The small country of El Salvador separates Guatemala from Nicaragua. The proximity leads the two countries to have many similarities such as their distain for their respective governments, a diverse environment including beaches, cooler mountainous regions, and volcanoes, and population of kind people. However, these countries also have many differences. Nicaraguans prefer baseball whereas Guatemalans prefer soccer, the traditional Mayan clothing and customs are not nearly as present in Nicaragua, and Gallo Pinto doesn’t even exist in Guatemala. I’ve been asked a lot which country I preferred, and I honestly cannot pick. I had such amazing experiences in both of them and it would be unfair to choose a favorite.
The first week in Nicaragua was spent in Matagalpa, a fairly large city nestled in the northern highlands of the country. We took Spanish classes with Colibri Spanish School and lived in home stays in groups of three. We had non-individual classes for the first time, and I was lucky to have a small group of just one other girl named Emmy whose vocab and grammar far outweighed my skills. Our original teacher was named Diana, and she was a very sweet, kind teacher who had a great mix of games, excersizes, and conversations. However, after two days with her, we learned that she had gotten sick and lost her voice, so for the rest of the week we had a woman named Ceci. Ceci was also a great teacher, although we had a lot less games and conversation, and a lot more straight up grammar learning. That being said, we also learned a lot about Nicaraguan culture, slang, food, and more. I definitely could feel my spanish improving and it was at this point in the trip that I felt that I truly could communicate about anything I wanted in Spanish. After lessons and lunch, we had afternoon activities every day that were coordinated by the school. These activites included a trip to the english academy to help the students practice their english, a hike up to a large cross on a hill outside matagalpa with an awesome view of the city, a cooking class where I ate way to many enchiladas, and a presentation and conversation about Nicaraguan politics, the revolution, and feminism. I enjoyed all the activites, but the days were long with little time for breaks or rest, and we also knew this would be our last week with internet until our week of Student Directed Travel (a 9 day block in our itinerary purposely left completely open that we have to plan completely). So, in order to get a break and plan our week, we took an afternoon off and got our plan all squared away. Aside from classes and activites, we ate all of our meals at our homestay house with Carolina (our host Mom), and I loved every minute we spent in the house. Not only was it an absolutely beautiful home, but Carolina’s food was out of this world, and the family was gracious and warm, and taught us a lot about their life and culture. In addition, there was another American girl staying at the house from Virginia, and it was a lot of fun to talk to her about her gap year program and other topics. After the week we began a two day hiking trip in the cerra negra nature reserve just under an hour outside the city. The hiking was beautiful, although incredibly wet and muddy, and we finished the two days with brown clothes after taking our fair share of falls. It was nice to be hiking in the wilderness again, even if our time in nature was interrupted by a lunch at a family’s coffee farm on saturday. That night, we slept in tents, and continued hiking the next morning before arriving at an eco lodge and waterfall for lunch. The waterfall was beautiful and it was a lot of fun to wash some of our filth off and swim. We returned to the city for the afternoon and dinner, and then headed to our next destination in the next morning.
This destination was a small town called Peñas Blancas, about 2 hours from Matagalpa, right next to a nature reserve. The setting was gorgeous: rolling lush green hills, large rock cliffs tucked into the mountainside, and waterfalls all over. We stayed at a Cooperative set up by the community in 2003, sleeping in bug nets and bunk beds in rooms of four. The community was full of kind people who were extremely well educated and very aware of the advantages of the tourism. Although it was only a few households larger than El Paredon, the community was significantly more spread apart, and the natural beauty of the landscape was mostly untouched. We vollunteered all week with an organization called Artesana, which works to improve the quality of life of the community and protect the local environment. Their work consists of educating locals in different art trades, such as soap making, bracelet making, massage therapy, cream making, mural painting, and much more. They also have taken on many different large projects, such as construction on a now finished school, cleaner drinking water, and the installation of compost toilets in family homes. The last project was what we had the pleasure of working on. Every morning, we would walk to a house owned by a local man, Luis, about 30 minutes away and over the course of four mornings work, we successfully installed a complete toilet system. The system was a wet one, so we dug two six foot holes for the tank and filter, dug connecting trenches for the pipes, mixed and layed concrete for the bathroom, connected the plumbing to the porcelain, and more. It was hard work, but it was good to finally do some manual labor and lend a hand to the community. During the afternoons, we participated in a few different art classes, such as print making, mural painting, soap making, and bread baking, and also went on two hikes, one to the beautiful “rainbow waterfall,” and the other to a swimming hole. The activites were a lot of fun and a good break from the labor in the mornings. After dinner (which was always tasty as we were spoiled by three local woman who cooked for us) we had open evenings that were filled with dance parties, games, and a couple facilitated lessons by our OE´s. We finished the week with a goodbye and thank you with many community members, where we had a brief conversation, listened to a song on the mandalin played by one of the locals, and had a crazy intense game of musical chairs which I placed third in.
After a logistics day in Matagalpa, we packed up and made the 3 hour journey to La Concepccion, a small town in a more rural department of Nicaragua. The week was spent living with host families in a rural(er) community just outside La Concepccion, and taking spanish classes with the Mariposa spanish school. We had another week of group classes, although this time our leaders, Alex and Hannah, joined in the fun and were in my class. The classes were a little long and tiring as we had them in the afternoon and every morning we had volunteer work. However, it was a lot of fun to be with Alex and Hannah, and to see how much my spanish had improved since the first week of classes. We polished up some of our grammar skills, had conversations about politics, culture, and religion, walked to viewpoints and into town, and played a bunch of different games. At the end of the week it was a nice feeling knowing we were done with lessons for the rest of the trip! The volunteer work in the morning was a great experience as well. There were four different projects, and we split up into groups of three and rotated. The projects were working with kindergarten students at a local public school, doing general grounds maintenance at a nature reserve, working with kids at a cultural center (which was really just this woman´s backyard) and a helping out at a different school. It was a lot of fun working with the children, and I enjoyed our many activities from drawing to hopscotch to hide and go seek. The other projects were very fulfilling. The school was chaotic, although it definitely made me realize how much I took my school experience for granted, even in kindergarten. It was also strange to think about the differences in the experiences, while also some of the similarities, for example the fact that the students were gluing on painted corn to bubble letters at the school, a tradition I practiced 13 years ago when I was that age. The reserve was beautiful and it was a lot of fun to speak with the local volunteers while we planted trees, weeded, and moved lumber. My homestay that family was also amazing, and despite living in not the greatest conditions, they were intelligent, welcoming, kind, interesting, thoughtful, and all around fun. I had great conversations with the mom and the eldest daughter who was in her final year of nursing school, and played lots of games with the 13 year old daughter and 8 year old granddaughter. It was a simple week at home, but I think my best homestay experience as I truly felt like I was a part of the life in the country. It was hard to go, but the excitement of what is to come always makes it a bit easier. We finished off the week with a relaxing day at a volcanic lake about an hour from the school. We swam, relaxed, kayaked, and hung out. It was a beautiful spot, the lake was clear, a perfect temperature, and just simply gorgeous. It was a great way to finish a long week.
Up next on the docket was our week of Student Directed Travel. We had planned the whole 9 days a couple weeks before and we were excited to visit some awesome cities in Nicaragua. Our first stop was Leon, where we stayed at a beautiful hostel in the center of town called Sonati. We were all able to stay in the same 12 person dorm so it was a ton of fun to be together as a group after a week of homestays. The days consisted of one centering group activity, followed by some free time to enjoy the city and discover the area. We had a day at a beach about 30 minutes from Leon by chicken bus and we spent the day swimming, relaxing, walking, and eating. The next day we went to a local art museum, which was actually our first museum of the trip, and although I did not expect much, I was surprised to find a well maintained grouping of buildings with a diverse collection of artists, styles, time periods, and nationalities. We saw Picasso’s, Warhol’s, and a few pieces by Sol Lewitt. It was very interesting to be walking through the museum, after visiting so many art museums with my lovely family members that actually know a thing or two about art. I definitely was appreciative of the opportunities I have had to be exposed to the world of art and I realized how much more I want to learn. Our final day activity in Leon was a trip to another volcano, Cerro Negro, One of the youngest volcanoes in Nicaragua. We hiked up about an hour and a half on the black volcanic rock/sand, and we were rewarded with incredible views of luscious green forest, a line of volcanoes, and the pacific ocean. On our way down, we did not walk, instead, we put on some interesting suits, grabbed our wooden planks, and sandboarded down the side of the volcano. Apparently this is the only place in the world you can volcano board, and it was a ton of fun and a very unique experience. When we weren’t doing activities, we spent a lot of time in Leon walking through the streets, stopping in local shops or restaurants, and admiring the colonial architecture of the city. It had an interesting feel, as Leon offered many of the touristy, gringo, and upscale places that Antigua offered, but also had a huge population of locals and felt like a happy medium between culture and comfort. We enjoyed our four days, and then as always, we piled in another microbus and made our way to Granada.
A few hours later we arrived in Granada. We were instantly welcomed by a familiar heat and humidity, as Leon and Granada share a very similar, and hot, climate. We checked into Hostal Oasis, which is a very large hostel in a great location of Granada with a ton of amenities, from free all you can eat pancakes for breakfast, to free computers, free phone calls, and a pool. Our firsts day was spent exploring the city and a few of us climbed the steps to the belltower of one of the central churches and had gorgeous views of the city during sunset. The next day, we got up early and made our way to the Mombacho Nature Reserve and Volcano. Just 30 minutes outside Granada, this hike gave us breathtaking views of the city, the lakes, and the beautiful landscape. We were treated to an awesome tour by our guide Jordan, and learned all about the forest and nature reserve. The rest of the day included a little shopping as well as some delicious food from the many amazing restaurants in the city. On our last day, we headed down the road to Lake Nicaragua, the biggest lake in Central America. We had a kayak tour around the Islets of Granada, which are 365 small islands formed by a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago. The tour was very captivating and the views were beautiful, and we were able to swim in the delightfully warm water of the lake. The three days in Granada were fantastic. The city was stunning. The streets are full of colorful walled buildings with spanish tile roofs, and combined with the magnificent colonial churches, it makes for an amazing scene. The town is very touristy, and there are a ton of nice western restaurants, which makes for some steep prices, but a whole lot of comfort.
Our last 9 days in Nicaragua were definitely some very special ones. After saying goodbye to the comforts of our cushy hostels and nice restaurants of our Student Directed Travel Week, we headed out early on Sunday the 12th and made our way to Isla de Ometepe, an island on Lake Nicaragua formed by two volcanoes. It was a long travel day as we had a van to the port city, a 2 hour ferry ride, another van to the town near our organization, and a 25 minute walk up a hill with all of our bags to get to the property itself.
Upon arrival we were greeted by the staff, interns, and volunteers at Finca Bona Fide, a permaculture farm on the island set up by a few americans in the early 2000’s. The farm was created to help increase biodiversity on the island, as well as offer some education to the locals on this type of agriculture and farm system. The 26 acre farm has 76 different types of plants and tens of thousands of organisms. We lived in dorm like buildings with no real walls and a tin roof, with only bug nets to truly protect us from the natural elements of the jungle. Because of this, we grew accustomed to large bugs and creatures all over the farm, from hand sized tarantulas to giant scorpians. Luckily, we were also able to enjoy many of the benefits of living so closely connected with nature, such as astounding sunset views of the Volcano and the sounds of chirping birds in the morning. Our days were busy and long, but extremely fulfilling and enjoyable. Every day started with an early wake up as we started farm work at 6:30 AM and worked until our break for breakfast at 8. After eating, we would continue working until our lunch at 12. The farm work was divided into four different areas, the kitchen, nursery, garden, and field. I got to do all sorts of work, from shoveling compost, to cutting down banana trees and collecting the fruit, to harvesting cinnamon and ginger, to carrying wood, to dorm construction, to cooking, and more. The work was challenging and labor intensive, but it varied enough that it was definitely never boring. We worked hard and ate well, thanks to three local community members who helped us in the kitchen, Marina, Concepcion, and Paula. We feasted on rice, beans, plantains in countless forms, squash, and many other delicious plates. Our afternoons were a great blend of free time, activites, and workshops. We travelled to a natural swimming hole, visited a local beach, viewed mayan petrogliphs, made chocolate from scratch, had a salsa lesson, learned about natural medicine and agroforestry, and still had a nice amount of time to relax, read, and play many different games. During one of our days on the island, we all climbed the Volcano Maderas, one of two volcanoes that form the actual island. Although Maderas is only 4300 feet tall, we started at basically sea level, which meant a pretty long day climbing all the way up to the peak. I was impressed as many of my group memebers discussed concerns and worries before the hike, but all except two made it to the top. At the peak we were rewarded with a very foggy view of the alpine lake in the crater. I immediately went down to the water and went for a celebratory swim, which was a little chilly but felt amazing. Luckily, on our way back we were rewarded with the clearing of the clouds and an epic view of the other volcano on the island, la concepcion, emerging from the sky blue waters of Lake Nicaragua. We then returned back to the farm and had a well deserved dinner. It was a physically demanding week, but incredibly rewarding and a great way to end our time in Nicaragua.
Before we knew it, we were driving south to Costa Rica and our 5 weeks in Nicaragua had come to end.