Off-The-Beaten-Trail Guide to Nicaragua

I always try to find the most possible information whenever I plan to visit a new location. Where should I stay? What should I do? What shouldn’t I do? Unfortunately, very often I am either unable to find enough information, or the information I do find keeps me on the beaten “back packer trail”. Occasionally, I enjoy traveling on the common path, but the more I travel the more I find myself drawn to the off-the-beaten path adventures and locations.

In Nicaragua I was able to travel very much off the beaten path. I thought it may help someone to post where I went and what I did. A so called guide.

Spanish School

I had the most amazing Spanish school experience in Esteli with Sacuanjoche Spanish School. I have taken Spanish courses in 5 different countries (outside of the US) and Norma was by far my favorite. She is engaging, hilarious, and pushes you to be your best. I learned about the country, the history, while also learning about conditional and the subjuntivo.  Every where I walked with her, people would greet her by name or the informal “Profe!” shout. Norma is very active in her community, and I truly believe my money went to a good place and person.  Through her school I was able to have a complete Nicaragua/ Spanish immersion. I paid $370 (2016) for 2 weeks of 4 hour one-on-one Spanish classes, two excursions, and room and board. Compared to my past experiences, this was an amazing deal.

I can’t say enough about the amazing Norma and the Sacuanjoche Spanish School. By far, this would be my first suggestion for anyone interested in studying Spanish, or visiting Nicaragua. Most of the following experiences were a direct result of Norma and her knowledge of her country.

Co-Ops

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Las Mujeres Ambientalistas

With Norma I had the opprotunity to visit two amazing female lead co-ops. The first co-op ,Las Mujeres Ambientalistas, is ran by single mothers. Las Mujeres Ambientalistas makes recycled paper products: cards, notebooks, posters, book marks ect, and is the only place in Nicaragua using all natural dyes and process. A woman showed me around the small, but beautiful location and demonstrated to me the paper making process. She offered to teach a lesson in paper making if I ever return with some of my students. This non-profit has trouble finding consistent funding and relies heavily on selling their paper products to remain open. If you are interested in learning more or buying some products I grabbed the information. I figured I could at very minimum try to connect some of the people and resources I have with the amazing women and products there.

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Las Mujeres Ambientalistas

Del Barrio Boris Vega, Esteli- Nicaragua

Contacto: Agustina Arúaz

tel: 8627-8956, 8425-4175

Email: mujeresambientalistasdeesteli@gmail.com

I’ve posted more pictures here.

 

Manos Magicas

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Manos Magicas was another CO-OP I had the privilege of visiting. This CO-OP, just like the previous, is a women owned and ran business. The woman showing me around lived just above the building in a small village. Manos Magicas makes items with pine needles. I was blown away at what they created with items I’d never given a thought further than “these are great from throwing at my sister” Earings, hot pads, boxes, baskets, hats, all beautifully sewn together with colorful yarn. Just like Las Mujeres Ambientalistas, Manos Magicas has a hard time generating income and funding. Unfortunately, they live far from most tourist cities, the places where the money is, and the combination of the drought and downturn in tourism as a whole, has not help the women generate income.

If you’re interested in visiting or purchasing something their numbers are 55023123 or 89420733

I’ve posted more pictures here.

Home stay

Esteli

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While in Esteli I stayed with an amazing family who allowed me to catch a glimpse of life in Nicaragua. I played with their kids, ate the amazing food Dona Victoria cooked, and even got a cooking lesson in before I left. Not only was the family amazing, it was incredibly cheap. My room and board was included in my Spanish lessons, but had I wanted to stay outside of my time taking classes, Dona Victoria charges only $10 a day for room and 3 meals. If you’re looking for a place to party and go out, this is not your fit, but if you’re searching for somewhere authentic and family orientated, I would urge you to check her out. She has enough room to fit 10 comfortably with over 4 different rooms to choose from.

She doesn’t have an email but her number is 2734122. Spanish essentially required to arrange reservation

More pictures coming soon here.

Isla Ometepe 

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I stayed on Isla Ometepe for two nights and had a good time at Hospetaje Ortiz. You can find their posting on airbnb.com. There was very much a hostel vibe, but without the swarms of tourists; it also happens to the cheapest room on the island, and is ran by locals. Hospetaje Ortiz is not fancy but the owner Mario and his son Archiles are very welcoming and have many tips for exploring the island. Through the hospetaje I rented a bicycle one day and they arranged a guide to hike one of volcanoes the next day. Hospetaje Ortiz is located in Altagracia.

More pictures and a recount of my harrowing volcano climb coming soon here.

Corn Islands

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Soon there will be a post about my adventure getting to Corn Islands, I definitely choice the off-the-beaten-trail for that one, but for the moment I just wanted to mention, The cool spot, the place I stayed at while on Little Corn.  Not exactly off the trail, but it was located on the backside of the island, away from the main path. The host was incredibly nice and for $12 I found a decent bed with a bug net and electricity during the night. Interestingly, on Little Corn you can’t barter for cheaper rooms like many of the places I’ve been to in the past. You try to barter they say no, and then you’re forced to keep walking.

If you have any more questions please feel free to ask away. Hope you enjoyed, happy traveling!

Love letter, Nicaragua

Dear Nicaragua,

Words cannot express the sadness that has descended into my heart since entering the airport. I have but a handful of minutes until I must leave your embrace. I wish I could stay. From the very first moment my feet touched your ground I have felt an attachment. This attachment has grown from a mere curiosity  into a full blown love affair. How can one not fall in love?

Your lands are breathtaking. The towering volcanoes meet blanketing forests on the shores of your many waters. One corner to the next, within your wonderful borders, provides the seeker with diversity, adventure. Your lands are beautiful, but I must admit, they are not what has stolen my heart.

Your people have taken my heart captive, and I don’t care if I ever get it back. Your people love this country. They love the towering volcanoes and the blanketing forests. They love the endless shores and ever changing waters. They love la tierra and they want to share it with anyone who ventures in with an open heart. Amid the streets and intricate language of honks and whistles, the Nica people have poured their blood into the pulse of the country. That amount of blood, of sacrifice, has created an attachment unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s as if your people see themselves as one with the earth, you, their country. Out of this pairing has arisen a pride. This country, is their country, and they are proud to call it so.

By any means your people should be beaten down. Have you seen your history? Have you seen the bloodshed? Of course you have, my eyes are the eyes newly open. You are wise and knowing. Again by any means your people should hate me; hate people who come from my country. The same country responsible for much of your poverty, death, destruction, and manipulation. But I did not experience this.

I experienced a people of great kindness. I have survived in this country because of your wonderful people. People who stopped on the side of the road to help me. People who helped me when I was on the wrong bus. People who took time out of their busy day to walk with me, teach me about the rich culture.

I am leaving today. I must. My country is calling. My second home is in the mists of a war and I must fight. A fight that brought me broken to your doors. I entered your doors beaten, bloody, and almost broken. You with your lands, your people, and your culture have taken me into your hands and repaired me; set my broken soul in the cast of Nica.  But now that I’ve been repaired I need to go back to battle. I leave with every intention to return. I leave with your culture on my skin and your language on my lips. Farewell, my love, long will the nights be without you.

 

Until we meet again.

Besos

C

The Ant Who Fights: A 1st Year Teaching Reflection.

*Note: This post deviates from my normal travel theme. The following words are my attempt to process my experience as a first year teacher in Baton Rouge.

 

My body starts to quake. My hands shake as my heart pumps the anger my mind has blocked off until this moment. The tears filling my eyes are uncontrollable and embarrassing. The people around me are confused. Why is she reacting this way? Woah, is she about to cry? I take two deep breaths to steady this unexpected rush of emotion before I respond to the question, “How was your first year of teaching?”.

Two months have passed since I finished my first year of teaching. Two months of the inability to express anything other than “I love my students” when asked about my year. Until this moment. It took two months, a different country, and a different language for the mental dam to break. My body must know. It must know I no longer need to survive. No longer must I keep the anger trapped inside like a caged tiger, and so it comes roaring, filling my body, clouding my eyes with rage. The injustices I witnessed forced on my students has built up in my body, but like a brainwashed captive I had remained silent.

My silence was not a conscious choice. In fact, I wanted to talk about my experiences as they were happening, and sometimes I did. However, for the most part the experiences, emotions, and anger overwhelmed me and built up in my body unable to release. As the year continued my body began to show the effects on my carried tension. My body began to sag, my laughter wain, my smile turned grey as the year continued on. I felt like an ant in the system of education when I wanted to be a bear.

I wanted to be a bear, but I didn’t know the rules of the game. All I knew was the overwhelming desire to protect my cubs. I wanted to scoop them up and carry them on my back to safety. I wanted to change the entire system in one day and when I realized how truly small my locus of control was, it almost broke me. I was just a teacher. An inexperienced, young, white teacher, and this wasn’t my community.

I entered my position as an outsider. A foreigner in the total sense of the word. New to the location, culture, and not reflecting the faces of the cubs I wished to shelter. Could I still serve? Would I even know how to? Would I be better off in some other place?

Doubt raked my mind and body. Do I know what I’m talking about? I’m so new, inexperienced. Am I just another white savior complex come to appease my personal guilt? I had no answer. I wanted to believe no. I wanted to believe my intentions where something more pure, but still I had no answer. I didn’t want to believe I was turning a blind eye to my flaws, but it was entirely too possible for me to ignore.

So I threw myself into my work, or maybe I had no choice. Teaching consumed me. I had come to help dismantle the wall known as educational inequality. However as the year grew, the wall seemed increasingly more immovable. I was beating my head against the wall, yet the only thing changing was the shape of my head and the state of my soul.

Inside I wept. Outside I fought for my survival. I fought for my students. I fought to create an environment where all students felt loved, accepted, and smart. I had to thrive in spite of my environment not because of it, and I continued to fight because at the end of the day my students always had it worse.

At the end of the day, no type of awful could erase my privilege. The privilege of a good education, and of parents who were able to provide, support, and guide me. I am white. My ancestors had not been enslaved. My history was not filled with trauma at the hands of other people, my people, as all of my students had. I never attended a middle school with over a 10% expulsion rate. I never had to endure an environment that utilized suspension as the only form of behavior correction. A place wielding suspension and intimidation as a weapon to silence the students.

By the end of the year the vice-principal, frantically trying to regain her illusion of control, began the school day with a litany of threats and negativity. “Nobody wants you here. You’ve already taken your tests. We have the S.W.A.T team ready, make one move, and we are going to put you out for the rest of the year.” At the time I felt paralyzed, too overwhelmed with my situation to find my voice. One of my students, however, did not. One day, during the daily rant, she raised her voice in her homeroom class, “ Nobody wants to listen to her” T stated. The result? Her ‘attitude’ was reported to the administration and her ‘insubordination’ resulted in a nine-day suspension. T received nine days because she had not yet allowed the school system to liberate her of her will, or her fight.

Through T’s suspension the realization of my privilege hit my square in the face. Could I still serve my students when I did not have a lived experience close to theirs? Again I had no answer, but I knew I could not walk away. I knew if there was a chance, even a small one, which I could contribute to the success of one of my students I would stand and fight.

My core screamed rebel, but quickly I realized my rebellion had to be quiet. I was an unexperienced outsider; this was not my space to take up. But I could not sit and do nothing.

My rebellion was quiet, but still present. I refused to go to my administration when there was a problem inside my classroom. I disobeyed direct orders to write referrals when necessary. My students were not, are not, criminals. I worked hard to build relationships with my students parents; without them I would have never survived, and I turned to my students to find strength.

When I looked in the eyes of my students I found the will to continue fighting. The intelligence I saw trapped inside, fighting to be free, the grit, determination, and the resiliency my students showed often brought me to tears.

I became the weird, “profe you embarrassin”‘ teacher. I stood cheering, loud, in the stands; even if that meant waking up Saturday at 7am. I yelled “look at my fantastic scholars coming to Spanish class today” down the hallway, much to the chagrin of my ‘too-cool’ eight graders. I took every opportunity I had showing them how much they meant to me, to the school. I did my best to hug, cheer, and tap them, trying to impart a vital message: they were important. They carried the power to change, control, and rebuild our current world.

However, as strong as my baby cubs are, they cannot survive this fight alone. And while the fight pulses in my veins, I still cry when asked about their future. It’s hard to believe their chances of survival, “thrival”, are high. The system is not set for their success. In fact, my students are expected to find success in a system that is actively set against them.

My middle schoolers live in a system that is built to watch them fail, and yet when my students try, and fail, this “failure” is contributed as a personal failure; personal weakness. All of a sudden the system is no longer a factor. A school of 520 students with over 3000 referrals (a rate equaling approximately 6 suspensions for EACH student) no longer had any influence on my student’s ability to navigate.

As I sat in my empty classroom at the end of the year, the ghosts of my students still lingering in the hallway, tears streamed down my face. Why is it that we believe in brain washing when is comes to kidnapped victims, but not for my students who have been kidnapped by our system? The system that repeatedly tells my students “they will not succeed.” “Their experiences are not important.” ” They are incapable.” ” They are statistics in a jail cell or a morgue. ”

If you think I’m exaggerating I can recall the time I heard an administrator tell a student he was a slave for you. Or the time a teacher told his students “you are the reason white people hate us”. If you still cling to the emotional need to blame exaggeration I challenge you to become a public school teacher. I implore you. We need more people who hold the truth in their hands. People who see how truly amazing my students are. People who assign the actions of one black body, to that black body, and not all black bodies.

We need more teachers who are able and truly educated, more who can no longer deny the systemic racism and inherent issues of our public system. We need more who chose to leave the screens of their phones and computers. More people who choose to walk the path of change, and less people sitting in their houses of all colors talking and judging.

And even if you fail, even if you do not have as much grit, determination, and resiliency as my students at least you will now know. Not everyone can be a teacher, but those who can’t teach, do, and you are important too. If you try and fail at least you have a slight idea of what poor, public schools are like.

I still struggle to answer “how was your first year of teaching”. How can I reduce the hardest year of my life down to a few complete sentences? Most people ask this question hoping for some light hearted, quick witted answer; something I cannot give. My emotions still rage with the utterance of that combination of words, and I still have yet to completely process all that has occurred.

 

 

Special thanks to Ms. Rachel Jackson for her edits, friendship, and support. Check out her out at www.rjwritingservices.wordpress.com

Octal, Nicaragua

One of my many days in Esteli involved traveling to up Octal with my wonderful spanish teacher Norma . We traveled up by bus and back by “pedir ride” (hitchhiking). There was the option to catch a bus, but why do that when you could live on the edge? Just as with the other times we pedir ride, right as Norma suggested returning to the bus stop a car stopped and gave us a 2 hour ride back to Esteli.

Octal was beautiful. In actuality we spent most of our time in Dipilto, a small rural village about 15 minute bus ride ( and a 15 minute walk) north of Octal. There we visited a woman’s co-op founded by a group of village women. This co-op created jewelry and items out of pine needles. Their craftsmanship was incredibly beautiful and surprisingly cheap. I purchased a hot pot pad (I had to look up the name of the item, and incase you also don’t recognize the highly sophisticated name “hot pot pad” here are  some google results) along side earrings, and a jewelry “box”.

Unfortunately at this point the co-op is almost completely shut down. Not enough business. Throughout my travels I have witnessed many  good local initiatives, be that businesses or social programs, that were failing due to money or access issues. Even though the beautiful pieces were incredibly cheaper than any of the equal pieces I found during the rest of my trip, they still weren’t finding success. In my mind I see the co-op thriving under an etsy like account, or in tourist locations. Yet when I brought up the idea, the immediate response from the woman was one of denial. Not so much refusal of the thought, but one of “you should do it”. Later when I visited another woman’s co-op in the heart of Esteli the response was the same.

After our visit to the co-op we took a short walk up to the top of the hill for to enjoy a lunch with a view before heading out. On our way back to Esteli we stopped at “La piedra de la virgin”. This rock, advertised by a sign on the road, has become a location for people seeking holy water and healing. A small well has been created with handmade scoop used to remove the water. A small temple sat further up the hill. Three women sang in Spanish as Tito, Norma, and I sat, looking up at the altar.

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Getting there: Esteli->Isla Ometepe

After my 2 glorious weeks in Esteli ( I wish I could have stayed longer) I went back out on the road. I decided to spend travel to the beautiful Ometepe Island in southern Nicaragua. Getting to the isla was a bit of an adventure and I though I would share my experience in case someone else is looking to make the same trip.

 

  1. I took an express bus from Esteli to Tipitapa

I started my trip in the Northern bus station on the 8:45am bus. Currently there are express buses leaving at 7:45 and 8:45 (Maybe more). It cost me C79. I could have easily done this for much less, and would not take the express bus if I was going to do this again. The bus was about 1.75 hours and I had to pay attention to make sure I didn’t miss my stop

  1. From Tipitapa I took a chicken bus to Masaya

I got off the bus from Esteli, crossed the street and stood along the road perpendicular to the street I got off on. ( To find the correct spot to stand I just asked someone who pointed me in the right direction) I waited less than 5 minutes before spotting a bus with “Masaya” on the window Cost C30 and lasted about 1.5 hours

  1. I got off the bus somewhere in Masaya and took a taxi to the San Jorge Bus station

This is where the trip gets a little tricky. I realized once people were getting on and off in Masaya that the bus was not going to stop at a terminal. So I needed to figure out which stop would get me closest to wherever I needed to be to catch my next bus. Thank you wonderful people of Nicaragua. I asked the bus attendant and he started saying something about walking straight. I ended up getting off the bus on a road with painted white curbs and trees down the center. From there I hailed a taxi cab who drove me straight, took a right, and then dropped me off at a bus stop on the side of the road ( Note: most people told me it was impossible to go straight to San Jorge, and I would have to stop in Rivas but I was actually able to go straight there). Cost bus C50 taxi C20 Taxi was 10 minutes bus to San Jorge was about 2 hours.

 

 

  1. Got off Bus from Masaya on it’s last stop at the port in San Jorge. Took the 2pm boat to San Jose sur

Walked directly off the bus, and most of the locals were rushing to a window in the building across the street. I never really figured out why the rush, but I bought my ticket C35 walked through the gate and down to the dock. Ferry took just over and 1.5 hours

  1. Boat ends in San Jose Sur and took a bus to Atagracia

Again when the boat stopped people began to rush out. I followed suit and ended up in the only small van/bus. Some people weren’t able to get a seat on the bus so I’m very glad I rushed. Cost C15 and lasted about 15-30 minutes with it’s final stop in Altagracia.

 

In all I left Esteli at 8:45 in the morning and arrive in Altagracia around 4:30. Not too bad.

 

Note: If I was to do this again I would go from Esteli to Managua, Managua to San Jorge/ Rivas ( I believe this is possible) . It was too stressful trying to find my way off the bus in Masaya.

 

If you have any questions feel free to shoot me a message!

Fabrica de Pura, Estelí, Nicaragua 

The production of cigars is one of the largest industries in Esteli, and I had the wonderful opprotunity to visit a cigar factory with Norma one of my first days in the city.
The moment I entered I was bombard with stimuli. Lines of people filled the room permeated by the smell of smoke. Everywhere I looked there was movement. In one corner a group of women worked seamlessly as they stripped the tobacco leaf of it’s veins. A few feet way, at another fold up table (one that remind me of my school girl days; the wood chipped and colored, the signs of years of abusive apparent) sat two woman wrapping completed cigars in plastic. In the adjoining room we found a very friendly young lady counting and organizing. She took a long skinny one out of its newspaper wrapping and let us hold the cigar made for smaller hands.
Returning to the main room I watched entranced as rows of people quickly assembled the cigars. Each desk had a job. One man held half of an unlit cigar hanging out of his mouth as he quickly rolled layer after layer of tobacco leaf around the core. Another nodded his head to his music while filling an empty leaf with tobacco strips.
Soon after entering the large room the jefe pulled the four of us aside. Did we want to see how the cigars are compacted then tested? First, 10 handmade cigars are placed into a “compacter” (I know, very official term I’ve used there). The “compacter” is basically two wood planks with forms cut out in the shape of the cigars. The cigars are placed between the two boards, and then into a hand press for twenty minutes to condense the cigars. Afterwards they are each placed into a pressurized tester and hand tested for quality.
After the quick tutorial I turned back to the rows of people. The one women right in front of me was particularly intriguing to watch. She moved without hesitation. Beginning with covering a metal sheet with a yellow tinted liquid to help plaster the tobacco leaf flat, she would lay then cut the fresh leaf. From there she would slowly but surely roll the plastered leaf over the compacted cigar.
She noticed my attention and to my surprise asked me if I would be interested in trying it out; of course I enthusiastically replied! It is definitely harder than it looks. While rolling the leaf over the cigar you need to hold it as tight as possible without ripping the leaf. My first try the leaf was too tight. My second, I ripped the leaf. Looks like I won’t be joining the cigar industry.

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Un Dia de Leche, Malagalpa, Nicaragua 

Thus far my experience in Esteli, Nicaragua has been amazing and packed full of adventure. One such adventure was my trip to Matagalpa from Esteli with my professor Norma from Sacuanjoche Spanish School.

The day began at 6:30 with the rushed arrival of Norma. The taxi, she hissed as an explanation of her tardiness while she rushed me to the street and pushed me into the car. Five minutes and one run later we sat on the bus ready to start the trip and while the bus started to move, Norma explained her 30 minute late arrival.

Her day had started off just fine, she began. She got up early, ate, and caught the taxi 20 minutes before she was supposed to pick me up. Unfortunately the taxi choice would prove to not be such a great decision. Her taxi was occupied by both the driver and his girlfriend who made it very clear that her desires were more important than the client’s: Norma. Forty five minutes and five stops later Norma arrived at my house, frustrated and late. Thankfully the beginning of the day was the only stressful, not so enjoyable part.

Norma and I arrived in the bustling streets of Matagalpa after an easy 1.5 hour bus ride. Upon arrive I had a choice to make: should we head straight up to Selva Negra ( a private owned nature preserve/ coffee and banana farm/ hotel) or should we walk around the town first. Walk, I chose, I really enjoy feeling a city pulse beneath my feet while the lives of it’s inhabitants rush around me.

Matagalpa is a beautiful city. Tucked in the misted of a mountain range, the name stems from the local indigenous people who called the region home before Spain, attacked, and colonized the area, making it the third colonial city of Nicaragua. The colonial houses line the roads in the city that wind like snakes up and down the hill side.

There is color in Matagalpa wherever one looks. The houses range from mud brown to apple red. The people embody the rainbow as the streets are lined with signs,”Leche” “jugo” “abogado”. I watched these colors as Norma began to explain Nicaraguan history.

For decades a family by the name of Somoza ran the Nicaraguan government. Put into place in the early 1900’s by the US government (a move trying to guard against a pacific- Atlantic canal which would have destroyed the investments made in the Panama Canal) the Somoza family ran the typical dictatorship complete with little regard to the poor of the country. Fast foreword to 1930 a man by the name of Sandinista began leading a rag band of guerrilla against the dictatorship before he was gunned down while leaving a peace talk. Matagalpa is the home city to the man who began, what is now known as the FSNL political company, and which eventually over threw Somoza. Matagalpa lays on what is now called the “Sandinista trail”.

Norma and I just so happened to have arrived in Matagalpa on of the birthday of Matagalpa’s founder of the Sandinistas, Carlos Fonseca Amador. As a result, we happened to stubble upon a celebration held by school children. Dancing, singing, and laughing the children celebrated the man who directly influenced what Nicaragua is today. I am incredibly thankful that I had the opportunity to observe this display of culture.