A Travellerspoint blog


Part Three Begins!

Nica Travels and Spanish School

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I had read that all of Nicaragua wakes up at 5:00 am. My first morning here proved that tenfold. It was a Saturday just shy of 4:45am and the sounds of a marching band, fireworks and celebratory gunshots competed with the roosters under our window to ensure the visitors from the north were awake.

In our first days in Central American we've found everyone to be generous and full of smiles. Chad and I enrolled in a Spanish school called La Mariposa that is also an eco-hotel, animal rescue, farm and runs a handful of community oriented projects. The school is a gem of a place and we're really enjoying our Spanish classes.

I was fortunate on our first full day to be at the school while most of the students were off on a day trip allowing me to join the school's founder Paulette for a hike with about a dozen of the more than twenty dogs that live here. We reached the top of hill to be rewarded with an amazing view of the Masaya region where I got my the first glimpse of a volcano. Paulette, a social worker from the UK set up La Mariposa about 10 years ago after having spent years traveling here. Hearing about her dedication to creating a businesses committed to socially and environmentally just practices was a perfect transition into this adventure.

We've decided to do a home-stay versus the other boarding options (eco-hotel or cabanas) because we wanted to be exposed to the language and culture of Nicaraguans. And it fit nicely into our Central American budget. Our new Nicaraguan family could not be kinder. Hernaldo, the father is a bounty of knowledge as his family has been in the region for generations. He speaks proudly of his garden and fruit trees with my favorite being the handful of avocado trees that periodically drop its goodies at my feet. His wife Aura Maria has never ending patience with my broken Spanish and delivers up amazing meals from a kitchen that most American's wouldn't recognize. Their granddaughters (one is nearly 2 years-old and the other around 20 years-old) that live with them are charming. The baby, Angelina has finally started to warm up to us, especially Chad affectionately calling him "Chad-ee" and Miracela is at university in Managua studying English. This makes for wonderful conversations when she is there and she helps us learn cool words Nicaraguan kids use like "tuani" that means awesome.

This first week also introduced us to the magical Laguna de Apoyo about 45 minutes south of our town, La Concepcion. Swimming in a lake that some believe has healing powers was just what I needed after a very hectic beginning. The water is warm because the lake is inside the crater of a volcano. Resting with a cold beer and reading while swinging in a hammock is just what what the doctor ordered!


Sunsetting over Volcan Masaya

Last night we had a night hike on the Volcano Masaya. It was the first time I had been near an active volcano and it is stunning. Albeit it a bit noxious. We learned that the community that lives closest to the volano, Panama, must endure chronic health problems and serious infrastructure issues since the gases from the volcano eat through everything, even nails.

I am happy to say that as we round out week two in Nicaragua, I am settling into a groove (Spanish classes in the morning, activities or relaxing in the afternoon), enjoying immensely the abundant wildlife, new friends and I just might be learning to tolerate cold bucket baths!

Posted by BettinaNYC 16:42 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged spanish school la mariposa Comments (4)

File under lesson learned

You say goodbye and I say hello.

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It took a couple of days for us to realize this, but when the locals we pass on the street respond to our "buenos dias" with "adios" they aren't blessing us. They are saying goodbye. Which actually, makes sense, no?

Posted by BettinaNYC 17:00 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Libertad for an anteater

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Our stay in Nicaragua is not just Spanish lessons. We recently helped the staff of La Mariposa return an anteater to the wild. Someone had dropped it off here (La Mariposa is an animal rescue, too) noticing it was injured. The folks at La Mariposa nurtured it back to health and asked if we wanted to lend a hand transferring it back to the forest. Without an ounce of hestitany, Chad and I jumped into the back of a pickup truck and off we went. Here's Chad's great video of the event:

And the view of the Nicaraguan countryside from the back of the pickup was spectacular.

To learn about Chad's experiences on our trip, check out his posts on tumblr: parfeay.tumblr.com

Posted by BettinaNYC 12:59 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged anteater Comments (2)

A day in Leon provides an introduction to American history

Who's Oliver North?

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Tidbits of Nicaragua's history were evident in nearly every turn during a day trip to the city of Leon. The country's original capital, it is now home to universities, commerce and striking architecture. Though it is far from touristy.

Instead of opting for a museum on contemporary art, we chose a less traditional destination which turned out to be the saddest and weirdest part of the day when we went to the Museum of Legends and Traditions or Museo de Tradiciones y Leyendas. The subject though was timely since the week prior, my conversation classes were about duendes, or trolls. I learned that duendes are not considered just a myth here. In fact, they are frequently sited here, even just last week, if you're to believe local TV news reports.

The most striking thing in this eclectic museum is that it does not tell tales of myths but of many truths. The museum was a prison during the Somoza dictatorship where thousands of political prisoners were tortured and killed. Visitors are sent through a range of emotions: one minute we are looking at the locally made gigatonas (larger than life puppets seen in parades and pictured below) only the next to be distracted by what used to be prison bathrooms.



Another must-see site and one of the highlights of the day was a trip to the Basilica Catedral de la Asuncion, the largest church in Central America. The view from the roof was beautiful: volcanoes in the distance juxtapose colonial and more modern architecture.

One of the many activities at La Mariposa is a weekly history lesson. During last week's discussion about the Revolution a photo of Oliver North popped up in the powerpoint presentation. For the Americans present we knew who it was immediately but the professor giving the presentation momentarily forgot North's name. Who could blame him? Oliver North is small potatoes compared to the most famous American around here, William Walker. Walker is so famous in Central America that Costa Rica has a celebration in his name. They celebrate his death.

I either forgot or was not taught about this peculiar bit of American history. But our tour in Leon gave me the highlights: In the 1850's, American business interests were intent on taking over Nicaragua and Walker was their man to establish an expedited route for shipping gold from California to New York. William Walker promoted these efforts by making himself the president of Nicaragua, instilling English as the national language and reinstating slavery. Long story short, he was booted out of Nicaragua and later assassinated in Honduras.

The trip to Leon was a fascinating history lesson. And not only to learn about colonialism and revolutions. One of Nicaragua's most famous poets, Ruben Dario, is revered here and while poetry is normally not my go-to art form reading his works (here for example: http://www.dariana.com/R_Dario_poems.html) provided a new cultural lens to help understand this part of the world.

Posted by BettinaNYC 13:27 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged leon Comments (2)

Wonky thoughts: Bad NGO. Bad!

From Nicaragua, when good intentions go wrong

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Latrines, the only viable option for the rural community near La Mariposa, on the right. Donated toilets that require water are unused on the left.

The staff of La Mariposa, aside from having fabulous teachers also have an array of people behind the scenes that help support the surrounding communities in more subtle ways. For example, like when a non-governmental organization (that will remain nameless) bought materials and built bathrooms for the nearby Panama community. Panama, sitting under Volcano Masaya, is one of the poorest communities in Nicaragua. There are most likely many reason for this but that side of the volcano is enveloped by noxious fumes (that eat through most building materials) and other than pineapples, not much else can be grown there. Also, here's the kicker for any conversation about development, there is no running water.

All of this makes Panama a great place to provide much needed assistance. So, while building toilets in a desperately poor, rural Central American community sounds like a lovely idea worthy of a group's annual report, building them where there is no water supply and monster eating fumes, turns out simply to be a waste. Staff from La Mariposa remedied the problem by building latrines. Water is so rare, a fellow student Joshua who has volunteered at the school for the past three summers, told us during lunch one day that kids ran out of class during a rainstorm to shower.

Fellow student (and proud Texan) Markey gives the durable concrete slide a try outside a school in Panama. The fumes for the volcano would eat through a metal slide.

Posted by BettinaNYC 09:56 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged wonky Comments (0)

Leaving the La Mariposa Nest

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For two months I was fortunate to call the tiny barrio of San Juan de la Concepcion home and was graced by La Mariposa's kind and excellent teachers, its staff and countless animals (I will spare you the endless photo stream of dogs, birds, turkeys, roosters, chickens, monkeys, frogs, butterflies and various unknown critters). OK, here's just one!


La Mariposa is an oasis not only because it is in the jungle but because it introduces students to the generosity and culture of Nicaraguans while simultaneously contributing to the local economy. La Mariposa is more than a language school and eco hotel. It's a farm and animal rescue, has helped programs like a women's bakery cooperative and after school programs get off the ground. It supports librarians in at least two public schools and helped create a program for people with disabilities along with other countless acts to help its neighbors.

My grammar teacher Elisa has the patience of a saint and I will reflect fondly on our weeks sitting in "Lucy's Ranchero", even those hour-long drills of verb conjugation! Learning a new language is rewarding but learning from strong, confident women like Elisa is a thrill.

Volunteering on a reforestation project. We also researched how to build bat boxes to help increase the bat population that is threatened due to development, pesticides and deforestation.

The La Mariposa experience would not have been the same without our homestay. From the moment we walked into the Blass' home, we were treated like family, despite our limited Spanish skills. Each day after school, two-year old Angelina greeted us screaming "Cha-betti! Cha-betti!" and ran into Chad's arms. Our gracious host mother, Aura Maria made the world's best frescos; juices from pitaya (dragon fruit) piƱa (pineapple) lemon, calala (passion fruit) among others.

Many evenings we watched (and judged from our rocking chairs) the Latin American version of Dancing with the Stars, Ballando Por un Sueno. I had heartwarming and sisterly-like conversations with their daughter Maricela who has an amazing, albeit quiet determination about her. There were fascinating conversations (lots of listening on my part) with our host father and I learned about Nicaragua's history from his first hand accounts. Stories of conflict are necessary to share but never easy to hear.

As we left San Juan I felt prepared to experience more of the sites and culture of this amazing country. A heartfelt thanks to all the people whose path I crossed that made the time at La Mariposa about more than learning Spanish including: the Blass Family, Paulette, Guillermina, Elisa, Richard, Ruth, Amanda, Marky, Joshua, Oscar, Marty, Kinema, Ismael, Gabriel, Moises, Miguel, Nixon and the Butterfly man, Erico.

Muchas gracias por todo!

Chad joins teachers and other students in a soccer game.

Posted by BettinaNYC 17:55 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged la mariposa Comments (0)

Big trip to Little Corn Island

Getting to beach paradise is rough

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The "vacation" part of our time in Nicaragua began with a trip to Little Corn Island, about 50 miles off the country's Atlantic coast. It is a helluva trip to get here.

First, we took a 12 (ish) passenger plane from Managua to Big Corn Island. Much of it in a thunder storm and over the rainforest. Then a taxi from the airport to the panga dock. And then the real fun began with a 30 minute panga ride in the open ocean with swells taller than I am. Remember, we have to do it all again to leave. That's a lot of energy and time to get to an island where there's no electricity in the morning for four hours (mas o menos) to enjoy some R&R and scuba diving after Spanish school.

Little Corn is fascinating to me in part because it isn't like being in Nicaragua at all. The Island's predominant language is English and due to its complex history with Nicaragua's political elite, its culture is more closely aligned with the African and Indian melting pot of the Miskito Coast. Not surprisingly there are a litany of languages spoken here: English, Spanish, Creole, Miskito, Garifuna and others. I asked my dive master, who was raised on the Island, how many languages he spoke and he rattled off more than five.

Demographics and politics aside (or possibly because of) there's no disputing we are in the Caribbean: crystal blue water, fine sandy beaches, genial atmosphere.

Sunset from Little Corn Island

Thanks Garry for the great dives.

There's not a whole lot to say about our time on Little Corn and maybe that's its charm. There is a scene of mostly Americans and Canadians that enjoy the happy hour atmosphere but we tried our best to ignore them. I had wonderful dives, Chad took kite surfing lessons, we didn't eat rice and beans, we strolled though the jungle and watched sunsets.

Now, we have to get back to the mainland. Hold on!

Posted by BettinaNYC 18:32 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged island corn little Comments (2)

Colonial Architecture and Island Rainbows

Granada and Isla de Ometepe round out our time in Nicaragua

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We spent a day seeing Granada's architecture and learning more about Nicaragua's revolutionary history. Friends we met while studying at La Mariposa, Ruth and Erico, took us on a lovely tour of the city and the nearby Isletas. Granada is probably one of the most beautiful colonial towns in Nicaragua. There is a long standing rivalry between Leon and Granda on which locale is best so I won't offend anyone by choosing a favorite. Though the number of tourists seemed more obvious in Granada, I felt more of a cultural vibe in Leon.

A prison in Granada during the Samoza regime, Fuertza la Polvora.


View from a hammock after an amazing hike near Volcan Maderas on Isla de Omepete.

Next, we were off to Ometepe, located in Latin America's largest fresh water lake (it resembles an ocean). The island has numerous farms and we stayed for the first part of our week-long trip at a hostel that is also a permaculture farm owned by two Italians from Tuscany. Thanks to them we had some of the best food in Nicaragua. Also, and I am happy to report that the Island had several well-maintained composting toilets and that they are not stinky. In fact, I preferred them more than latrines.

We spent a good part of a day on a hike and it was a wonderful adventure even if we did not make it to the top of Volcan Maderas. After paying a property owner a few Cordobas to pass by her house to get on the trail, we set off to see a diverse array of trees, hear all kinds of birds and get some well needed exercise. Toward the end of the hike we stumbled on what seemed like a scene from "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom": vultures eating a monkey. You can see the poor thing on the bottom center of the photo below.


Ometepe was an ideal send off for our Nicaraguan chapter. We met wonderful people (thanks to Paulette from La Mariposa we were introduced to a couple from the US who are setting up a veterinary practice and let us hang our hammocks on their porch overlooking the lake surrounded by countless butterflies), enjoyed sleeping in our hammocks, taking hikes and eating tasty food.


Adios Ometepe! I hope to see you again.

Posted by BettinaNYC 18:40 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged granada de isla ometepe Comments (0)

Wonky thoughts: Dueling Canals

China, Russia, Nicaragua want to go mano a mano with the US and Panama

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Today's People's Climate Change march in New York City seems like the perfect time for a wonky post about how challenging building a canal can be to environmental justice.

During my last days at La Mariposa in Nicaragua, officials announced the route of a proposed canal that would rival the Panama Canal. There is hardly anyone I spoke to during my time in Nicaragua that thinks the canal will be the economic engine it is promised to be.


One of the more interesting conversations I had while at language school, (and I had many!) was with another student from the UK getting a degree in environmental engineering. The priority of the proposed canal, we discussed, has less to do with creating jobs for Nicaraguans, but more about various countries coming together to challenge the stature of the United States in world affairs. Financial backing for the canal is coming mainly from Chinese and Russian business interests. There's nothing like watching a shift in global politics happen right before your eyes, we said.

From my perspective, two things stand out about the proposal as reasons why the canal would do little to lift Nicaraguans out of poverty. First, as I understand it, there are no job guarantees for Nicaraguans until 50 years after the canal is built. And in Colon, Panama where I stayed for a week (just north of the city and home to one of the world's largest free trade zones) near the canal, I saw banners demanding fairness for local jobs and land issues. Not surprisingly, there were riots there a couple of years ago when the Panamanian government wanted to sell state-owned property to private companies that currently rent in the zone. I am unsure how residents feel about a new canal currently being built in the area to handle larger ships.

Second, any development that would cut through the vast, beautiful mountains of Nicaragua and in particular Lago Nicaragua certainly destroying Isla de Ometepe's lush environment and agriculture, should be a non-starter. With a delayed, now flood prone rainy season, poor Nicaraguans are disproportionately feeling the effects of climate change (see this article "Hunger threatens Central America" Hambre acheca Centroamerica http://www.laprensa.com.ni/2014/09/13/activos/211886?movil). This in addition to a huge jump in bean prices earlier this year, means more pain for a country with a serious food security problem. (Sorry for the long link, but articles that help explain the bean crisis are here: http://www.centralamericadata.com/en/search?q1=content_en_le:%22red+beans%22&q2=mattersInCountry_es_le:%22Nicaragua%22) A complex mix of climate change and politics are causing the problem.

And then there's the impact a canal could have on the ocean.

If the trash-filled waters around Panama City are any indication of how the ocean will be treated with new ship traffic, I can't imagine what it will mean for the ocean, a source of food and earth's well-being to be frank. Sure, people litter everywhere but in my opinion when the powers-that-be create a commercial engine without regard for the environment, businesses and citizens won't care either.

Photos can't convey the odor.

The Panamanians celebrated the 100 anniversary of the Panama Canal while I was there. Granted, it's hard not to marvel at the engineering and history associated with the project. But I hope folks in Nicaragua are doing research on when "benefits" for its impoverished communities may materialize since more than 100 years seems the standard.

Posted by BettinaNYC 18:42 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged panama canal nicaragua thoughts wonky Comments (0)

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