How to Connect Locally while
Budget-Friendly Destinations in Central
|Canoes on the beach on the island of Chachauate, Honduras.
©Amy E. Robertson.
Our motorized canoe approached the beach, and a few young men waded into the water to grab our bags. My parents, my two young kids and I disembarked at Chachauate, twelve miles off the north coast of Honduras. Chachauate is a community of a few dozen Garifuna families (African/Carib descendants) in the archipelago of Cayos Cochinos. We had arrived for two nights in one of the community’s wood cabins. The one-room cabins had sand floors, bunks with thin mattresses attached to the wall, and a single light bulb that only worked between 7pm and 9pm, when the island generator was turned on. We would share the island’s outhouse with the other 150 (or so) community members, and our hostess Nini (who owned a “corner shop”-slash-restaurant on the island) would cook for us. Five dollars per person per night, meals charged separately. It was bare bones and that didn’t matter – we were there to swim and snorkel in the crystal clear water.
During my five years living in Honduras, I authored two editions of the Moon Handbook for Honduras and the Bay Islands, and had the chance to explore more of the country than most Hondurans ever have the opportunity to see. My trip to the Cayos Cochinos was one of the highlights of all that travel. We spotted colorful parrotfish and striped angelfish as we snorkeled. We ate Nini’s barbecued lobster. My kids playing UNO and sharing colored pencils with the local kids in the evening, by the light of the tiny book light I’d brought. Nini’s daughter joined my family for the day as we explored the Cayos Cochinos archipelago by boat.
|The author's children and Nini's daughter on a dock of Cayo Grande island, Honduras.
©Amy E. Robertson.
The locals of Chachauate had set the terms of tourism for their piece of paradise, and visiting them was one of the best travel adventures I’ve ever had. (To book your boat trip or overnight stay, contact Chichi Arzú at 504/9937-1702, firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Meaningful travel doesn’t come from handouts or patronage—it comes from solidarity. Working shoulder to shoulder with community members on a local development project (“voluntourism”) is one way to do this. At least as important are the everyday decisions we make when we travel – where we buy our food, which accommodations we use, whether we buy their handicrafts, and whom we hire to be our guides. Such decisions don’t require a big budget, just a thoughtful one. Choose wisely, and travelers have the chance to meet locals on their own terms, as representatives of their culture, and to use their travel dollars (or euros or pounds) to support the people and places they visit in a responsible way. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is to support community-based tourism (CBT), in which community members are often the organizers and always the beneficiaries of local tourism experiences.
Below are a few more opportunities for community-based
tourism across Central America. Some of the websites are only
in Spanish—reflecting the fact that to connect with locals,
having basic Spanish skills is a distinct advantage. However, if
you don’t have the Spanish skills, fear not—being
immersed in a community is undoubtedly the best way to learn!)
the Talamancan Association of Ecotourism and Conservation, is
based in the department of Limón, on Costa Rica’s north coast. Their office in Puerto Viejo puts visitors in contact with experienced native naturalist guides who offer a variety of guided hikes, tours and activities. Adventure tours include surf lessons, fishing and dance lessons, and cultural tours range from visits to indigenous communities to a chocolate tour, wildlife tours take visitors to see birds, iguanas, dolphins, and sea turtles.
an umbrella organization for a group of ecolodges and various
projects such as reforestation or rainforest conservation. They
offer accommodations at small lodges, farms, indigenous villages,
and homestays across Costa Rica, as well as a variety of half-day
and full-day tours (rafting, city tour, hikes, coffee farm and
more). Multi-day packages and volunteering experiences are also
Costa Rican Association of Rural Community Tourism,
ACTUAR by its initials in Spanish) is a network of accommodations
and service providers across the country that has been certified
by ACTUAR. Lodging options range from homestays to high-end hotels,
in both urban and rural areas, and all “feature a unique local flavor and charm, employ environmental best practices, and run tours and activities that incorporate the community as well as its local culture.” They offer one-day tours and multi-day adventures, searchable—and bookable—on their website by interest (bird watching, honeymoon, voluntourism, and more).
The Network of Rural Inns of El Salvador was
modeled after the well-respected Gites de Frances network of holiday
homes, and is made up of 10 (at the time of writing) inns, farms
and restaurants across El Salvador.
a local social development organization, supports several community
tourism projects in the Río Dulce area. Travelers can sign up for day trips or an overnight stay, or simply visit one of the organization’s restaurants, its internet café, or its handicraft store if passing through Livingston or the city of Río Dulce.
a charming colonial town and the surrounding area is home to a
cloud forest, thermal baths, and tiny villages dominated by lovely
centuries-old churches. Comfortable budget- to moderately-priced
hotels are locally owned, guides from the area are happy to organize
horseback riding and hiking, and visitors can watch a demonstration
of traditional Lencan pottery making.
Guía Turismo Rural Comunitario is a website dedicated to rural tourism accommodations and networks across Nicaragua. Of special note are Ecoposada Tisey not far from Estelí in the Tisey Reserve.
On the island of Ometepe, there are several CBT arrangements: the organic coffee farm and hostel Finca Magdalena, run by a collective of 24 families and offering guided tours up the volcano, Urbaite
Indigenous Community – Las Pilas, which offers accommodation in homes around the community. Local guides are available for activities including walking, horseback riding, sailing, and fishing, visits to beaches and to volcanoes; and the highly recommended Puesta del Sol, which offers accommodation in community homes (US$20pp per day, including all meals), canoeing, kayaking, bicycling, transportation services, and a lakefront cybercafé.
the San Blas Islands offers a similar experience to Chachauate
in Honduras, with wood cabins right on the beach, lobster dinners,
and crystal clear waters for snorkeling and swimming. There are
several other similar cabin-on-an-island experiences in the Panamanian
islands (Sapibenega and Yandup to name a couple); Kuanidup is one of the most basic, but also one of the best beaches and lowest-priced. That said, all of the options are all much pricier than their Honduran counterpart, ranging from US$95-US$150per person per night, but meals and tours are included.
||Amy E. Robertson is the author of Volunteer Vacations in Latin America (2013, Moon Handbooks). Her writing has been published on NPR, Vice MUNCHIES, Budget Travel, Delta Sky, National Geographic Traveler, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor and Travel + Leisure, among others. Amy has lived in six countries and traveled in more than 60. Her volunteer experiences include building houses in Washington State and Honduras, monitoring presidential elections in Ecuador, working with youth on social documentaries in Bolivia, and serving lunch at soup kitchens in Seattle and Beirut. She has a background in international development and nonprofit management and has worked in both the private and nonprofit sectors.
You may see Amy's many articles for us, her numerous books, and her expanded bio page here.