Perusing travel guides or reviews of tourist hot spots might make Nicaragua seem like paradise (and it is!). However, the reality for many struggling residents is far from the idyllic picture a brochure might paint. Nicaragua is a diverse country filled with rich culture and vibrant landscapes. It is also a country stricken with political corruption and poverty. That is what drew me to volunteer in Nicaragua.
A decade ago, I traveled to the Nicaraguan village of Las Enramadas near the Ochomogo River to help build latrines for the villagers. It’s not a village that tourists would know about. A quick search on Google reveals that the village shows up as only text on the map; no photos of the village appear. The same holds true for numerous other villages along the river and throughout the country. For fellow travelers and volunteers, this is a sobering reminder that Nicaragua is much more than just the tourist hotspots.
With unique experiences, delicious cuisine, and amazing photo opportunities, Nicaragua has a lot to offer volunteers and tourists alike. During my time there, I swam with cows and rode in the back of a pick-up truck filled with plantains. One of my favorite places to visit was Lago Cocibolca (commonly referred to as Lake Nicaragua). It’s a huge lake with soft, undulating waves that made it seem almost like a giant wave pool. The beach surrounding the lake is sandy, soft, and dotted with a few loose cows who also enjoy relaxing along the shore.
While at the lake, locals approached us to give a warning. They told us not to swim past the drop-off, as the deeper waters of the lake are home to bull sharks. Fortunately, they don’t often swim into the shallow waters closer to the beach, so it is safe to swim in. A quick search once I returned home revealed that there have only been three recorded shark attacks at Lake Nicaragua. The most recent took place in 1944.
Another highlight of the trip was traveling to the volcano Concepción, where we hiked along trails, completed a zipline course, and had lunch. This is a popular site for tourists to visit, and for good reason. The view of Nicaragua from the top of the volcano and the surrounding lush forest was breathtaking. The zipline course was a lot of fun… while in motion. Unfortunately, the zipline was up in the canopy of trees and swayed in the wind. I spent most of my time clutching the tree trunks for dear life. However, if you are not as faint of heart as me, I highly recommend this experience!
Everyday life for many Nicaraguan citizens is often hard due to extreme poverty, with most citizens living in small villages scattered across the country. I went on a volunteer trip to Nicaragua in 2013 to help build new outhouses. One of our hosts had an old TV that received a few channels. Yet at the same time, they did not have a functioning indoor bathroom. Instead, they had an outhouse and outdoor shower cubicle where we could take a bucket of water to wash ourselves. This same house was considered the wealthiest in the village, because they could afford a cement floor instead of one made from hard-packed dirt.
Despite their hardships, the villagers themselves were very welcoming and generous. Even though most could barely afford to keep food on the table, they still offered us refreshment as thanks for our volunteer work. When we weren’t working, it was eye-opening to speak at length with some of our hosts and learn about what life was like for the locals of Nicaragua. In particular, I remember one young woman who had barely turned 20 telling me a story about how she had twice thought about marrying. Tragically, her first boyfriend died in a farming accident, and her second died of a snake bite. She dreamed of moving to Managua, the capital, to become a nurse, but she couldn’t afford to travel there, much less the schooling involved.
The hard truth is that Nicaragua is a country whose citizens struggle with poverty and hardship on a daily basis. Of course, there are many tourist hotspots and wealthier areas that you can visit. Nevertheless, there are also many small villages that live in a very different reality than what tourists experience. These smaller communities need assistance the most. I strongly encourage anyone looking for volunteer opportunities to consider Nicaragua.
There is always hope for a better future, and there are many opportunities for anyone willing and able to help. If you are looking for a unique travel experience and would like to see a side to the country that is often overlooked, there are many volunteer programs that work in Nicaragua and throughout Central America, such as ONG and Adventure Volunteer.
Nicaragua is, without a doubt, a beautiful country with a lot to offer the world. My experience there, while vastly different from the usual tourist one, was unforgettable. Even after a decade, I have not forgotten the people of Las Enramadas. It is my hope that I will be able to return there one day. At the end of the day, as picturesque as a place may be, it’s the people who make a place beautiful.