Esteli was one of the bigger cities we had seen in a while, with a working class vibe that was reminiscent of Santa Ana in Honduras but in a more organised, colourful, touristy way. The centre square was closed off (renovations?) but the large cathedral still had its doors open. There were plenty of cafes and restaurants around, serving a multitude of cuisines. There was even a cheese and dairy shop, where we stopped for banana yoghurt that tasted like cake batter (it was delicious - I'm a huge cake batter fan). Supermarkets were neatly arranged and held international ingredients, which had us scouring the aisles for much longer than anticipated. We settled on a Western-style restaurant for dinner, enjoying a dahl (me) and club sandwich (Danny) as a change from rice and beans.
The night we arrived we were looking around at brochures as to what to do in the area, as well as talking to other tourists. It didn't take long to convince us that a homestay with a rural farming family would be a fantastic idea. We had never done anything like this before but we thought it would be a great way to learn more about the Nicaraguan culture.
Up bright and early the next morning, we caught a bus out to Miraflor Nature Reserve, standing up in the crowded vehicle most of the way. We jumped off in Terero, where we met our guide, Nelson. From there it was another 75 minute bus ride through the park before a 90 minute trek to the village of Sontule, the largest in Miraflor. The community held about 100 households, all spaced far apart due to their large block of land for farming. The whole area was green and lush, and a low mist hung in the air.
Hiking to our homestay.
We stayed with the Perez family, who all only spoke Spanish except for their 20-something year old son, Uriel, who learned English while he was working as a tour guide. The family lived in a small, simple wooden house, where we had our own room with bunk beds and blankets that I was sure we wouldn't need (I was wrong). The bathroom and kitchen were in separate buildings. Electricity only served to turn on a couple of lights, and this was for a few hours each day. Drinking water was bought in town, as the minor amount of pumped water that was available (a recent luxury) was saved for the vegetables. Everything in the kitchen was cooked over a small wooden fire and there was no refrigeration. Despite the simplicity we were given a fantastic spread for breakfast on arrival, including rice and beans (of course), tortillas, chayote (a local fruit) and moreish plantain chips, all prepared and cooked that morning.
The Perez family home.
To walk off this feast we were taken on a hike by Nelson in the surrounding countryside, up and down numerous hills and through several coffee plantations (the largest industry in the park). Nelson taught us much about the history and process of making coffee, showing us the traditional, manual equipment that was still in use today. Uriel's father was the president of a cooperative of about 60 local families, selling mostly coffee and a few vegetables at the market. We were also shown evidence of the darker side of Nicaragua's history, with destroyed buildings and bullet holes a reminder of the 1980s revolution. Half of the coffee processing plant was blown up, halting coffee production (and therefore income) at the time.
We arrived back at the house in time for lunch, which was identical to breakfast but with the addition of a pasta salad and "soy patties". I wasn't sure what was in them, but they insisted it was vegetarian. It turned out that meat was rarely eaten by the family, due to costs and having no way to store it. All of the food was outstanding. The family had spent all morning cooking this feast, and we felt guilty that we hadn't contributed in any way. After lunch it was time for siesta; neither of us complained about this.
Our room, with a dining table out front.
Once we were fully rested and had digested our massive lunch, we spent a lot of time talking to Uriel, about his life, his family, his plans for exporting coffee to bring money to the community, and politics. It was fascinating, something you couldn't learn from reading a book. We were incredibly lucky he spoke English.
After our lengthy discussions we spent a bit of time watching Uriel's grandmother make cheese, fresh from their cow that was milked that morning. Again, with no method of storing cheese (except covered in salt and hidden in a dark cupboard), this was a food that was prepared daily. We discovered that much of the women's lives were spent in the kitchen, making nutritious meals for the whole family with the few ingredients they had.
Another hike was taken in the afternoon, past cows and horses, up to Nelson's favourite spot. He led us through an almost meditative experience, asking us to sit down and close our eyes while he told us a story about why this place meant so much to him. He guided us (eyes shut) to a particular viewpoint overlooking the neighbouring landscape, before we could open our eyes. We then had to sit in silence for eight minutes. As weird as it felt when the ritual first started, it ended up moving me more than I could describe. It was very beautiful and serene.
Dinner: gallo pinto (rice and beans), plantains, green beans, tortillas, cheese, and chayote sandwich (slices of chayote fruit filled with cheese and onion, topped with a fried egg). We couldn't believe how much food was on offer. It was probably good we were only staying one night, otherwise we would have left double our original size. More conversations took place with Uriel after dinner, about Nicaraguan traditions, experiences and dreams. It was definitely a different life to the one we had back in Australia.
We made the decision to rise early the next morning to help prepare breakfast. Corn had been cooked in water and ash the day before, so this morning it was time to ground it, add water and form a dough. Small handfuls were pushed by hand into tortilla shapes before cooking them on the stove. We also tried to help boil the beans and vegetables, fry the plantains, and brew the Jamaica tea, but it was difficult when we didn't speak the same language. We seemed to be in the way more than anything else. So off we went with the men to milk the free range cows, which I was terrible at and Danny wasn't much better. Cheese would be prepared again that afternoon. Every morning it took the family two hours to prepare breakfast, something unheard of in the Western world. We appreciated and enjoyed the fruits of our labour.
Grinding the corn for tortillas.
Fresh tortillas coming up.
It's milking time.
This single stove was the only way they cooked food.
Unfortunately it was then time for us to leave. We said a huge thank you and goodbye to the whole family before jumping on the bus to head back to Esteli. On reflection, this was the most memorable part of our holiday, and something I hope we can experience again one day.