The 438-square-kilometer strip between Nicaragua’s southern border and Lake Cocibolca is a protected wetlands and wildlife reserve replete with myriad species of animals and inhabited by some 1,700 fishermen and subsistence farmers in 11 small communities.
The locals are descendants of the Zapote and Guatuzo (or Maleku) peoples as well as the mestizos who arrived in the late 19th century to cultivate rubber. These same huleros reverted to the slave trade when the world rubber market crashed, selling Guatuzos for 50 pesos a head to the gold mines of Chontales. Today, only a handful of full-blooded Maleku survive, mostly over the border in Costa Rica.
In the 1930s, settlers introduced cacao to the region, which, because of the crop’s need for shade, preserved much of the area’s original forest canopy. When plummeting cacao prices and a deadly fungus wiped out the industry in the 1970s, hardwood logging ensued.
Only military conflict in the 1980s stopped the logging, but it also drove nearly the entire population of Los Guatuzos into Costa Rica. When families returned in the early 1990s, the area’s ecosystem was still largely intact, and the new government quickly acted to protect it from destruction.
Today, residents count on the richness of their natural surroundings to attract visitors and scientists. No fewer than 389 species of birds have been observed here, and between February and April, flocks of migratory species fly through in spectacular concentrations.
Los Guatuzos contains dense populations of crocodiles; caimans; feral pigs; jaguars; and howler, white-faced, and spider monkeys. This is also home to a rare, ancient species of fish called the gaspar (Actractoseus tropicus), a living, armored relic of the Jurassic age that uses its snout and fangs to eat other fish, crabs, and even small turtles.
The research center and guest facilities are located 40 kilometers from San Carlos , up the Río Papaturro, which drains the slopes of Costa Rica’s northern volcanoes. The narrow river’s fauna-rich jungle gradually swallows you as you approach the community of Papaturro.
Research station, nature center, and isolated backpacker’s hideaway, the Centro Ecólogico has two eight-bed dorms at $11 a night, plus campgrounds (tents and sleeping pads for rent). Arrange your meals in advance in the nearby village for about $4.
Arrange birding safaris, fishing trips, kayak excursions, nighttime wildlife safaris, boat trips in the wetlands and lake, and tours of local villages (most tours cost $11 pp). A multiplatform suspension canopy bridge allows for incredible bird and wildlife viewing in the upper reaches of the rainforest. There is also an orchid display of over 100 species including the tiniest one in the world, a butterfly farm, a turtle nursery for export to the pet industry, and a caiman nursery for scientific research, export, and tourist adrenaline production.
The center also has a conference room, workshop facilities, and support for anyone coming to do field research (GPS equipment, bird nets/traps, and field assistants). They will gladly work out deals for researchers and students.
Your host and guide, Armando, offers rubber boots for the mud, and an incredible wealth of knowledge from over 13 years of working in the jungle. Bring quick-drying clothes and adequate protection from the sun, rain, and especially bugs.
For more information or reservations contact FUNDAR in Managua (tel. 505/2270-5434, centro.ecologico [at] fundar [dot] org [dot] ni, www.fundar.org.ni ) or Armando Gómez (tel. 505/8674-3559 or 505/8677-8082). In San Carlos, FUNDAR works out of the Amigos de la Tierra office (inside the Red Cross building, tel. 505/2583-0139); they can help arrange transport to Los Guatuzos or down the river to El Castillo .
Another excellent option is only a five-minute boat ride from San Carlos but in a world of its own. Hotel La Esquina del Lago (tel. 505/8864-1665 or 505/8688-0961, www.riosanjuan.info , $20–35 d) is a jungle lodge which grew from a French expat’s world-class sportfishing trips and area nature tours. Despite cold water, bugs, and broken fixtures, the rooms are homey and charming.
Access is only by boat, and the spot feels incredibly remote, with views of surrounding volcanoes and the lake and all kinds of tours and water activities, specializing in birding, kayaking, and fishing adventures. They offer all transfer services, boats for your use, 24-hour electricity, Internet, and package deals with meals included.
From the west dock near the CANTUR kiosk in San Carlos , colectivos leave for Papaturro at 7 a.m. Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday; the four-hour trip costs $3.50 a person and stops at the small island of Chichicaste where fried fish and soup are available for about $1.
The same boat returns to San Carlos the day after arriving, leaving Papaturro at 7 a.m. Or you can rent a private panga—which costs $120, but can take up to 10 people to Los Guatuzos in only 1.5 hours.