pays a lot of salaries (80% or something of the population works with the lodge in some way.).
But you don't feel like you are there out of charity or anything, and they don't put on a "native" act for you. They've just seriously got their shit together and are justly proud of it. The guides are reeeally well educated and speak english well (im seriously considering coming back as a volunteer teacher!) and I was seriously impressed by how full their perspective is. Because they were brought up as hunters, you get all kinds of stories about which vines they use as poison to fish with, or how wild peccaries sometimes taste too strongly of the wild garlic, or how to get the monkeys they've killed down from tall trees. But they've also really embraced conservation and understand that its the future of their community. And because of their work with their guests they have a really broad and international perspective on things. I had some involved conversations with our guide, Sergio, comparing things in the US, ecuador, and here, and talking about things like linguistic diversity, nationalization, international aid, etc. And yet the exposure to international culture isn't tempting to him... he can't wait to get back to his community without electricity and spend his days off hunting and eating monkeys etc!(they still hunt even the endangered species in designated areas).
And then there's the actual nature of it, which is what holds up the whole endeavor. In a lot of protected places anywhere in the world, the area is so small or has already been hunted down so that there are hardly any large mammals. And if they are there they've probably been reintroduced (aka buffalo in yellowstone). And yeah, the insects and plants are all incredible and diverse, but honestly I'm no biologist and i want to see cool stuff! Here you have really undisturbed primary forest so we got to see 4 kinds of monkeys, 3 of which were really common, swinging around in the trees right above us, (red holwer monkeys, brown cappucino monkeys, and yellow squirrel monkeys!) and one that was a bit shy and we had to track down. (black spider monkeys.) The howler monkeys wake up at 5 am and make a really loud guttural noise for a while, and then go back to sleep. hence, so do the people. (well, wake up. we don't make the noise. anyway.) also a tapir (the largest mammal in south america), 2 caimans (alligators, that live in the lake you can swim in. not aggressive, or so they say.) and all kinds of amazing birds including macaws (red and green, red and blue, and yellow and blue.)
SO thats chalalán in a nutshell, tomorrow i'll put in some about exactly how we spent our days but im worn out from reading all your emails and rambling on so about community ecotourism!
FYI it's looking like Correa (leftist) vs Naboa (banana prince) in a runoff election in november. I guess Correa's got my vote! Also, Lucio Gutierrez came in 4th with 15% of the vote. you know, the president who got thrown out of office and fled the country last year. gotta love democracy, ecuador style.