Just about every time I come to Honduras, I pay a visit to the mountain community of Rio Negro. Consisting of just 80 houses, Rio Negro does not even make it onto google maps, but the community has had an exaggerated role in the development of the National Park.
When I was here in the Peace Corps, one of my free time activities was to go and visit other volunteers. Those of us who came in at the same time had a special affinity for each other, having bonded through several months of sequestered training in language, culture and technical skills. Luckily when I discovered that I was to be assigned to Comayagua, I learned that one of my training class, Bill, would be actually living in one of the communities in the buffer zone of the park. Bill was assigned to Rio Negro and his goal was to help install drinking water systems for four different communities near Rio Negro. Bill hit the jackpot in terms of Peace Corps sites, partly because he landed in the house of Don Maximo Velasquez, both a loving family and the center of life in Rio Negro. At first during my service I would go up to Rio Negro to hang out with Bill and visit him, but almost instantly I realized that Rio Negro could be a starting point for visiting the cloud forest part of the National Park.
I would bring friends from Comayagua to Rio Negro and Bill would take us to see the dams and pipes of the water systems of the communities he was helping. We noticed what was obvious to everyone in Rio Negro already, that the creeks near Rio Negro were beautiful. To follow the creek up to the place where the communities draw their water was to walk through marvelous 20 year-old cloud forest in then process of recuperation. There were tree ferns, orchids, palms, and wildlife. Right along the creek there were remnant trees from the original forest, massive towering trees that carry vines and bromeliads and other life up to the canopy. The creek itself was crystal clear and rushed in and around polished boulders, some impossibly large. When we finally get to the place where the community draws its water, we realize why they stopped there. There is a waterfall that is at least 100 feet tall.
We picked out Rio Negro as a place to start bringing people to the Park. One of the goals I had was for as many people from Comayagua as possible to get to visit the cloud forest on the mountain that has been looming over them for their whole lives. Once people visit the cloud forest, they return with a new energy to protect it. Rio Negro was perfect because the creek creates a microclimate that brings the cloud forest down to an accessible altitude. Of course, there were other benefits. The view is fantastic, the people are friendly, and if you want to climb the mountain there are trails that take you up to the ridge where the old growth forest is. We brought high schoolers, business people, gringos, teachers, and everyone was transformed by the experience. It was like discovering a treasure in your back yard. People could see the direct relationship between the forest and water, especially drinking water. When the National Park was to receive a grant, we instantly thought of Rio Negro as a possible site for a visitors center. When there was a national call for people to go on an Ecotourism course in the U.S., I thought of Avilio, Don Maximo´s son and one of the most animated people I have ever met.
When my family came to visit, of course I brought them to Rio Negro. My father opened my eyes to a new type of tourism that I had not thought about yet. Agricultural tourism. As enchanted as he was with the forest and the waterfall, he was thrilled to see the entire process of coffee production. He had been drinking coffee for his entire adult life, and had never really experienced the other side of it. For him it was like meeting a long time pen pal, face to face. Avilio and I talked for hours about the tourist potential of Rio Negro and how if people could make money from the forest in that way, they might not cut it down.
Now flash forward fifteen years. Avilio has three eco-huts that he built to house tourists. Other people in the village have constructed their own eco-huts. The visitors center is about to be inaugurated. The people make incredible artisan goods to sell to tourists. The attention to the watersheds has meant that there is still a significant and growing forest cover above Rio Negro, where in other communities the destruction has advanced considerably. There is a tour guides collective, which functions by having them take turns leading people to the waterfall. Many of the guides have learned English. The families have been trained in how to prepare food for tourists. Rio Negro has found its way into various guide books like the Lonely Planet. There is a steady and growing trickle of people coming to Rio Negro. It has fame throughout Honduras.
Our trip was exactly what one could hope for from an eco-agro-tourism perspective. It is thrilling to look back and realize that I had a hand starting everything that has happened in Rio Negro.