A family-run business shares nature as a story.
By Kimberly Luste Maran
FAMILY AND FRIENDS: (back row, left to right) Elsa Martinez Cayaso, Gabriel Martinez, Eliezer Moran, Fredy Benitez, (front row) Wendell Martinez, Jr., Anel Vilareta, and Eilyn Martinez stop working long enough to pose for a photo.ilberto Martínez had a vision. In his native Panama, surrounded by tropical plants, mountains, and waterways, Wilberto wanted to expose others to the beauty around him—and he wanted to do it with his family. Wilberto and his wife Elsa worked hard to keep their son and daughter in church school—and instill in them a love for God and His creation. With a partner, and pioneering spirit, Wilberto started Nattur Panama, a conservation and ecotourism business.
“My dad was really into conservation of species, birding, and bird-watching,” says Eilyn Martínez Cayaso, who helps run the family’s nature center and tourism business. “Back then, in the 1970s and 1980s, ecotourism didn’t really exist, but it was something he really enjoyed. It was something he pursued—and then he decided to provide services for local tourism operators, and for operators abroad.” Nattur Panama offered mainly walking tours and bird-watching in those early days.
In 1993 Wilberto’s vision took a more substantial form when he and Elsa sent Eilyn and her older brother Wendell to Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University) in Maryland, United States. Both siblings studied in preparation for returning home to careers at Nattur Panama. In 1996 the family was reunited—and everyone dug into helping their small business succeed. “We started to do on-land tours in nature for visitors from cruise ships,” says Eilyn. “Nature walking, birding, tours on the lake and river—this all started 16 years ago.”
In 2000 Nattur Panama became a fully family-run business. “My dad’s partner didn’t understand our beliefs and way of thinking,” explains Eilyn. “So my dad, brother, and I were the ones who operated the business.” And they didn’t just operate it—they expanded.
“Nattur Panama still provides nature walks, birding, and tours. We shifted after several years from being a tour operator—planning a whole program for a tourist (arranging local flights, hotels, restaurants, entertainment)—because it became too competitive,” Eilyn says. “We shifted to working more with the cruise industry, and that worked for us for probably 12 years. The cruise part was exclusively six months of the year, so we had to work at [the business] very hard.”
The family has discovered something about the people who took their tours. “Being a guide, you learn a bit about the backgrounds of the people who are with you,” says Eilyn. “Many of our guests have some kind of Christian background. Very seldom do we find people who really do not believe in creationism. So what we do is we share nature as a story. We tell, for example, the story of how bees use the flowers or some orchids as if it were an airport.”
Eilyn, Wendell, and Elsa are still working hard to keep their business afloat. “My dad fell ill and finally passed away in 2011,” explains Eilyn. “My mom stepped in to help us full-time. We’ve also had an aunt and two uncles help us.” For several years they’ve operated a nature center, which has also served as a place for church activities, for Pathfinder and youth meetings, and for services of other Christian denominations. They have also started a bed and breakfast, trying to keep current on the travel needs and trends of tourists. “Panamanians generally don’t take in much of nature, and they are not into ecology,” says Eilyn, “so we don’t have a lot of local guests. We had to think of something that would really portray our beliefs in regard to nature and creation.”
Part of that sharing involved striving to achieve Panama’s Ecological Blue Flag, an award given by the government annually to entities in the community that reach a minimum of 90 percent sustainable development at beaches and natural spaces through strict criteria, which includes water quality and environmental education. “We received our star last May,” Eilyn says. It has helped their business to gain recognition in an area attractive to tourists from abroad, for which environmental issues are important. But having the center, plant nursery, and sustainable agroforestry has also meant an increase in labor.
WALKING TOUR: A school group participates in a guided nature walk on the grounds of Panama Nattur, located outside of Colon, Panama.“We normally have two seasons,” explains Eilyn. “We see a lot of visitors in the dry/summer season. Those days are intense as we try to get everything ready for groups. During the rest of the days, when we don’t have larger groups coming in, we do maintenance to the locations and equipment. We need to cut the grass, maintain the gardens, the cabins, the water. We need to feed the animals . . . it can be hectic.”
Adding to the stress of daily operations at a small business, Eilyn shares that there’s a lot of competition with larger companies. “Competition is good,” says Eilyn, “as it makes for variety—and for products to be better—but it is frustrating to see how other people take advantage of your work and knowledge and exploit it in another location or in another aspect. We’ve had to adapt to new markets and new challenges.”
And even though there are times, especially during low season, that the family has struggled to make ends meet, she (and her family) haven’t given up. “God has promised to be with us. He has answered so many prayers—and we are here because of Him. This has been kind of like a ministry because we’ve been able to share our thoughts and feelings and beliefs to some people who did not know why we were closed on Saturdays, or why we didn’t eat meat. . . . God has been so good to us. In prayer we have asked for the basics—some food to eat—on many occasions, and the Lord has provided. He has opened windows for us to operate and keep on.”
Kimberly Luste Maran is an assistant editor of Adventist World.