NANDAIME – “What was your favorite part of the hike?” an enthusiastic José Tinoco asks the sweat-laced group of Spanish tourists.
To help jog their memories of all the sites they have visited over the past two hours, Tinoco holds up a hand-drawn map of Aguas Agrias, the agricultural cooperative he shares with more than 100 other campesinos in a rural community outside of Nandaime.
“The view of the volcano,” said one woman, referring to Mombacho Volcano, whose majestic peak overlooks this agricultural community, an hour’s drive south of downtown Granada.
“Swimming in the river,” answers another.
The crystal-clear ManaresRiver winds through Aguas Agrias on its way to Lake Nicaragua, and provides a welcome relief for residents and tourists from the oppressive mid-morning heat.
The group’s morning hike, led by an enthusiastic local teenager named Melba, also included a climb through rock mines, an entertaining local tale of a pregnant tree, and a walk through the community’s fields of plantains, rice and coffee plants.
Tinoco, the 54-year-old coordinator of his cooperative’s tourism commission, rubs his salt-and-pepper moustache and beams with pride as he listens to the content tourists, a group of visiting nurses on a humanitarian trip to Nicaragua.
For them, the hike through Aguas Agrias and the afternoon visit with the local villagers was a typical morning to their week-long vacation with UCA Tierra y Agua, a network of agricultural cooperatives that offers tours and intercultural exchanges with campesino communities outside of Granada.
Aguas Agrias, along with three other communities that belong to UCA Tierra y Agua, began welcoming foreign and national tourists five years ago. The communities are part of a sustainable-tourism movement here that is growing just as fast as the country’s burgeoning tourism sector as a whole.
“Rural Community Tourism” is the term used by UCA Tierra y Agua to describe these organized programs that put travelers in contact with real-life campesino communities, indigenous families and artisan cooperatives.
The money the tourists spend on their trips, and whatever food, coffee or handicrafts they may purchase from the cooperatives, goes into the hands of the residents and into community investment funds.
According to the first-ever guide to Nicaragua’s rural community tourism, released last September, there are now more than 40 campesino and indigenous organizations like Aguas Agrias that have some sort of activities and accommodations for tourists.
Programs range from celebrating indigenous holidays in the northern mountains of Nueva Segovia, to visiting a mushroom laboratory in Estelí, to riding on horseback up the volcanoes surrounding León, or taking a ceramic workshop from the famous artisans of Masaya.
Nicaragua Libre, an agricultural cooperative of 50 people that belongs to the UCA Tierra y Agua network, is one of the moredeveloped programs, certainly in no small part due to the enthusiasm of the cooperative’s president and tour guide, SantiagoNicaragua.
The youthful campesino grew up on the same land, and is proud to take tourists around in his pick-up truck or on horseback to show off the organic crops his community harvests, as well as share local stories and legends.
Nicaragua says his cooperative decided to get involved in tourism as a way to diversify its income.
“We still continue to harvest our coffee and plantains and other goods,” he says; “but this is something new that we can use to advance the community.”
The cooperative now has a building to accommodate tourists, with guest rooms, separate showers and toilets, a charming patio and a kitchen staffed by residents of the community.
The youngsters of Nicaragua Libre have learned new tourism-related skills, such as hospitality, jewelry-making and public speaking.
Back in Aguas Agrias, Tinoco introduces the community’s dance troupe. Just a halfdozen teenagers strong, the folkloric group wears large smiles and colorful flowing dresses as they present their dance.
Because Aguas Agrias lacks electricity, a car battery supplies power for the group’s stereo.
After several dances, each followed by an explanation of the cultural or historical events it represents, the girls ask their audience if they would like to learn a couple of dance steps. An hour later, six Spanish women are laughing and dripping with sweat as they join in on the traditional dances, following as best they can the footwork, arm twists, and shoulder sashaying of their eager young teachers.
Sitting in the thin shade of the patio, Tinoco observes the boisterous scene with satisfaction.
“We don’t have much,” he says. “But what is important to us is to meet and share with people from different parts of the world.”
How to Plan Your Trip
UCA Tierra y Agua organizes trips to four campesino cooperatives around Granada. Visitors must give at least two-days notice to arrage a trip.
Every trip is custom arranged with the campesino guides to fit the preferences and interests of the tourists, and they can accommodate any size group and any length of stay. All tours are in Spanish.
For more information, go to www.ucatierrayagua.org,or e-mail: email@example.com