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Art on Display at Casa tres Mundos Cultural Center

Trip Report: Alternative Spring Break in Nicaragua

The Tickle College of Engineering sponsored an Alternative Spring Break to Nicaragua from March 10 – 17, 2018.  Participating in the trip were Biomedical Engineering majors Alicia Matavosian and Elijah Smith, Materials Science majors Christopher Walker and Susan Schickling, Computer Science major Ian Lumsden, Nuclear Engineering major Jonathan Mitchell, Mechanical Engineering major Tyler Newsom, Electrical Engineering major Steven Patrick, Philosophy major Robert Ledbetter, and Speech Pathology major Brenna Clary.  All ten participants are Honors students at The University of Tennessee. TCE International Coordinator Judith Mallory led the trip, whose details were managed in partnership with Explorica Educational Tours in Boston, Massachusetts.

About Nicaragua

The Republic of Nicaragua is the largest country of the Central American isthmus.  The multi-ethnic population of six million includes people of indigenous, European, African, and Asian heritage. The main language is Spanish, with some indigenous dialects still spoken.

Originally inhabited by various indigenous cultures since ancient times, the Spanish Empire conquered the region in the 16th century. Nicaragua gained independence from Spain in 1821. Since its independence, Nicaragua has undergone periods of political unrest, dictatorship, and fiscal crisis—the most notable causes that led to the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and the Contra War of the 1980s. Nicaragua is a representative democratic republic.

Known as the “land of lakes and volcanoes,” Nicaragua is also home to the second-largest rainforest of the Americas. The country has set a goal for itself to have 90% renewable energy by the year 2020.  Nicaragua is made up of 15 “departments”, or states.

View of Volcano from Lake Nicaragua

View of Volcano from Lake Nicaragua

Trip Recap

The group flew into Managua’s Augusto C. Sandino International Airport, the country’s main joint civil-military public international airport named after Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto Nicolás Sandino. They traveled in a westerly direction to the city of Granada, the sixth largest city in the country, and the first Colonial settlement of the Spaniards in the New World. It is the capital of the Granada Department.  Historically one of Nicaragua’s most important cities, economically and politically, its colonial heritage is noted in its architecture and structure.

Originally, Granada had a thriving indigenous population. The city was named in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, ostensibly the first European city in mainland America. Unlike other cities claiming that distinction, Granada was not only the settlement of the Conquest, but also a city registered in official records of the Crown of Aragon, and the Kingdom of Castile in Spain.

The city has been witness and victim to many of the battles with and invasions from EnglishFrench and Dutch pirates trying to take control of Nicaragua. It was also where William Walker, the American filibuster, took up residence and attempted to take control of Central America as a ruling president. One of Walker’s generals, Charles Frederick Henningsen, set the city ablaze before escaping, destroying much of the ancient city and leaving printed the words “Here was Granada.”  This was one of three times that the entire city, or most of it, was burned to the ground.

The first day of the trip was spent on a walking tour of the city.  Sites on the tour included Plaza de la Independencia, Convento y Museo San Francisco (Museum and Monastery of San Francisco), Iglesia de la Merced (Church of Mercy), dating from the 1500s. The church tour included the clock tower/observatory, accessible by a steep and tight spiral staircase, at the top of which one can enjoy 360-degree views of the rooftops of the town as well as the impressive Mombacho Volcano.

Steven Patrick in the courtyard at the Cultural Center

Steven Patrick in the courtyard at the Cultural Center

A notable part of the tour was a stop at Casa tres Mundos, a cultural center whose website states is “an institution created to initiate, support and promote cultural projects in Nicaragua and Central America.” Besides these artistic, musical and educational activities, which emphasize support for the poorer segments of Nicaraguan society, the foundation finances and coordinates an integrative rural development project in Malacatoya. Artists were on-site during the visit, including printmakers, painters, and carvers.

Lunch was at the Café de las Sonrisas (Café of Smiles) in Granada. The business only employs people who are deaf, from the waiters to the cooks.

“My goal is for this cafe to be a mirror for other businesses to lose their fear of hiring people with disabilities,” founder Antonio Prieto Buñuel―who is from Spain, and goes by “Tio Antonio,” or “Uncle Antonio” stated. “Café de las Sonrisas was born out of a provocation because 99 percent of people with disabilities [in Nicaragua] are jobless. So I decided to open a cafe where all of the employees were deaf ― to show that it works. It’s also for the people who work here [who have disabilities] to lose their own fear of integrating into the workforce. So they can fly.”

In Nicaragua, about 1 person in 10 has a disability. But around 99 percent of people with a disability are unemployed.  While Nicaraguan law requires companies to employ two people with disabilities for every 50 employees, many businesses don’t.  To help customers communicate with staff ― and learn while they eat ― the walls are covered in letters, words, and phrases, from “Thank you” to “Welcome,” with illustrations that show the corresponding translation in Sign Language.

The cafe, now five years old, is a project of the nonprofit Centro Social Tio Antonio. The center also runs community programs, such as scholarships for low-income students, and a hammock store, which employs more than 35 people with disabilities from blindness to deafness to intellectual disabilities, as well as some people without disabilities. The center gets most of its income―around 80 percent―from the cafe and the hammock store, with the rest coming via donations from visitors, friends, and family. The student visitors from UT each took part in weaving part of a gigantic hammock using reclaimed plastic bags.

After lunch, the group proceeded to the nearby town of Masaya to a crafts market. The town of Masaya is known for its hammocks, and colorful examples may be seen hanging throughout town at homes and businesses. That evening was spent at the Masaya Volcano, site of a crater lake full of lava amid clouds of Sulphur gas, as the volcano is active.

Jonathan Mitchell learns hammock-making at Café Sonrisas

Jonathan Mitchell learns hammock-making at Café Sonrisas

The next day began with a bike ride from the hotel in Granada all the way along the peninsula. At the endpoint, the mode of transportation changed to boat, for a ride through the archipelago, consisting of many isletas, or tiny islands.  Many of them are considered home to individual families, who access their property by way of paddleboats.

The island where the group stopped is known as “White Island,” for all of the white stone outcroppings visible nearby. The island has a house/restaurant, kayaks, a tennis court, and swimming pool. A traditional Nicaraguan lunch was served.  A family of howler monkeys is in residence on White Island.

The group then embarked upon a two-hour journey to the Pacific coastal town of San Juan del Sur, a municipality located in the Rivas District (or state).  Located on a crescent-shaped bay, the town was a popular resting place for gold prospectors headed to California in the 1850s.

One of the activities in which the group participated was horseback riding at the Rancho Chilamate, an Eco Guest Ranch. The ride went through the surrounding hills, across the prairie and dry creek beds. All of the ranch hands on duty that day happened to be female, hailing from Canada and Europe. The ranch is located within a protected area. Numerous birds as well as several howler monkeys were present along the riding trail.

Isleta Home on Lake Nicaragua

An isleta home on late Nicaragua

Following the visit to San Juan del Sur, the next stop was the island of Omatepe.  Meaning “two mountains,” the island is the largest in Lake Nicaragua and is formed by two volcanoes rising out of the lake. The volcanoes, Volcán Concepción and Volcán Maderas are joined by a low isthmus to form one island in the shape of an hourglass. Omatepe has an area of 276 km2. It is 31 km long and 5 to 10 km wide. The island has an economy based on livestock, agriculture, and tourism. Plantains are the major crop. Petroglyphs and stone idols are located on the northern slopes of the Maderas volcano. The oldest date from 300 BC. The small hotel in which the travelers stayed lies in a protected area known as the Charco Verde natural reserve and includes nature paths and a lagoon which resulted from volcanic activity many years earlier.

A howler monkey at Chaco Verde Natural Reserve

A howler monkey at Chaco Verde Natural Reserve

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the site is the legend of Chico Largo. As the story goes, he was a sorcerer who took up occult practices of his indigenous ancestors and supposedly could assume the form of animals, in addition to entering into a pact with Satan himself. To this day, many residents believe his ghost travels the area as well as the possibly haunted lagoon, the location of his famous rituals.

Students hike into the Bona Fide Farm

Students hike into the Bona Fide Farm

Omatepe is the home of Project Bona Fide, a 26-acre permaculture farm and education center. Permaculture is a way of design respecting the environment and community, which works with nature. It is a design science which preserves the natural environment as a whole system, consisting of people, plants, buildings, and animals. It employs appropriate building and technology and is a conscious design encouraging ecological living. Founded in 2001 to focus on research and education, agro-ecological design, and food sovereignty, its goal is to educate people both locally and globally on diversified food production through multi-strata agroforestry systems. Over 22,000 trees have been planted here since the farm’s inception.

Robert Ledbetter works on the bamboo harvest at Bona Fida

Robert Ledbetter works on the bamboo harvest at Bona Fida

The group helped with composting, potting up young plants in the nursery, bamboo harvesting, and tool-sharpening before hearing a lecture on permaculture. In addition, the students provided some design assistance to the operators of the farm, to enlarge the kitchen and finish the farm store, guest house, and class room. This included specifications for electrical work and load-bearing walls.  The farm grows all of its own food and provides herbs and plants to the surrounding community as well as education programs.  It employs fifteen locals, as well as a coordinator and several student interns from both the United States and Canada.

After a week of exploring several locations and working in a community service project, the group returned to Granada in order to fly out early the next morning from nearby Managua.

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