The Howling Coast
Notes from the dry forests of the Nicaraguan Pacific Coast, including thoughts on sustainable development.
Updated April 24, 2015
The simple fact is that Jane had asked me to promise her that if we moved to the Pacific Northwest, I would rescue her with the tropics. Somewhere with a breeze and beaches, fruit drinks. "I want to wear flip-flops!" she told me after 36 straight days of rain.
But where Jane needed escape, I needed answers. I had been holed up: late nights, long hours. I was working everyday on the research and writing of the Bahamas golf-development fiasco. It was a lot of bad news, and I needed to find answers - a happy ending. Proof.
So here we are, and it’s pitch black. Bats are dive-bombing the mosquitoes attracted by our flashlights; they dive in steep arcs out of the thick, tangled dry forest. Jane's not exactly wearing flip-flops, and no fruity drinks, but what more could she ask for - howling wind? Wolf spiders? Fruit bats?
Juan corrects me, "Sac-wing bats, they eat insects."
Juan is joining us for a night walk on the 1,900 acre preserve portion of Morgan's Rock in the southwestern corner of Nicaragua. "Sac-wing bat males carry these pouches under their wings," he says, "the pouches secrete an odor, for the ladies."
There are more types of bats in Nicaragua than any other mammal, maybe 120 species. The sac-wing bat looks like a shrew; the resemblance is not coincidental. Scientists have noticed that when the bat's shrew-ancestors took flight in order to better capture their prey, moths, an evolutionary departure occurred in the fossil record. A certain moth learned to fly in the day, to avoid the bat, which evolved to fly in the night. We call them butterflies, and tomorrow morning the coast of southern Nicaragua will light up with their colors; some bright blue, one entirely red, another the color of a bright lime.
There are other mammals here. Your flashlight will capture their eyes for a brief moment; skunks with leopard-like markings, squirrels in black and white, monkeys. Juan had seen his first kinkajou on the property a few days ago. As a naturalist guide, seeing this nocturnal creature seemed to have a profound impact on him. "I climbed to the top of the tree and looked at him in the face. He was a very special animal." Kinkajous, a kind of treetop raccoon, have a monkey-human appearance, and so are beloved by people like Juan, who watches animal shows on cable.
Juan is 22 years old, new to the San Juan del Sur area. He was raised in the Northwestern city of Leon. Leon, part of Nicaragua's depressed coffee picking region, has stood sentinel over Nicaragua’s liberal history. Its ancient rivalry with conservative Granada, in the southwest, has helped fuel Nicaragua's strange, sad, short and violent history.
Juan explains how his brother is very smart, training in computers. He says, “He learns his English from the Black-eyed Peas.” We say that might be the wrong way to learn English. Juan says he’ll mention that to his brother. Jane asks Juan about his parents.
"My mother is a housemaid. My father was working in the coffee fields, but he has problems with his health because of the pesticides, so he is not working."
"Does the government do anything, do they help out?" I ask.
"No," Juan says.
While we half-heartedly look for spiders and bugs, we discuss coffee politics, and CAFTA. "It is bad for our country," Juan says, "How can our farmers compete against big countries like that?"
Nicaraguans are understandably suspicious, but that's not the policy's fault: Nicaragua's history is a history of very bad North Americans behaving badly. This fraternity of idiots begins with a Mr. William Walker, who set up fort only nine miles south of here. Walker was a racist midget from Tennessee who believed in developing Mexico and Central America into slave states. He convinced a band of liberal Nicaraguans to allow his military band to take over the capital city – at the time conservative Grenada. William Walker then decided to take over the country and install himself as President. The United States recognized his government.
The Bahamas made me want to explore this question: The West Indies is beginning to wake up from its drunken sell-out to the all-inclusive, exclusive foreign mega-developments. Now in many places, what was once unspoiled and poor is now spoiled and poor. Economies, ecologies and societies battered by mega-development now see the benefit of a dynamic economy that doesn't hedge its entire future on tourism.
But while Caribbean countries, many facing too many hotels with empty-bedrooms, lick their wounds, developers are setting their eyes on the unspoiled countries. Nicaragua, which vies with Haiti as the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, stands at a crucial fork in the road. Jane and I, we’re going to follow both forks in that road.
The path leads us eventually to the beach, which is a wide half-moon. Juan commands our flashlights off - the beach is a sea turtle breeding beach, and technically, as a very responsible developer, you don't let unnatural light hit that turtle beach.
The next morning, I am down the cliff, across the drawbridge, and onto the beach. Pre-dawn awakens the parrots, all of them yakking like northbound on the I-405. The wind stirs up the sand into the dry forest, where perhaps three different troops of howler monkeys begin their morning howling. The howling, it's a kind of way of shouting 'these trees are mine' against other howler monkey troops, and a way of impressing the ladies. The whole coast howls with this haunting cry. I walk far, as far as I can down the beach and up the rocks and along the tropical dry forest to find a place to write.
This forest runs continuously from Southern Mexico through Costa Rica, along the Pacific. Dry forests are strikingly different from the rain forests most people associate with Central America; they are bright, sunny places reminiscent of an Australian forest.
Early morning is for writing. Writing for yourself is a way of organizing your thoughts. To make sense of your life and like travel itself, to escape. The notes I had written on the Bahamian islet of Great Guana Cay had turned from escape into a passion. The contents of that island's story so haunted me that I spent three hours on it every day for seven months straight. I typed for hours, or, just woke up in the middle of the night, writing a note to myself. The long hours gave me back problems, and my neck kinked three times.
I worked from a home office, so I spent 12 hours a day in a chair. Jane would prop me up, tell me to sit straight: was I listening? I was worried about going to Nicaragua. Would my 40-pound backpack hurt my back even more?
But Nicaragua was my escape from Guana Cay. The backpack, all the walking, sweating- my back felt great. I couldn't feel the pain in my neck. Coming back to the dry forest again was a pleasure. At Morgan's Rock, you have 4,300 acres to share with a handful of people. It is the escape from yesterday’s writing.
By going to Morgan's Rock, I would be isolated from all the news in Guana Cay - the court case, the Chronicle article, the latest research from the coral pathologist.
I thought Nicaragua would liberate me from the long hours of writing Guana Cay. Now, I am realizing the opposite has happened: Morgan's Rock fired up my interest in Guana Cay – this is what could happen to Guana Cay when an ethical developer replaces Discovery Land Company.
I am excited by my self-discovery. I want to tell Jane. There is a certain sadness in writing about a place besieged for so long, and having no observable answer for its replacement.
It is easy for a developer to pose as an eco-development. The so-called eco-tourism industry is the fastest growing tourism industry in the world. Everybody wants a piece of it. But much of it is fraudulent and has little to do with sustainable development or supporting local communities. In Nicaragua, the frauds have already begun.
But Morgan’s Rock proves that real eco-development does actually exist. In the 2006 Conde Nast Travel ‘Best’ list, no hotel won more awards than St. Lucia’s Ladera Resort. But Morgan’s Rock – too new for any lists – equals and even succeeds the Ladera Resort’s qualities in architecture, food and service. Curiously, both are genuine ecological eco-resorts and have almost full capacity year-round. Why attract any other type of developer?
At breakfast, we introduce ourselves to a pair of older British travelers who we had already dubbed 'The Traveling Thornberrys.' We had admired them days before for their seeming to have infinitely more energy than the younger guests. These two were a pair of archeologists from Cambridge. Their specialty was Malta, and Mr. Thornberry had served as curator of the Museum of Archeology in Malta.
They uncovered some of the oddest and most wondrous antiquities, wrote papers on prehistoric ‘death cults’ and evidence of ancient trading-cart routes. They had been traveling through much of Nicaragua on vacation, when just a week ago, they had stumbled accidentally on a Pre-Columbian site. "When you happen upon such a thing," Thornberry says, "you log it with the Department of Archaeology in Managua, so we did. We brought them some shards and such, and they were on it, and we were on our way."
The Traveling Thornberrys ("We can't afford the tours around here") walked everywhere. During the day, they would be gone for hours at a time, attempting to navigate the circuitous dirt roads connecting the farm, and beyond. "You didn't make it up there, perhaps, did you?" I said, pointing to the top of a hill on the other side of the bay.
"Oh yes," Mrs. Traveling Thornberry says. "Would you like us to draw you a map?"
Yes, we say, please.
"Okay," she says, while Mr. Thornberry sketches an intricate map of the roads on the property. From the butterfly farm, we take a left, and then on up this road here for some time, and then scramble up this road, which is not really a road. The map is frightfully confusing, but I accept it.
When they are out of site, I take the map to the receptionist, and ask quietly, do you think somebody could get us a lift up there? The diminutive receptionist, who was earlier polite enough to ask us, "I hope, do you like to see the moan-kays?" was now poking around out back looking for a driver.
It takes the driver some time to drive us to the peak, but the drive reveals the way Morgan’s Rock works.
When French-born agronomist Clemente Poncon went to The World Bank for a loan to develop the Morgan's Rock property, The World Bank conducted a report, the contents of which recommended that the best solution for the property would be a golf course hotel mega-development.
Poncon didn't like the idea of spoiling the precious Nicaragua property, and said in a magazine interview, "Golfers can go somewhere else."
The actual eco-lodge is a small restaurant, bar area, administrative office: from this high point, only the small restaurant is visible from view. Fifteen minutes uphill by foot are fifteen tree houses, mostly hidden from view under the trees. There are few other buildings on the property except those used for the reforestation projects and farming. So successful has this project been, that ever since this land opened up as an eco-resort in 2004, animals have poured in. 700 monkeys live on the property now, several sloths, and at least three types of large neotropical cat. 1,900 acres are preserved; the other 2,400 constitute a tree farm.
Poncon is growing tropical hardwoods there, a profitable project in sustainable tree farming. Guests are encouraged to talk to, learn from and follow the progress of the fifty workers on the farm.
Late in the evening, we join the guests at the bar and see the Traveling Thornberry's again. "Made it to the top!" I said. "Did you now!" Mrs. Thornberry said. "Splendid. And our directions were okay then?" I told her the directions worked great.
Others introduce themselves. Janet, from California, is at Morgan's Rock on her own. She carries
herself in that bruised and independent way, like a mother from Malibu, although it would be a stretch to call her a trophy wife. "Doing some research," she says. There were plenty of North Americans 'doing research' in Nicaragua. For Sale signs are everywhere. The San Juan del Sur area is hot, and Janet admits that her husband sent her down here to look into buying something. “We’re in Pasadena, yeah, Pasadena,” she says. There was plenty of property 'just like Morgan's Rock.' ReMax agents were out there. Real Estate conferences were being held. Don’t buy two years from now, buy now.
She admits “a lot of the properties down here have some pretty ramshackle buildings on them. I've found something west of Managua, a lot of property.”
Janet says, “Did you know that five of the guests here are journalists?"
That would mean a third of the rooms were filled with reporters. Actually, I had guessed that to be about the number. Morgan's Rock is brand new, the travel papers around the world will be writing about it. A man, who has been reading books and drinking wine in the bar for the past two days, is dressed well and looks completely out of place. The 'I'm traveling from London to Nicaragua to read a book' is completely implausible: What's sad - in a mildly intoxicated manner, this man is writing his piece on Morgan's Rock.
People ask me all the time if I get paid to write travel. When I tell them no, I don’t get paid, they let the conversation go, as if disappointed. There is glamour in being paid to write travel; in a recent poll, it was considered the second most popular dream job, behind acting.
When I see this guy, in his starched shirt, I wonder. If all those people in that poll saw this guy, what would they think? When they see him alone, his wine glass, pretending not to be listening to our conversation, which is fake anyway, to throw him off.
I wonder why pink-shirt didn’t talk to the other travel journalists; they all ate alone at their tables, looking inconspicuous. Only large travel magazines and newspapers have the budget to send people to places this far away; why we as readers allow this level of journalism to exist is beyond me. I never once saw any of them on the beach, or out in the forest. They appear to be asking no hard questions, they appear uninterested in the importance of this place, how it all works.
When a newspaper called me a few weeks ago, they admitted that since they had no office in Miami, it was hard for them to send a journalist to the Bahamas. Although the newspaper pursued the story, their courage is hardly the norm. It is easier for a large U.S. newspaper to report on Afghanistan and Iraq than Guana Cay – amazingly, news of places like this isn’t produced by the regular papers: the news disseminates from the specialty journalists. Yes, it’s the luxury travel writers who are often the sole link between civilization and that far end of the dock, where something very, very, very bad may or may not be taking place. But how would we know? Our travel journalist is drunk and asking for more of those banana chips.
On the other side of Nicaragua, away from any travel writers pen, the Caribbean side, there are 18 beautiful coral islands called the Pearl Cays. The islands, which are like Bahamian crown land, are held in perpetuity expressly for the indigenous people of the Northwestern Miskito coast, who have forever used the islands as a source for foraging and fishing by the native Miskito people. But a few years ago, a Greek-American called Peter Tsokos started trying to sell seven of the islands on his island real estate website.
When the Miskitos would try to land on the islands, armed thugs were waiting for them with guns pointed at their heads. Like Guana Cay in the Bahamas, the Pearl Cays were one of Nicaragua's healthiest coral reef and turtle breeding grounds. The indigenous islands' new owners started quickly deforesting the islands, uprooting turtle nests, and pissing off lots of Indians. As the Nicaraguan central government came to the Miskito people's assistance, the apex of the scandal came to a boil. Suddenly, people important to the court case were being picked off; killed in their homes.