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april 22, 2005 -> jungle love: bolivia  

The young woman was loud and indignant.  “We paid a lot of money for this, and there's no hot water, no double bed.  We didn't even see any animals this morning.”  She looked to us for support, but got none.  We had all paid US$400 for a four-day trip into the center of Madidi National Park, Bolivia, with four nights at the Chalalan Ecolodge.  But the rest of us weren't upset.  In fact, we were ecstatic.  We had seen dozens of yellow spider and capuchin monkeys, a pair of red howler monkeys, capybaras, countless macaws and Hoatzin's birds, poison dart frogs, a juvenile tree boa, a boa constrictor, gigantic ants, breath-taking butterflies, and a tarantula.  After a two-hour walk through nature's greenhouse, the last thing we wanted was a hot shower.  And we knew that our money was supporting a unique, community-owned project that had – really – saved the rainforest.  I guess that “ecolodge” meant something different to the young woman. 

“Ecotourism” and “ecolodge” are – after “extreme” – the most abused words in travel.  Terrifying a sloth with flashbulbs?  Staying in an air-conditioned, luxury “hut” in the middle of the jungle?  Cutting down palm trees to show the edible ‘heart'?  Driving to a cloud forest viewpoint in Ford Expedition?  If the propaganda is to be believed, these are all ecotourism activities.  The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”.  In practice, however, any activity tangentially involving the outdoors or animals often appropriates the designation.  Ironically, most “ecolodges” cost a lot more than other accommodation.  Essentially, it is cool to be “green.”  Add a few “eco” touches to a luxury hotel and then charge even more for it.  In most cases, the extra money doesn't help protect the environment – it goes to the hotel.  If I see another ad saying “Leave only footprints, take only memories,” I swear that I am going to puke. 

Before the formation of Madidi National Park, and the opening of the Chalalan Ecolodge, the inhabitants of San Jose were slowly destroying the environment.  They cut down ancient hardwoods, cleared swaths of jungle for low-yield farming, hunted monkeys and tapirs, and stunned fish with toxins.  Still, families had been steadily leaving the village; life was just too hard.  Today, the income from the lodge has made large, positive, verifiable changes.  It had taken three years – with the young much quicker to adapt – but the lifestyle of the villagers had changed.  A symbiosis between the villagers and the jungle had been achieved.   

Chalalan is 100% owned and operated by the people of San Jose.  They get advice from local and international organizations, but the decisions are theirs.  Chalalan receives 1000 to 1200 tourists a year, generating over US$400,000 in income which (after costs) is divided evenly amongst the families of San Jose.  And Chalalan generates more than just money.  A European chef volunteered to teach new recipes to the lodge cook (the food was excellent.)  A group of Russian tourists recently donated computers to the community.  Education had improved greatly, the villagers understood the benefits of protecting the environment, and families were returning to the village.  A coordinated effort between the villagers and local and international environmental groups had successfully stopped the construction of a dam that would have inundated most of Madidi.  Now that sounds like ecotourism to me.

Nori isn't a big fan of the jungle.  Our Papua New Guinea misadventures, combined with an aversion to biting insects, make her wary of any jungle trip longer than a few hours.  She nearly cried upon discovering that she would be spending her 30th birthday in a park known for “exceptional biodiversity” – which is the scientific way to say “full of bugs.”  The National Geographic photographer whose images helped save the park nearly died from a fly-borne disease.  Many guides had thick scars on their arms and legs after burning and digging out parasitic worms.  Though Olvidio told me not to worry, I never went swimming in the lake.  I was terrified of the legendary Amazonian worm that swims up the male urethra before releasing tiny barbs that make it excruciating to remove.  To our relief, the bugs weren't bad.  Mosquito netting draped over our four-post bed, and citronella candles burned in the dining room.  Moreover, the mosquitoes were slow and dumb, easy targets for an experienced bug assassin like Nori.   

To celebrate Nori's birthday, Olvidio took us out on the lake at twilight.  They had placed two comfortable lawn chairs in the long, narrow boat, and Olvidio poled us towards a riot of tall royal palms at the north end of the lake.  The palm fronds appeared to be waving in the wind, but the air was still.  As we got closer, we realized that dozens of small yellow spider monkeys were playing and eating in the palms.  They slid down the stalks of the palm trees like a fireman's pole.  They launched themselves from one tree to the next.  High above, larger capuchin monkeys grunted as they ate palm nuts, tossing them into the lake.  As the sun set, groups of macaws soared overhead.  None of the animals seemed particularly frightened of us, because no one had done anything to them to make them frightened.  At dinner that night, the lights suddenly went out.  We assumed it was a power outage.  But it was the chefs bringing in a surprise birthday cake for Nori.  She had to admit that her “heart of darkness” 30th birthday hadn't been so bad after all. 

Most of what people call “ecotourism” is a joke.  Biodegradable soaps and shampoos don't make up for big SUVs, animal harassment, and rooms with electricity-sucking A/C – any more than a Diet Coke cancels out a Big Mac.  The Chalalan Ecolodge is therefore something of a miracle: a 100% community-owned and operated project that sustains the jungle and the community.  We felt good about the extra money that we had spent.  We didn't have luxury but we had peace of mind.  On cheaper jungle “ecotours”, guides bashed their way through the jungle and looked for monkeys and sloths to feed and annoy.  If their tourists got close enough to get good photos, they could expect a better tip.  During our three days walking in Madidi, we stuck to the marked trails and kept our distance from the animals.  I admit that Olvidio did offer to catch a morpho butterfly and put it in the refrigerator, but he assured us that it wouldn't hurt it.  A few minutes in the fridge would give us enough time to take a photo of the ‘chilled out' butterfly's incandescent blue wings.  In the end, we didn't do it, although Olvidio confided that a photographer from a very well known magazine had done exactly that.