I receive many comments from people who want to come to Nicaragua and get dirty – volunteer on a working farm or with an organization promoting sustainable farming or gardening.  So here is a quick list (by no means exhaustive!) of recommendations with organizations and volunteer opportunities I personally have experience with.  If you are planning a trip, I have also written about my general recommendations for how to prepare and what to bring with you!

A note about volunteering in a developing country:  When I first began researching volunteer abroad opportunities ten years ago, I was taken aback at the fees requested by many organizations.  Why should I pay to volunteer?  Isn’t my help enough?  After living in a developing country and supervising volunteers I understand why and believe it is very important to take into consideration.  The time and investment in training volunteers to adapt to a new culture, a new language, entirely different transportation systems and work ethics is time intensive and costly.  A days salary at minimum wage is approximately half of what a bed in a hostel costs.  Trading a day’s worth of (probably unskilled, at least at first) work for room and board just doesn’t make economic sense for many NGOs.  Research the costs of living in the area where you want to work and make sure that is part of your decision and commitment.  There are some hostels who offer discount rates for guests who are volunteers, or who run their own charitable projects and may offer room and board in exchange for working with their initiative, but in general expect to at least pay your own room and board.  Making a contribution to the organization you are volunteering for is a way to ensure that your time volunteering really does contribute a net positive to their efforts and doesn’t become a strain on their resources because of the additional time/attention you require.  If they ask for a fee to volunteer, ask them how they calculated it to understand their justification before making a judgement about whether it’s reasonable or not.

Study Spanish First: Your ability to contribute to an organization is severely limited if your communication is limited to English!  Unless you have a specific skill that you know you have to offer and know that you are willing to help an organization by doing more office based work like online research, writing grant applications in English, helping with marketing materials, or web design, dedicating the first portion of your trip to language acquisition will be well worth your time.  If your interests lie in working with the rural sector here (as I imagine most of this blog’s readers are), I highly recommend the Hijos del Maiz language school in Achuapa.  The school offers one-to-one classes with young members of the rural community of El Lagartillo who have been certified as Spanish language instructors.  The school is unique in Nicaragua in that it provides a real rural living experience with comfortable accommodations, quality instruction, and the ability to spend the afternoons helping cattle, corn and bean farmers, learning to cook traditional Nicaraguan foods, or volunteering in a rural school.  I highly recommend this school to anyone who wants to understand not only Nicaraguan Spanish but also the campesino lifestyle.

Volunteer for Sustainable Farming/Gardening: Many people are interested in supporting sustainable gardening and farming in Nicaragua.  The first thing you should do is be realistic about what type of skills you can offer – even if you already speak fluent Spanish.  What experiences do you have that can contribute to the organization?  Be upfront about what you can bring to a project when you first contact an organization.  If you do have experience farming in the states or Europe, be prepared to encounter completely different crops, diseases, and issues than you are familiar with!  Budget time for your own learning before you will be able to then teach others.  You definitely don’t need to have had direct experience growing plantains, yuca, chayote, passionfruit, or pitaya in order to participate in a gardening initiative (although if you do that’s a definite plus!)  Experience working with youth, graphic design, networking skills, connections to agricultural universities that could offer technical support, are all good ways you can boost the efforts of a small NGO without having direct farming experience yourself.  Here is a short list of a few organizations I have come across that I know have the conditions to take volunteers and are good starting places – contact them and they can probably refer you on if they don’t offer the experience you are looking for or it doesn’t seem like a good match.  There are hundreds of organizations in Nicaragua and this is only a very few – if you have had experience volunteering with gardening or farming specifically for an organization and want to list it send me the link and your recommendation and I will post it.

NicaPhoto: An excellent small NGO in Nagarote that provides after-school education for primary and secondary school students.  The project includes several opportunities to garden with the children – in a good-sized project garden that grows food for the kids lunches, or in the garden/park/playground at the nursery school NicaPhoto helped to build.  Ronnie Maher, the director, is from the US so she can help with language transition and has extensive experience organizing volunteer groups.  

Norwalk Nagarote Sister City Project:  Also in Nagarote, close to Managua, this is a sister-city project that also has many opportunities to work with youth – sports, education, computer and English classes – and runs a sustainable educational farm.  Their farm provides food for nursery school snacks, events, and also the local market.  At 2 manzanas (3.4 acres) it definitely qualifies as a small farm and is a great opportunity for someone with some farming experience in the states who would like to contribute to an agricultural project on a larger scale than a kitchen garden.  The farm is managed jointly with SosteNica, another US-based NGO working with sustainable housing, farming, and Microcredit in Nicaragua.

UCA San Ramon: This is an active, vibrant union of small coffee cooperatives.  The UCA San Ramon was one of the first small farmer cooperatives to invest in rural eco-tourism and they currently offer a range of tourism opportunities from sustainably built adobe rural hostels to home stays and wild-life treks.  There are a myriad of opportunities to volunteer with coffee farmers, in kitchen garden projects, or with some of their other agricultural products they support that contribute to local food security and economy.  They are also known for their progressive development policies that include gender equality, anti-domestic violence and sexual education.

UCA Miraflor: Located in the cloud forest reserve Miraflor just east of Estelí, this small farmer coffee cooperative also has a reputable community tourism project that offer either a night or two at the house of a campesino family or a longer term stay with volunteering in the coffee plantations (make sure you plan your trip between November and February if you are intent on being there for the harvest!), in a kitchen garden project, or in the local schools.

Center for Biointensive Farming in Nicaragua:  This is a new demonstration, investigation, and training center for the Biointensive farming method in Nicaragua is in Tipitapa, very accessible from Managua and Masaya.  Strictly organic, the biointensive method has been scientifically proven to conserve water, build soil, and provide more food per area than other types of sustainable farming.  As it becomes more established, the center would benefit from some enthusiastic, independent volunteers to put some labor into its first season.  The list of members of the Biointensive Movement in Nicaragua is a great page to browse if you are looking to connect with other organizations in Nicaragua that promote this type of small-scale farming.

Nuevas Esperanzas:  You can live comfortably in the vibrant colonial city of León and volunteer with Nuevas Esperanzas, which works with communities in the impressively volcano chain east of the city.  Known for their high-quality work with creating potable water systems and rainwater catchment tanks, the organization also works with sustainable farming and food security issues, family gardens, and is starting a rural community tourism initiative.

 

Many people – friends, folks who have encountered my blog in a search, friends of friends – contact me when they are planning a trip to Nicaragua or other latin american countries asking for advice.  This post attempts to summarize what I often tell people, and I’ll keep adding to it as I remember what I have told people in the past, and what I wish I had been told before my own trips!  I will try to start with the most general travelling information and then become more specific to the area of Nicaragua that I know the best.  Please feel free to add your own travelling advice as a comment; the more information, the more that future e can sift through and be better prepared for their own unique experience.

Read, read, read! And not just the guidebooks.  If you are taking a spring break trip and staying in hostels, a guide book might be just fine.  But if you are coming to live, volunteer for a few weeks or months, or want a deeper understanding of where you will be, I would recommend more memoirs and novels than guidebooks and Wikipedia.

 

La Yuma is the most recent Nicaraguan feature-length film.

Creative writing from a personal voice – whether written by a foreigner or a translated national author – can lend itself to a deeper visceral understanding of a country.  In the application process for a Fulbright, I read many textbooks and academic papers about Nicaragua, but after arriving I found that snippets of the personal reflections of John Brentlinger in The Best of What We Are and Gioconda Belli’s The Country Under My Skin were what I drew on for a better understanding of the way Nicaraguans continue to live their historical experiences.  And if you have the time, watching movies directed and produced in country is a fantastic way to get a pre-glimpse of a culture – although keep in mind that just like in Hollywood aspects of the culture may be greatly exaggerated for dramatic effect!

After you read everything you can find, tell yourself you don’t know anything.  My way of saying, keep an open mind.  It may be the most important piece of advice you always get, and is by far the hardest advice to follow.  You can read everything you can find on the Nicaraguan Revolution or farming in Nicaragua, but you aren’t learning about what you will encounter.  All you can do ahead of time is create a context to place your future experience in, and help speed your learning and acculturation process in country.  When you arrive and discover the nuances and circumstances in the particular community you stay in, your previous reading will add layers of context and understanding to the personal stories you hear, but they won’t have revealed them to you ahead of time!

Try to understand how you like to travel, and treat yourself well.   If you aren’t comfortable crashing on the floor of your college friend’s apartment for a weekend and always prefer to find a nearby hotel, then a homestay in a foreign country might not be the best plan for the first week of your trip.  If you can’t stand waiting for a subway or the crowds on rush hour trains in your home town, than spending a little extra to set up private transportation in a foreign country might be worth it to you.  Don’t expect that your comfort levels will all of a sudden change because you are telling yourself it’s an adventure!

Markets are colorful exciting places. Keep your bags and pockets securely closed, and your ears, eyes, and conversations open.

Talk to as many people as you can.  That goes for before and during your trip.  I am always happy to talk about my experiences in Nicaragua to folks who are hoping to come.  Once you are in country, don’t be shy about talking!  You can and should be wary of putting too much confidence in people you just meet, but there is a huge difference between having a conversation with a woman at the market and getting into a cab with her.  Think about how an upbeat, short conversation with the cashier at a store can change your whole shopping experience there – the same can be true of a day trip in a foreign city.  Relax a little and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself as you make mistakes in Spanish!  Most folks are very encouraging and delighted that you are learning their language.

Expect to be different, expect to be a novelty!  You may have spent months preparing for your trip, researching the history, culture, food, and climate of where you are going so you feel prepared to not make unrealistic judgements or assumptions.  But it’s almost guaranteed that the people you will meet have not spent months reading up and educating themselves on your culture!  If you have chosen to travel and volunteer with an organization that has a well established history of working with foreign volunteers, the leaders you work with should be familiar with your culture and be respectful and understanding of things you may struggle with.  But that may not extend to the other people you encounter – the children you tutor, the farmers you visit, and the families you visit may have not expected to have a foreigner walk into their house, and may be surprised and curious.  Of course they will ask you lots of questions.  Think about what kinds of short anecdotes about your family or your town you would like to tell to illustrate who you are and where you come from, and try to enjoy the attention.

Ask for References for Volunteer Organizations.  Unless you have personally met the people you will be working with, or know several people who have volunteered with them recently, I always recommend asking for a reference to speak with someone who has volunteered in the past.  Even if you find the project through a network that is well-known (like WWOOF, or Idealist), the networking organization often doesn’t have a personal relationship with all the projects, and even if they did couldn’t guarantee that you will agree with their philosophy or work ethic on the ground.

What to Take: Everyone asks me what they should take.  The guidebooks for the area you are going to should be the best reference, make sure the edition you have is recent.  Here are a few things I tell people who are coming to the pacific or northern Nicaraguan regions:

  • Don’t over pack Pharmaceuticals.  In my experience, over the counter drugs such as immodium, aspirin, even vitamin C are easy to find and abundant (sometimes it feels like there is a pharmacy on every corner of León!).  A small amount of what you would want on hand is a good idea, but you don’t have to bring a year’s worth of painkillers because you know you use it for migraines.  Do bring sufficient amounts of any prescription medications, and any alternative supplements you want.  My staples that I carry with me from the states are non-refridgerated Acidophilus (I take them on a regular basis), zinc and echinacea for colds, and activated charcoal (a natural anti-diarrheal that is gentler on your intestines than immodium).  I have also met travelers who recommend different natural digestive aids such as grapefruit seed extract and bentonite clay that may be difficult to find outside the US.
  • For Women Only. You are probably already aware that in Latin America most women use rags or disposable menstrual pads, and you shouldn’t expect to find tampons in the corner drugstores.  Personally, I highly recommend the diva cup or moon cup.  It may take some courage and extra care with hygiene (which can only be good anyway), but it gives me a lot of freedom.  It has also, on several occasions, been an interesting conversation piece that has helped me to understand Nicaraguan women’s views of their bodies!
  • Clothing. In my experience, Nicaraguans care a lot about their appearance and dress very nicely.  That doesn’t mean formal attire, but it does mean clean, un-stained well fitting clothing.  Clean jeans and nice T-shirts, when they fit you well and are not cut offs or torn (unless of course they are the pre-torn designer jeans) are ubiquitous clothes that are acceptable on nearly every occasion.  Shorts are not often worn in public, although in the cities young girls and women will wear very short tight shorts to go out dancing at the clubs.  Some women in Evangelical or other religious groups do not wear pants either, but I have never met anyone who was offended by me wearing pants.  For farm work and any outdoor activities, I generally choose to cover up to protect myself from the sun with long jeans or light pants, a t-shirt, and light cotton button down blouse with long sleeves.  If you are doing home stays or travelling in the rural areas, you will very much appreciate having some bathing clothes!  (Different from a bathing suit).  Bathing often takes place outside, sometimes next to the well where you draw buckets of water to then scoop over your head, or sometimes behind a screen made of a sheet, sticks, or plastic.  I have seen women and men washing themselves out in the open, soaping both themselves and the clothes they are wearing before going inside to change and hanging their laundry out afterward.  Don’t expect privacy, and you will be happy you remembered those plastic flip flops, quick drying shorts and t-shirt or tank top to shower in.
  • Small gifts.  It’s nice to have some small things to leave behind as thank you’s when you travel.  Don’t spend lots of time stressing about what would improve the quality of life for your homestay family or have a big impact – there’s no way to know that, and it’s not expected.  The organization you work for may know if there are certain things that would be appropriate, but in general any gesture will be appreciated.  Some of my favorite things to carry around that have been fun to give away are: small packs of crayons or colored chalk for kids, printed photos of my family to show, postcards of my town to leave behind, frisbees, wall calendars with interesting pictures, jams or hard candies (nothing that can spoil or melt), chinese puzzles or “get the ball in the holes”-type games, “I heart NY etc.” type mugs, kitchen towels and good sturdy reusable cloth shopping bags (the ones that Whole Foods sells are super popular – I’ve had friends request I bring them back!).   Unless you know the family already and have spent some time with them or are given a list from your organization, try to avoid bringing a bag of dry rice or something that could potentially be interpreted as “I know you’re poor and need charity.”  If you aren’t sure exactly what you will encounter, keep it light and fun and small.

    A lovely gift if you return to a place is to print out photographs from your first visit. They are always a hit!