Community-based tourism case study: Chalalan ecolodge in Bolivia

If Chalalan falls then the other small companies will fall. They are not able to sustain themselves.
I never thought it was going to come to this. I never thought they would allow it. But they are doing it.

Jasmin Caballero co-manages Chalalan Ecolodge, a community-based tourism project in the Upper Amazon Basin. The national park in which it sits is on the cusp of change.

The Bolivian government has signed off on allowing gold mining within the limits of Madidi National Park. In December 2021, it was reported that 80 percent of the park was committed to mining companies. Mining work, which has started, will bring a heavy and notoriously polluting industry right into its heart. It is unfortunately not uncommon for protected areas in Bolivia to be threatened by extraction.

It destroys the riverbank, says Jasmin. Huge earthworks rip up the forest floor in search of tiny traces of gold. Mercury, which is used in the process, has the potential to poison water, land, wildlife and people.

In her lifetime, and through her experiences in Peru and Venezuela, Jasmin has seen mining destroy communities, resulting in everything from increased violence to armed groups and trafficking: I told the people who are helping me now: ecotourism is our only option to fight against the miners. And if Chalalan falls then the other small companies will fall. They are not able to sustain themselves.

Where to find Chalalan Ecolodge

Despite this looming threat, you’ll find Chalalán in peace – save from the noises of the jungle. Enveloped by its surroundings, with trees right up on the door, the lodge is five and a half hours from the nearest town by motorised canoe, within a remarkable landscape of Amazon rainforest.

Visitors fly from La Paz to Rurrenabaque, the closest settlement. Then, they go on a long, gentle cruise up the Beni River and the smaller Tuichi River, before nudging up to the bank to carry out the rest of the journey on foot. It’s a half-hour walk inland to the edge of Lake Chalalán, where the clutch of cabins sits with roofs of palm leaves and walls of palm wood, hidden even from the lake, save from a little jetty on the water.

Most people come here to experience total nature immersion. There are 50km of walking trails from the doorstep of the lodge. Wildlife exists here in far greater volumes than around the lodges closer to the town, which is why it’s worth the trip.

“You have capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys,” Jasmin lists. “You will sometimes see large herds of white-lipped peccary, sometimes jaguar – if you’re lucky. There are tapirs, lots of birds.”

Activities include trail walks, canoe rides and nocturnal safaris – as well as relaxing and eating. You might see large razor-billed curassows or guans, or blue-and-yellow macaws in flight across the lake. The brave can swim – under the watchful eyes of the caimans resting in the lake margins.

After a few nights in the jungle, guests leave. Their journey back downstream along the Tuichi River takes half as long. But their money stays here – or at least, nearby.

The story of Chalalan

Travel three hours onward, and you’ll find the San José de Uchupiamonas community. This indigenous people founded the ecolodge with help from non-profit environmental organisation Conservation International and funds from the Inter-American Development Bank. But it took a series of extraordinary events to set up business here.

The community was also helped by an Israeli explorer, Yossi Ghinsberg, who spent three weeks lost alone in the jungle, having separated from his backpacking companions in the 1980s. He was eventually found with help from people from the community.

As thanks, he returned in the 1990s to help the community secure funding to set up their lodge. It’s an extraordinary adventure story that put a community on the map and a 2017 cinematic retelling of Ghinsberg’s journey, Jungle, starring Daniel Radcliffe, renewed interest.

But Chalalán Lodge’s dramatic origin story is symptomatic of the difficulty that remote communities have in getting tourism to their door. Fortunately, in recent years, Chalalán has had successful imitators and tourism in the nearby town of Rurrenabaque has grown. Jasmin says that guides born in San José de Uchupiamonas are the most popular guides in Rurrenabaque.
This is the richest, most biodiverse place on the planet.

The Josesanos

As owners, the Josesanos as a community directly benefit from the profits of the lodge. Some work there, too. Ecotourism is a gainful employment in a place where their traditional industries – trapping or logging – are not welcome within park bounds.

“I can say that 90 percent of the workforce are from the community,” says Jasmin. In the 1990s, Jasmin was employed by Conservation International to help set up Chalalán Ecolodge. She trained guides, cooks and management from the community with her now-husband, David Ricalde, a biologist.

There are cooks, managers and guides renowned for their rainforest interpretation in both English and Spanish. The lodge hires the occasional person from the nearest settlement, Rurrenabaque, who provide useful cover when villagers all want time off to celebrate local events and anniversaries.

Training opportunities for women

In the 1990s, Jasmin was the main field consultant in charge of human resources for tourism at Chalalán. “I have very good memories of training the women – giving them cooking courses, menus. It was so beautiful to work with them… When they graduated, the women gave a big party, as they had never trained before.”

When she and David first went house to house to recruit, they found that the women wouldn’t speak at all. She returned alone so that the women would approach her. When the cohort came to be trained, they came with children and childminders in tow. More than once, their husbands threatened Jasmin to stop. When the lodge opened and the women started bringing home money, the complaints subsided.

The lodge has changed the lives of women in the village. To Jasmin’s mind, the women make the lodge what it is: “Those women were one of the main pillars for the success of Chalalán.”

The making of Chalalán Ecolodge changed the history of ecotourism development in the region, the country and in the Western Amazon. No longer was the area just the preserve of backpackers, but a sought-after ecotourism destination. “We made history,” says Jasmin. “No one expected that indigenous people could do this.”

How to succeed in business

In the lodge’s 20-something year history, there have been successes and failures. A few things have stayed the same – there are still some of the original guides and cooks working at the lodge. Some things have changed: the lodge has encouraged education in English and contributed towards healthcare and a school for the community, as well as clean water.

“The community now own their own territory,” Jasmin says. “They had to hire lawyers to do so – Chalalán paid for all of that.” Most pleasing to Jasmin, more young people are going to university “which is amazing”.

Times haven’t always been easy for the lodge. Businesses can struggle if they have bad advice, or experience a drop in visitor numbers – as they did during the Covid pandemic. It means success is hard won. Jasmin went from being intensely involved in the lodge’s inception to stepping back. She returned to co-managing the lodge in 2020.

To Jasmin, Chalalán’s success is dependent on it treating itself as a limited company – not just a community initiative – and in getting the right help from the industry.

With her degree in hotel and travel management and diploma in destination development, plus 40 years of experience running her company, America Tours Bolivia, Jasmin is a good ally to have on board. She has big plans for the survival and thriving of the lodge – but it will always involve the community to succeed.

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Chalalan Ecolodge in Madidi National Park

Chalalan Ecolodge in Madidi National Park

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The future of Chalalan

“We are recruiting new students to be the future for Chalalan,” says Jasmin. She is currently training three men and three women in management.

As the threat of mining looms ever larger, it is more important than ever that Chalalán models a sustainable business practice. When communities recognise the value of their nature, then both have a better chance of being protected. “This is the richest, most biodiverse place on the planet,” says Jasmin – a fact that becomes immediately apparent when you enter the screeching, howling jungle.

It seems that this doesn’t seem to matter to the Bolivian government. But for the travellers lucky enough to step into that dugout canoe and start their adventure – they, at least, will know soon enough.

Need to know

Staying in lodges owned by communities actively helps these communities engage in sustainable business practices, rather than seeking employment or profit share from harmful businesses, like mining. Community-based tourism doesn’t always have to involve staying in the community. The San José de Uchupiamonas live three hours away from the ecolodge. Jungles mean wonderful nature, but they also can involve darkness, humidity and insects, and rain – prepare with a good torch, repellent and clothing. You may need to shelter indoors for a few hours if there is a heavy downpour. Your reward is total nature immersion in one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Rodrigo Mariaca] [Intro: Dirk Embert / WWF] [The Josesanos: Rodrigo Mariaca] [The future of Chalalan: Rodrigo Mariaca]