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Spanish Study Inside a Volcanic Crater, Nicaragua

Proyecto Ecólogico

Although Masaya, a small city about an hour south of Managua, Nicaragua, is a tourist destination known for its active volcano, the section we were driving through on the way from the airport to Proyecto Ecólogico, the school where I would be studying, wasn’t particularly inviting. The effects of poverty were evident on the faces of thin children and weary adults. Cars and buses weaved alarmingly in and out of pedestrian, bicycle, and animal traffic. I couldn’t help wondering about fatality rates, and I hoped that I hadn’t exceeded my capabilities by traveling solo to Nicaragua.

The final stretch of our route to Proyecto Ecólogico took us away from the city. I kept up a steady banter with Lorenzo, the driver the school had sent for me, as I tried to learn more about the country and exercise my rusty Spanish. The old Land Rover navigated through several very impressive ruts before we finally pulled in front of a rather modern looking wooden house, surrounded by dense foliage.

From the patio there was a good view of the water. I was given a simple but clean room with an electric fan. I happily learned that lessons, four to five hours daily of one-on-one instruction, would occur on the outdoor patios. I would sleep and study at the school, eat my meals there, and enjoy what to me represented an exotic environment for a little more than $200 a week.

The next day I found to my surprise that Lorenzo was also going to be my teacher. Only one other person was studying at the school: Hannah, a young English woman, was touring and teaching English in Nicaragua for six weeks.

On the first morning I got up early and walked the local roads around Apoyo, taking in the sounds of the howler monkeys in the trees. School children in uniforms descended the crater, and workers from a road project also started early. Most people arrived in Apoyo either on foot or by bike.

I returned to school with barely enough time for a shower and breakfast. Our house mom, Marta, would set out a lovely meal of fruit and granola each morning. As we ate, we watched the birds and talked quietly, sipping rich organic coffee.

At 9 a.m. lessons would start with two hours of conversational practice. Lorenzo and I spoke of politics, history, and social issues. I discovered that I identified with my teacher’s worldview more than I did at times with that of various members of my own family. After our sometimes heated discussion we took a 30-minute break and then worked for another session on reading and language structure. My teacher approached this in an organized fashion. It impressed me that even though I was the only student, not a minute of time was wasted.

Activities were scheduled for three afternoons. On Monday we took a nature walk to see a variety of interesting bird species, monkeys, and snakes. Wednesday it rained, which was perfect for our marathon Monopoly game. On Tuesday and Thursday, our free days, we swam and kayaked in the lake and explored Masaya a bit further.

On Friday, my last day of formal class, we visited an old prison fort in the afternoon. It was a sobering trip. Coyotepe, high above the outskirts of Masaya, had served as a prison and a fort for more than a century. In 1912 it was attacked by U.S. Marines, and during the 40-odd years of the Somoza family’s dictatorship that followed it served as the hold for political prisoners. I will never forget the descent into the lower levels; I felt the need to hold that chilled feeling, to remember that our world is little changed.

Our teachers did not want to end our instruction on such a somber note, so we spent some pleasant hours in a few shopping areas. In nearby San Juan del Oriente we toured a pottery shop and talked to the artisans about their work.

Throughout the week Hannah and I became increasingly comfortable at the school. We decided to stay on an extra day to use it as a convenient base to explore some other area attractions.

Hannah and I headed off that Saturday to climb the nearby Volcán Mombacho and to see the surrounding nature reserve. On this side trip we unwittingly ended up conquering Hannah’s fear of heights on a canopy zip-line tour, which involves zinging through space hanging from a cable in the forest canopy. It was a lot of fun and perfectly safe; however, taking that first leap off the platform required a big gulp of bravado. Next we walked from the canopy tour to the summit of the crater. It was a little over three vertical kilometers, but the effort was worth it to tour such a well-preserved old-growth cloud forest. Tourist dollars are put to good use conserving the park.

Hannah and I were reluctant to leave Proyecto Ecólogico, but we both wanted to spend a few days traveling through the south of the country. We encountered a diverse mix of people, including a young medical resident with whom we chatted on a long bus ride to Rivas and a helpful but hard-bargaining taxi driver who took us to the beach resort of San Juan del Sur and surrounding isolated beaches. Unfortunately, I had to leave before seeing the sea turtles laying their eggs at La Flor, a protected reserve on the southern Pacific coast. This, however, is just another reason to return next year, in addition to visiting with my Nica “family” at Proyecto Ecólogico once again.

For More Info

Contact Proyecto Ecólogico: www.gaianicaragua.org; eco-nic@guegue.com.ni At the time of press, the cost was $190 for one week, $365 for two weeks, $535 for three weeks, and $690 for four weeks. All programs and prices include meals, room, and instruction costs for the time of the program.

 Proyecto Ecólogico uses a portion of its proceeds to provide scholarships in the local community. In addition to offering Spanish classes, the staff and its director Jeffrey McCrary are involved in environmental research of area birds and several species of fish that are endemic to Laguna de Apoyo. The reality of environmental conservation in Nicaragua is not always encouraging. Many of the country’s lake waters are contaminated; and while Laguna de Apoyo is still clean, with water suitable for swimming, a new road is bringing in development, which may make it a struggle to permit tourism on a large scale and maintain the environmental balance. However, Proyecto Ecólogico has been awarded a contract by the government to try to do just this.

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