Luxurious Eco-Tourism in Bolivian Amazon is Saving Rainforest and Supporting Indigenous Community
The rainforest is alive, from the humid, black earth underfoot to the peaks of the tallest trees. Leaf-cutter ants scurry along narrow dirt paths, squirrel monkeys jump from branch to branch, and high above, toucans pipe their haunting note amongst the treetops. It's a dense, green world where the fast-forward struggle for survival dominates everything. Plants strategize to beat out their neighbors for minutes of precious sun, caymans lurk in shallow waters stalking their next meal, and everything that dies decays in the blink of an eye, circling back into the life-cycle of this extraordinary ecosystem.
Bolivia is home to large stretches of Amazon rainforest and more than a dozen national parks. One of the most diverse is Madidi National Park and Natural Integrated Management Area—a tract nearly as big as the state of New Jersey—that descends from high mountain peaks to the Amazon basin. The park, which is threatened by illegal logging, agriculture and plans for a hydroelectric damn, has found what many hope is a sustainable future in environmentally-conscious tourism. The most famous example of eco-tourism in Madidi is Chalalan, a business run by the indigenous Quechua Tacana people, whose territory stretches over part of the park. Chalalan employs people from the community, and it also provides much-needed money for projects in the Quechua Tacana town of San Jose de Uchupiamonas (San Jose), which is upstream from the lodge.
"Everything has to interrelate with what the community wants and its culture," says Yhovani Valdez Cuqui, a guide, of the relationship between San Jose and Chalalan. He explains that the lodge helps the community maintain its culture and its historic practices because caring for the rainforest is now a top priority and offers a viable future. "Chalalan lets us go into the past, retrieve things and bring them back to use in the present.”
Guarding the Land
People in San Jose began to think of eco-tourism as an alternative to the growing logging industry in the early ’90s, as more and more visitors came to the area's closest major town, Rurrenabaque. Finding funding for a community project in the middle of the rainforest was not an easy task, but in 1995 San Jose partnered with the NGO Conservation International. With more than $1 million in funds from the Inter-American Development Bank, work began on an eco-lodge that has its own water and sewage treatment systems. According to Conservation International, residents of San Jose who wanted to be part of Chalalan worked a minimum of 20 days building it.
San Jose is several miles upstream from Chalalan, but both sit on a tract of land within Madidi that is called an Original Communal Territory, or by its Spanish acronym, a TCO. TCOs are collective land titles granted by the Bolivian government to indigenous communities to ensure they have legal rights to their ancestral lands. The people of San Jose are a mix of highland Quechua Indians who moved into the area hundreds of years ago and Tacana Indians who have historically inhabited several lowland regions. Today it's a town of around 650 permanent residents, plus many more who live outside the community.
For an isolated group whose members spoke Quechua and Spanish, the decision to host international tourists meant many adjustments. "Most people didn't really know what eco-tourism was," recalls Valdez Cuqui. Everything about the project—including what the lodge's mostly international visitors like to eat, what they want to do, and what languages they speak—was a journey into foreign cultures for the people of San Jose. In addition, people from the community needed to learn accounting and business administration so that Conservation International and the Inter-American Development Bank could transfer management to them. That happened in 2002.
A stay at Chalalan is expensive compared to many other tours offered in Rurrenebaque, but its mission is also different. Half the profits from Chalalan are invested in San Jose according to the wishes of the whole town, helping to sustain a middle school, healthcare, and a water supply system, resources that small, isolated communities in Bolivia often lack. The lodge also provides jobs to dozens of community members each year.
Guarding the Deep Green Sea
Seen from above, the vast, rolling green expanse of treetops that surrounds Chalalan is like the open sea. Beneath that thick green canopy small dappled patches of sunlight reach the rainforest floor, and to the inexperienced mind the dense, humid world is filled with confusing sounds and strange movements. But the guides from Chalalan turn every birdcall and rustle in the undergrowth into something tangible and extraordinary.
"The Amazon always has this mystic air surrounding it, but to be there, in one of the best-preserved parks in the Amazon, with all the trees and the smells and the birds and the monkeys, was almost like going into a dream," says Emma Donlan, who works in Bolivia and visited Chalalan with her family. "The cabins are beautiful, there are white linens on the bed—it's in a different league than a lot of the other tourism I've done in Bolivia, which is geared toward backpackers. To me it was unprecedented."
Chalalan is home to a multitude of squirrel monkeys, little golden-furred animals that travel in large groups searching for fruits, bugs and flowers. Mothers cart babies on their backs through the treetops and large packs comb the forest floor for food. They often travel with larger Capuchin monkeys, who move higher in the trees and bring some sense of security to their tiny relations.
Of course there are many things in the rainforest visitors may consider less adorable than a squirrel monkey. Night walks with guides reveal plump velvet-black tarantulas, snakes like vines with glowing eyes hanging from tree branches and whip spiders, large spiders with scorpion-like front claws. The lakes and streams are another marvel, where caymans, large frogs and sleeping fish are easily revealed in a flashlight’s beam.
Even the trees in Chalalan fascinate. From the ceiba tree (which grows menacing, inch-long spikes from its trunk) to the Palo Santo (swarming with fire ants), every living thing has survival strategies and complex relationships with its neighbors.
Guarding the Future
Chalalan is part of the strategy the people of San Jose have developed to keep both the rainforest and their community intact. One might think that an influx of outsiders threatens the Quechua-Tacana culture, which was already in danger due to migration because of the lack of educational and economic opportunities in the area. But Valdez Cuqui says that instead interest in their almost extinct Tacana language has been revived, and the economic opportunities Chalalan affords have brought people back to San Jose.
"A lot of people thought Chalalan would be a good way to better their lives and the lives of their children," says Cuqui. "For example, I didn't make Chalalan, I'm the son of someone who did, and someday I'd like to have a son who is a guide. I want Chalalan to be a foundation of our community for many years to come."
IF YOU GO
Bring light, long-sleeved shirts to protect your skin from mosquitos on long walks. Also, nights are chilly at Chalalan at certain times of year. Consider taking a good pair of binoculars to fully appreciate the many species of birds in Madidi National Park. Leave extra time for travel to and from Rurrenebaque. Flight schedules are notoriously unreliable and overland travel can be rough.