People usually come to Nicaragua for the surfing and super-cheap prices. Walk through Granada, and you’ll be confronted with backpackers, surfers, and backpacking surfers knocking back beers with the loud confidence particular to 22-year-olds. But Nicaragua offers much more than cheap beers, especially to the coffee fanatics, nature lovers, and those (like us) who simply enjoy learning more about the authentic culture of a place.
If that describes you, then you should absolutely break away from the party scene on the coasts and head to the highlands. That’s where you’ll find some of the best coffee beans in the world, as well as tranquil hiking paths that wind through lush cloud forest eco-systems to misty waterfalls, plus — and this is increasingly hard to find — few other Western tourists. Those tourists that you do come across tend to be of the conscious, curious, nature-loving type.
I didn’t know any of this when we booked our plane tickets to Nicaragua. All I knew is that a whole lot of people I knew were suddenly spending months at a time in the super-cheap but remarkably safe country, and our friend started planning a week-long birthday celebration there at the beach community of Playa Maderas. We probably would have merely partied on the beach and then left knowing hardly more about Nicaragua than when we arrived. After all, we noticed that in Granada, every hotel and hostel offers the same short list of tourist-y experiences. And while many of them are eco-friendly and fun, none of these activities on the hotlist give you a chance to sit down and make friends with a local Nicaraguan.
Fortunately for us, the Dutch agency Better Places Travel, which offers unique, high-quality travel experiences that are 100% tailor-made by local travel experts and focused around nature and the local population, had recently expanded to the U.S. market, and they offered to hook me up with their local Nicaraguan expert.* All the local travel experts Better Places Travel works with are Travelife certified, or in the process of obtaining their certification, and are true and tested local experts, with the utmost respect for nature and the local population. Plus, Better Places Travel offsets the carbon emissions that you generate not only inside your destination, but also the emissions from the flight you took to get there. It’s also in the process of becoming a certified B Corporation. In other words, I could pause on my obsessive planning for a week and let someone else ensure we would have a completely sustainable adventure.
The local experts that we were connected with were Matagalpa Tours, which has specialized for a decade in taking visitors to the most unique and remote places of Nicaragua. As Nicaragua has recovered from natural disaster and civil war, Matagalpa Tours has bushwhacked a route for visitors through the vast area of wilderness stretching across Northern Nicaragua. If we had had a full week, for example, we could have gone to Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast to see how indigenous tribes preserve their traditions, or done a more challenging rafting trip or jungle expedition through the mountains. As it was, we had four days to play with after our NYC friends flew back to the States.
So Matagalpa Tours custom-built a whirlwind tour of Nicaragua’s mountainous Matagalpa region, complete with an education in Nicaraguan culture, cloud forest habitats, sustainable coffee cultivation, and more. All we had to do was get ourselves to Matagalpa, and they would take care of the rest.
Plus, I found out that Lokal, who helps you book immersive community-focused and sustainable experiences, and whom I’ve worked with before, also partners with Matagalpa Tours. That’s a double recommendation from my two favorite sustainable tourism agencies!
I had left the U.S. hoping to find out more from local people about what sustainable and Fair Trade really means, not from the perspective of a privileged American on one end of the supply chain, but from the perspective of the person at the beginning of the supply chain. I got that, and more.
1. There could be some benefit to communism.
I knew, vaguely, that there had been a civil war in Nicaragua. But during our four-day tour, at every stop we learned another little piece of how the old dictatorship, the revolution, then the civil war, affected individual families.
We shared a hired van with our friends from Playa Maderas to the airport in Managua, where a private car service sent from our hotel in Matagalpa, Montebrisa, picked us up and drove us two and a half hours through increasing elevation to Matagalpa.
We entered the Montebrisa property through an enormous gate with a guard. A member of the Nicaraguan staff showed us to our luxuriously minimalist room, before leading us through the lush organic garden with precious hardwood trees (including the almost extinct mahogany), fruit trees, tropical flowers, and 300 coffee trees, which provide the endless supply of coffee to guests. Montebrisa is actually a former home of wealthy farm family that — like many properties — was seized during the 1979 revolution, and turned into a nursery. It was given back later, when the government decided they should work with the business community. Two years ago, it was converted by its Nicaraguan owners into a hotel.
Later on in the tour, we visited smallholder coffee farms created out of land seized from Nicaragua’s dictator. I learned how large farms that exported to the U.S. market clearcut and destroyed much of the natural landscape, leaving behind poor soil quality.
So it seemed like a great thing, seizing land from the dictator and from rich families and redistributing it to small families. But that wasn’t uniformly true. Many of these poor families, we were told, didn’t know how to farm the land they had just been handed, farming productivity plummeted in Nicaragua, and the economy suffered.
Now, Nicaragua is in a liminal space, coming out of a revolution and civil war, and hesitantly embracing capitalism and business interests again. The lesson here is that there might not be a sweet spot, between protecting the environment, supporting the poor, and keeping the economy going in a way that grows everyone’s piece of the pie.
2. Beef isn’t uniformly terrible for the environment.
On our drive to Matagalpa, we saw plenty of cows: in the back of trucks, on the side of the road being driven to another location, in green fields. The cattle industry is big in Nicaragua – steak and other cow products make up a large portion of its exports, and of course res is popular in Nicaragua as well.
We paged through the recommendations of Montebrisa, and seeing that all the Nicaraguan restaurants featured meat, we decided to go with the flow, despite the fact that no good environmentalist is a red meat eater. We ended up having the most delicious locally-sourced steak dinner we’ve ever had on the roof of a local restaurant, followed by artisanal ice cream (made with real milk, obviously) by the town’s square.
The next morning after a light breakfast, our Nicaraguan guide, Freddy, arrived in a four-by-four to collect us. I told him about our lovely evening the night before, and asked about cattle farming in the area, because I was worried about our dinner the night before. Was it OK that we had steak, even if it was local and grass-fed? He didn’t have a clear-cut answer.
Cattle farming is a huge problem in the Southeast of Nicaragua, where it threatens a bioreserve, and we visited a cloud forest that had suffered deforestation partly due to cattle ranching. But in the area immediately surrounding Matagalpa, there isn’t deforestation due to cattle ranching happening. It could be argued because that deforestation already happened long ago with the first waves of immigrants to the area, but Freddy asserted that he’s seen pictures of the area surrounding Matagalpa from 100 years ago, and it’s greener than ever.
We also visited the area of Chile, which is in a dry belt, so the soil is sandy, and poor for growing anything but grass – the best way to make it productive is to put cattle on it. I had heard this before. Research on the most sustainable diet shows that a diet with some animal products is ideal, so that pasture lands can be used.
And finally, we took a tour of Selva Negra, a sustainable farm where the antibiotic-free cows are rotated through the pastures in order to sequester carbon.
In a country where factory farms for cattle are just not a thing, it’s unfair to demonize all cattle farmers, large and small, when many are doing what is natural, and even sustainable. If I had the power to make policy in Nicaragua, I would focus on improving cattle ranching practices and confining it to natural grassland areas, instead of banning it completely.
I still didn’t have more beef than that first dinner, but I didn’t feel like a terrible person for enjoying one local cut of beef while in cattle country. And if you go to Matagalpa or Selva Negra, I would recommend you have one steak dinner, and enjoy the local flavor!
3. Organic is only for big farms.
Germans are the ones who brought coffee, which thrives in Nicaragua’s tropical highland climate. Now coffee is Nicaragua’s second largest export, the indigenous have switched from drinking cocoa to coffee, and children start sipping the stuff when they’re tiny–Freddy told us he has seen weak coffee and sugar given in a bottle to children.
After about an hour’s drive from Matagalpa, we pulled into El Guayabo, a medium-sized, family-owned coffee farm (and hostal) located in what used to be a large coffee estate call San Ramon. The government seized San Ramon in the revolution and portioned it out to local low-income people and farmworkers. (There’s that history again!) Now there are 300 families in this area, mostly producing coffee. One of the daughters, Aura, welcomed us and walked us around the farm.
The farm uses natural traps with alcohol and beans to lure in the coffee borer beetle. They take the red pulp that surrounds the beans (coffee cherry) and add calcium to lower the acidity, dry it out in the sun, and then use it as organic fertilizer. The most polluting component of coffee production is the honey water, which comes from washing the beans. Here, they put it in a lagoon to let it ferment. But other farms pour it right into the river, which poisons the wildlife and causes skin problems in people downriver.
As we toured the farm, I was struck by how un-farm-like it was, at least to my American eyes. Tall trees dripping with moss and epiphytes lined the main path, the air was scented with flowers, and banana trees and palms provided shade to the rows of short coffee trees that covered the sloping ground. It felt more like a peaceful botanical garden then a working farm.
I was finally understanding what it really means to have a “shade-grown” coffee farm. While coffee trees thrive in the shade, many coffee farms opt for sunny rows in order to wring more (albeit lower quality) beans faster out of the soil. But shade-grown coffee protects the soil, and simply tastes better. And as throughout Nicaragua, the coffee here is hand-harvested, with people heading down the rows picking berries and putting them into a basket.
Unfortunately, there’s a coffee crisis right now. A fungus has attacked the coffee trees, and they had to cut all of them down. In response, farms like this one are diversifying into cacao, which produces all year and — as a native to Central America — is easy to grow. Aura stopped to finger some white flowers on a coffee tree. They weren’t supposed to be there. Climate change has led to the plants flowering too early this year, which is a problem, because if the coffee beans mature before high school lets out for vacation, there won’t be enough workers to pick them before rain knocks them to the ground, rendering them unsuitable for export.
She picked an achiote flower from a tree and showed me how to use it like a coral lipstick, and walked us through the processing of coffee. And then we walked back to the house and had a delicious lunch outside made by her mother. Her sister joined us, and I practiced my Spanish and she her English with me.
Then we go back in the truck and drove onward and upward.
4. Why environmental nonprofits should focus on something more tangible than climate change or “saving the rainforest.”
Our next stop was the area of Peñas Blancas, named after the white cliffs jutting skyward. We turned off the only recently paved road onto a dirt one and drove for 15 more minutes until we reached CEN ( Centro de Entendimiento con la Naturaleza), a research center and nonprofit focused on protecting and restoring water sources in Peñas Blancas. If you stay there, the fee not only pays for your lodging, but goes toward important conservation work.
It was hard to believe, seeing it now, but the rich cloud forest surrounding the CEN lodge used to be gone, cut down for farming, cattle ranching, and building homes for an exploding local population. Locals drink water straight from the mountain creeks, not knowing the river is polluted with agrochemicals. Thirty-five rivers that start in the Peñes Blancas reserve flow into the two main rivers in Nicaragua: Rio Coco and Rio Grande de Matagalpa. This area is a source of water for thousands of people, and one of the last remaining forests of Nicaragua.
So, in 2000, CEN bought 900 hectares of forest from local farmers. And they decided to focus on water conservation, instead of climate change or deforestation, because of its demonstrable benefit to locals.
They built a water lab where they could test the water and show the results to locals, to convince them of the importance of responsible farming and development. Then they involved them in sustainable farming projects, which include shade-grown coffee, diversifying crops, medicinal plants, responsible tourism, and organic farming. They replanted local trees, and planted stands of bamboo near the mountain creeks, to cleanse the water, then started marketing bamboo as a great construction material around Nicaragua, in order to create a market for it and increase eco-friendly income to locals. They have trained and certified 250 young people in native stingless bees, called meliponas. And they are promoting honey’s use in Nicaragua for allergies and as an antibiotic for small cuts, plus supporting research into its potential to fight cancer at a university in Managua.
Now, 37,000 people drink guaranteed potable water from this forest, because of CEN’s work. Matagalpa Tours was the first company to bring tourists to the area. Because of this, the reserve has become famous, the president of CEN told me, and the locals are now proud of the forest and want to protect it.
5. Healthy food can be simple and cheap.
We were shown to a small, private cabin, where we pulled on some warmer clothes, and then met Freddy in the dining hall for dinner. The kitchen staff made us pinolillo, a traditional Nicaraguan drink that’s like a fancy hot chocolate, with cacao, corn, cloves, and allspice that is roasted and then added to hot water or milk. Then we had a simple but wholesome dinner of rice, beans, plantains, corn tortillas, and chicken, with a cup of some local fruit juice to wash it down.
This was a theme of our trip. We only ate in a restaurant once. Twice, if you count the humble dining hall of CEN. The rest of the time, our meals were taken in family homes, and the food was simple, filling, and free of packaging, additives, or processing. I felt perfectly healthy and energetic the entire time.
Around that time, I started learning about Blue Zones, where people regularly live to be older than 100. And one of them is right nearby, in Costa Rica. You know what they eat? Rice, beans, plantains or bananas, squash, yams, eggs, corn tortillas, citrus fruits, and a little bit of free-range chicken and pork. Who needs superfoods?
I also learned that in Nicaragua, there is a special word for free-range chicken: gallina. As opposed to pollo, which is store-bought chicken, gallina is the family’s backyard chicken, which is killed, dressed, and served for special occasions, like Christmas, or a family member coming home after a long absence. If a rural Latin family ever lets on that they killed a backyard chicken for you, please eat it. It’s a very big deal.
6. Why I should be grateful for plastic and store-bought bread.
The next morning, we met up with Chico Cruz, the local farmer who originally sold his land to CEN to establish the center. He had built a hiking trail within eyeshot of CEN that goes up for an hour and a half through primary cloud forest until it reaches a large waterfall. We followed him up the trail, and for a 79-year-old, he practically skipped up the mountain ahead of us. Freddy explained that all the local men in that mountain community age really well. But the women, well…after having 10 children, and spending their whole lives in the kitchen, they suffer physically.
We passed from secondary forest to primary cloud forest, crossing a mountain stream several times, ducking under tree roots and around mossy rocks, before arriving to the tall waterfall at the end. We encountered less than five other hikers during our whole walk, plus an owl sleeping in the shadows of the canopy. It was one of my favorite hikes I’ve been on.
We walked back to Chico’s and sat down at the kitchen table to wait for Chico’s wife and daughter to cook us lunch. I watched them shuffle around the kitchen, stirring the corn cooking for tortillas, stoking the fire in the wood-burning stove, piling plates in the sink to wash later, frying the chicken, shooing the dog out of the kitchen repeatedly, and answering questions from Chico’s grandson. Honestly, they looked bone tired, not at all like Chico, who seemed to have boundless energy.
“They’ve never hiked to the waterfall,” Freddy told us after we left.
That hike is ten minutes away. Chico himself built the trail, nailing together the bridges and setting up the steps on the muddy path. He used to own the land the trail is on. How is it possible that his wife and daughter had never walked up it?
They don’t have time. They have to make tortillas every day, which means cooking the corn, drying the corn, pounding it into a meal, and baking it over a wood-burning stove (for which they have to get the wood.) They also have to make the rest of the three meals each day, wash and line-dry everyone’s clothes, clean the home, raise a half dozen or more children, take care of the animals, and on and on. The men, Freddy told us, can work in the fields and then come home by early afternoon to hang out and have a beer. Or go hiking.
I had a realization. We in the sustainable community tend to romanticize DIYing and homesteading, idolizing our grandparents’ lives and talking about how they got along just perfectly before plastic and preservatives. How DIYing can save you money, and it’s actually the thing you should do even if you’re poor. We want to bake our own bread, can our own jams, ferment our own yogurt, wash our own reusable diapers. But I saw firsthand what that truly means. It means being the full-time servant of your family, sacrificing your health, your career, your intellectual development at the altar of sustainable, traditional home making. Are you will to make that sacrifice?
I respected these women for all their hard work, but seeing them shuffle around the kitchen, having just come from a waterfall they’ve never seen, I was filled with gratitude for modern conveniences that make my career and our travel possible. The plastic that keeps pre-made food fresh. The preservatives that allow me to buy bread at the grocery store. The washer and yes, the dryer, too. The dishwasher, the blender, the internet and home delivery. All if it, though I rail against it, makes my wonderful life possible.
7. Sustainable tourism doesn’t just lift families out of poverty – it sends kids to college.
That night we headed to Jinotega, another region famous for its coffee, and stayed at Fundadora Eco Hostel, a collection of cabins that are popular with Nicaraguans next to the Datanli Diablo Nature Reserve, which is run by a local cooperative, La Fundadora.
The next morning we visited a tiny coffee farm down the road, called La Lotería. The whole area used to be one of the dictator Samon’s many farms, before it was seized and became property of the state during the revolution. In 1990, a group of 85 rural people organized to buy the land from the state and incorporated as a corporation, but when the bank seized the property, it came to light that some members were embezzling money. It wasn’t until 2010, after years of struggle with the help of lawyers and a savvy news media strategy to drum up public support, that the land was returned to them, they formed a cooperative on the advice of some NGOs, and the lots were finally apportioned out to the remaining 55 members of La Fundadora cooperative in a lottery (hence the name of this farm.) All of this was told to us in Spanish by Augustin, the owner, who sat outside with us and then gave us a tour of the farm.
Originally Augustin wanted to sell the land and move to the city, but his kids and wife wanted to stay in the country, with chickens and pigs. She planted a banana tree and declared it a great place for a farm. Now they grow mint, cilantro, tangerines, several types of bananas, corn, beans, avocados, papayas, and passion fruit. And coffee, that is of course shade grown.
This is a small farm, so they do all the processing – picking, pulping, fermenting, washing, drying, classifying — by hand, which uses a lot less water, which they collect in rain barrels. They compost the coffee cherries with worms to make organic fertilizer, and have a special canal for honey water, which fertilizes the soil.
They receive over 100 foreign visitors a year: coffee experts from Brazil and the Dominican Republic, university students, and conscious tourists. (Plus, Nicaraguans!) When tourists buy coffee straight from them on an eco-tour, that cuts out the middleman, and means Augustin can pay for his children’s studies. His oldest daughter at 23 is an accountant and teacher. His son is studying ecology. His other daughter is studying English.
8. The best way to build a sustainable town is to link a farm to a resort.
We had been to a tiny farm, and a medium family farm. Next, we were going to visit a large coffee farm that is famous among specialty coffee lovers: Selva Negra. We drove up a long gravel road past the farm and through the gates into an adorable German-style village (Selva Negra means Black Forest in Spanish). Again, we had our own cozy cabin, this time with a living roof!
When we arrived, I saw that there is a variety of activities on offer, including a nature tour, night walk, bird watching, and horseback riding. I opted for the farm tour, of course. An Nicaraguan employee named Jose picked us up and took us in a truck around the vast property, showing off all of Selva Negra’s initiatives.
Solar provides hot water to the cabins, and one cabin is entirely solar-powered. Selva Negra’s own small hydropower system from the onsite lake provides the rest of the electricity to the 24 cabins, 28 rooms, the restaurant, and the farm. A workshop turns fallen wood from the property into furniture for the cabins.
Seventy to 85 percent of the coffee grown at Selva Negra, which is sold at Whole Foods, is certified organic, and the rest is what they call sustainable. “An organic coffee plant produces less, but can produce for 60 years instead of 15, with chemicals,” Jose told us, as we drove past what looked like a rainforest, but was the coffee part of the farm. It’s all certified by Rainforest Alliance, and by the Smithsonian as bird-friendly. There are over 350 species of owl alone found in the area.
The coffee farm is the profit center, but Selva Negra runs a complete smaller farm to supply 60 percent of the restaurant’s ingredients. They raise quail for eggs (a popular Latin American ingredient), free-range pigs and chickens. (The chickens aren’t let outside, because they make a great possum and boa constrictor snack, apparently. But I personally observed all the clean space the fowl has to run around.) The big greenhouse provides ingredients for the restaurant, like strawberries and peaches for marmalade. And there’s cacao for the black forest chocolate cake, and banana vinegar for cooking. Plus, they make 10 types of cheeses and yogurt on site from their own milk.
They have their own organic lab for experimenting with plant-based insecticides, and fungicide using eggshells and volcanic sulfur. Jose was quite proud of the bokashi compost, made with with algae, cheese waste, produce, cow manure, plus worm compost. They create 45 million pounds of compost a year. The Selva Negra Community Foundation teaches permaculture, alternative energy technology organic farm practices to local community.
Most impressive is the village of more than 100 farm workers, which has free housing, a clinic, and school for the workers’ children and locals. A private driver drives local children to school everyday, and the owners give scholarships for university to the best students. During coffee picking season, the school turns into a daycare. That is required for some of these certifications, by a way. That’s another reason why certifications are out of reach for small farmers. Who can afford to provide daycare to children, aside from a huge farm like Selva Negra? A biodigester provides methane to power workers’ kitchen, and everyone has water filters as well so they can drink tap water. It must be a good life: three generations of family work here. Jose, for example, was born here, went to college, and came back to work, rising up through the ranks to be head tour-giver.
The biggest rule for living here — something that we saw written everywhere on signs and on the sides of buildings — is to take care of your trash.
9. Nicaragua has a weaving tradition, too.
The next day after a good rest in our cozy cabin, Freddy picked us up and drove us out of the forested mountains and to the arid hills near Matagalpa, to the area of Chile, a place where vanishingly few tourists go.
“They are naturally shy indigenous people,” Freddy warned us as we bumped up a dirt road into the hills. Suddenly, he came to a stop. We got out and he pointed to a tree. Sloth!
After watching it painstakingly move up a branch to eat some leaves (Freddy: “He’s very active!”) we drove on. We stopped at a tiny farm, that manages to coax the lowest quality coffee beans out of the sandy soil. We climbed through the shade-grown, hillside farm, and scrambled to the top of a sunny hill, resting underneath a shelter whose palm thatch has disappeared long ago. Our view was of bone dry hills stretching into the distance, with no people, streams or water sources. It was a mournful, beautiful scene.
Matagalpa Tours had found this path by asking the locals, until a little boy led them up to the hilltop view. Matagalpa Tours struck a deal with the farmer at the base. If he would improve the trail, they would pay him a fee every time they brought tourists. That seemed utterly fair. We ate some slices of watermelon, then climbed back down, to head to a weaving workshop.
In the 1950s, the dictator Samosa slashed and burned cotton farms to get rid of competition with his own cotton plantations that grew for export. Without a source of cotton, Nicaraguan women gave up weaving, and the art was almost completely lost. In the 1980s, an Argentinian found the only four women who still knew how to do it, and in 1985 she started a school/workshop for weaving. Then, she imported foot looms, which sped up the process of weaving (as compared to the traditional backstrap looms) and allows for wider pieces of cloth.
They invited us to try out the loom. I sat, and per a woman’s instruction, ran a thread crossways through the taut longways threads, then pressed the foot pedal to switch the longways threads. It was soothing. I didn’t want to stop. This isn’t a terrible life, I thought.
“The weaving is an important source of income for them,” Freddy told us. “In this area, the women have no money or power. Except these weavers.”
Originally, the weavings were just for clothing, but now the women make purses and backpacks, which you can find across Nicaragua, thanks to a local woman named Noelia Corrales who helps them price and distribute their products. Plus, she’s put together a social insurance fund, for emergencies, healthcare, school supplies for the children, personal loans, and a yearly trip with Matagalpa Tours so these nine women can see more of their country.
If I’m completely honest, there is still some recovering to do in terms of artisan skills. Hanging on the wall was a very old cloth with a fine weave made with a backstrap loom, in a creamy white with subtle stripes down the middle. I lusted after it. But the colorways I saw on sale were jumbled and too bright, suitable only for backpackers, (and hence, won’t sell for a high price). They buy two years’ worth of synthetically-dyed thread at a time from El Salvador — it’s all they can afford. They’ve only sent two shipments of kids backpacks to the U.S.
Perhaps I was only seeing the stuff leftover that retail clients didn’t take – they are noticing that pastel colors are very popular right now, and are switching away from strong colors, they said. But having visited Oaxaca, I yearned for these women to receive a color theory class, or to get a shipment of magazines to inspire their work so they can sell more and at higher prices, prices that truly value their work.
10. What I thought I “knew” about sustainability doesn’t always apply.
One of my goals for this trip was to see sustainability and artisanship from the perspective of artisans, instead of a New Yorker. And I’m glad I did, because this trip challenged many of the notions I held about sustainability and ethics that I had built up from years of blogs and activist websites. But there’s always more to the story. There’s a human element that must be taken into account, or else our projects will fail. We must be practical and consider the needs of low-income locals when trying to build a more sustainable future.
*We were provided this tour free of charge, in exchange for my writing about our experience. As always, EcoCult only partners with businesses we believe are doing good things, and the above review is an honest one. Also, we made sure to tip our tour guide, the hotel cleaning staff, and the families that fed us as well.