Chalalán Ecolodge is nestled in the heart of Madidi National Park, which is deep in the Bolivian Amazon. A short flight from Bolivia's capital, La Paz, to Rurrenabaque followed by a canoe trip up the gleaming Beni and Tuichi Rivers takes tourists to Chalalán Ecolodge. The area is a pristine tropical rainforest—a conservation priority because of its diverse ecosystems and rich biodiversity. Within the 300,000-hectare region surrounding the ecolodge live several endangered species, including the Harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), chinchilla (Chinchilla lanigera and C. brevicaudata), giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), and spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus).
The Chalalán Ecolodge is a joint ecotourism initiative of the community of San José de Uchupiamonas and CI. In 1992, a visionary group of San José villagers realized that they needed an economic alternative to harvesting coffee, rice, and peanuts (a) so they could keep the younger generation from migrating to other locations and (b) because the great distance to the closest marketplace made it difficult to sell their products to increasingly competitive markets. Additionally, the community needed an economic alternative to destructive uses of the forest, including hunting and logging. To this end, they sought new economic opportunities through nature tourism. Their hope was to make tourism an alternative to logging, which has been increasingly perceived as short-lived, poorly paid, and destructive of the very forests on which the villagers have lived for more than three centuries.
Eager to improve their livelihood, community leaders sought out CI's assistance in pursuing ecotourism. CI was receptive to the idea of using ecotourism as a tool to link biodiversity conservation with community development. Thus, CI set out to convince Bolivian authorities of the economic value of protecting and keeping Madidi's forests intact. In 1995, CI received grant funding from the Multilateral Investment Fund, an affiliate of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), to begin the project.
Construction and Operations
With grant funds from IDB and technical assistance from CI, 70 families volunteered at least 20 days of labor to build the ecolodge. The structure was made from local rainforest materials that had been harvested in a sustainable manner. After much hard work and dedication, the Chalalán Ecolodge opened in 1998. It has since proven to be a viable economic alternative to hunting and logging, and the additional employment opportunities have had a multiplier effect on the community. Most provisions are sought locally, and several families from San José supply farm produce, native fruit, and drinks to the lodge.
CI's goal at the outset of the project was to create a profitable ecotourism lodge, which would be wholly owned and operated by the community. To accomplish this goal, CI guided the community through the design and development of the ecolodge and, together with a regional private-sector partner, America Tours, trained villagers in the necessary skills to run a tourism business: building, guiding tours, preparing food, housecleaning, making handicrafts, and marketing and managing the lodge. CI also helped the new management team establish relationships with tour operators in La Paz to assist with business promotion.
Transformation of a Community
After successfully preparing community members to manage Chalalán Ecolodge, CI transferred ownership to them in April 2001. Today, more than 70 families receive economic benefits from profits and employment. Depending on the season, up to 24 employees work as full-time cooks, guides, cleaners, and administrators. Virtually all of San José de Uchupiamonas's 600 residents benefit directly from the ecolodge: 50 percent of its profits are reinvested into the community in the areas of health care, basic infrastructure, and education. The remaining 50 percent of profits are divided among families as a dividend on their shares.
Currently, Chalalán receives approximately 1,000 tourists per year. In addition to the revenue that tourists generate, another positive effect of tourism is the increased consumption of fruits and vegetables by community members as they emulate the eating habits of tourists. Additionally, young people in the community have acquired new skills in accounting and computer use through managing sales and ecolodge administration. These added employment opportunities have helped divert the drift of young people from the village and have provided incentive to preserve their lifestyle for future generations.
With a renewed enthusiasm for their forest home, Chalalán residents are eager to share their environment with tourists. According to an excerpt from a letter written by the villagers of San José de Uchupiamonas, “It is our intention that Chalalán becomes a unique spot in the Bolivian Amazon that will provide tourists with comfort, excellent cuisine, environmental education, hikes, river cruises, wildlife observation, cultural exchange, and everything necessary to make a visit to Chalalán an unforgettable experience. We believe that by taking care of the animals and forests to show tourists, we take care of our own home.”
Because of its great success, the Chalalán Ecolodge is considered among the most successful enterprise development projects, and the Inter-American Development Bank has pledged to invest $12 million in projects elsewhere that are based on the Chalalán model.
IN DEPTH: Explore more ecotourism destinations.
Facilities and Tourist Information
Accommodations. The Chalalán Ecolodge can accommodate up to 28 tourists in six traditional cabanas (cabins). The ecolodge has four shared bathroom facilities, running water supplied by a solar-powered system, a professional kitchen with a combination of local and international cuisine, and a fully stocked bar.
Guided Nature Hikes. Local guides give expert interpretation on nature hikes. As tourists traverse the 25 kilometers of trails in Madidi National Park, they frequently see monkeys, tapirs, capybaras, alligators, and wild pigs. The varied forest habitats also include medicinal, fruit, and exotic plants, as well as a recently discovered archaeological site in the area.
Night Hikes. Equipped with headlamps, tourists discover the nocturnal world of colorful frogs, birds, and other species critical to the ecosystem of Madidi National Park.
Birdwatching. More than 340 bird species live in the vicinity of Chalalán, including macaws, toucans, and hummingbirds. Familiar with those local species, expert guides can easily identify their songs and calls.
Canoe Trips. Tourists can enjoy canoe trips on Chalalán Lake at dusk when the birds and troops of monkeys are actively preparing for the night.
Swimming and Relaxation. After a day of hiking, tourists can take a refreshing dip in pristine Chalalán Lake or can simply relax in a hammock while listening to the sounds of the forest.
Folklore Tales and Cultural Interaction. Tourists listen to tales from the community of San José de Uchupiamonas (Josesanos) and learn the legends of the forest animals through unique interpretations of how local species have evolved into their current forms.
Biodiversity Games. CI and the Josesano community have designed several fun and interactive games that incorporate themes of Madidi National Park's biodiversity.
For more information, please contact:
Chalalán Ecolodge Information Center
Calle Comercio, 1/2 block north of the Main Plaza
Tel./Fax +591-3-892 2309
Tel./Fax +591-3 892 2419
La Paz, Bolivia
Calle Sagárnaga #189 Corner of Murillo,
Michel Shopping Doryan Building, 2nd Floor #35
Tel/Fax +591-2-231 1451