Where the Streets Have No Name: Alternative Tourism in Nicaragua
Updated: Nov 25, 2019
Alternative tourism once spearheaded change in one Nicaraguan community and opened unique opportunities for the intrepid traveller
Story by Brent Robillard & Photography by Caroline Bergeron
THE FRAGILITY OF NICARAGUA’S INFRASTRUCTURE first hit us months before we finally boarded the plane in Ottawa. This epiphany arrived in the form of a phone call from World Vision’s Marieth Llinas.
“The office is located off the Plaza de España, half a block north of the Optica Nicaraguense,” she dictated.
“But what’s the street address?” I asked, pen poised for her instructions.
“In Nicaragua the streets have no names.”
Three flights later, with stopovers in Newark and Houston, followed by a two-hour bus ride over corduroy roads in the dead of night, I finally understood.
MID-MARCH, AT THE HEIGHT OF AN INCANDESCENT summer day in Nicaragua, we stand in the middle of one such nameless street in the city of Nandaime. Dust and dirt tunnel their way past and around us, applying themselves like a paste in a freshly smeared layer of sunscreen.
My wife and I are waiting outside the Centro Communitario Oscar Arnulfo Romero--so-named after the assassinated El Salvadoran priest--for ten young ladies (high school students) aged sixteen to eighteen. Today we are to see the city for the first time, accompanied by our local guide Marvin Bustos.
Hardly a tourist mecca, Nandaime lies seventy kilometres south-east of the capital city, Managua, and within easy striking distance of the more popular destinations of Granada, Masaya, and San Juan del Sur.
Our arrival here was facilitated by Patrice Breton and the Quebec-based NGO Spirale, who work exclusively with the Centro Romero in establishing inter-cultural exchanges, alternative tourism packages, and Fair Trade opportunities. The profits from these initiatives help fund community-based projects such as folkloric dance classes, summer painting workshops, computer courses, and university bursaries for the Centro’s youth members.
This is the draw of alternative tourism. Travellers can satisfy their sense of wanderlust while being socially conscious and culturally sensitive. Outside the cost of each participant’s plane ticket, all the money funnels directly into the community centre, and by extension into the hands of Nandaime’s poorest citizens.
Do not expect five-star accommodations, however. In fact, expect to be uncomfortable–at least at first. Apart from the good your tourism dollars will do, the second half of your mission is cultural exchange.
“This is where you’ll be living with local families for most of your stay,” says Marvin--who communicates only in Spanish--once we have left the cobbled streets for the rutted dirt tracks Barrio Modesto Marin.
Although we say nothing, everyone is thinking the same thing. So this is culture shock.
Better homes in the barrio are constructed of anonymous steel-grey cinder blocks and tin roofs. They are about one third of the size of an average high school classroom in Canada. Other homes sprawl organically, haphazardly expanding outward in a variety of materials-- rough-hewn timber, plastic sheeting, scrap metal, and cardboard. All are hemmed in by barb-wire fences and protected by skeletal dogs and other accidents of breeding.
This initial apprehension only grows in the first days that follow as we eat meal after meal of rice and fried pinto beans, make use of outhouses where cockroaches thrive, and struggle to communicate in broken Spanish. We were prepared for this, but that does not make the experience any easier.
And yet somehow, a week into our stay, and seemingly instantaneously, like Paul on the road to Damascus, we change--are changed--and the shock to our North American sensibilities is supplanted by a feeling of shared humanity and understanding akin to solidarity. None of us, after living in our families, can escape it.
If we find it difficult to live this way for a week or two, we now have some small understanding of what it means to live in what the United Nations categorizes as “extreme poverty.” For Nicaragua is one of only two nations in the Western Hemisphere to have more than 25% of its population living on less than one dollar a day.
But this clinical statistic has a face for us now. In fact it has many faces, and many names. And were it not for the good fortune of birth and geography, anyone of them could be ours.
The year is 2007.
FAST FORWARD TWELVE YEARS & SEVEN SERVICE MISSIONS. Nicaragua has descended into political chaos again, after three decades of peace, and our service missions have been cancelled indefinitely by our Board of Education. The tourism industry that only a year ago contributed 6% of Nicaragua’s GDP has atrophied. The Romero Centre, for its part, trundles on with a skeletal staff, doing what it has always done best—looking out for kids and adolescents, offering them a safe space to participate, to interact, and to receive affection. Its alternative tourism program has all but disappeared.
“Voluntourism”—a word that was not in general use ten years ago—has become a fad for rich white kids and faces serious criticism. Much of it valid. Wherever there is a dollar to be made, capitalism will rear the ugliest part of its head: unscrupulous organizations who do more damage than good, fly-by-night volunteer travel placement agencies who leave their clients stranded in dangerous situations, and wealthy international charities who charge exorbitant programming fees.
And yet, for all the controversy, service learning and alternative travel—when done right—can still do such good.
To begin, you must open yourself to humility. Marcel Proust said:
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
The best service learning will open those new eyes. Next, you must seek out a grass roots, local organization with a similar outlook. One which helps people help themselves. One which is just as committed to your education as it is to the benefits of your participation. The best alternative travel is a balanced exchange where all parties are equal. You are not a saviour, and the community that you are visiting is not asking to be saved.
We can all learn something from one another.
IN EACH OF OUR 15-DAY MISSIONS, WE LABOURED ON COLLECTIVE farms, gathering firewood, clearing brush, weeding gardens, planting trees, and watering saplings by hand. We took excursions into nearby rural communities like La Barranca and El Jabillo to help with domestic chores such as making meals and feeding animals.
We job-shadowed reporters, cleaned local parks, taught English, and organized games for school children.
But by far the most difficult task we ever undertook was the five kilometre walk to the basurero (municipal dump), done partway through each visit. There we encountered the true victims of globalization and first world apathy.
More than thirty children and their families live and work amid the detritus that Nandaime casts off. There they search through burning mounds of garbage for something—anything—they can sell. Plastic. Glass. Scrap metal. The average wage there is twenty-four cordobas per day (about one US dollar).
We always brought fresh fruit and school supplies, colouring books and puzzles. Soon after our arrival we were often surrounded by children, many of whom had red-rimmed eyes, skin conditions, and respiratory disorders. But what astonished us most was their ability to smile amid all this—the courage it took to be joyful amidst squalor.
We spent the morning there playing soccer and listening to their laughter.
But it wasn’t always about us. We spent evenings will an adolescent drama troupe, where the students exchanged stories of what it was like to be a teen in Nicaragua, in Canada. We met with veterans from the country’s civil war. The students spoke with groups of abused women and other groups of young kids who were building a radio program about children’s rights. We learned folkloric dance and how to make hammocks. We even visited sugar cane workers in the fields to learn about their hazardous work.
Evenings became impromptu soccer matches in the barrio with face painting and games. Language ceased to be a barrier.
THE STUDENTS LEARNED THAT IN SPITE OF NICARAGUA’S crippling poverty, there is much beauty and history in the country.
We took in the yellow grandeur of Granada’s neo-classical cathedral and the breezy shade of its Parque Centrale where artisans clamoured for our attention but would settle for our American dollars. The historic centre of Granada still looks very much like the colonial city it once was. Established by the Spanish in 1523, it is the oldest, and arguably the most beautiful, city in Nicaragua. Brightly coloured colonades and cool, darkened arcades abound.
A boat trip on Lake Nicaragua revealed obscene wealth on the islands and brought home the growing gap between the country’s social classes. We encountered monkeys and fed them mangoes from our outstretched hands.
Outside Masaya we were awed by the Santiago Crater--only one of many active volcanoes forming a spine through the country’s geography--a stark windswept landscape alive with sulphuric fumes that appears as though someone has carved out the belly of the mountain with an ice cream scoop.
RELATED: The Mouth of Hell: Masaya's Volcano
We also witnessed the horrors of Coyotepe. Established originally as a Spanish fortress, it existed for years as a prison of torture and detention for political dissidents under the dictator Somosa.
And in the city of Masaya itself, we satisfied our curiosity in its sprawling covered market which sells everything from shoes to hammocks, clay pottery to leg of lamb.
In Managua we walked around the Plaza de la Revolucion and lamented the irreparable damage done to the ancient cathedral. Hollow and crumbling, it has stood in ruins since 1972, when an earthquake toppled the entire capital city.
And not far away, we paid homage in the Plaza de la Pax, where more than twenty thousand “contra”-revolutionary weapons lie buried. The remnants of this last, and terrible, civil war are exposed and rusting off to one side of the monument, as is an Italian-made armoured tank. A palm tree grows up through its turret.
And always at trip’s end we spent a day on the Pacific coast in the village of San Juan del Sur, central America’s best kept secret. There we joined a handful other intrepid eco-tourists and surfers from the US, Australia, and Germany in what may have been the last days of wide-open sandy beaches and sleepy cantinas serving Toña and Vitoria. Already, within the last decade, three-story hotels have begun to spring up just back from the strip, promising air-conditioning and ocean views–a portent I once witnessed thirty years ago on the Costa Rican coast.
Such development is essential to the country’s starving economy, but it comes in the form of a double-edged sword. Traditional tourism will bring jobs (if the political tensions subside); however, they will be menial. The vast majority of the money spent in foreign hotels will eventually line foreign bank accounts.
That is why supporting alternative tourism is so essential toward building local capacity.
OUR GUIDE THROUGHOUT THESE EXPERIENCES WAS Padre Santiago, an ex-patriot priest from Granbé, Quebec who has lived in Nandaime for twenty-nine years. The Centro is a product of his vision and that of the community’s youth.
Toward the end of our fifteen-day trip he would tell each new group of students a story about two men in a boat. The man in the bow is reading a book, when the man in the stern discovers a leak. Water is pouring in.
“There is a leak in the back of the boat!” he shouts to the man in the front.
“Oh,” says the other. “Not in the front there isn’t.”
Here the Padre always nodded his white head. “Nicaragua is the back of the boat. You are the front. What will you do?”
It is sobering talks like this one, alongside seminars with local staff on such diverse topics as fair trade, Nicaraguan history, and liberation theology that helped us come to a deeper understanding of the Centro’s mission to achieve self-sufficiency and sustainable growth through such initiatives as alternative tourism, of which we were a part.
SO, DOES IT WORK? ALTERNATIVE TOURISM? SERVICE LEARNING? Well, let me start with a story.
Five years ago, at three o'clock in the morning, on a bus home from the Montreal airport and our fifth service mission, Caroline and I were awakened by Kristin--one of our students. She was excited and breathless, and speaking much too quickly. "I have decided what I'm going to do with the rest of my life," she whispered. "I'm going to be a doctor, and I'm going to work with Doctors Without Borders."
Kristen has now completed her pre-med program. Those were't just empty words in the middle of the night. In fact many of our students have changed the course of their lives after this trip. Some have gone on to be educators, nurses, human rights lawyers, and international aid field workers. Some have published studies and papers, such as "Women in African Agriculture: Integrating Women into Value Chains to Build a Stronger Sector." Some have joined the armed forces. But all of them would credit their Nicaraguan experience in the making of these decisions.
And many more whose career paths were not dictated or influenced by Nicaragua would tell you they live differently nonetheless--that they are more aware of global issues, more outraged by social injustice, and more likely to do something about it--whether they be bankers, police officers, engineers, or care-workers.
Participants in these experiences have also raised money upon their return and over the years have funded the construction of a school, a water tower, a dormitory, and, most recently, a well. They also established a scholarship to purchase school uniforms and supplies for elementary students in Nandaime.
We are not so naive as to think that service learning altered every student we ever exposed to Nicaragua; however, we are brash enough to say those who were affected will go on to do great things in the world.
And on the flip side, barrio homes where we lived ten years ago have gone from dirt floors to tiles. Latrines have become flush toilets. Youths have become university graduates who are now journalists, accountants, tour guides, and aid workers themselves.
THE PARADOX THAT IS NICARAGUA CAN BEST be summed up by the words of Reinaldo Bustillo, our one-time guide at the collective farm—and now our good friend.
“It was a difficult time,” he says, referring to his years as an adolescent revolutionary in the Contra War, “but it was also a time of great beauty. I was proud and convinced of the job I was doing.”
That same sense of pride and dignity exists everywhere in the squalor of Nicaragua. It is what organizations like the Centro Romero are using to forge stronger communities and combat the tide of globalization.
For this, we hope peace will return soon to that little nation and to the citizens of Nandaime—many of whom we call friends and hold near to our hearts.
NOTE TO OUR READERS: In the coming weeks, we will be publishing a series of posts on destinations in Nicaragua, including alternative tourism opportunities.