Finding — and Respecting — Mother Nature In Nicaragua

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Costa Rica bills itself as one of the eco-tourism centers of the world. For those that do their homework, just next door, Nicaragua may be an even better eco-friendly destination.

For the most part, Nicaragua is unspoiled by multi-nationals’ monster-sized footprints.  Unsightly food chains are rare, and even the major hotel brands are nonexistent in most parts of this nation sandwiched between two oceans. Nearly 80 grocery stores owned by Walmart are heavily disguised under the name Palí, and with little in common with the big daddy of retail. Many will agree there’s not much at Palí that you can’t buy from a mom-and-pop corner store. These are just some of the reasons why Nicaragua is an attractive alternative. It’s a country where travellers can find beauty in simplicity, and at very affordable prices.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that visitors to Nicaragua are comfortable in simple accommodations that are not lacking in character. Upgrades are not oversized pillows, a super duper shower head or an over-rated over-priced mattress. Rather, eco-friendly, organic vegetarian food, and proximity to a good surf, volcano or jungle are the perks here.

For just those reasons, and many more, one of the star attractions on the Nicaraguan tourist trail is San Juan del Sur.  

San Juan del Sur bay view from Casa Andalucia.

 Riding the Wave of Eco-Tourism in San Juan del Sur

Everyone in San Juan knows about Casa Oro. Located a block from both the central park and the beach, the recently renovated and expanded eco-hostel was bought by an American expat a few years ago as part of an altruistic mission.

“The country is at a tipping point and we believe that we can help push which direction things move from the inside out,” says Muffadal Saylawala, Casa Oro’s master planner. “We are riding off a rising wave from the eco-conscious efforts of Costa Rica and targeting a widely underserved market. It is within our reach to transform Nicaragua into the premiere eco destination in the world, a place where the rest of the world comes to learn,” adds Muffa.

Guests and volunteers at Casa Oro.

Shortly after the Chicago native bought Casa Oro, he added more pearls to his strand of eco-friendly bed-and-breakfast offerings: Hotel Pacífico, Casa Andalucía and Nuestra Casa. While he has multiple properties in his portfolio, he’s the opposite of a Leona Helmsley, Paris Hilton or J.W. Marriott. His passion is to make the world a better place, starting from a prime locale on the Pacific. His vision is to give back to Mother Nature, the economy and the San Juan del Sur local community.

Interestingly enough, this tree hugger has roots in financial analytics. He fled the banker’s investment podium to create “an ecosystem of sustainable social enterprises. Our aim is to influence a more natural evolution for Nicaragua. We are building a regenerative eco-lodge and learning center.”

In addition to his multiple guest accommodations, he bought an 80-acre piece of land sprawling up a mountain overlooking a beach.  All his guest properties return their organic waste products to nourish his organic farm. Additionally, inorganic waste products feed construction and decor at the rural and guest properties. Muffa is building a supply chain going to and from the farm and his eco-friendly accommodations.  

“The guesthouses are constructed from natural and recycled materials like pallets, adobe and bamboo. We collaborate with the local community learning from their ancient ways of life, and teaching them how to build sustainable businesses.There’s dedicated spaces full of energy, optimism and enthusiasm for yoga, meditation, healing, experimentation, open to art and music. And, there’s an organic café in the heart of San Juan Del Sur where we live our values in the urban jungle,” says Muffa.

Today, among the menu items on the Casa Oro menu board, the cooks slice papaya, green peppers, squash and tender corn on the cob all of which was harvested at Muffa’s mountainside finca. New age-y or artistic folks may be drawn by the donation-based yoga or creator space designed using inspiration from nature. Most like the inexpensive rooms infused with creativity, re-purposing and camaraderie.

The front desk at a chain hotel treats you like just another credit card holder. Swipe your credit card and you get a mag key card in return.  Enclose yourself in a cookie-cutter room, where your mini-fridge, bar and Pay-Per-View become your companions.  At hostels and B&Bs there’s a sense of community. There’s not that thick of a line between the employees and the guests. People are invited into the living areas to play — sing — share. Your country of origin is just an ice breaker. It doesn’t matter who you’re traveling with, or without. Your bank balance is invisible.  But your voice and smile are not.

“We’re building bridges between worlds, peoples and communities. We generously share what we’re doing with the hopes that San Juan Del Sur becomes the most authentic eco-travel destination in the world,” says Muffa.

Strengthening the Chain of Tree Huggers

Hopefully, with every contact at one of Muffa’s properties, a touch of that respect for Mother Nature will be multiplied. Rooms at Casa Oro are named: Regeneración, Transformación, Humanidad and Soñar.

“We know we’re not the only dreamers. We believe in collaboration. We seek to help people who wish they could live more holistically; the people who dream about leading a life full of meaning and fulfillment. We believe shared and united space fosters collaboration and creativity. We believe in building bridges between modern society and the new world, between business and nature, between travelers and locals.”

Part of the dream includes Muffa’s ever-morphing team of collaborators. People from around the world, united, in Nicaragua to reinforce a circle of sustainability.

“We’re all weaving together, collaborating, sharing space and resources, building something greater than any of us could have ever imagined doing alone: an intricate and enormous web of elements around the world living regeneratively.”

Deborah Charnes teaching English to Casa Oro employees

For example, the colorful walls at Casa Andalucía, Nuestra Casa and Casa Oro are love-of-nature offerings from artists from around the world. Smaller personalized touches came to life through a team of volunteers from Argentina, Mexico, Spain, Nicaragua and the U.S. Hand-painted up-cycled chairs invite people to sit with messages like “Creer es Crear,” or, “En el mar, la vida es más sabrosa.” The painters and writers of the chairs weren’t all artists. But they were all creative and shared a love for the environment. Muffa hopes his properties provide a canvas, or a comfort, for those wanting to make a difference.

“The more that we give, the more we have to give,” he says.  “Our work is guided by design inspired by nature. Her system is the most optimal that we know; self-maintaining, beautiful and circular.”

Common Area at Nuestra Casa

The Bottom Line

Since financial profits are not Muffa’s sole goals, his measurable objectives are different than those of your typical hotelier. He believes in using business to preserve ecology, empower communities, shape culture and as a space to foster community. Thus, his bottom lines are in sync with humankind and nature.

  • “I will measure how much physical soil is created by this project to give back to the earth.
  • I will measure how much food is grown, how much electricity has been saved and how many families in the local community are better because they were part of this project.
  • I will measure how many people go home and do something to make their life more sustainable.
  • I will measure how many synchronistic connections are spurred as a result of being in our spaces and interacting with people and places.”

The world as an interconnected ecosystem, yet most of us are blind to the big picture as we obsess on insignificant deadlines and details. “We believe in amplifying these connections to foster an environment where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole,” sums up Muffa.

Maestro de arcilla

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When you take a sip from your cortadito or cappuccino at Casa Oro, or cut into your French Toast or kabobs, it’s hard not to notice the ceramic sets in which everything is served.

Casa Oro strives to be a ‘green’ business. Signs throughout the San Juan del Sur hostel and its sister properties, Casa Andalucía, Nuestra Casa and Hotel Pacifico encourage guests to reduce, recycle and reuse. As such, there are no disposable glasses, cutlery or dinnerware. Rather a large selection of eco-friendly handmade ceramic pieces that highlight Nicaragua’s ancestral and environmental roots.

Each time you order a hot drink or meal from the Casa Oro café, your napkin holder, bowl, plate, saucer or cup will reflect a different treasure from Meso-America. Despite the diversity in the designs, colors and shapes of the dinnerware, all was created for the most part by one man.

Elvin Cano is from another San Juan. San Juan de Oriente. It takes a few buses to get from San Juan de Oriente to San Juan del Sur. With wait times and stops all along the way, it can easily take the better portion of a day to get from one San Juan to the next. That is just one of the reasons why Elvin is not in San Juan del Sur 365 days a year.

Elvin and his family follow their own calendar to make and sell large quantities of hand-thrown functional yet beautiful ceramic pieces of art. Each one follows the customs passed down from Elvin’s grandfather down the line to himself and his brothers, and now the 20-something generation set of great-grandsons. Elvin heads to San Juan del Sur during the higher tourist seasons. His nephew, Jonathan, may be selling at the San Juan malecón, or in the colonial city of Granada. Elvin, Jonathan and one other relative are the only ceramic vendors that Casa Oro welcomes inside the hostel to show off their creations. There’s a reason for that.

“The largest order I’ve ever had was from Muffa [Casa Oro’s owner]. That makes me very happy”, Elvin says. “Muffa likes everything natural. Everything we make is natural. No chemicals.”

Elvin met Muffa several years ago. Muffa appreciated his work.  “I want quality”, Muffa told Elvin, before he was even ready to place an order. He kept telling Elvin, “muy pronto, muy pronto” about his desire for a major purchase. Then the order came in. It was such a large quantity that Muffa gave Elvin two months to complete it. Elvin proudly says that he delivered before the deadline, thanks to the help of his brother.

The order included dinner and salad plates, coffee cups, demitasse cups, creamer and sugar bowls, salsa servers, shot glasses and soup bowls. That was just for the kitchen. Muffa also ordered about 60 sconces for the bedrooms, dorms and hallways. The wall-decor lampshades have cut-outs in the form of waves, flowers, circles and geometric lines. Muffa liked all Elvin’s designs which represent nature in Nicaragua: hummingbird, turtles, fish and butterflies. There’s also Pre-colombian and geometric designs.

As far as the hues, they are all made out of natural colors: blue, green, turquoise, black (from manganese), yellow, red and orange. The colored clay is brought from different parts of the country. “We go to el Sauce de Leon volcano to find the orange earth”, Elvin says as an example of the natural colors they use on their ceramic pieces before they are glazed. The blue clay comes from the coast.

“Everything we use comes from the earth”, Elvin explains. The clay is from adobe earth. They let it sit with water for a few days. Then, they mix the clay (arcilla) with sand and form the plates, drink ware, candle holders or cylinders. They even use old bicycle spokes to etch designs, and act as insets.

To save energy, Elvin and family only bake the pottery a few weeks each year. Their wood-fired kiln is about two meters high, and it can accommodate 120 ceramic pieces at a time. They load the kiln one day, and take them out to cool the next.

“They are all very much perfectly spun, and the glazing is a special glaze that protects you from any toxic particles that may be in the clay”, notes Casa Oro guest Richard about Elvin’s work. Richard learned to throw pottery on the wheel at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Later, he had his own wheel in his studio near Austin, Texas, so he can recognize finely crafted clay objects. “You can feel the difference in the glaze.”

Beyond the large quantity of ceramic ware that Muffa bought for Casa Oro, Elvin made a major sale to one of the tobacco company owners in Estelí. While not as large as Muffa’s collection, the one close to the Honduran border included 60 large plates, 40 small ones, a coffee set and drink ware.

“I feel very happy and am grateful to him”, Elvin says about Muffa’s trust in and appreciation for his work.

Elvin can ship his pottery outside of Nicaragua for a nominal shipping and packing surcharge. People that are interested in finding Elvin and samples of his work can ask the Casa Oro front desk staff. Or better yet, order your specialty coffees to accompany your breakfast, lunch, happy hour or dinner platters to see the charm in his ceramics.