When we spent two weeks in Nicaragua in February, we had absolutely no clue that the country would erupt into political violence just two months later.
To our eyes, we saw a poor but peaceful country that had successfully emerged from decades under a dictator and then communist revolution and was slowly rebuilding to a promising future. We found it to be a safe country full of warm and friendly people, cheap and wholesome food, and awe-inspiring nature unspoiled by overdevelopment.
Believe me, we are not the kind of navel-gazing tourists who arrive to the airport and take a taxi straight to an all-inclusive gated resort. We dove in deep with the help of the community-supportive travel website Better Places Travel, having lunch in the homes of low-income farmers in the interior, and long conversations in Spanish with locals. In fact, it was commonly understood at that time that Nicaragua was safe and peaceful.
Then, suddenly, protests erupted in mid April when the government tried to slash social security benefits. The government backed down from the proposal, but protests from the fed-up populace continued, and the government decided to violently crack down against protestors who were calling for the authoritarian president Daniel Ortega to step down. More than 300 people have died, others have been disappeared and tortured, and still more are fleeing to Costa Rica, where they are coming up against violent xenophobia fanned by social media.
I’m aware that there are a lot of instances when U.S. State Department warnings against visiting a country are overblown or unwarranted. This is not one of them. Just read about what happened when an experienced travel writer decided to visit Nicaragua in early June. Long story short: she left after four days of staying in deserted hotels and finding her way around roadblocks and protests.
In 2016, tourism’s total (direct and indirect) contribution to Nicaragua’s GDP was USD $1.5 billion or or 10.7% of the GDP, and the sector directly and indirectly employed 225,000 people. That’s all gone now. Nicaragua’s tourism industry has completely collapsed. Eco resorts are closed down, tour guides have no work.
What Can a Conscious Traveler Do?
At the time of my visit, I had been excited to do my part by promoting all the eco-resorts, meaningful and beneficial tours, quality coffee shops, sustainable restaurants, and artisan shopping in Nicaragua. Now, all my articles are completely worthless against the almighty power of the dictator Daniel Ortega and his ruthless and violent power consolidation. Even the U.N. is no longer welcome – after they released a report detailing the human rights violations, they were asked to leave, and put out a rather toothless plea for “constructive engagement.” What can an eco travel blogger like myself do, if I can’t send conscious tourists there?
Honestly, I felt terrible about what was happening. Even though the government crackdown is certainly no fault of mine, I feel like I exploited Nicaragua for cheap fun and entertainment, leaving on my powerful American passport right before I had to experience any discomfort or the truly “authentic” Nicaraguan experience – which right now is fear and oppression.
I wanted to do something, instead of turning away. So I did some research and asked around, and I came up with three ways you can help the Nicaraguan people if, like me, you enjoyed being a guest in their country and want to help the people who so generously hosted you.
1. Contact the resorts and businesses you loved to see how you can help.
The first thing you should do during any crisis is to ask the experts and people on the ground how best to help. I reached out to our Nicaraguan guide from Matagalpa Tours, Freddy, to ask how he was doing. He responded:
In Nicaragua things are not going well, and we are living in an environment of insecurity and uncertainty. Tourism is very bad. We don’t have any tourist in the country, most companies are closing like Tour Operators, hotels, restaurants, and we also in a very bad situation. You know we don’t have any booking for this and neither for next year. Then we are only surviving.
Because Matagalpa Tours was relying on tourists to help fund their sustainable education projects, they’ve launched a GoFundMe campaign to make up the difference. They will use the funds to continue building a nature education center, and to help provide a psychological reprieve through nature to the youth affected by the violence and tensions. You can donate here.
I also looked at the Instagram of Isleta el Espino, an eco-resort near Granada that fairly employed locals. They’re also running a campaign to raise money for the employees they’ve had to lay off and their families. You can donate here.
But those are two businesses that I personally interacted with and enjoyed. Where did you stay? Who gave you a tour? Did you visit a coffee farm? Take a surf lesson? Get in touch and ask them how they are doing. Even just reaching out to let them know you’re thinking of and supporting them is a psychological boost, since it seems the world is ignoring what is going on in Nicaragua. But of course, donating if they have a fundraising campaign is even better. If they don’t have one or the businesses you patronized are owned by expats who have been able to leave, ask if there are other causes they know of that could use funding.
2. Take affordable Spanish lessons.
If you’re looking to brush up on your Spanish, then you can take private Spanish lessons directly from Nicaraguan teachers over Skype, through a program by a social enterprise called La Mariposa. Usually La Mariposa funds its environmental and social projects – school libraries, an organic farm, a reforestation project, after-school programming and a school working with children with disabilities – using tourism revenue. Instead, now they’re now offering to connect you with private Spanish tutors for only $12 an hour! Read more about the program and learn how to sign up at Wanderful. (h/t Marissa of Little Things Travel)
3. Buy socially and environmentally-friendly Nicaraguan products.
Obviously, the tourism industry was a large driver of the Nicaraguan economy – it was the largest sector of the service economy by far. However, Nicaragua also exports a variety of products. Some are extractive and damaging, such as petroleum products, beef, gold, and processed foods. However, some can be beneficial to the people and environment, like coffee, fish, and chocolate.
If you’re an Amazon Prime member, here is a bag of carbon-negative, organic, roasted beans from Nicaragua. Or you can choose from five different blends that use Nicaraguan beans from Dean’s Beans, who advances social work through direct trade and organic coffee.
Organic Nicaraguan chocolate has also been lately prized by artisan chocolate makers for its fine flavor. No wonder, chocolate is endemic to Central America (not Africa, where it currently is dominantly grown) and according to the World Bank, is a growing sustainable sector that provides a decent income to farmers and workers. Try Blanxart’s 85% Nicaraguan dark chocolate, or this package of two bars by Labooko with one 60% Nicaraguan milk chocolate bar and one 60% Ecuador dark chocolate bar.
Of course, you don’t need to just shop online! You can ask your local cafe if they carry any Nicaraguan single-origin coffees, or keep a look out in the aisles of specialty shops that sell artisan chocolate for Nicaraguan bars.
You can also look for Caribbean spiny lobster, of which Nicaragua is the biggest exporter. The issue there is that the fishery is not tracked to determine if the current catch levels are sustainable, but the WWF’s Seafood Sustainability arm is working on improving the situation. Overall the lobster are obtained by hand by divers, instead of through more damaging techniques, and it is a crucial industry for thousands of people on the isolated Caribbean coast.
Being a Conscious Tourist Continues After Your Visit
Conscious travelers tend to spend a lot of time preparing for their eco-friendly and community-beneficial vacations, and then strive to be thoughtful while we are visiting a country. But what happens after we leave? In the best case scenario, we share our travel stories with others and encourage them to visit and support sustainable travel destinations and operators. But in a situation like Nicaragua or Venezuela, where we can’t in good conscience encourage our friends and family to visit, we can help in other ways, by donating and also supporting other economic sectors besides tourism.
Are there other ways you can think of to support the Nicaraguan people during this crisis? Please tell me in the comments!