Nicaragua like a local: 3 months of monkeys, motorcycles, and mangoes

March 11, 2015                 3M read time
Nick Saraceni


After wanting to learn Spanish for years, a young photographer signs up for a language program in Nicaragua. Once there, he discovers a land of volcanoes, waterfalls, and, eventually, love. Below is his adventure in pictures.

Ever since my first failed attempt at asking out Marisol, the cleaning lady at my old job, learning Spanish has been high on my bucket list. Last September, I finally started crossing that item off at La Mariposa Spanish School in Nicaragua. During the school’s three-month immersion program, I lived with a local family in San Juan de La Concepción annotation and split my days between one-on-one Spanish classes and volunteering with community outreach projects.

Cultural immersion is certainly a different approach to “vacation,” but I can’t think of a more meaningful experience for anyone willing to challenge their definition of “normal.” I arrived at the tail end of the rainy season and my Nicaraguan brothers and I took full advantage of the sunny days. We played baseball in green fields, stalked tropical birds and frogs through the rainforest, and “borrowed” mangoes and dragon fruit from our neighbors’ plantations. By the end of it all, my Spanish had progressed from basic to basically fluent, which did not make goodbyes any easier.

A small house surrounded by jungle Nick Saraceni

A small house surrounded by jungle

Nick Saraceni

 

I hiked up hill to the school every morning, passing the students’ homes along the way.

Brightly colored mototaxi Nick Saraceni

Brightly colored mototaxi

Nick Saraceni

 

Mototaxis, or took-tooks as the locals call them, are essentially motorcycles with a larger frame built around them to accommodate riders. I believe we set the town record with seven people in a mototaxi at once.

Boy and a horse in a field Nick Saraceni

Boy and a horse in a field

Nick Saraceni

 

Young Felix was my guide for a day of exploring places cars can’t reach. Along the way, we paused in this windy highland meadow near the rim of Crater Santiago, a dormant volcano not far from Volcan Masaya National Park.

Man squatting on the ground with an open notebook; volcano in the background Nick Saraceni

Man squatting on the ground with an open notebook; volcano in the background

Nick Saraceni

 

Marlon, the Director of La Mariposa’s Spanish professors, charts a map of volcano craters and possible horseback riding routes for La Mariposa’s rural tourism initiative. The program aims to take travelers on camping trips in which they’ll participate in the customs of local highland farmers, storytellers, and medicine men. Proceeds from the excursions will go directly toward improving water and healthcare systems in nearby rural communities.

Motorcycle parked in front of dilapidated building in a forest Nick Saraceni

Motorcycle parked in front of dilapidated building in a forest

Nick Saraceni

 

This motorcycle carried my local guide and me through muddy arroyos to the lakeside ruins annotation of Venecia, one of the sites of La Mariposa’s Rural Tourism Initiative. While locals couldn’t seem to give me a straight answer on the age of the ruins, each of them warned me to be nice to the monkey ghost if I met him, or I’d be cursed for life. Fortunately, the mythical beast never interrupted our picnic.

Smoking volcano crater Nick Saraceni

Smoking volcano crater

Nick Saraceni

 

In 1525, Spanish explorer Pedro Arias Dávila (also Pedro Arias de Ávila or Pedrarias Dávila) wrote a letter home about Volcan Masaya (pictured above), begging the monarchy to send as many ships possible to Nicaragua to collect and bring back the molten gold that glows inside the mountain at night. annotation

Cow on a forest path Nick Saraceni

Cow on a forest path

Nick Saraceni

 

Funny the friends you make along the way. This heifer was my spirit guide as I made my descent down Volcan Telica, just about an hour bus ride north of the stunning city of Leon.

Rows of plants; volcano in the background Nick Saraceni

Rows of plants; volcano in the background

Nick Saraceni

 

Vegetation is lush at the end of the rainy season in the sweet pepper and cornfields outside of Leon near Volcan Telica.

Horse-drawn black funeral carriage Nick Saraceni

Horse-drawn black funeral carriage

Nick Saraceni

 

While it is not uncommon for families of the departed to carry a coffin over a mile to the cemetery on their shoulders, some city dwellers spring for the more extravagant option of a horse-drawn hearse, like this one in Granada.

Boy licking an ice cream cone in the foreground; crowd sitting on chairs under a nearby tent Nick Saraceni

Boy licking an ice cream cone in the foreground; crowd sitting on chairs under a nearby tent

Nick Saraceni

 

In the pueblos, annotation the whole town often shows up to pay their respects to the family in mourning. More than 1,000 people visited my host family’s home after the grandmother, Abuela Amparo, died, but I’m pretty sure Diego (pictured here) thought we’d pitched the tents for his early birthday celebration.

Dog in a brightly colored shirt Nick Saraceni

Dog in a brightly colored shirt

Nick Saraceni

 

Doby the House Dog was the sharpest dresser in the whole family.

Bright white church rooftop and dramatic clouds Nick Saraceni

Bright white church rooftop and dramatic clouds

Nick Saraceni

 

Built between 1747 and the early 1800s, León Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest Roman Catholic cathedral in Central America. The sun's reflection off of the building's stark white domes can be painfully bright. When I visited the rooftop, my eyes watered uncontrollably, prompting a concerned woman in sunglasses to ask me why I was crying.

Children in brightly colored traditional outfits Nick Saraceni

Children in brightly colored traditional outfits

Nick Saraceni

 

In late September, I happened to be in Masaya during the opening ceremonies of the San Geronimo festival, a monthlong celebration of the city’s patron saint. On this day, children of all ages skipped school to parade through the streets in traditional dancing attire.

Mama monkey and baby in a tree Nick Saraceni

Mama monkey and baby in a tree

Nick Saraceni

 

Near Granada, locals offer boat tours of the small lake islands, including a stop alongside an isleta overrun with greedy howler monkeys. The clever beasts hang out in the trees all day waiting for the tourists to toss them fruit from the boats.

Waterfall Nick Saraceni

Waterfall

Nick Saraceni

 

I fell in love with a girl who was afraid of monkeys and had never been on a boat before. I convinced her to join me on the ferry to Ometepe, a volcanic island in Lake Nicaragua. annotation On the island, we hiked up one of the volcanoes through a forest filled with monkeys to this waterfall, annotation where we spent the afternoon bathing in its clear waters.

Fishing in the water with a net at sunset Nick Saraceni

Fishing in the water with a net at sunset

Nick Saraceni

 

Off the shores of Isla Ometepe, two opposing currents kiss, creating a narrow sandbar that lets visitors feel as if they can walk on water. This landmark closes at sunset so the locals can fish for dinner in peace.


annotations


San Juan de la Concepcion is a suburb of the slightly larger town of La Concepcion (often called La Concha). The town is about an hour-long microbus ride from the city of Masaya (Nicaragua's third largest city). San Juan de la Concepcion used to be an extremely poor town with terrible health and transportation infrastructure. Since Dr. Paulete Goudge started La Mariposa and its many projects to build roads, improve schools, provide rehabilitation for severely disabled children ... (the list goes on), the little town of San Juan de la Concepcion has become one of the safer places in the region to raise a family.


The ruins are from structures that once were under construction but were never finished because either money and resources became scarce or the buildings were taken apart to help provide materials for newer buildings.


Green parrots nest along the inner walls of the crater, immune to its noxious gases and protected from all the other beasts.


When someone dies, a truck with giant speakers in the back drives up and down each street announcing the location of the funeral reception over the blaring background music of the Titanic theme song. Customarily, the reception lasts for 24 hours straight, and the family of the departed stays too busy to mourn as they provide food and refreshments for their visitors.


Two volcanoes rising out of Lake Nicaragua, Central America's largest lake, formed Isla Ometepe. The land mass is the world’s largest volcanic island inside a freshwater lake.


Hundreds of black howler monkeys calmly watched us from the trees. She begged me to turn around, but we were so close to the waterfall. I picked up a big stick and swore to protect her and she eventually agreed to proceed.


Nick Saraceni

Nick has since hopped the bus nine hours south to Jaco, Costa Rica, where he earns his rice and beans as a freelance writer and photographer. He still receives weekly Spanish lessons from his Nicaraguan family over Skype, and visits them on holidays.

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