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

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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  http://moon.com/2015/06/enjoy-sustainable-tourism-in-nicaragua/. 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.

Photo Gallery – Doors of Leon

Leon is an old colonial town, slightly crumbling around the edges but that’s one of  the reasons we like it. One of the delights is walking around the side-streets. On every block there are beautiful doorways to be seen:

Watching the world go by…

Pastel colours.

 Window shadows

 The biggest door in town

 Rocking chair

 Crumbling facade

 Dawn, and working

 Red hues

 Preparing for Easter

 Ready for action

 Jazz practice

 Rainy season

 Cycling to work

 Time for a chat

 My favourite…? Almost like an oil painting

Which is your favourite? And what can you learn about Leon from looking at these photos? Please write your views on the ‘Comments’ box below.

If you like these pictures please follow owstonlewis on instagram

 

Gallery: Las Peñitas, a beautiful Nicaraguan beach & fishing village

Sunset at Las Peñitas beach

Sunset at Las Peñitas beach

Dusk over the estuary

Dusk over the estuary

Still morning

Still morning

Gutting the catch

Gutting the catch

Dawn on the beach

Dawn on the beach

Grandpa, mending the nets

Grandpa, mending the nets

Shower door, Barca de Oro hotel

Shower door, Barca de Oro hotel

Sopa de Ponche on Sundays

Sopa de Ponche on Sundays (crab soup)

Las Rocas at Las Peñitas

Las rocas at Las Peñitas

Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot

A heron stalks breakfast

A heron stalks breakfast

Community tourism

Community tourism

A good catch

A good catch

A hint of black and white

A splash of colour

And a splash of colour

 

 

Luck and Development in the Shadow of the Volcano

What part does luck play in the success or otherwise of community programmes? Those of us who work in development would probably not admit to much. But sometimes the bad luck that affects the rural poor would make you cry.

Last week I visited a rural development programme which assists nine communities on the slopes of Telica volcano, in Western Nicaragua. Local NGO Nuevas Esperanzas has been doing great work here for the last ten years, improving access to water, gradually working to diversify crops and diet in the zone and, if possible, to look for income generation activities.

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Agua Fria housing with the volcano in the background

These villages are very isolated’, Carlos told us, as we bumped along in a pick-up filled with fertiliser and other agricultural inputs. This became apparent as we climbed steadily up the slopes of Telica, an occasionally active volcano. As we came within a few hundred metres from the summit I asked myself why farmers would want to live up here. Sadly though, all over the world we find the poorest people have to live on the most marginal lands. In some cases putting themselves in danger, on the edges of rivers, near hazards, and on flood plains. The same in Central America, the poorest peasants make their homes on steep slopes while the better-off farmers have captured the good land in the valley bottom.

Agronomists from Nuevas Esperanzas spent the day advising farming families on new methods and new crops, to add variety to the standard crops of maize and beans. Small farmers groups are experimenting with pineapple and dragon fruit. We visited three ‘model farms’, and came away with some of the new fruit. But there are no magic bullets in development, and all new crops are approached with caution by campesinos with limited access to land.

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The new fruits can be used locally for juice – the vitamins are good for children’s diets and development. But small farmer tastes are conservative in Nicaragua, and some families have said they ‘don’t like it’. If the dragon fruit won’t be drunk by local families, can it be sold? Not easily, not when the nearest market is 40km away and your only transport is a horse. There are solutions to all these problems, but they will take some ingenuity, and crucially, the local people have to be convinced that the benefits of fruit make it worthwhile to set aside some of their precious land and labour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We saw some excellent water systems, where communities and engineers have brought fresh water from many kilometres away. And many houses and churches now have rainwater harvesting tanks. Maria Eugenia told me she has had hers for four years now and it lasts the family for three months into the dry season. That is 3 months in which her children don’t have to make an hour long round trip on a horse to bring back four small water containers from the spring.

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And so on to the great new hope: Tourism. Tourism is a growing industry and many visitors come on day-trips from the town of Leon. But they bring everything with them from the town, the guide, their lunch, and drinks. The tourist trade at present brings little benefit to local people. After consultation with the community, Nuevas Esperanzas embarked on their largest project, to build a hostel and café. If visitors ate in the region, and slept overnight so they could see the dawn, then significant benefit would come to the local people, bringing employment for guides, cooks, local produce etc.

The site of the hostel was chosen carefully. The volcano does occasionally throw out rocks (incandescent ballistic projectiles as they are technically known) – but never this far from the crater.  ‘Speaking to local people, they told us that never in memory (50+ years) had rocks landed in this area’.  Telica has had small eruptions on and off over the years but never affected this site.

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The project was a success, funded by the European Union, and the building was finished in November. The EU sent an auditor on a Monday, who saw the work was good, and signed off the project as finished.  What could possibly go wrong?

So yes, you guessed it. The following day, at 9 in the morning, bang! Telica active, ash spewing out, land shaking, and then a crash, as rocks as big as buckets were shot out by the volcano – towards the hostel and the community. Incredibly over fifteen rocks hit the hostel directly, landing on the roof, smashing holes in it, smashing the cement of the water tank. Bad luck for the community of Agua Fria? Or good luck because no-one was sleeping there yet, no one was killed.

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Looking up at the roof of the hostel/cafe

The event was not only unheard of for Telica, it appears to be one of the most extreme events of its kind (phreatic eruption with large projectiles) reported anywhere.  Rocks weighing at least 4 tonnes travelled (airborne) more than 400 metres from the crater and smaller rocks reaching over 1.5 km. For more details on a similar event see YouTube 

The volcanic activity lasted 15 minutes, but that was long enough to kill the project dead. The building sits there today, a shell that can’t now be used because the government has declared it is too dangerous. The community members ran for their lives that day, and later returned to their homes where they remain today. If you are poor in Nicaragua you have little choice as to where you can live.

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So there ends the tale…Or does it? The tourists keep coming – they are wise enough to assess risk, work out the probabilities. They do the same before bungee jumping or white-water rafting. So the Leon travel companies keep making money. Some of the community are now saying that they were unlucky once, they couldn’t possibly be unlucky again. “Patch up the roof of the hostel and let’s get going” says one. It might have to be illegal for a year or so at the beginning, because of the safety regulations. “But most new businesses in Nicaragua are illegal at the beginning”. Things sort themselves out later if the business is a success.

What option to take, to leave it closed or try again? Maybe some local underemployed young people might be prepared to cut some corners and take the risk. Maybe the new business can bring a sustainable income stream into the community. But a legally-registered NGO would have to think twice, or more, before taking that risk. What would you do?

 

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