Saturday, May 28, 2011

Nicaragua – Miraflor, A humbling experience

We wanted to explore a bit more of Nicaragua's countryside and Estelí offered a good choice of options using it as a base to leave our big packs and travel "free and easy". There are many coffee plantations and nature reserves in the area. The information on the internet was more confusing than helpful, but our guidebook mentioned an English woman named Jane (or Juanita, as she's know to the locals) who owns a hostal and café in Estelí. And runs a tourism office called TreeHuggers, no kidding!

She was a valuable source of knowledge about the city and entire region. She let us read from a couple of comprehensive binders and soon we decided to visit Miraflor. It is a campesino-owned nature reserve which became protected in 1990 and covers 206 sq km. Miraflor's eco-systems vary with altitude, from tropical savannah through dry and pine forests to cloud forest It is a haven for exotic flora and fauna including 250 species of birds and about 300 types of orchids – giving us a bit of a feeling of being back in our old home country: Singapore. There are a lot of organic, shade grown coffee plantations and vegetable crops. Their aim: sustainable livelihoods. Visitors can choose to stay among the five communities that spread out over three microclimates that exist within the park.

We chose two different areas to be able to see more of Miraflor. Choosing the two families meant reading a synopsis of the facilities and a few sentences of their "biography" including expertise. Julane was interested in learning about the natural medicine and herbs and both families were knowledgeable in this. Patrick was not too excited about the idea to spend some time in the countryside, but eventually agreed to a 4 day / 3 night outing.

We booked the first two nights with the family of Lucia and Rogelio in El Sontule.
The village lies in the semi-humid zone just below the cloud forest, which in the 60’s and 70’s underwent major deforestation to make space for crops and cattle pastures. In this area, the primary crop is coffee and there are many small producers that own between one and twenty acres of land. El Sontule has two coffee co-ops , one women’s co-op, and five to six families offer homestays there.

Although the active coffee season draws to an end in April when the bean picking is completed, we still were able to see the young white blooms appearing on the bushes and enjoy the fresh brew from the 2010 season. It is strictly organic and also shade grown which means the top quality coffee beans.

Accommodation is pretty rustic – no electricity or running water. Filtered drinking water and all meals are included with a simple bedroom in the house. This all inclusive "resort" cost $15 per person...interactions with the families and their farm animals included. Possible add-ons are guided trips by horse or on foot. We decided to book a horse trip to transfer to other community where we would spend our third night. The horse taxi is $7 per horse and $15 for the guide. If you want your guide to also ride a horse you also need to pay for his horse too... hmm, we wonder if he would be jogging with us in case we didn't pay for his ride?

Our home for two nights in
El Sontule
Swinging on our small daypacks, we took off for our trip. The bus from Miraflor to Estelí
leaves only once a day for it's round trip journey but only operates 5 days a week and during the rainy season (now) has to go the longer route which means the 35kms takes over 3 hours. Yes, that means a very slow bus trip. Why? The road is pretty rough. We start our passing through the lush green tobacco fields surrounding Estelí. Did we mention that Estelí has a dozen or so cigar factories? It might even be considered the cigar capital of a country that is quickly gaining a good reputation for premium cigars! Although the tourist Cigar factories down in Granada (with the much higher priced cigars) might not agree with that.

Our bus was quite full and we didn't get to sit together but Julane was able to meet the younger sister of Lucia who would be our homestay hostess for the first two nights in El Sontule. She has a very large family and the town is quite small despite being the largest community in the area with 600 people... family, or not, everyone knows everyone here.

Our hosts: Angela, Antonio, Lucia
The bus dropped us off at the gate of our host family and we were greeted and shown around the place by the daughter in law. There are quite a few generations living within a few steps of each other. The eldest was the 91 year old Patron: Antonio, his wife Angela (80), then Lucia at 60 and her husband at 70. The son lives next door and they have a young child. The town has two churches: Catholic and Evangelical. Uncle Ramon spent most of his time at his brother Rogelio's (our host family). He's a very warm and smiling chap who we think was the evangelical preacher, at least he read the bible a lot prayed before meals, and was singing ♫Jesus.... Jesus.... Jesus.... ♫ when working in the herb garden. The whole family was so inviting and hospitable.

Hand washing"sink"
Houses in Miraflor have no running water or electricity. Water is collected by buckets from the community well and solar panels charge car-type batteries that provide just enough energy to run fluorescent light bulbs for a few hours at night. Our room did not have a light though. We were given a candle instead – how romantic.

To our surprise there was a small TV that captured the attention of the whole family, but since this is the beginning of the rainy season and we are staying in a cloud forest, we weren't too sure how much juice that solar panel had. No wonder we didn’t get a light in our room... that extra energy consumption would surely reduce the TV time. In case you are interested in alternative energy: it was not a special 12V TV: the family used an inverter.

Unfortunately, our knowledge of Spanish didn't allow us to understand a lot of the stories especially when Rogelio mentioned the destruction and hardship they experienced during the Contra Revolution. He said that the Nicaraguans fought against Samoza's Regime and won but then the USA wouldn't accept the Sandinista government that was voted in and supported the Contras who persecuted the people. Rogelio, himself, was shot and almost died! There are still damaged buildings in the village from Contra attacks. These are very poor people in a remote area but unfortunately this region strongly supported the Sandinistas and also lies close to the Honduras border where the Contras were based.

Lucia showed Julane around her spacious garden. She and Regelio bought the place after the war ended about 20 years ago and put a lot of effort into the vegetation around. It is filled with fruit trees (orange, lemon, banana), veggies and flowers. Both times when she came home; she had brought back plant-stem cuttings to start in pots.

The men are having dinner:
Rogelio, Ramon, Patrick
She prepared the most delicious tea from her garden for Patrick's scratchy throat containing: lemongrass, lemon verbena/verveine, orange leaves, something that reminded me of oregano but wasn't. Our meals were amazing. Best local food that we've had in Nicaragua. The ladies cooked over a wood fire hearth in a dimly lighted, and smoky kitchen. They created about 5 dishes each meal including various flavorful veggies, guacamole, meat, tortillas and their homemade cheese called Cuajada. Cuajada is a compact, almost cheese-like product (milk curd), like curd "grains". It doesn't melt and has a strange texture. It's very popular in Nicaragua and Patrick thought it was okay. Julane was glad that Patrick liked it... he always ended up getting double of Cuajada.
All day the family had hot local organic grown coffee available in a thermos for us to enjoy – yummy!

Finally plenty of time to read
For this blog entry, Julane was researching a bit about our family and Miraflor and found a blog by another couple which it shows the outside oven that was not used while we were there. I wondered what they used it for and thought perhaps tortillas but now that I've found the answer, I thought to share it with you: (The benefit of blogging is that it allows us to connect the dots!)

Our second day, was spent hammock-swinging as the weather was not conducive to hiking. The garden included a Little Ranchero spot with a thatched roof that allowed us both to finally finish two books. It was also nice just to be with the family, or in this case, in the proximity of the family, yet with our own privacy.
Our very basic room at
Lucia and Rogelio's house
Our room was very simple, and not the place you spend any more time other than sleeping. The bed was a large single-size bed, which meant we would keep each other warm at night... good thing that El Sontule is cold enough at night for that. Neither the bedroom, nor the bathroom, was the highlight here. If these are important to you, than book something in Granada instead!

The outhouse reminded Julane of her childhood days of camping in Alaska. It had a concrete elevated base with a wooden "closet" attached on it, inside was a proper fiberglass toilet with over a hole (think: portable toilet at a construction site). This is not a place you want to visit very often. First is the wet, muddy walk and secondly it clears the sinuses, even Patrick's. Perhaps it's the second phase of the cure from his cold?

Waiting for the milk delivery
The family is nearly self sufficient with food. The garden is abundant but also the numbers of animals are too. There are over a dozen cows who supply their milk and cheese. They even sell the milk each morning. Over breakfast, we watched their neighbors wander over with empty plastic pet bottles and hand over a few coins. The income allows them to buy staples that they don't grow like rice and sugar.

Julane and mother hen in the kitchen:
She is protecting her little chicks
from the hungry animals ouside
They also had a huge number of chickens. The first night, they examined the eggs for fertilization and kept the ones which were for consumption returning the others to mother hen. And one particular mother had 18 chicks and spent the night in the dining room at night to protect the babies. Also sharing the kitchen area was a couple of young kittens and a very small puppy that arrived without mother, not to mention the frisky young dog that always seemed to sneak into the house.
The chicks enjoy the warmth of mom
With all the animals running about, we feel some itching on our bodies. We think they might have been flea bites. Patrick looked like a pin cushion after this trip. Hey, that's living the natural life, isn't it?! Even a week later, we still have the souvenir polkadots to remember our time there. ;-)

They also have a few horses which seem to be the norm here. We don't know how often they are used for work in the fields but they are definitely needed as transport as there is no local bus except for the one we arrived on. Few people have a car either. So the horse is very important here.

Our second night, their son, Marlon returned and joined us at dinner with Uriel, who would be our guide the next day. Both are extremely friendly and enthusiastic to practice their English which was quite good. After 30 hours of pure Spanish, we were so happy to understand our new family a bit better through English. There were many unclear issues which Marlon openly discussed with us especially regarding America's involvement during the war. He said that many older people felt resentment toward America as they lost many family members and suffered greatly at the hands of the Contras and also the many mercenaries that were commissioned to help them fight the brutal war. The younger people are more neutral about it and are more interested in moving on and getting involved in tourism as it is a rapidly developing sector of employment for Nicaraguans. Marlon is also a guide and spent 3 months in England to learn English.

Day 3: El Sontule to El Cebollal
Don't we look like pro's?
Breakfast was about 7:15am and Uriel arrived promptly as he promised with our horses and cowboy costumes. Well, that meant a strap-on spur for Patrick while Julane stuffed some extra clothes into her pants as padding against rubbing.. Yes, her costume was simply a J.Lo butt; isn't that befitting a Latina cowgirl? Patrick looked at his spur and thought it was a bit brutal to use this. He was given Paco, the biggest horse. But actually the horses were not that robust or large; they looked more like large ponies. Julane's mare was named Mora (blackberry). Uriel and his 12 year old cousin shared a horse.
Our guide Uriel with his
younger cousin
Uriel explained that his cousin would bring the horses back afterward as he needed to go to Estelí that afternoon on the 4pm bus as he attended university 3 days a week. He's clearly a good multi-tasker. Guide, agriculture student, works in the coffee plantation as the "practical" part of his education as an apprentice and lastly he will soon begin teaching English to the primary school students in the village. He is clearly motivated and driven, but in a very endearing way. We were very impressed by him.

So our trip started on the bus road for the first few hundred meters, but even this "real" road is more appropriate for horses than vehicles. Then we went off-road and criss-crossed our way through various small plantations, opening and closing metal cattle gates along the way. We passed through mainly coffee and potato fields. The vegetation changed from beautiful mesquite type trees and large yucca/agave plants to more rainforest types forests.
Landscape on the way to El Cebollal
It is an unusual mix of vegetation here. There are also cactus growing and some even wind their way up the trees like ivy. We were surprised to see so much desert type of vegetation in this cool humid environment. Green was the major color engulfing us, but there were a few highlights like the deep pink of the flowering bromeliads that were clinging to the branches of massive trees. Actually the symbiotic relationship among the vegetation here is intense; there are many plants/vines/orchids/ivy, weaver bird nests hanging from the trees like Christmas decorations. Oh and the worst of the parasitical plants was the "old man's beard" that clung over trees until it eventually deprives them of nutrients and sunshine and then kills them. Julane and Paco both enjoyed the old man's beard much more than the trees probably did!

Julane's impersonator

Paco just likes eating that stuff which
really looks like a beard on him!

Let's talk about our horses...ah hum, ponies. Well Patrick has ridden a horse twice and Julane about ten times so we didn't want the big guns, but somehow we didn't expect horses that were slower than we personally could walk. Patrick's horse didn't even react to a little poke with his spur, which he half-heartedly used to see if the horse had more than one gear. Nope. It was Patrick's biggest challenge just to keep Paco from eating his way along the trail.

A bit more upscale accommodation
but there is not as much interaction
with the family here
We arrived at El Cebollal after 3 hours just before noon. El Cebollal gets the most tourists while El Sontule seems to get more work/study groups or volunteers. El Cebollal is in the cloud forest at an altitude of around 1400m. There were a few other guests already residing there and it seems that they have guests on a continual basis. We also passed a number of signs for homestays and even some places with cabanas. So there are more upscale options too.

Our room at the family of Luiz & Martha
After arriving and being shown our room which was a bit nicer than the two nights before and even had a light bulb! We decided to continue our horse ride...the horses had barely broken a sweat so far! So we left for the waterfall which added another 2 hours to our saddles. The waterfall was not so special and the road to get there was just a rocky road. When we arrived and paid the entrance to the family that have a house nearby (10 Cordoba each), we only stayed about 10 minutes as the afternoon rains were threatening. We then attempted to get the horses moving as the thunder and lightning was intensifying. Nope, the horses kept the same speed even with Uriel whisking his whip at our horse's rumps.
Julane is working hard to get
Mora to move
No, these horses knew that we were not a local rider and lacked the skill. Paco is apparently a very fast horse and does this route carrying Jason (our second guide) every Saturday to El Cebollal, as the secondary school for the entire region is here. We learned that the primary school is in El Sontule but not many children go there they work on their families farms during the week and only have Saturdays free to continue their education. The sad part is, that if they go to weekday classes, it's free; but Saturday school costs extra money.

I know that many people are shocked by the concept of child labor, but there are different categories of labor. Sometimes kids are helping in the family business or learning a trade. They are not indentured servants. Higher education is valuable in many countries but what happens when you spend 4 years in a university and there aren't enough jobs afterward to employ but a small percentage of the graduates? Julane saw this in India. Education was nearly free, only requiring time, effort and living costs. But then there are many left hopelessly stranded without any opportunity to utilize their knowledge.

Apprenticeship is something that is not recognized enough in Western countries. Switzerland still has this as an option for students once they reach about 16 years old. They then pursue and combination of studies and work practice, so after 3-4 years they are already skilled in the work force. Now in the third world, this age starts much younger and often the education is learned through work. The children usually follow in the footsteps of their parents. Slavery and apprenticeship are two entirely different cases. Third world families are very poor and can barely provide for daily needs, so everyone contributes. It's better than needing to sell children (into prostitution) if parents can't afford to feed them.

Coffee roasting the old fashioned way.
After our horse excursion, we enjoyed a hearty lunch with Uriel and then said our good-byes. The padre and madre of our new homestay are Luiz and Marta. Luiz knows a lot about the plants of the forest, especially orchids, bromeliads, and medicinal plants. Sadly we didn't have time to hire him as a guide. But we enjoyed speaking with the family that evening. Marta showed Julane how to roast coffee beans. She has a brand new concrete cook stove since a week with two burners (ie large openings above the wood burning part). The coffee roasting took over 30 minutes and the beans needed to turn quite black to be considered done. They didn't smell like coffee though more like roasted corn! The batch last about 2 weeks and with the number of visitors arriving at their doorstep perhaps they run out sooner than that!

The rooms may be simple, but the
food is plentiful and yummy
The next day we had a leisurely breakfast. Food here was plentiful and good but not quite the wow factor that we had at Lucia's but the setting was more comfortable and it felt like this family was more affluent. Perhaps it's because they get more customers and have been able to expand and upgrade their home. The hospitality was great.

We had 3 options for buses back to Estelí: one directly at our doorstep at 7am or two later at the main road junction; we chose the later choice. We left leisurely to walk the 45 minutes to the "main" dirt road to catch the bus to Estelí at 11-ish coming from Yali. Then we were privileged with a free massage on one of the older chicken bus models to date. The bus shocks didn't exist and we bounced and bobbled our way for almost 2 hours of travel. Luckily the scenery is pleasant but we were rattled to the core!

It was nice to return to familiar surrounding and pull fresh clothing out of our big pack packs that we left in Estelí, especially after finally getting to take a shower. Yes, we admit that we didn't shower in three days. We declined the rustic cold bucket shower at our homestays and this made the lukewarm shower back in Estelí all the more appreciated!

We have one more destination in our Nicaraguan travel before our last night in Managua. Luckily Matagalpa is also in the cool highlands...