How your travel can benefit Nicaraguan social organisations

After two years living and travelling in Nicaragua I have seen that just by staying at certain hotels you support the education of needy children. And by eating in some restaurants you can provide jobs for adults with special needs. A number of tourist ventures in Nicaragua are now ‘social-enterprises’ which dedicate their profits to charities, or programmes that benefit the local community. But many of these ventures are not well publicized, and some towns seem to be missing out. I wonder if we could make a ‘portal’ or site where Nicaraguan social enterprises can easily be found?

You kayaking trip can benefit children’s education on Ometepe island

I work for a ‘‘Sister City’ programme  that regularly brings delegations of visitors to Nicaragua. There are many organisations who bring groups of visitors to this wonderful country, from  ‘Global Glimpse’ to brigades of deaf teachers, or Church Mission groups. Not forgetting  normal groups of tourists enjoying what the country has to offer. If each of these groups stayed in hotels which are Social Enterprises then we could bring large amounts of new income towards school and social programmes. I try to take my groups to one of these Five Favourite Places, but I also try to spend our hotel and restaurant budget in Social-enterprises.

A Social Enterprise is a company, like a hotel or a café or shop, which channels its profits to a non-profit or Non-Government Organisation (NGO). Across Nicaragua Social Enterprises are now raising large amounts of funding for poor communities and local charities. Let me give some examples…

I stayed at Hacienda Merida on Ometepe which was a great place to relax and  watch the sunset views. But the best thing was knowing that the profits go towards building a primary school for the local community. The hostal income allows them to build a new classroom each year. (the classrooms are built partly out of recycled bottles which is also beneficial). The owner, Alvaro Molina, began years ago with a dream. Now this self-supporting project has allowed the building of four well-equipped classrooms and dozens of children receiving a bilngual education. All paid for by the profits from happy travellers.

The lovely primary school supported by Hacienda Merida

Esteli is the town in Nicaragua that is best served by Social Enterprise hotels. Casa Vinculos is a lovely hotel that directly supports Fundacion Vinculos, which promotes Early Childhood Education. When I take delegations to Esteli we take over all nine rooms in Casa Vinculos and enjoy their good food and crafts shop whilst knowing that our funds benefit local children. Esteli also has the more upmarket Hotel Los Arcos, which supports a health centre, plus SONATI, and Hostal Luna which cater for the backpacker market and support environmental work and a mobile library.

Granada has Hotel Con Corazon  which supports education programmes. Hotel Con Coraon is interesting because its publicity positively emphasizes the social benefits supported and its name reflects this. Unfortunately since it is always booked up well in advance I have never stayed there, and so far I have not heard of a second similar hotel in the town. Since Granada is the heartland of tourism in Nicaragua, with over 100 hotels, I believe there is plenty of scope for more hotels that could be added to Hotel Con Corazon and take up more of this market segment.

NGOs and non-profits aim to encourage a love of reading for pleasure. Nicaraguan schools and homes have a major shortage of books

By contrast, in terms of social-profit hotels, Leon and Managua are disappointing. In Leon the SONATI hostal does good work with the backpacker crowd, raising awareness on environmental work. But in terms of a hotel, for better off clients, I don’t know of a single hotel in Leon or Las Peñitas or Poneloya that dedicates all its profits to social programmes.  Of course there are some hotels that will give a donation now and then to a charity. But I am talking about hotels that exist to raise funds for the social good. If you exist, then let the world know. I bring groups to Leon 4 times a year and would love to place visitors in a hotel on the model of Casa Vinculos or Casa con Corazon.

In Managua there are hundreds of hotels. Like Leon, if one exists like the examples above, then you don’t advertise widely enough. Hotel Europeo does support a foundation but it is not clear from the website what % of the profits goes to the charitable work. I would also love to know if a hotel with social benefit exists in San Juan del Sur or other towns.

Cafes and restaurants can also be Social Enterprises, such as the wonderful Cafe de Las Sonrisas in Granada, which employs deaf staff

The tourism sector can support more Social Enterprises – not only hotels but also restaurants, language schools and other services. Esteli has Café Luz which raises funds for the mobile library.  Granada has the wonderful Café de la Sonrisa  where deaf young people work. Also of course there are shops and crafts. In Granada there is a Hammock workshop next door to Café de la Sonrisa which provides  employment opportunities for differently-able young people. In Leon or Managua, is there anything similar?

To learn Spanish you can visit the Mariposa Language School. To climb  a volcano from Leon then go with  Quetzaltrekkers which raises funds through providing tours and guides. Quetaltrekkers provide funding for a range of Leon NGOs such as  Las Tias and NECAT, to pay the salaries of teachers and social workers in deprived areas of town.

If you want to climb a volcano, go with Quetsaltrekkers, who devote their profits to support NGOs such in Leon

So these tourist-orientated ventures are providing a great service. But they could be better known and there could be more of them. How could tourist-orientated social enterprises in Nicaragua be better publicized? I would love to find a one-stop shop where you could easily find information for every town in the country. How could this be set up?

My dream is to be able to always stay in social enterprise hotels when I bring groups here.  To spend most of our budget with services like Quetaltrekkers and mainly eat in cafes or restaurants like Café de las Sonrisas. Do you think that will be possible? And how could it be set up?


Photos by Steve Lewis. Follow Steve on instagram at @owstonlewis


Community Tourism in Nicaragua – Get Off the Beaten Track & Do Good!


As the sun came up I lay in bed listening to the howler monkeys in the forest…after a delicious ‘tipica’ breakfast with our host family we had a great walk through the coffee fields up to the rain-forest in the hill-tops. We saw sloths, oriole birds, wonderful butterflies and Nicaragua’s national bird, the guardabaranco. Community tourism in San Ramon allows farmers to diversify their farm-income and encourages all the community to preserve the environment. It’s a win-win for tourists and the local community together’.

Stay in local houses amidst the lovely nature of La Reyna, San Ramon

Although Nicaragua is still the second poorest country in Latin America, tourism is booming, with around 5% annual growth in recent years, supported by Nicaragua’s excellent record of peace and safety, and a growing economy. According to the World Tourism Council 2017 report tourism contributed $720 million in direct revenue to the country, amounting to around 5.3% of GDP in 2016. Tourism makes up nearly 4% of total employment, or 100,000 people. So things are looking good.

But there are flies in the tourism ointment. Land on the pacific coast is now selling for inflated prices and being snapped up by foreign buyers. Tourism is concentrated in two or three small areas of the country. Granada and San Juan del Sur are over-touristed, and are losing some of their Nicaraguan culture.  Much of the tourism industry is owned by large companies, and eventually by non-Nicaraguan private sector.

There is a way for tourists here to get off the beaten track, and see the real Nicaragua, by visiting rural villages and cooperatives that run community tourism initiatives. Community Tourism and Eco-tourism are ways to experience rural life, stay with local people and help preserve the environment. According to Martha Honey, author of Who Owns Paradise?, ‘ecotourism is travel to fragile and often protected environments, that strive to be low-impact and small-scale. It helps educate the traveller, provides funds for local conservations, directly benefits the economic development of local communities and fosters respect for different cultures’.


Community and locally owned tourism contributes more to a country than large scale package tours or high-end hotel chains. Globally the tourism sector that contributes least to local economies is the cruise-liner sector. It is estimated that if you buy a cruise-holiday, 90% of your total spending stays in the country of origin. Whereas back-packers, and low-impact travellers in Central America spend 80% of their total spend in the region.

When you are travelling in Nicaragua try to get away from the Southern ‘tourist-triangle’ (Granada –Ometepe-San Juan del Sur) and visit some of the small towns and rural nature areas. Travel on your own or, if you are in the USA or UK, sign up with a small group trip run by one of the  Sister-cities such as Gettysburg-Leon  or one of the Nicaragua solidarity groups. Here are five great ecotourism recommendations that we have enjoyed in the last 18 months:

1/ Stay with a rural family, Miraflor nature reserve, outside Esteli.

Beautiful countryside, nice hiking, and lovely waterfalls. Google UCA Miraflor Tourism to arrange to stay with a local family, and to go horse-riding or bird watching. Prices are very reasonable, at around $20 per day with meals included. By travelling on public transport you help to keep your environmental footprint low. Tourists who show their love for nature encourage local communities to preserve the forests.

2 / Volunteer in exchange for reduced lodging rates.

In Rancho Esperanza, on Jiquilillo beach in Chinandega, you can stay for a couple of months or longer and really contribute to the life of the local community. (It’s beautiful too). Volunteers work in a Kids Club with children. If you can’t stay that long you are still encouraged to support the local community by taking ‘tours’ such as line fishing, kayaking, or learn to climb a coconut tree.

3/ Somoto Canyon

The author, floating gently through Somoto Canyon

Somoto canyon is a must-do in Nicaragua, an adrenalin rush that will provide you with some of your best memories. Somoto is in Northern Nicaragua, so helps to get tourists to explore much-less visited part of the country. You can stay the night near the canyon, and make sure you use local guides with a good reputation. We have always taken groups with Henry Soriano, of Somoto Canyon Tours,  who are highly recommended for a friendly service with a good commitment to safety.

4/ Support Cooperatives

Around the country look out for the system of ‘co-manejo’ where local communities have joint control of natural resources with MARENA the ministry for the environment. In Las Peñitas, a beautiful fishing community outside Leon a cooperative of 12 local people  offer tours of Isla Juan Venado and the mangrove swamps. Between July and December they protect the eggs of endangered turtles, and at any time of the year you can stay the night in rustic cabinas on a very isolated beach.

In Las Peñitas and Jiquilillo community groups protest the endangered baby turtles

5/ Fair trade coffee villages

There is a wide range of options on offer, well-marketted throughout the North. Ask in any hotel around Esteli, Matagalpa, Jinotega and the Segovias.

In San Ramon a series of small villages and struggling cooperatives eke out a living from coffee production. After tough times under the right-wing government in the 1990s the co-ops have been supported to improve their incomes by CECOCAFEN  an umbrella body. The co-ops have now improved their shade-grown coffee, are moving to organic status, and have started homestays and visitor programmes. Support the fair-trade coffee villages and stay in a beautiful mountain community, enjoy fresh-roast home-grown coffee, and also visit gold-mines, viewpoints, cloud-forest, all the time surrounded by monkeys, sloths and butterflies.

For more information on all these areas the Moon Guide book is an excellent source of information. In this blog post they also recommend five rural cooperatives that get consistently high reviews Check them out and soon you’ll have your own list of favourites to share.


Please follow my Instagram page for more photos of beautiful Nicaragua – owstonlewis

Which are your favourite recommendations for low-impact tourism in Nicaragua or other countries you want to share? Please use the comments box below to share your recommendations.

Buenas noticias: salud mejorada en El Salvador

Iniciemos el año 2017 con algunas buenas noticias. Te presentaré a mi amiga Graciela. La historia de Graciela nos muestra que la vida está mejorando en la mayoría de los países en desarrollo, que la ayuda externa funciona, y que la mayoría de la gente en los países pobres están más saludables ahora de lo que solían estar. Ellos están tomando control sobre sus vidas.


Graciela, en campaña de vacunacion

Desde 1991 a 1994 viví en una villa rural en El Salvador con mi esposa Catalina. Avelares fue una de las villas que visité varias veces, tratando de apoyar el servicio de atención primaria de salud en un lugar muy pobre. Es una pequeña comunidad en lo alto de los cerros, y en 1991 el territorio estaba controlado por la guerrilla del FMLN. La gente local estuvo tratando de proveer un sistema de educación y salud muy rudimentaria, con jóvenes voluntarios de cada comunidad. En esa época en Avelares, Graciela trabajaba como voluntaria en atención primaria de salud. Ella solo recibió unas pocas semanas de capacitación y algunas medicinas otorgadas por la diócesis católica y una excelente organización no gubernamental (ONG) llamada Concern America.

En noviembre de 2016, Catalina y yo visitamos las comunidades nuevamente y estuvimos encantados de encontrar a Graciela, quien todavía ofrece cuidados de salud en Avelares y en tres villas de los alrededores. Después de veinticinco años ella se ve un poquito más vieja—pero para decir verdad, ¡nosotros también! Ella aún vive en la misma casa y trabaja en la misma clínica de un solo cuarto hecha de bloques de adobe. Pero lo que ha cambiado significativamente son los indicadores de salud. Graciela nos contó con gran orgullo que ningún niño ha muerto en su comunidad en los últimos once años. Estuvimos muy asombrados.


Graciela en su puesto de salud

En los años 90 en El Salvador la taza de mortalidad infantil fue 60 muertos por 1000 nacidos vivos. Hoy ha caído a 16. Pero en áreas rurales los muertos de infantes era aun mas común. Catalina y yo vimos, probablemente, un muerto en la comunidad cada dos meses. Hubo poco cuidado prenatal, mucha desnutricion y mal acceso al hospital, debido a la guerra y la pesima condicion de la carretera. Todos nos bebes nacieron en la casa, sin electricidad, y con solamente una partera tradicional para ayudar al parto. Como una estimación aproximada, yo diria que un niño en diez murio antes de la edad de cinco años en las comunidades de Avelares. La taza de mortalidad maternal tambien fue muy alta en la década de los 90.


Nuestro vecino, Adan en 1993. Sus gemelos nacieron en la casa, pero murieron adentro de 24 horas. Reina, la mama, no tuvo ningun apoyo profesional.

El mes pasado, Graciela nos explicó con orgullo sobre las mejoras hechas ahora por el Ministerio de Salud. Nos explicó — Ahora todos los niños nacen en el hospital. Es mi trabajo dar asesoría prenatal, tomar el peso y medidas de salud. Pero dos semanas antes de la fecha prevista para el parto, se lleva a la parturienta al pueblo en las tierras bajas, para esperar en la “Casa Materna”.  Para mi asombro, aprendí que en los últimos doce años solo un niño había nacido en la villa. — Esa vez no pude encontrar transporte oportunamente, explicó ella.

Habiendo sido apoyada anteriormente por la iglesia y ONGs, hoy en día Graciela está empleada por el Ministerio de Salud bajo el sistema de Atención Primaria en Salud (APS). Esto ha sido una iniciativa muy positiva por parte del Estado para retener la experiencia rural de los promotores de salud. En algunos departamentos, los ex-promotores de salud constituyen la mayoría de la fuerza de trabajo pagada en salud comunitaria. Uno de los viejos colegas de Graciela, Dagoberto Menjívar, es ahora médico y administrador. Sin embargo, comenzó como promotor de salud con quince días de formación en el “Curso Básico”. Una verdadera historia de éxito.


El centro de salud en Avelares (a la izquierda de este edificio)

Graciela nos dijo que el Ministerio es muy exigente. Ella tiene que visitar cada hogar en sus comunidades según un cronograma y llevar a cabo una serie de controles y vacunas en cada casa. – Una vez la madre ha regresado a la villa después de dar a luz, tengo que visitar el hogar cada día por la primera semana, luego una vez por semana por un mes, luego cada quince días, etc. Si un niño muriera en mi área de trabajo, yo podría ser llevada ante un tribunal y poder ser detenida como responsable. Si un niño muere de una enfermedad prevenible en la infancia, yo podría ir a la cárcel.


Todos los bebes hoy nacen el un hospital

No solo se ha reducido rápidamente la tasa de muerte de bebés y madres en los últimos 25 años. En El Salvador y casi en todos los países latinoamericanos, ha habido progreso constante en la esperanza de vida y en otros indicadores de salud. Ya más seguros que sus hijos tendrán una vida saludable, las familias han estado tomando más control sobre su fertilidad. Cuando vivíamos en la región, la mayoría de las parejas tenían 6, 8 o incluso más hijos. Conocimos a una vecina quien nos dijo tristemente que ella había dado a luz a 18 niños “pero solo cinco están vivos ahora”. En 1990, únicamente la mitad de las mujeres a nivel nacional usaban la planificación familiar y en nuestra área rural el porcentaje fue pequeñísimo. Hoy en día en El Salvador cerca del 75% de las mujeres en edad fértil usan algún método anticonceptivo. Graciela explica los beneficios de hasta seis métodos y puede entregar la mayoría de ellos por sí misma.

En 1990, en nuestra zona, calculo que las mujeres locales tuvieron un promedio de seis partos. A nivel nacional en El Salvador tuvieron un promedio de 3.8 partos. Ahora la cifra ha caído a un poco menos que dos. Esto es un buen presagio para la futura salud de la familia. Desde que asumió el poder el FMLN por la vez en 2009, los servicios de salud materno-infantil bajo el sistema estatal son gratuitos, lo que fomenta su uso, especialmente en las zonas rurales. Los países donantes en las décadas de los noventa y los 2000 que apoyaron a El Salvador pueden sentirse orgullosos de este progreso.


El paisaje alrededor de Avelares. Graciela camina por todas las casas en sus campañas de vaccinacion

Hay muchos problemas en El Salvador todavía, como la violencia las pandillas, y estos problemas reciben atención en los medios de comunicación mundialmente. Pero el país es una democracia (y el actual Presidente es un ex-guerrillero del FMLN). Países como el Reino Unido, y donantes como Estados Unidos y el Banco Mundial apoyaron a El Salvador para recuperarse de la guerra civil y construir capacidad en el sistema de salud. Ahora El Salvador cuenta con un servicio de atención primaria en salud activo y efectivo, con personal local como Graciela y Dagoberto, que conocen sus comunidades. Me complace mucho saber esto. Detrás de los titulares en los periódicos, los indicadores de salud en América Latina están mejorando constantemente.

Traduccion: Con agradecimiento a Fidel Campos.

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A good news story: Improved health in El Salvador

img_3049Let’s start 2017 with some good news. I will introduce you to my friend Graciela. Graciela’s story shows us that life is getting better in most developing countries, that foreign aid works, and that most people in most poor countries are healthier now than they used to be. They are taking control of their lives.

From 1991 to 1994 I lived in a village in rural El Salvador with my wife Kath. Avelares was one of the villages we visited often, trying to support a primary health service in a very poor area. It’s a small community high in the hills, and in 1991 was in territory controlled by FMLN guerrillas. Local people were trying to provide a very rudimentary health and education system with young volunteers from each community. In Avelares back then, Graciela was the volunteer providing primary health services. She had just a few weeks of training and some medicines and bandages provided by the Catholic diocese and an excellent NGO named Concern America.

In November 2016 Kath and I visited the villages again and were thrilled to meet Graciela, who remarkably is still the provider of health care in Avelares and three surrounding villages. Twenty five years on she is looking a little older now – but then again so are we! She still lives in the same house and works in the same one room clinic made from mud bricks. But what has changed significantly are the health statistics. Graciela told us with great pride that no child has died in her community in the last eleven years. We were astonished.


Graciela in her health post

In the 1990’s in El Salvador the Under Five Infant Mortality Rate was 60 deaths per 1000 live births. Today it has fallen to 16. But in rural areas deaths of children were much more common. Kath and I probably saw one child death every couple of months, when we were living and working there. There was little antenatal care, very poor nutrition, and no access to hospital, due to the war and the very poor road to the lowland areas. All babies were born at home, with no electricity, with only a local midwife to help. At a rough estimate I’d say one child in ten died before the age of five in the area around Avelares. And maternal mortality rates in the 1990’s were also very high.


Our neighbour Adan in 1993, holds his deceased newborn twins before their funeral. They were born a month premature. Reina,the mother, gave birth at home with no professional health attendance.

Last month Graciela explained to us with pride the improvements made now by the ministry of health. ‘All children are born in hospital now’ she explained. ‘It is my job to deliver antenatal advice, and take weight and health measurements. But two weeks before the birth date the mother-to-be is taken down to the town in the lowlands, to wait in the ‘Casa Materna’, the maternity home. I learnt to my amazement that in the last dozen years only one child had been born in the village. ‘That time I couldn’t get transport in time’ she explained.

Having once been supported by the Church and NGOs, Graciela is now employed by the Ministry of Health under their Primary Health Care system. This has been a very positive move by the state, to retain the rural experience of the community health workers (CHWs). In some provinces ex-CHWs make up the majority of the paid primary health workforce. One of Graciela’s old colleagues, Dagoberto Menjivar is now a senior doctor and administrator. Yet he started as a CHW with fifteen days training on the ‘Curso basico’. A real success story.


The room on the left-hand side is the Avelares health post. On the right-hand side is a community centre

Graciela told us that the Ministry is very demanding. She has to visit every house in her communities on a regular timetable and carry out a series of controls and vaccinations in every house. ‘Once the mother has returned to the village after giving birth, I have to visit the house every day for the first week, then once a week for a month, then once a fortnight etc. If a child were to die in my area, I would be taken before a tribunal and can be held responsible. If a child dies of a preventable early-years illness I could go to jail…”


All babies now are born in hospital. Graciela arranges an ambulance for them two weeks ahead of their due-date.

It is not only infant and maternal deaths that have diminished rapidly in the last 25 years. In El Salvador and nearly all Latin American countries there has been steady progress in life expectancy and other health statistics. With more certainty over the health of their children, families have been taking more control over their fertility. When we lived in the region most parents had 6, 8 or even more children. We knew one neighbour who told us sadly that she had given birth to 18 children “but only five are alive today”. In 1990 nationally only half of women used family planning and in our rural area the percentage was miniscule. Today in El Salvador nearly 75% of women of a relevant age are using contraception. Graciela explains the benefits of up to six methods and can administer most of them herself.

In 1990, in our zone, I estimate local women had on average six births. Nationally in El Salvador women had an average of 3.8 births. Today the figure has fallen to just under two. This bodes well for future health of the family. Child and maternal health services under the state system are free – which encourages take-up, especially from rural areas. Donor countries in the 1990’s and 2000’s which supported El Salvador can feel proud of this progress.


Graciela outside her health post. She provides all routine vaccinations as well as family planning and all preventative child and maternal health services.

There are still many problems in El Salvador, such as ongoing violence from youth gangs, and these problems get covered in the global media. But the country is a democracy (and the current president is a former guerrilla leader from the FMLN). Countries like the UK, and donors such as the EU and the World Bank supported Salvador to recover from the civil war and build capacity in the health service. Now El Salvador has a working and effective primary health care service, staffed by local people like Graciela and Dagoberto, who know their communities. To me that is a pleasure to hear. Behind the headlines, the health of poor people in Latin America is steadily getting better.


The hills above Avelares. Graciela walks from village to village up these slopes. Throughout Latin America Community Health Workers provide the health service in remote rural areas.