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

 

 

Brigadistas & volunteers – the same but different?

How much is there in common between young volunteers who come to Nicaragua today, and the anti-war work brigades who came here in the 1980’s? I have just read two fascinating accounts of the 1980s coffee brigades, one from the USA and one from the UK.

Warehouse destroyed by contra near Somoto 1984

Warehouse near Somoto, destroyed by U.S.backed ‘contra’rebels, 1984. 

Brigadista, Harvest and War in Nicaragua is a moving book written in 1986 by Jeff Jones. Jeff interviewed dozens of American citizens who came to Nicaragua in the early 1980’s, when the Sandinista revolution was young and optimistic, and US president Ronald Reagan was funding the contras to destroy the revolution in its infancy.

While the counter-revolution burnt down health posts and attacked rural farms, brigades of U.S. volunteers came on work brigades to pick cotton or coffee, to accompany the revolution, and then return to their country to lobby against an invasion of the country. Jeff Jones estimates that around 650 U.S. volunteers came to work here in 1984, including some who were veterans of the anti-war struggle, and others newly politicised by the gross injustice of the war against the Sandinistas.

Brigadista Harvest & War book cover

From the UK a shorter but more scholarly work was recently published by David Lewis. Brigadista: An Analysis of British and US volunteers during the contra war in Nicaragua. http://nicaraguasc.org.uk/news/article/182/sandinistas-and-solidarity:-the-contribution-of-1980s-brigadistas

Based at Leeds University, David interviewed British ex-brigadistas. The paper is able to assess the long term impact of those visits on the lives of the volunteers. Most said the experience in Nicaragua had affected their lives hugely, the way they would vote, the way they would shop, their lifelong involvement in community activities and campaigns. Many later supported Anti-Apartheid Movement or other similar struggles, or campaigns in their home towns or the Labour Party.

I can associate strongly with these 2 accounts, since I picked coffee for three months in 1984/85 with an international brigade. When my sister and I returned to the UK in 1985 we helped organise the first British brigades with the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign (NSC). Over the following decades the NSC organised dozens of brigades, study tours, and trade union exchanges, and to their credit they are still active today.

Lucinda picking coffee armed

Armed coffee-pickers guarded the international brigades. 1984

Today many developing countries receive huge numbers of young people looking to volunteer on dozens of different schemes and brigades. Very many of these are short-term, private sector, ‘voluntourism’ schemes, that contribute little, if anything to the host country. Nicaragua also receives dozens of religious missions a year, mainly from US evangelical churches, intent more on evangelizing the poor than in helping them climb out of poverty.

In Nicaragua we also receive about 500 young English volunteers a year from a UK-government funded scheme (International Citizen Service). This is a much more formal scheme than the private volunteerism projects. Conditions are quite tough, some stay for up to ten weeks in rural communities with little electricity or running water. While some of the projects could be better designed, many of the volunteers contribute a lot and go home changed in many ways.

The big difference between the 1980’s and today is that in the 1980’s nearly all the brigadistas had a political analysis. People knew why they were coming to Nicaragua specifically, because they admired the achievements of the Sandinistas, and opposed U.S. intervention. One young American – Benjamin Linder paid with his life, murdered by the contra, and his grave is still well-tended today.

IMG_20160604_155935

Grave of Benjamin Linder, Matagalpa, 2016

Today I believe that most young people want to volunteer, often anywhere, often as part of gap-year, and don’t mind very much where they go or what they do.  Volunteers today are rarely ‘in solidarity’, and some have a very poor knowledge of the country they have come to visit. To be fair, in the 1980s we were very clear that we were in solidarity with the Sandinistas, achieving great strides forward on behalf of the poor. Today few people would see themselves in solidarity with the FSLN.

If we are optimistic, we can hope that the young people who visit Nicaragua and Costa Rica will go back to the UK at least with a greater environmental awareness, and hopefully with a desire to support the UK’s commendable programme of international aid. But it is difficult to see the current wave of volunteers around the world going back home with a heightened political consciousness.  Is there more that could be done in the countries that send volunteers, to move these young people into lifelong activists for social justice?

The Heat in Leon

There are two things that have dominated my life in my first few months in Nicaragua. One is the new technology I have inherited, my struggle to stay sane in the world of fragile laptops and weak wifi. The other is the heat in Leon. The all-encompassing, cloying, debilitating heat that surrounds us.

Cathedral

Leon cathedral, empty streets in the heat of the day

I arrived in January, and it was hot. Hot so you soon learned not to walk in the sun, hot so I wilted by mid-afternoon. Hot but just about manageable. But since then the heat has been building. In March and April the heat has been unbearable, as we build up to the rainy season. In April, the hottest month, the temperature crept from 36 degrees, to 37, 38 and several times up to 40 centigrade. In that temperature you just melt.

In Leon there are only two cooler hours of the day – from 5 am to 7am. If you want to go for a walk you have to get up at dawn. In the day, if you have to walk, you jump from shadow to shadow. If I walk to the shops with my wife, we walk in single file, hugging the edge of the buildings, searching for a sliver of shade. We walk, avoiding the sleeping dogs, the rubbish and the sudden potholes, and even the shade is hot.

Unlike most offices in Nicaragua, my office has no air-conditioning. We can’t afford it. In the mornings we manage, with a plethora of fans strategically positioned by each desk. By mid-afternoon our productivity plummets. I sit, with rivulets of sweat dripping down my back. My shirt clings to my skin. Not a great look as I try to exude authority.

The office has a shower. Sometimes I shower in the middle of the day, and just stand there afterwards, no towel, for two or three minutes till I am dry. Arriving home after work, the first thing I do is throw off my wringing clothes and shower, if there is water, in the lukewarm flow of Leon’s water system. At least here no-one needs a heated shower. You can shower four or five times a day – but a few minutes afterwards you are just…hot!

We bought a fan for our little apartment – it just pushes the hot air around. At the moment, living here is like living under a hair dryer. Roll on the rain, I say. I hope then it will get a little cooler. But in fact they say it just becomes wet and hot instead. Wet, hot, humid, like a Turkish bath. Will a change be as good as a rest? But Nicaragua needs the rain, after the last two very dry years. Last week we had a few storms, with the inevitable power cuts they bring. The mood is changing in the streets. Are people now carrying parasols or are they carrying umbrellas?

The photos below show how I am coping with the climate…

January

February

February

March

March

April

April

Gallery: Birds on Costa Rica trip ; Pajaros en viaje recien a Costa Rica

Yellow bird eating

Feeding on insects

IMG_0548

Hummingbird with tongue extended

Purple humming bird on branch

Purple hummingbird

Mummingbird coming towards

Hummingbird in flight

poor mans umbrella

‘Poor mans umbrella’

Little brown bird

Costa Rican Sparrow?

Yellow window bird from behind

Terrific to be able to get close to these little ones…

IMG_0414

Catching the forest sunlight

yellowbodyredhead

Collared Redstart (Adult)

 

Yellow bird tufty red head

Adolescent collared redstart. You can tell the adolescents as they use brillcream on their tufty heads

Yellow plant & river

Forest vegetation

 

Arrival…

In 1984 I picked coffee for three months with a voluntary brigade in Northern Nicaragua. We lived the Sandinista revolution while the American-backed ‘contra-revolution’ swirled around the surrounding hills. Central America was aflame in the 1980’s, with the successful revolution in Nicaragua, and violent civil war in neighbouring El Salvador and Guatemala.

Three decades later I have a new job, and am based in Nicaragua again. It will be fascinating to find out what has changed and what remains of that Sandinista spirit.

I was offered the post three months ago, and spent the UK winter in a flurry of leaving one job while preparing for another, packing up a house, and trying to arrange a hundred things. I arrived in the capital exhausted after a 20 hour journey, lugging my luggage into the darkness of a Managua suburb. I slept fitfully, jetlagged, head spinning – why had I come, would I be able to cope, what was this journey about?

And then the first morning…. Sunshine! After the English winter that alone makes you feel better. My first breakfast, sitting on a balcony watching as Managua shook itself awake. Rice and beans, with cream and tortillas. No pretensions. Chatting with the waitress, friendly, joking, remembering my Spanish.IMG_4321 - Copy

On the road opposite, a good housewife sweeps the dust off her yard, as she has probably done 1000 times before. Another neighbour throws water on the mud outside his house, trying to keep the dust down for half an hour. The sun is up and it’s already hot. In the distance the sound of salsa music echoes around the suburb. And on a telephone wire in front of me, two green parrots sit on the wire, chirping and cooing as I finish my gritty black coffee.

Memories and feelings come flooding back. This is why I came…. I love Central America. The sunshine, the sounds, the smells, the people, the friendliness, the struggle, the commitment. Maybe in a few weeks I will look back on this as foolish. But for now, this first morning, sitting on a balcony in the sun, I remember why I’ve come….