Read Part 1 of “The Relationship between Food & Community-based Tourism: Central America” here
During this second part of our journey through Central America, we soon realise that among the many relationships that community-based tourism (CBT) allows through food experiences, the most fascinating is when we re-discover our own land.
Antonio Lee Moreno Ortiz (26) is a young Puerto Rican who has grown up surrounded by buildings, harsh concrete and grey tarmac. He met the land when he was 15. And that was his revelation.
Now he has found himself in the countryside. Full of energy and joyful pride, he recites his resolution aloud: he wants to live on this ‘little’ island for the rest of his life, investing his energies in building resilience in his community through agricultural education and capacity building. A true and simple heart-filling declaration.
The broken bond with the land was completely mended when Antonio met the curcuma at Plenitud. He might have seen the ground turmeric root packed on a shelf shop before, but it was in one of those fincas (farms) that he got to know the plant and learnt how to look after it. Since then, he has guided loads of locals and international students on vacation.
Antonio witnessed many of his peers – especially the ones from foreign countries – discovering a land that they had never experienced so closely. While learning about sustainability, permaculture and healthful living, regardless of their complaints about the insects and the cruelty of the sun banging on their heads – as reported by a smiley Antonio – they carry on digging their fingernails into the humid soil. They know that they will be rewarded with meals and drinks made of the fresh organic products that they have helped to harvest, as well as with the satisfaction of this collective cheerful achievement.
In these social projects that aim to strengthen sustainable practices in the rural realities, tourism is a financial aid but also a knowledge provider.
The workshops on agroecology techniques offered to university students for their field practices are also attended free of charge by the locals, who learn how to apply these methods in their own vegetable gardens.
There must be numerous young men and women that, like our Antonio, have discovered the roots of crops that they had previously only spotted in plastic baskets at the market. And now that the vegetables are harvested in their backyards, when the legendary rice with roast suckling pig reaches their own family table, those pigeon peas, vegetable pies and round slices of fried plantain will have an extra juicy organic taste.
Today, remembering his days at the finca, my virtual local guide in Puerto Rico sips the tasty drink made of almond milk, cinnamon and coconut oil and the organic turmeric rediscovered on his community soil.
In Panama, the recently born REDTURI (Rede de Turismo Comunitario Indígena de Panamá) gathers a rich and varied network of CBT community associations, each with at least a decade or two of tourism activity.
In the country, around 13% of the population self-identified as indigenous, and in a relatively small area of 75,000 km², there are seven different ethnic groups, with different languages and lifestyles and also different gastronomies.
The comarca Kuna Yala, one of the five legally recognised indigenous lands – where Gilberto and Soghi, co-founders of Burba Travel, live – is on the Caribbean coast. Here the tasty soup, prepared with coconut milk and tubers like yuca, guineo or ñame, will contain only animal protein from the surrounding crystalline waters. There is no stockbreeding activity here, and the tourists will share the local diet. If the fish (jurel, bonito, cojinúa or parco rojo) is smoked – instead of stewed or roasted – it will absorb only the smoke from the ember made of coconut tows and wood from the mangle –‘mangrove’ in guarani.
The tourism experiences currently available with ten of those communities will present visitors with a variety of foods and practices that are linked to the rich biodiversity – which they will help to maintain – as well as teaching about the seasonality of the crops available in each specific region.
Tourists can learn how to farm rice with one of the family of the Ngäbe ethnic group, while in the comarca Naso Tjër Di the visitors can explore the spiritual integration with the natural environment that happens here through food. In fact, cocoa is an extremely important element for the spiritual cleansing in these indigenous cultures.
And if tomorrow, alongside the cocoa tour, the visitors are able to experience other food routes too, it is because these resilient communities, thanks to the COVID pandemic, have learnt a valuable lesson on food sovereignty that is making their younger generations come back to their ancestral – and legally owned – land. They are learning how to farm their territory and regain some independence in their food supplies.
In the next stop of our journey through Central America, we will visit St Lucia, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, before returning to the mainland to visit Nicaragua and, once again, Guatemala. We will then close our circular journey by exploring the northern part of the continent, starting from Mexico.