Granada’s otherwise colorful and vibrant downtown square began to dull as the sun dropped beyond the horizon. Vendors packed up shop, the crowds dispersed and streetlights began to glow. While heading back to our hostel after a short walk to Lake Nicaragua on the edge of town, my new friend Miriam broke the silence.
“Are you on holiday?” she asked simply in her Dutch accent.
After thinking about it for a moment, I replied that I actually was for the first time in a while. I had just finished up work in nearby Belize and without much of an itinerary at all, I was backpacking through Central America for the remaining few weeks of summer. No responsibilities other than to enjoy myself and take a few photos along the way. Sounds like a vacation to me.
Yet, the very next day, I felt uneasy as I tried to plan the rest of my “vacation” days in Nicaragua. None of the typical tourist options seemed very appealing. The hostel employee recommended I take a boat tour of the lake. You can go swimming and it’s unlimited rum the whole time, she said. Worst comes to worst, you’ll get loaded for pretty cheap.
I’m sure the boat ride was nice and the Nicaraguan rum lived up to its reputation, but that excursion, like many others, seemed designed for visitors to relax and escape from the everyday routine back home with little emphasis on actually experiencing local Nicaraguan culture. To be sure, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach to traveling but it wasn’t what I was looking for. Which, of course, begged the question of, “What exactly was I looking for?”
In a dream scenario, I would travel to a remote part of the country, my pathetic Spanish would make an instant jump to fluency, and I would work alongside locals to experience life as they do. In turn, my understanding of the land, culture and people would deepen.
But realistically, that wasn’t going to happen with only a week left.
Opting for what might be a halfway point between the two, I grabbed my backpack and hopped on a bus to Laguna de Apoyo. There, on the edge of the volcanic crater lake, the Peace Project Hostel opens its doors to both travelers and the community alike. Using the proceeds from their accommodations, they provide positive change in the community by expanding educational offerings, promote environmental stewardship, and assist in local projects. A win-win for both the community and foreigners looking to experience the natural beauty of Nicaragua while benefiting those who need it.
Friendly faces greeted me as I watched a steady stream of children filter through the hostel after school. A few hours later, the children went home and an incredible dinner was prepared for everyone at the Peace Project. My stay there was filled with laughter and great conversations.
The following morning, I rushed off to get to Leon in time to sign up for a two-day backpacking trip to the rim of yet another volcano. Similar to the Peace Project’s mission, Quetzal Trekkers, my guide company for the trip, is a non-profit organization compromised of unpaid guides that takes visitors on trips throughout Nicaragua and Guatemala. All of the proceeds go to locally-run projects that work with disadvantaged youth.
Ascending in the overwhelmingly hot landscape, we passed Nicaraguan cowboys tending their fields, trudged through thick jungle teeming with life, and eventually navigated a trail up volcanic scree that led to the summit. Hundreds of feet below our feet, very active fumaroles constantly spewed ashes and smoke. Vastly different than the inactive Laguna de Apoyo but beautiful all the same. That night, we watched the stars, enjoyed a campfire and chatted with our local guides about life in Nicaragua.
Boarding the plane back to the states a few days later, I reflected on my chaotically unplanned backpacking trip through Central America. After experiencing organizations like The Peace Project and Quetzal Trekkers, I felt inspired to see that tourism has the capacity to benefit the local communities in such impactful ways. You don’t always have to work in the Peace Corps or volunteer with big name NGOs to do good.