The vista from the wooden deck takes in a bright bed of tropical flowers. As the mist lifts like a veil, the cloud forest beyond is revealed. A hummingbird darts in and out of view, then pauses at a feeder inches away from my nose to sip sugar water through its delicately curved beak. This paradisal spot is Finca Esperanza Verde, an organic coffee plantation and eco-lodge perched at 1200m. It’s a haven for travellers looking to experience the slower pace of life and natural abundance of Matagalpa’s forests.
Daytripping to the finca
We visited the farm as daytrippers from Matagalpa to take a coffee plantation tour and enjoy the scenery. Being fiercely independent travellers, we opted for a ride on the chicken bus and a 3.5km uphill hike up to the farm. In reward for our efforts, we took in expansive views across sloping coffee fields and flashes of life from the wooden huts along the way. Committed to local development, the finca employs 25 Nicaraguan workers all living within a 12km radius who cultivate the coffee plantations and estate or work within the hotel.
Eco-tourism in the cloud forest
The fortunes of Esperanza Verde reflect the changing landscape of tourism in Nicaragua. Current owners Vivianne Arango and Andrew Russell bought the finca in 2012 and have significantly expanded according to their vision of sustainable tourism. Owner Vivianne told us: “I’d been looking for an opportunity and when I heard about this place. It felt like the hand of fate. We loved the ethos of what the previous owners had created, working alongside the local community. We wanted to build on that to create something really special. Back then, the rooms were a fairly basic dormitory style, so we developed the cabanas. Right now, tourism in Nicaragua is changing. People are looking for more of a boutique experience, while still being able to immerse themselves in nature and supporting local economies.”
Organic coffee tour credentials
On a private coffee plantation tour, the finca’s Mandador, Luis Pozo, impresses on us the fragility of the plants. He shows us how they are grown in plastic bags, then transferred to the ground once the roots are sound. We see the production of organic fertilisers that act as natural pesticides. In a field of four-year-old plants shaded by banana trees to keep them cool, workers pick the red berries by hand. And we test out the pulping machine, an innovation installed by American university students during a field project. All told, it’s a beautifully rustic scene.
Vivianne, a vivacious Cuban-American who lives on the finca full-time, is passionate about using organic cultivation methods. But their eco credentials don’t come easily. Taking on a venture of this magnitude requires a lot of hard work and a little streak, she admits, of madness. Running an organic coffee finca has been a process of discovery. As she realised soon after taking over, many of the plants were infested with roya or coffee leaf rust. This tricky fungus infests the leaves of the plants and prevents them from photosynthesising. The telltale spots of ‘rust’ on the underside of the leaves can spell disaster for small plantations.
Between 2012 and 2014, Central America was in the grip of a crisis. In Nicaragua alone, where coffee is the second largest export after beef, aggregate production fell by 11 per cent in these years. The crisis may be over, but in January, the President of the National Alliance of Coffee Producers was warning of a resurgence of roya in Nicaragua’s northern highlands. The threat to producers remains tangible.
Winning the battle with coffee leaf rust
As Vivianne explains, it’s more of a process of managing the disease than extinguishing it completely. Of course, using only organic farming techniques makes this task even more challenging. For the finca, it was a case of scaling back in order to regain the health of the plantations. “Since we began the renovation of our coffee lots two years ago due to the roya in at least 50 per cent of the crops, our production went down considerably.” Ever innovative, the finca has combatted roya with Effective Microrganisms to restore natural equilibrium. In particular, the white halo fungus is a mycoparasite that can prevent the spread of coffee leaf rust. And it’s a method that’s working.
Currently, there are five manzanas in production and five more in development. This year, the farm produced 30 quintales (100 bags) and next year expects 100 quintales. Vivianne is ambitious about the the finca’s coffee plantation, predicting 250 quintales in her five-year forecasts. “Until now, the coffee has been mainly for guests at the hotel. We’re just starting the process of exporting our beans to a wider market.” And it certainly deserves exposure. The Finca’s blend is fragrant and delicate, yet earthy, reflecting the cloud forest where it grows.
Keeping track of nature
Back at the ranch, we meet two young birdwatchers, Olivia and Vanessa, and their mentor, John Gerwin, an ornithologist from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. They are here at the ranch to study the Golden-winged Warbler, a slight, grey bird with flashes of yellow on its head and wings that is near-endangered. The warbler spends summers in the Upper Midwest and Appalachian forests then migrates to the shady coffee plantations of Central America when winter falls. By tracking its movements, researchers hope to learn more about the birds’ habits and why they are disappearing.
Olivia and Vanessa tell us about their work fitting marking bands and tiny solar-powered geolocators on the birds. It sounds finicky, but they got the hang of it quickly enough. The jackpot, they tell us, would be for researchers to recapture the tagged birds again on their next visit to learn about their habits. But they can only expect to re-capture a small percentage again – perhaps one in 20.
A bird in the hand
As we talk, we’re distracted by hummingbirds whizzing past us to get to their sugar-water feeders. Tiny as they are, they create a roaring vortex of sound as they graze our ears. We notice their different sizes and shapes, and the young birdwatchers name them for us, pointing them out in their bird guides. “In fact, we accidentally caught a hummingbird in one of our nets,” Olivia explains. She’s keen to emphasise that this was completely unintentional, as they only have a licence to catch the warbler. Still, these things can happen with the impossibly fine nets that are used to catch birds. “Do you want to see?” asks Vanessa. We do. She shares the photo of the day, a close up of one of these creatures usually only glimpsed so fleetingly.
A special visitor
The finca is pleased to welcome the ornithologists. “Hopefully it means we’re doing something right if they keep coming back year after year,” Vivianne says. “And it’s great for our guests to be able to learn more about our bird species too.” Having an on-site wildlife expert has its advantages. At one point during our visit, guests on the veranda begin to crowd around John. Cameras and phones emerge and start clicking and flashing. We scurry over for a piece of the action. Balanced on his hand is a red-eyed tree frog. It’s a riot of neon colours: green back, orange feet, blue legs and finally, when they pop open, the wonderful red eyes.
After a few hours at the finca, we never want to leave. Vivianne waves us goodbye like old friends. We head back down the hill, past fields of lush and verdant green, promising to return one day.
Tips for your visit
- The coffee tour (as well as guided nature hikes) cost $10 per person and can be booked through the website.
- The owners offer advice on transportation of all forms and will pick you up from San Ramón or Yucúl if you prefer.
- Take a hint from the name ‘cloud forest’. Bring a waterproof and something warm to wrap up in.
- We’re budget travellers, but we wished we splashed out here! If it’s within your means, grab a cabaña for a few nights.
- The finca also offers guided nature tours for $10 per person and there are marked trails so you can explore at your leisure. Bring binoculars if you can to spot the diversity of birds and other wildlife around the trails.