They Eat Mermaids, Don’t They?

Today’s slide show: Volcán Mombacho

The town of Granada and the shores of Lago de Nicaragua, as viewed from Volcán Mombacho

MOMBACHO VOLCANO, NICARAGUA—After two hours of hiking through the cloud forests of Nicaragua’s Mombacho Volcano, my companions and I have seen no sign of the pumas and howler monkeys that are said to lurk here. Admittedly, it’s difficult to spot wildlife when you’re tromping through the jungle with eight other people—and I suspect our collective expectations of eco-tourism are rooted more in the Discovery Channel than in any meaningful knowledge of nature itself. At times, our adventure here carries a postmodern kind of pathos: Because we haven’t spotted any of the animals we’d hoped to see here, the jungle seems slightly wrong somehow.

We certainly aren’t the first outsiders to come to this part of the world and get stymied by our expectations. When Christopher Columbus first sailed to the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, he claimed he saw three mermaids cavorting in the shallow waters. The creatures, he wrote, “raised their bodies above the surface of the water, and, although they were not as beautiful as they appear in pictures, their round faces were definitely human.” One wonders if the legendary explorer would have been disappointed if he’d known he was looking at manatees.

Though Columbus died none the wiser, the reality check for our group comes from an American biologist named Eric Vandenberghe, whom we find skulking on the northern ridge of the volcano, butterfly net in hand. Eric has been studying wildlife in Nicaragua for seven years, and—like many other naturalists I’ve met—he is soft-spoken and passionate about his work, with a tendency to giggle absently whenever I ask him a stupid question.

One of the dozens of butterfly species found in the cloud forests of Volcán Mombacho

The first giggle comes when I inquire about where we might be able to spot some wildlife. “It depends on what you mean by wildlife,” he says. “Bring a UV light here tonight, and you’ll be able to catch 40 varieties of hawk moths before the sun comes up. I’ve identified 75 different species of butterflies since I arrived yesterday. This volcano is an island of biodiversity: Keep your eyes open, and you could spend an entire day going 100 feet any direction into the jungle.”

“Unfortunately,” I say, “we don’t have a whole day to spend here—and we were hoping to at least see some monkeys.”

This is obviously a telling statement, as it elicits another involuntary giggle from the biologist. “Try the Embarcado Oriental—the big market in Managua,” he says. “You can see nearly any monkey species in the country there. For $15, you can buy one. You can also buy just about any species of parrot. Green turtle meat will cost you 50 cents a pound.”

“But aren’t green turtles endangered?”

“Sure they’re endangered. They’re also the cheapest meat you can find in Nicaragua. Cheaper than chicken. And green turtle eggs are cheaper than chicken eggs. In the market, nothing is sacred. People eat manatees in Nicaragua; it’s a very prized meat in some parts of the country.”

I ponder the grim prospect of shopping for one of Columbus’ mermaids in central Managua. “But can’t you find these animals in nature anymore?”

“Of course you can find those animals in nature,” Eric says with a wry grin, “but you just told me you don’t have a day to spend looking for them.”

In the course of a three-minute conversation, it appears that Eric and I have struck upon a basic contradiction of eco-tourism: To truly immerse yourself in nature, you need time and patience, yet short-term tourists rarely have much time to spare. The “product” of eco-tourism, after all, is experience—yet a meaningful experience of nature is not something that can be delivered in quick, standardized packages.

If any country in the world has come close to making eco-tourism work, it is Costa Rica, Nicaragua’s neighbor to the south. And, despite the fact that Mombacho Volcano hasn’t produced any marquee fauna for us today, this Nicaraguan nature reserve is very much an extension of the Costa Rican success story. The trails here are well-maintained, the interpretive information is scientifically accurate (albeit only in Spanish), and an eco-marketed “canopy tour” has opened up on the lower slopes. Nature Air, a San Jose-based airline, makes regular flights to nearby Granada, and nature lovers weary of overcrowding at Costa Rican hotspots like Monteverde are increasingly looking to Nicaragua’s abundant volcanoes and lakes as quieter (and less expensive) eco-alternatives.

The author in listening mode

That said, Nicaragua doesn’t look set to steal Costa Rica’s nature-travel crown any time soon. For starters, many would-be tourists still regard Nicaragua as a humid cesspool of chaos and revolution—despite the fact that the Sandinistas were voted out of power here in 1990. And, political reputation aside, this country is sorely lacking in tourist infrastructure: Of the 73 nature reserves in the country, less than 10 maintain a permanent staff, and many of the parks aren’t even marked with signs. Merely finding most of the reserves requires good Spanish skills, accurate maps, independent transportation, and patience. Moreover, according to Eric, the actual extent of Nicaragua’s biodiversity is largely unknown. “The number of scientists in this country who even know taxonomy can be counted on one hand,” he says. “Since Darwin’s day, there’s been almost no systematic scientific work here.”

In a way, one could find comfort in the idea that Nicaragua’s nature reserves are unknown and inaccessible. Perhaps, in their isolation, these habitats could thrive.

Another giggle. “It’s just not that simple,” Eric says. “Those areas might be isolated from tourists, but not from Nicaraguans.”

I think back to the mermaids and turtle meat in Managua’s market. “Is hunting the problem?”

“Hunting is a problem, but it’s a limited one. I’ve studied animal bones that archaeologists have turned up at dig sites across the country, and I found that the pre-Columbian people here had pretty much the same tastes as Nicaraguans do now. They craved deer and armadillo meat, but didn’t care much for sloth or howler monkeys. Animal populations have always adapted to hunting. The biggest environmental threat here is habitat destruction. It doesn’t help that the birthrate in Central America is one of the highest in the world.”

When I ply the biologist for the solution to this problem, our discussion gets complicated. On one level, he says, what my companions and I have been doing all morning—wandering in the cool air near the volcano summit, scanning the treetops for monkeys—could be a small part of the solution. As Costa Rica has proved, eco-tourism creates alternative forms of income, promotes local efforts at wildlife protection, and instills national pride for unique habitats. The challenge, however (as Costa Rica is discovering), is balance: A tourist economy requires a steady influx of visitors, yet wildlife areas will suffer if you build too many roads and bus in too many animal lovers.

All this in addition to that fact that—as we have discovered this morning—pumas and howler monkeys don’t always appear on cue.

From the breezy summit of the Mombacho Volcano, I see the tree-lined streets of Granada spidering back from the shores of Lake Nicaragua below. Amid the terra cotta rooftops, I note a sudden pinprick of light over the white bulk of the Granada Cathedral. After five full beats, the faint noise of fireworks echoes up the volcano.

By sundown, I will be face-to-face with the mystery that has been following me since Antigua.

Several companies sponsored the Drive Around the World expedition; click here for a partial list.