Responsible tourism in Central America

You have to love the story about the famous TV series Breaking Bad making a reference to sending someone ‘on a trip to Belize’ which was code for bumping someone off. Rather than get all uptight about the potentially denigrating reference to their country, the tourist board invited the cast to an all expenses paid trip to beautiful Belize. This sums up tourism in Central America: a collection of countries that has had its fair share of coups, cartels and corruption hit headlines. They turn things around for the better, remind people about all the wonders on their doorsteps and have a sense of humour into the bargain. All that said, there are issues, and this guide to responsible tourism in Central America highlights some of them, and shows you how to break the bad, and help make it good again.

People & culture

People live here too

"Rigoberta Menchú Tum was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation work based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples in her native Guatemala. She is the first indigenous person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize." - Nobel Women’s Initiative

Read the quote above and wonder about the fact that this is the first indigenous person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Rigoberta Menchú Tum fought to protect not just a handful of small communities, but millions of people, given that indigenous groups make up 60% of the population in Guatemala. Yet, there are two main reasons why tourists are drawn to Central American countries. One is wildlife, the other is ancient history and archeology. Costa Rica has been the leader in this regard, with Mexico coming in second, thanks to it being the birthplace of the ecotourism movement in the 1980's. However, cultural heritage and, in particular, the indigenous populations, often don't feature on tourism itineraries, or they are given a tokenistic nod here and there, without any time for tourists to get their heads around some of the issues raised by tourism within indigenous communities. Communities that are not only vast, but of vast importance, historically, environmentally and culturally. These communities are the real treasures of Central America.

In Mexico, there are 60 different indigenous groups alone, the most prolific being Nahuatl, Yucatec (Maya), Zapotec and MIxtec. For most, nature, earth and landscape are the pillars of their belief systems, and being stewards of the earth is a responsibility they take seriously, something from which we can learn a wealth of knowledge. The white tailed deer, for example, is sacred for the Huichol Indians, who live in Mexico's Sierra Madre. In 1988 they were awarded the National Ecology Prize of Mexico for their work towards repopulating the Sierra Madre with their beloved creature. Repopulating habitats, and protecting vital landscapes for food, is crucial to the survival of the Huihcol Indians. What we now need to do as tourists is save the Sierra Madre region for the people who have protected it for as long as history can remember. Meanwhile, where the mountains meet the sea, on the Punta Mita coast, luxury resorts spring up quicker than the white tailed deer can run. Some open their eyes and engage with Huichol culture and others turn a blind eye. Read more at The Huichol Center for Cultural Survival and the Traditional Arts for more details.

In Guatemala, indigenous people make up more than half the population. And in Costa Rica, there are 60,000 indigenous people living in largely traditional communities in isolated, rural areas. They depend on the forests and rivers for their survival – gathering fruit, fishing and using forest materials for traditional medicines or the construction of their homes. And yet they were only given the right to vote in 1994, which has meant that until recently, they have had virtually no voice when it comes to protecting their lands, close to 40 percent of which have been handed over to mining or petroleum companies, farmers or ranchers. Places where indigenous people are now offered employment, but often of a low paid nature.

There are so many stories to tell, some of survival and strife, others of creativity and environmentalism. But what we need to remember as tourists is that not only are these communities of great interest and inspiring to be around, but by recognising and respecting them, educating ourselves about their history and culture, we are playing our part in upholding the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. A declaration given in 2007 after more than two decades of negotiations between governments and indigenous peoples' representatives.

What you can do
Read up about the local communities and cultures of the country you are visiting before you travel. Minority Rights is an excellent starting point. Planeta also has a lot of information on indigenous groups in Mexico. Some indigenous groups don't seek to become involved in tourism particularly, but others do, through cultural centers or craft outlets. And there is a rapidly growing proliferation of community led tourism organisations. In Costa Rica, for example, you can check out the Cooperative Consortium National Ecotourism Network and ATEC (the Talamanca Association of Ecotorism and Conservation). So keep your eyes open and always talk to your tour operator about opportunities to support them. And if you do get to visit, please remember to respect cultural protocols. Don't just grab your camera and invade the place with selfies/selfish behaviour.
Nancy Ableser, from our supplier Tucan Travel:
"Panama has a large indigenous population. The Kuna are known for their "molas", a type of needlework they do. The Embera make some extremely high-quality baskets. They also do intricate carvings out of a type of really hard, giant seed."

Responsible tourism in Central America

Nicaragua is fast becoming known as the ‘cheap Costa Rica’ – a term we don’t really support. Yes, it has been slower to adopt a tourism infrastructure, hotels, service industries etc. and therefore prices have been lower. But things are improving all the time in Nicaragua, with private and public organisations making considerable investments. Which means prices go up. So, don’t come demanding everything for a dollar. It’s just demeaning. And don’t come expecting Costa Rica either; it is Nicaraguan, and it is rightly very proud to have its own identity. The Central America Volcanic Arc (often abbreviated to CAVA) is a chain of volcanoes extending through El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and down to northern Panama. Many are still active and prone to activity at elevation. So don’t go it alone and follow the advice of local authorities. There is a lot of bottled water around, which means a lot of plastic. Buy the giant bottles and refill your own reusable if possible or, even better, use filter tablets.
Tenille Moore, from our supplier Geodyssey, visited a Bribri community in the Talamanca Mountains. It was one of the most memorable highlights of her Costa Rica tour:
"You can take a boat up a mist-covered river right along the border with Panama to visit a Bribri community in a tiny village called Yorkin. The men are out in the banana plantations and die quite young because of their exposure to pesticides, so the women have started to open up the village to tourists to earn more money for the community. You can learn how they make the roofs out of palm fronds and how they use cocoa to produce various food products; it’s a really special insight into life in that part of the country. You just don’t get to meet the indigenous population elsewhere in Costa Rica. It’s so sensitively done and so special, it really stuck with me. You can also go on a half day trip to a Keköldi indigenous village and learn about a green iguana rehabilitation project, walk through their grounds and have a typical lunch of root vegetables with chicken baked in banana leaves. All our travelers who have done it have been delighted to meet the local people."
Buying coral is generally illegal, although black coral harvesting is still legal in some countries such as Belize and Mexico. It should display the government label saying that it comes from a licenced source. Better still, just leave coral where it should be. In the water. Tortoise shell jewellery or decorative goods are illegal, as they are made from the shells of sea turtles. Don’t buy anything made from fur or feathers, either. Jade, or specifically jadeite, was the precious and sacred stone of the Mayan people, and today it is one of the world’s most precious gemstones. Guatemala and Belize are jade central, and it is thought that, in Belize, there are up to 4,000 undiscovered burial sites, where people would have been bedecked and protected by jade jewellery and carved ornaments. The only problem is that these are also looted, as jade garners such a high price on the market. Although the policing of these sites is now improving, many are still open to abuse. So always beware if ‘ancient’ jade is on offer. You can still buy it in various forms, but make sure it is from a licensed dealer and with a certificate of authenticity. In fact, most jewellery is made from nephrite rather than the super valuable jadeite these days. Community tourism is often set up by local women – who have few economic alternatives. Offering cooking, crafts and hospitality, they all create much-needed income in rural Central American areas. Costa Rica is ahead of the game when it comes to accredited responsible tourism businesses, and so do seek local out companies and accommodations that have been awarded the CST or Certificate for Sustainable Tourism in Costa Rica.
David Orrock, from our supplier Pura Aventura: "They grow a lot of coffee in Costa Rica, but if you do a tour, try and go to Doka coffee estate. It’s much less commercial than Britta, which is the brand you see everywhere."
Seeing sea turtles is big business in Central America, but you should ensure that any organised trips are tied in with a marine conservation initiative. You can also think about adopting a sea turtle when you return too through this well established Latin American charity, Latin American Sea Turtles. Some businesses try to jump on the 'eco' bandwagon in Central America, having seen the success of Costa Rica eco chica. Check out our handy list of questions to find out if they are truly green – or simply greenwashing. Central America has strong artisan traditions; if you want to bring home local souvenirs we encourage you to buy it directly from a community, or from a market or workshop where you can see the artists working. Stick with the smaller markets where goods are less likely to be imported. For example, go for Sarchi over San Jose's Mercado Central in Costa Rica, or, the village of Guaitil, in Guanacaste, for ceramics made by the Chorotega tribe. One of the best craft shops in Belize is attached to its prison, in Hattieville. However, ironically, the prison is under scrutiny for severe abuses of human rights. Things are never straight forward in Central America. Tips are greatly appreciated – 10 percent is standard in good restaurants; otherwise, just round up your bill and leave the change. If going to watch whales or dolphins take a look at our responsible travel guides to whale and dolphin watching to ensure you choose a responsible operator. In a country as tiny and beautiful as Costa Rica, we really think there is little reason to fly, but if you must – consider using Costa Rican airline NatureAir. In keeping with the ethos of the rest of the country, they have increased efforts to reduce carbon emissions by optimising routes and their ground vehicles use biofuel made from recycled vegetable oils. They also donate funds to forest conservation and to their own NatureKids Foundation.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: DeLoyd Huenink] [People live here too: John Barrie] [Is it safe to travel in Central America?: olivier.brisson] [Tenille Moore Quote: Archbishop Romero Trust] [David Orrock Quote: Andy Rusch]