Psst! Check out my trip video at the bottom of this post!“Los nubias son muy bonitas!” I exclaim excitedly, trying to impress the six-year-old boy coloring clouds. “Las nubes,” he corrects me, a smirk appearing on his face. “¿Puedes ayudarme a colorearlos?” “Si,” I respond to his request for me to help him color, happy that I’m both able to answer correctly and to be spending time abroad in such a meaningful way.
More Than Spanish LessonsSo how did I get to be doing arts and crafts under the warm Nicaraguan sun? As the winter chill enveloped NYC, I hopped on Google Flights and booked myself a trip to one of the Spanish schools in Nicaragua, which fortunately enjoys opposite seasons. Packing my bags with swimsuits and sandals, I was excited about my upcoming tan. But really, it was more than that. While my goal is always to go beyond the guidebook when traveling and have more meaningful experiences, this trip would take that idea a step further. In fact, I’d booked a nine-day stay at the La Mariposa Spanish School & Eco-Hotel — an immersive non-profit Spanish school — in the country’s Masaya Municipality. I hadn’t been to Nicaragua since hiking Concepcion Volcano on Ometepe Island two years prior, and was looking forward to going back and perfecting mi español.
Check out the above video from my experienceThe website promised one-on-one classes, delicious vegetarian meals included, and plenty of opportunities to practically apply lessons — not to mention your choice of a homestay or eco-friendly hotel accommodations. While this sounded perfect, by the end of my trip to Nicaragua I’d gotten so much more.
The Call Of The WildBeeep, beeep, beeeep. I can hear my morning alarm, though I’m already awake and in the shower sudsing myself with heavenly handmade soap. The night’s lullaby had been frogs chirping; however, around 6:30am this changed to tropical birds beginning their wake up calls. From there, the other resident animals joined in: the monkeys climbing about their cages, the dogs barking, the cats racing about the balcony. Sure, not the best situation for late sleepers; but the setting actually made my stress melt away as I moved closer to nature. Why are there so many animals at a Spanish school? Because La Mariposa isn’t just a Spanish school. Actually, it was started by an English woman named Paulette and her daughter Gigi as an employment project in 2005. This is when they moved from the United Kingdom to Nicaragua and hired local workers to begin construction — completely by hand using sustainable materials. Now, there were a few inspirations for the building of La Mariposa, one of which was her experience taking Spanish lessons at another in-country school that was poorly run and didn’t pay teachers on time. In January 2006, La Mariposa welcomed its first guests and students as one of the Spanish schools in Nicaragua. Today, they’re the largest employer in their La Concha community, with 87 employees as of 2017. Eventually, the school and eco-hotel expanded into numerous other initiatives — one of which includes rescuing animals. At the hotel where I’m staying, there are so many lovable dogs and cuddly cats, as well as monkeys, birds, and bunnies. Down the street are also rescued horses that are nursed back to health and used for equestrian therapy for special needs children. For those who want to, you’re able to help Oscar or Humberto — the two local staff members who tend the animals — with feeding and cleaning the cages, and assisting with the earthworms for composting. I’ve always been a fan of finding ways to volunteer from home, but getting to assist in real life was incredible. Side note: Paulette’s story on how La Mariposa came to be is seriously fascinating and moving.
A Typical Day At La MariposaAll meals are eaten communally — a blessing for us solo travelers who hate needing to figure out how to make friends — and feature organic ingredients grown at La Mariposa’s nearby reserve. Breakfast is served at 7:30am; a heaping bowl of fresh fruit. Additionally, banana, pineapple and melon is topped with optional granola or cereal, and served alongside a hot dish like toast with eggs or plantain and tomato. The sustenance is necessary, as promptly at 8am I join my Spanish teacher, Rosa, for two hours of grammar. For those of you getting sweaty palms thinking back to high school language class, being caged up in crowded rooms suffocated by bright yellow lights and pop quizzes, take a deep breath. My experience includes sitting at a desk surrounded by lush jungle; hummingbirds and parrots taking the place of radiators and loudspeaker announcements. Yes, I still have to conjugate verbs and remember that “saber” (to know) looks nothing like itself in the preterite form; but when you swap in a gorgeous setting and are able to use your new skills to immerse yourself in the destination, it’s actually fun. “Falso amigo,” Rosa laughs as I try, yet again, to turn English words into Spanish by simply adding an “o” to the end. Hey, it works sometimes. After grammar, I head upstairs for a quick rest in my favorite hammock, though there are about 15 to choose from. I like the second floor; gazing out over banana leaves and avocado trees. I zone out on a spider — a big, big, big spider — methodically crafting its web. Soon though I’m snapped out of my daze, as other hotel guests-slash-students scurry off with notebooks in hand to their second round of classes for the day. As for me, at 10:10am I meet with Jenny, another woman from the local community. Until noon, I have the conversation portion of my classes. Day 1 starts slow, and I wonder if Jenny really wants to know my favorite color and what “comida” I had for breakfast; however, things move along quickly as she pushes me forward through games like Bananagrams. We also take walks to La Mariposa’s 10-acre nature reserve, where I see my morning coffee being hand-picked before processing. We spend the time wandering to nearby pueblas like La Concha and San Juan. Out and about, the invisible classroom walls break down and, without noticing it, I’m able to speak freely beyond explaining how I like my pan (bread) with huevos (eggs).
An All Inclusive (Responsible Tourism Style)After class is lunch, followed by the day’s activities. Most are included in the price of your stay, though might have a small expense like lunch or paying $10 for a special boat trip. All are meant to help you gain a better understanding of Nicaragua, practica tu español and immerse you in authentic local life. While some afternoons include trips to Laguna de Apoyo, Volcan Masaya, the city of León or trails for hikes led by a local father and daughter, others might be onsite salsa dancing, a history lesson or cooking classes. My favorite activities are the ones where we visit the homes of local artisans; not only speaking with them in Spanish, but trying our hands — literally — at the local crafts. One community I’m fortunate to explore is San Juan de Oriente, a village known for its locally-made pottery. According to Nicaraguan Pottery, the village sits on rich clay deposits from past volcanic activity, and has been a center for pottery-making since pre-Colombia times. I am fortunate enough to get to experience this aspect of the local culture first-hand — in a local home, no less. Duilo proudly demonstrates how he uses recycled bits like pens and bike parts to make tools, which he uses to turn clay and sand into gorgeous bowls, cups and ceramic figures. He’s been doing this for 30 years, and is a firm believer in creating ceramics that are 100% natural. In fact, he doesn’t even use glaze! Watching him at the foot-propelled workstation, turning blobs of organic matter into drool-worthy housewares, is like seeing a magic show. He makes it look so easy! Of course, it’s not; something I learn when I give the workstation a try myself. He instructs me — in Spanish — when I need to squeeze my hands together or move them up and down along the clay. Things are looking okay until I move my fingers too quickly and a gaping hole forms on my volcano-shaped bowl. Yea, I’ll just stick to writing and leave the handicrafts to the professionals. In San Juan de Oriente I also meet the only stone carver in the village, an indigenous man who has decided to break the ceramics mold (check my pun!). The man looks so relaxed without shoes or a shirt as we walk into his backyard. Pulling up a stool, he grabs a chisel and a slab of volcanic rock — which he carried here on his back for five hours from a quarry. The man uses his feet to hold down the slab, and begins hammering away in a frenzy. In the beginning, it looks like he’s just letting out his frustration on the rock; that is, until it turns into a perfectly shaped sculpture of a Mayan god. In the city of León, we visit a blanket factory called Telar Manual Textil La Fe. It’s family-owned, and operates as a women’s cooperative. I love seeing the different designs, from small mountains to besos (kisses), woven into the 100% cotton handmade garments. What’s truly amazing though is the fact that everything is made by hand. Hubert Caballeron — the son of the cooperative founder, Danella — explains (in Spanish) that it takes five hours to tie each thread to the loom. Moreover, it typically takes one full day to make one blanket. Each loom in the small production facility has a different purpose, like creating baby blankets, scarves or linen napkins. Hubert demonstrates on one of the machines, using the foot petals to make the loom dance. It’s a pretty accurate analogy actually, as he counts out loud, explaining that different designs have different rhythms. Even more, I get a mini lesson at using the wooden looms. Despite years of dance training myself, I find myself maneuvering two left feet, as I’m no good at the foot pedals. That’s okay though, as it’s still a special experience!
“Voluntourism” Done RightAnother activity that touches my heart — and moves me to volunteer — is an afternoon spent exploring some of the projects La Mariposa spearheads; all of which La Mariposa’s students can take part in. Now, here’s the problem with many volunteer programs: they don’t really listen to the needs of the community. Instead, they step in, open up shop, take jobs from locals and charge anyone willing to pay to come volunteer. This is not what La Mariposa does. As mentioned above, La Mariposa started as an employment project. Over the years, Paulette has responded to the needs of the community with answers that employ locals and put money back into the local economy, whether that’s putting up bathroom walls in a local hospital or funding the creation of library at a rural school. Our group, for example, visits an incredible al fresco English school. The school’s community is plagued by a lack of potable water and a new issue that’s come up: tiny fibers of metal falling from the sky due to the active Volcan Masaya. Despite the fact the volcano has been there forever, this is a fairly new issue, and a big one. People need to be careful that food and drink stays covered — because swallowing the metal is painful — and that it doesn’t get stuck in the skin. Additionally, La Mariposa has helped breathe life into projects that weren’t getting off the ground, such as a 100% free full-service center for disabled children including equinetherapy, aqua-therapy and physical therapy. While volunteering — which doesn’t cost extra — you work right alongside locals to assist in these efforts.
The Power Of A SmileWhich is how I find myself cutting out a gold star and adding glitter to paper ornaments for a homemade Christmas tree at an after-school art program for children. On the 10-minute walk from La Mariposa to the project, I’d half hoped someone would speak English, half hoped they wouldn’t so I could practice. The latter wish came true, and while I struggle to express myself at some points — apparently the word for glitter is la purpurina, not “glittero” — the children happily help me along. As I sit in a child’s chair, my butt stretching the plastic to its limits, I feel a little girl gazing over my shoulder. Apparently, she doesn’t realize that I’ve accidentally cut out a stingray instead of a star, as she says, “La estrella es hermosa” (The star is beautiful). I don’t know why, but I feel so moved by these simple words. Even more, as I try to fix the mess I’ve made of the star, other kids come over to compliment my monstrosity and ask me to help them make their ornaments. I can’t tell exactly what they say with their quick, shy voices, but I don’t need to. We get by just fine with my limited Spanish enhanced by gestures and smiles. Smiles. Now there’s one powerful language. Christmas decorations turn to coloring, which turns to hand games and tag and then photos. The price of admission is simply a show of your pearly whites and a scrunch of your nose and you’ve made a new friend.
Reflections At The LagoonOn my final afternoon at La Mariposa, the school hosts a trip to the beautiful Laguna de Apoyo. Funny enough, I’d been here a few years back while staying in Granada. The same place, but a totally different experience. Today, sitting on a floating dock inside the crater of an extinct volcano, I look around at my new friends: there’s the couple from England who have been studying hard for two months, the farm girl from Washington who wants to start her own nonprofit, the Canadian couple passing through during a bike trip from Vancouver to Argentina, the Romanian flight attendant who wanted to learn a new language in an idyllic place. We all had our reasons for coming to Nicaragua; to La Mariposa. And I’m sure we all got something completely unique out of it. Because there truly is something for everyone wanting to have a meaningful, transformative travel-focused trip. As long as you don’t mind the rustic accommodations, you’ll probably never want to leave.
A New Way To Travel SoloOn my final night I change up my routine of having a beer in the onsite library. Instead, I swap suds and Spanish textbooks for a glass of wine on the hotel terrace. A week has truly gone by so quickly. As a solo traveler nearing the age of 31, it’s getting tougher to meet people easily in accommodations as I give up hostels for experiential hotels. Not at La Mariposa, though. Here, communal meals and group activities where we all work together like detectives to decipher the Spanish stories of the locals we meet has helped us form a bond. I can’t help but feel like I’m leaving my community because in a way I really am. And while practicing my Spanish won’t be as easy back in NYC without Rosa and Jenny teaching me verb tenses 10 feet from my bedroom door, or sitting at the “Spanish-speaking only” table at lunch, I’m making a vow to at least try so that when I return to this place I can assimilate back easily.
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Logistics:Getting There: You’ll fly into Augusto C. Sandino International Airport in Managua (MGA). From there, it’s recommended to book transport with La Mariposa ($40 USD each way). Otherwise you’ll need to navigate multiple buses. Pricing: Click here to see La Mariposa’s pricing information. Language: Spanish. It’s good to know at least some basic phrases. Luckily you’ll be staying at a Spanish school, though Spanish For Dummies can help give you a base before you go. Currency: I ended up using US dollars the entire time. In fact, in many places — especially tourist hot spots like Leon and Laguna de Apoyo — prices are listed in USD. Officially, though, the local currency is the Nicaraguan córdoba. Packing Essentials:
Safety: I do recommend packing the safety essentials mentioned in the packing list above. Honestly, I felt very safe, though note I did not wander alone at night. The one thing I did have to deal with as a solo female traveler was catcalling while walking to the nearby towns (despite dressing with shoulders and knees covered); however, I just ignored it and continued walking without a problem.
- Medications / toiletries. La Mariposa provides a tiny bar of handmade soap and some shampoo, so you’ll definitely want to bring some of your own items.
- Socks / undergarments
- Sneakers / sandals
- Relaxing, conservative clothing. No need to dress up at all! Maybe you’ll want a long dress or two for the day trips, but when at La Mariposa loose, light pants and long shorts/skirts work well, as do cotton tees.
- Light long pants and sleeves. I got chilly at night. Plus, if mosquitos become a problem you’ll want to cover up.
- Bathing suit. For Laguna de Apoyo.
- Vigilant Personal Alarm. I never go anywhere — both at home and on the road — without this personal safety alarm. It’s less than $20 and can save your life!
- Pickpocket-Proof Garments. Again, I always pack a few of these garments. Hidden pockets meet thieves never even know you’re carrying cash and cards.
- Speakeasy Hidden-Pocket Scarf. For chilly nights, mosquito protection and to hide valuables.
- A sturdy day pack. For the many day trips offered by La Mariposa.
- Insect repellent. I use all-natural Aromaflage, which also acts as a perfume.
- Sunscreen. I’m a big fan of SunBum. Here’s a 3-ounce tube for your carry-on.
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