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.  

A Kaleidoscopic View of San Juan

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What is the common factor that attracts us all to this same atmosphere? The freedom? The diversity? The perspectives? Or is it the ability to not have to think about anything at all? Looking at waves on the bay, hearing the clash of water breaking continuously throughout the day… These things seem to come easily to San Juan del Sur, which in 2017 is still coming together in a jumbled yet creative scene. Maybe it’s those things specific to nature and this part of town that somehow mirror our own. Whether it is similar to the beats of our hearts in the clash of the waves or the uncertainty that somehow reflects our nature and constant change of our thoughts. It’s certainly something, maybe different to each of us.

Casa Oro rooftop. – photo credits: nomadjazzing

I could be here for the usual two or three days and go back to my so-called regular life in Managua, but staying here a couple of months has truly brought the change of perspective I was aiming to find. It’s as if every single day I can attempt to push forward all the changes I’ve wished to see in this country, or similarly in the same way I want to see them in myself. Very Gandhi-like, but it’s the only way I can put it.

San Juan del Sur Bay – photo credits: nomadjazzing

It’s for this reason I do not want to leave, because I don’t want it to stop for it has been here in San Juan del Sur – that as a place is also developing just as my own dreams are taking their stronghold in becoming real – and that has made things clearer on what kind of path I want to stay on.

Casa Andalucia – photo credits: nomadjazzing

At times it’s hard to mean this phrase wholeheartedly for some of us, but: I’m loving life as it is! Working in Casa Oro’s reception for transportation and surf shop was challenging, but a great icebreaker for getting to know this town and its local feel. Now as a part of a group of managers from other properties (Casa Andalucia & Nuestra Casa), I’ve realised that what you do with your time is essential in realising who you are. Spending 12-hour shifts in reception made my goal of integrating myself within the community seamlessly. Although some did not think of me as a local, I would prove them wrong by backfiring with the same rapid Spanish they had; breaking their own norms of what a local is like or is supposed to look like.

photo credits: nomadjazzing

In my opinion and as a fact really, locals and the Nicaraguan working class themselves are the ones who truly know the town of San Juan del Sur; where to eat for fewer than 100 córdobas, which are the best known or hidden beaches; even alternative options to grab a drink, as opposed to the few known spots you grow up hearing in Managua. Hanging out with tourists and ex-pats makes for a great perspective, for you realise the common factors that tie us to this point in time. It may be the Spanish or simply being from the same country, but being with locals has allowed me to see a little of myself in everyone I’ve met, putting into perspective that it’s not only the area that makes this place so great, but the people who spin its wheel play a bigger part in it as well. I realised I am part of that responsability now, and no one can take that away from me.

People of San Juan del Sur: Kristen Claeys

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“I began my yoga teaching journey just under a year ago while living in London, England, then moved away from my home in Austin, Texas, to follow my partner at the time, across the pond. Once we arrived, I found the person I thought I knew a stranger to me. While figuring out my reason for making this bold move, I decided to attend YogaLondon to try to bring peace into my life, deepen my practice – and maybe find my purpose. Little did I know how these first 200 hours of teacher training would change me forever. After realising my life at home was dramatically different than what I felt in my heart, I decided to enroll in a 300 hour yoga teacher training that would take me as far away from London as I could think of: Bali, Indonesia.

Before my travels to Southeast Asia, my grandfather suddenly passed away and I had to return to Texas for his funeral and take care of my grandmother. There my path was becoming clearer. I knew I needed to return to London, move out of my flat and follow my dreams of traveling around the world. So after making a circle around the globe, I returned to the U.S. to find my belongings, shipped all the way from London. Not knowing where my travels would take me next, I knew 5 years ago I had promised myself to travel to Nicaragua and decided I needed to make that a reality.

I arrived to Playa Gigante at the end of April to start a yoga teaching job, I believed was the dream I’d been waiting for. While being at the hotel, I quickly realised the owner and I had completely opposite ideas of what my purpose was while volunteering there; staying true to my heart – and what I’ve envisioned my experience to be – I decided to take a leap staying. Then I followed a couple I had met in Playa Gigante to San Juan del Sur and hoped to find a teaching opportunity quickly.

I fell in love with SJdS instantly. Its vibrancy, the beautiful colours, the mountain setting, its amazing sunsets. I imagined myself teaching yoga in Nicaragua and within one day my inbox had two teaching offerings. One in Granada, the other in SJdS. I chose to stay in San Juan to share my practice at Casa Oro after hearing of the wonderful things the owners visualise this place to be. I’ve been here for many weeks and we’ve been able to fill the yoga classes at Casa Oro with travellers and people from the community. Casa Oro offers classes every day: at 8 a.m. on the first floor and 5 p.m. on the Malecón by the beach, watching the sunset throughout class.

Classes are designed for everyone, no matter where they are in their practice. Our goal is to include the local community. Slowly but gradually this is being accomplished. Casa Oro’s practice of Karma Yoga, selfless actions, of providing free yoga to everyone in the community shows how committed the Circulo Initiative is to giving back to the entire community in SJdS.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to be a part of something so beautiful!”

PEOPLE OF SAN JUAN: CEIDY GRANADOS

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As an ongoing effort to celebrate the many people that make San Juan del Sur such a vibrant and thriving community, we sat down with our in-house Spanish teacher, Ceidy Granados, to discover more about her life, work and inspiration.

 

CEIDY GIVING THE GIFT OF LANGUAGE AT CASA ORO.

“My name is Ceidy Granados. I’m a Spanish teacher in San Juan del Sur. I’ve lived here my whole life. I love the Nicaraguan beaches, the mountains and the tranquility. My favorite activity here in my hometown is the canopy tour. And my favorite spot in the country is the Corn Islands.

I choose to be a Spanish teacher, because I like to teach and meet people to learn about their cultures. Also: I needed a job. I think it’s difficult for a person who comes from another country to communicate without knowing the language, so I’m happy I can help them learn Spanish. I’ve been teaching in SJdS for 13 years with students of all ages, including children. I don’t only teach in a school, I give private lessons, too.

Three of my current students stay at Casa Oro. And I come to the hostel for their  lessons throughout the week.  I like teaching private classes, because I get to leave school routine. We can go to the park and walk around the city. Some advice I give my students is to make friends with locals to improve their learning. I’d describe my teaching as dynamic and patient. The class is structured around every students level.

I want to teach for the rest of my life, because I love what I do. My dream was to study International Relations, but because of the economic situation I will not be able to go to college. I realized I was able to interact with people from all over the world without having studied International Relations by becoming a teacher.

My mom has inspired me most in my life, because even though my dad left us when I was a small child, she was always able to provide for us, despite the difficult times. I’m passionate about being with my family – and visiting church. My greatest strength is my love for others. My biggest weakness is sentimentality.

I wish to have a business of my own in the future. With the help of God…”

Ceidy offers both private and group Spanish instruction for students of all levels in the comfort of Casa Oro Eco Hostel, Casa Andalucia and Nuestra Casa Boutique Bed & Breakfasts. For more information regarding classes and scheduling, please contact the Casa Oro front desk. 

MY STORY, YOUR STORY, OUR STORY

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We all have stories that we like sharing with other people. We are made of stories. And when we compare our tales with other travellers, we realise that we are not that different from one another. We are all connected in a way. Of all places, hostels offer the possibility of becoming storytelling centres.


Yamini Benites and Subali (Camila), Brasil.

“We have just finished a course in a therapy called Bioe_dsc8989nergetics. As soon as we were done with our studies, we decided to go travelling . . . Nicaragua had been a dreamt destination for many years. Curiously, our first workshop in meditation has been in Casa Oro.
We have connected here our passion for meditation and for Nicaragua. In the following days, we have invitations to share our knowledge in many
different parts of the country.”

 

Dane Wobbema, United States._dsc8889

 

“I broke up with my girlfriend in May, quit my job in June. In the process of starting a business I decided I needed a reset: to learn to surf and to get out of my comfort zone in the States, to move from the mountains to the sea.”

“I walked around the whole town of San Juan del Sur and, for some reason I was drawn to Casa Oro.”

 

 

 

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Federico, Nicaragua.

“I don’t have a story, only memories.”

Surfing the nica waves for over 15 years.

 

 

Juan Carlos, Argentina.

“My story? How can I start?

I used to live in Calafate, Patagonia. I used to work in a bank.

Last year I travelled to Cuba _dsc8931and this trip left me unquiet. I understood that if I continued with the life that I had I was meant to enjoy only 15 or 20 days of holidays per year. There was a click in my head. It made me untie myself from all the bonds that were keeping me in that position.

It was a progressive change. In the whole past year, the idea of searching a new way of life grew in my mind. Being part of the system allows you less and less freedom.”

 

Alexandra, United States with a Cuban origin

When I turned 25 last January, I decided it was time for a change. I did not want to keep living the life that I was leading. It was not a bad life, in fact, most people would have been very comfortable in it, but it was too simple for me. I felt _dsc1234that something bigger was missing, as if I were running in circles, doing the same things everyday, with the same people, rushing everywhere.

Talking about travelling and seeing the world was one thing, putting those dreams into action, quite another. Yet I didn’t want to become that woman that I was. Words were not enough for me, so I had to move. The knowledge of a necessary inner healing, together with the urge to start anew and assess myself spiritually, took me to The Sanctuary at Two Rivers, Costa Rica, where I live and work now. I’m a resident yogi, and a plant based culinary intern.

Finding this place so easily and at the right time symbolises for me that it was meant to happen. You can feel it inside. In a couple of months I sold my car, I left my appartment, said goodbye to my friends and family, and shaved my hair to arrive fresh and start anew in the jungle.

In these five months in the jungle, I have experienced that when you grant yourself the gift of time, you can heal, you can get to know yourself, as you have nowhere else to run. You are alone with your thoughts. There is no price for me to that experience because it is magic what happens, it’s the only word I can find to describe it.

 

Sebastian, Uruguay.

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“I was travelling from San Juan to Rivas, destination Ometepe. I was listening to an Argentinian band, La Renga, on my loudspeaker, because I had no headphones. That made a guy from Argentina talk to me. We got involved in a random conversation and he ended up convincing me to apply for a volunteering position in Casa Oro as bar attendant. That was Ezequiel, who was changing his position at the bar to start working at Rancho Regeneracion project.”

 

Ezequiel, Argentina_dsc9119

“I was robbed in Granada. All my money was gone. Some people at the hostel there told me that I could easily find a job was in San Juan del Sur, so I hitchhiked to San Juan.

As soon as I arrived, I started asking everywhere for a position as a volunteer. I was offered to work at the bar in Casa Oro. But I needed to make money, too. It was low season, so the best I could find was a restaurant that gave me a meal in exchange of bringing them customers at the shout of “almuerzos, almuerzos.”

It was a fun period, working at the restaurant during the day, and at the bar at night time. But I changed my volunteering position, moving to the permaculture project. I am an environmental engineer, so I wanted to know better the work that it is done there. I was eager to learn about the compost and all the processes that were taking place at “la finca”, as we call it. At the same time, I felt I could help with my experience and knowledge in the field. I do not bring customers to the Asador Areliz anymore, but I sell sweet cakes all around San Juan after I finish work at Rancho Regeneracion”

 

Pilar, Spain

Myself, the person who is writing about everyone else.

“My life is a continuous_dsc8856 contradiction, an everlasting dichotomy. I always want to stay in a place, but at the same time, move somewhere else.

I have spent the last month and a half volunteering at Casa Oro, being part of the different projects that they are carrying out. On the one side, I want to continue working in San Juan del Sur, seeing the seeds develop into something bigger. On the other side, I want to continue travelling, exploring, moving. As said, a neverending contradiction, an ongoing tune in my head: should I stay or should I go?”