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A Sustainable Vacation

Nicaragua’s Selva Negra Combines Old and New

A Selva Negra worker harvesting coffee.


Farm workers getting the land ready with a plow and oxen.

High atop the mountains of northern Nicaragua, densely shaded by almost mystical cloud forests is Selva Negra (which means “Black Forest” in Spanish). Its unique melding of cultures, histories, and landscapes offers an extraordinary experience in international hospitality and agricultural education. The low-key resort and organic coffee farm (www.selvanegra.com) feature 22 cozy brick bungalows, 14 double lakeside rooms, a youth hostel, and a restaurant featuring authentic German and Nicaraguan specialties—all tucked deep into the cool green Nicaraguan hillside just outside the small town of Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

My travel companion and I had read about Selva Negra in our guidebook and were intrigued by its unique approach to farming and its German roots. Back in the late 1880s, the government of Nicaragua—with impressive foresight—offered plots of land, coffee plants, and financial incentives to Europeans who would come to the country to farm coffee, thereby helping stimulate the country’s economy and provide much-needed intellectual capital and physical labor. Boatloads of German immigrants took them up on the offer. As a result, the Matagalpa region is home to more than four generations of Germans. The population is perhaps much smaller than it might have been had not Nicaragua, during World War II, somewhat bizarrely declared war on Germany and confiscated much of the farm lands. A number of the immigrants fled back to Germany. While many returned to Nicaragua in the late 1940s and early 1950s, during the Contra-Sandinista war of the 1980s more coffee farms were claimed by the Sandinistas (or outright destroyed) in “land redistribution efforts.” Many Germans understandably decided to live outside Nicaragua.

The coffee farm at Selva Negra was fortunate and avoided much of the destruction that befell other farms in the region, and today it thrives as one of Nicaragua’s premier shade-grown coffee estates. Still owned by descendants of original German settlers and coffee farmers, Selva Negra today offers a unique model of sustainable agriculture and environmentally-conscious tourism, all in a tremendously warm and welcoming spirit of hospitality.

Resort guests can spend their days hiking through the cloud forest—and listening to the throaty cries of nearby howler monkeys—on one of 14 different trails, horseback riding, birding, and seeing dozens of varieties of orchids and butterflies. Or, they can simply lounge on one of dozens of tree swings placed about the grounds to take advantage of gorgeous lake and mountain views. For lunch they can picnic on Selva Negra’s organically-made Gouda or Manchego cheese and fresh-baked bread at one of the resort’s many shady lakeside vistas. Late afternoon coffee and homemade German chocolate cake are served on the restaurant terrace.

The highlight of any visit to Selva Negra, however, is a tour of the coffee farm with one of the plantation’s owners. Eddy Kuhl or his wife, Mausi, are knowledgeable, passionate, and entertaining guides. They offer an inside look at the world of coffee harvesting and processing, organic farming methods, sustainable agriculture techniques, and Nicaraguan culture.

Driving through the 1500-square-acre farm visitors see thousands of coffee plants set in the shade of dozens of varieties of tall leafy trees (Selva Negra’s coffee crop is 100 percent shade-grown Arabica beans, giving the coffee a much richer taste than non-shade grown varieties—though producing a much smaller yield), understand the processes used for picking coffee (berries are harvested by hand from November to February each year), and observe methods of processing the raw coffee beans for export.

Selva Negra’s land generates more than 75 percent of the food and energy used by the resort and farm including natural gas and even some electricity. The latter is the biggest challenge, but plans are to buy a windmill to generate more power in the coming year.

And at Selva Negra everything old becomes new again. All of the garbage and waste from the farm and the hotel is recycled organically, generating some 600 tons of super-rich topsoil for the farm annually.

The coffee bean extraction processes, usually especially damaging to the environment because of contaminated water released, is also smartly eco-conscious. Contaminated water is either run through a variety of lily-covered pools to cleanse and re-oxygenate the water before it is put back into the farm as irrigation, or it is placed in tanks of volcanic rocks which remove pollution and contamination and extract methane gas, which is then piped to the farm’s and resort’s kitchens to be used for cooking. Manure from the farm’s livestock is stored in large tanks and liquefied, extracting gases—also provides fuel as well as nearly 5,000 liquid gallons of fertilizer monthly for farm use.

“You can call it sustainable agriculture—what we are doing here—but I think that what we really are is earth-friendly,” says Selva Negra owner Mausi Kuhl. “We want the coffee farm to be here in the next 150 years, and the only way for this to happen is if the farm is friendly with the environment, taking care not to contaminate anything, and to make it sustainable in the longterm by harvesting all the needs of the farm from the farm.”

Selva Negra provides onsite housing for its farm workers and their families—all Nicaraguans—free of charge. It also provides all of the food for the workers in the coffee fields, pays social security taxes and healthcare costs, and employs a full-time, onsite doctor to provide medical care for workers and their families. The Kuhls recently built a new 6-room schoolhouse and small library for the workers’ children and converted the old school into an adult education center, which provides instruction on topics ranging from healthcare to farming to contraception to adult literacy. The result of this family-oriented approach is tremendous loyalty and a good number of third-generation employees.

Many of the farming or recycling techniques were not original to Selva Negra but were learned by constant experimentation by the Kuhls and their workers and taught by knowledgeable travelers passing through. The Kuhls never stop experimenting and are truly excited about each new discovery. This passion for exploration and knowledge has extended to their workers as well, who are often the first to present new ideas for Selva Negra.

What they learn does not stop at the boundaries of Selva Negra. The Kuhls’ goal is to share all they have learned with other coffee producers throughout Nicaragua. Selva Negra offers a variety of seminars on organic farming and coffee processing and partners with the nonprofit organization, "Fondo de Credito Rural," to take groups on a day-long tour and seminar to explain the details of their farming processes and techniques. More than 600 farmers, coffee producers, co-ops, and other interested parties have participated in this training, and for the Kuhls this is only the beginning. Work on a “Sustainable University” is underway.

“We are an open book,” says Mausi Kuhl. “Our goal is to create an educational facility, a training center to show people what is possible organically.”

If you’re looking to combine relaxation with education and to meet people with true passion for what they do, Nicaragua’s Selva Negra is not to be missed.

Selva Negra Basics

Prices and Reservations: Room rates begin at approximately $30 for a double room and $50 for a private bungalow (spots in the youth hostel—only open during high season—start at $10) per night. The resort also features a number of larger cabins for family stays and a large convention center and nondenominational chapel. For reservations contact resortinfo@selvanegra.com; 011-505-612-3883.

Selva Negra’s lakeside restaurant, with a cozy fireplace and outdoor dining terrace, is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week. Prices for a main course range from $4-$11.

How to Get There: Express buses leave Managua’s Mayoreo bus station for Matagalpa nearly every hour for the approximately 2-hour trip ($3.50). Once in Matagalpa take a local bus ($.50) toward Jinotega and tell the driver you want to stop at Selva Negra, which is approximately nine kilometers north of Jinotega. The entrance to Selva Negra is marked by a rusted army tank left over from the war of the 1980s. It is a 2-kilometer walk to the hotel from the main highway, so it is best to carry a backpack and wear comfortable shoes, or contact the hotel in advance for a ride from the bus drop-off point. Alternatively, taxis can be easily hired in Matagalpa for approximately $8 for the 30-minute ride to Selva Negra.

Language and Currency: English, Spanish, and German are spoken. Selva Negra accepts Nicaraguan cordobas, U.S. dollars, and major credit cards.

Where to Find Selva Negra Coffee: Selva Negra coffee beans are exported only to the U.S. and Spain; U.S. distributors include JBR Gourmet Foods of San Leandro, CA; Royal Coffee of Emeryville, CA; and Allegro Coffee in Boulder, CO. Ask for Selva Negra coffee in your local coffee house.

For More Information:

www.selvanegra.com, resortinfo@selvanegra.com, coffeeinfo@selvanegra.com.

For information about Fair Trade Coffee:

www.globalexchange.org/economy/coffee or www.transfairusa.org.

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