Hundreds of shades of greens; from moss, to ferns, to lichens, to bromeliads, decorate the forest from its floor all the way to its canopy where a silent film of mist gently glides over the treetops. The hum of a hundred different species of birds and insects breathes the forest to life. These types of forests, known as cloud forests, are among the most biodiversity-rich ecosystems in the world, but are rapidly shrinking.

Despite being one of the most biodiverse regions of the world, Latin America has lost a staggering 94% of its wildlife in the last 50 years, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet 2022 report. The report identifies several key drivers of biodiversity decline including habitat loss, species overexploitation, invasive species, pollution, climate change, and diseases. To help combat this, Conservation Allies began a search earlier this year to sponsor a deserving Latin American-based NGO for the inaugural Latin America Ecotourism Initiative.

When done responsibly, ecotourism can be a powerful tool for raising much-needed funds for conservation efforts, creating jobs, increasing environmental awareness, and encouraging conservation of an area’s natural resources. Thus, the Conservation Allies’ Ecotourism Initiative would award up to $50,000 to a Latin American-based NGO to create a new ecolodge or expand an existing one to promote the conservation of a critical natural area through ecotourism.

We are thrilled to announce Defensores de la Naturaleza as the recipient of the Conservation Allies’ 2023 Latin America Ecotourism Initiative.

Sierra de las Minas, Guatemala​ “Our mission is to conserve nature today to ensure its existence tomorrow,” said María Andrea Bolaños, project manager of Defensores de la Naturaleza. “So the ecolodge will help us achieve our mission by providing us with the financial aid to promote and achieve these actions.”

Defensores de la Naturaleza is a Guatemalan-based organization dedicated to managing four different protected areas in Guatemala including the stunning Sierra de las Minas.

“One of our past executive directors once said ‘if you haven’t been to Sierra de las Minas, I would tell you that you don’t know Guatemala,” said Bolaños. “Sierra de las Minas is perhaps Guatemala’s conservation jewel.”

The Sierra de las Minas are an east-western mountain range and one of the truly wild places in Guatemala. Protection of the mountains is particularly important because it contains an estimated 60% of Guatemala’s remaining cloud forest. And this is where Defensores de la Naturaleza’s new Ecolodge will be built.

“All of the funding and profit that we make from the ecolodge will go back to biodiversity monitoring and conservation actions,” said Bolaños. “One of our rangers always tells our visitors that they’re not really paying for their stay, they’re actually paying to make conservation actions keep going and paying for the conservation of an area. So it is exciting that all the funds will be going back to the protection of this critical habitat.”

The Sierra de las Minas is a Biosphere Reserve, meaning that it is internationally recognized within UNESCO’s “Man and the Biosphere” program. The mountain range is not only home to at least 575 species of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles, but it is particularly important for its rich water supply, since more than 60 rivers that supply the Motagua and Polochic valleys are born from it.

Guests at the new ecolodge will be able to experience firsthand the unique beauty of the cloud forests, see and observe different flora and fauna surrounding the lodge, and get the opportunity to interact with and hear stories from rangers.

“I think tourism provides people with a great educational experience. They get to experience nature firsthand and be involved in conservation activities,” said Bolaños.

Furthermore, there may be future opportunities for visitors of Defensores de la Naturaleza to engage in community tourism initiatives. To get to the lodge, Bolaños explained that visitors will pass through three different local communities. According to Bolaños, guests staying at the ecolodge would also generate economic benefits for these local communities as local families will be hired to prepare meals, take guests on coffee tours, and potentially welcome them for immersive homestay experiences.