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Taking a paid, guided horseback ride in the northern mountains of Nicaragua is nothing like a guided horseback ride in the United States. For one, I can’t imagine an American operation thinking it a good idea for an inexperienced six year old to ride and control his own horse for six hours.

But the confidence of Jamie, our Nica guide, assured me. Or at least made it seem allowable. And my six year old was certain it was a grand idea. My eight year old would ride Paloma. Isn’t she pretty?

We headed out in the misty early morning. The foals of Paloma and her sister, Mariposa, desperately wanted to come along.

Our six hours would take us through Miraflor Nature Reserve, a protected area where farmers grows crops and raise cattle sustainably on small plots interspersed throughout the three microclimates of the 200 sq km reserve.

 

Our first stop was the Orchideario.

We were visiting at the end of dry season and the orchids weren’t flowering at the time. But we found leaf cutter ants carrying big pieces of leaves across the path to their home, transparent butterflies, medicinal berries, and this tree that Jamie crawled inside and climbed up and then rappelled back down on the outside using vines. 

Four types of coffee are grown in Miraflor. The small trees were interspersed with tall banana plants.

Then we set out to wander the countryside. At a steep rocky ravine, the horses balked at going down. Jamie insisted it was no problem for them. My six year old’s horse, Mariposa, was the best at leading the group, Jamie said. My six year old would go first. I willed him to hold on tight. 

We came across this dead turquoise blue snake. I can’t say I was disappointed it wasn’t alive, but it is a gorgeous color, isn’t it?

At Miraflor, farmers are trained in sustainable farming. No chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used. At this farm, we dismounted from our horses to walk alongside the new crop of beans

to this river with a lovely waterfall.

I must mention: if you are visiting at the end of dry season, do not strip off your clothes for a dip under the waterfall. Unless you don’t mind an infestation of ticks. Newly hatched and hungry, we were a magnet and they the iron. It was impossible to get them off before we were covered with more. We’d have to attack the ticks later.

Back with the horses, Remy played with a puppy.

Even though the concept of Miraflor is very first world, farmers still have very little. Oxen, not tractors, pull the plows through the fields. There are few vehicles. Some people have horses but we saw most people traveling on foot.

While riding back to the farm where we stayed, Posada La Sonada, Jamie asked if we wanted to let the horses run. The kids thought it a brilliant idea, and before my instinctual motherly concerns could be projected, we were all off and running. Jamie had earlier fashioned a little whip out of a stick for Simon to keep Mariposa moving, since she was the leader, and Simon took to his running horse like a cowboy set loose after a day of being reigned in. His cap caught the wind and blew off as he whipped Mariposa (gently, of course) with one hand and held onto his saddle with the other. I couldn’t help but laugh while I willed my kids to hold on tight.  

Back at Posada La Sonada.

And to our room to strip and search for ticks.

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My idea of the perfect travel experience is to immerse in local culture. But when I enthusiastically proposed to my family a stay at Miraflor, a nature reserve that’s also a farmers’ cooperative in the northern mountains of Nicaragua, they all stared back at me with blank and unconvinced faces.

“A farrmm?” Simon said.

“How about the beach? I really want to relax and it would be cool to teach the kids to bodysurf,” my husband, Brian, proposed.

“I want to go horseback riding,” Remy said.

“I want to zipline,” Simon said, “But I don’t want to go to a farm.”

Hoping to persuade Simon and not realizing what I was getting myself into, I told them what I knew about Miraflor: There were three different micro-climates, one of them a rainforest. Monkeys and sloths lived there, we might even see the elusive quetzal. There were waterfalls and caves and more than 300 varieties of orchids. And we could ride horses. There was even a six hour horseback ride.

“How do you say six hours in Spanish?” Simon asked.

“Seis horas.”

He and Remy looked at each other mischievously and without another word started chanting in unison, “Seis horas!, Seis horas!, Seis horas!”

Brian looked at me sideways. Six hours on the back of a horse? In former Sandinista and Contra Rebel territory? With our kids? This didn’t sound relaxing. 

“But can we still go ziplining?” Simon asked.

“Sure!” I said.

At the last minute, we passed on the four hour bus ride from Managua to Miraflor and instead splurged on a car and driver.  We assumed we’d just traded stress and discomfort for an indulgent ride, but when every word we spoke in our broken Spanish to Raul, the driver, was met with a suspicious stare from the rear view mirror, we worried how we would even find the office to arrange our farm stay in the town of Esteli, 30 miles before Miraflor.

It’s possible we ended up in Esteli only because the Pan American Highway passes right through the town. 

When we found the office closed for the noon hour, we offered to take Raul to lunch, and that’s when Brian won him over, making jokes using his Kitchen Spanish and asking about Raul’s family. After lunch, we were a team. 

At the office, we chose our farm and set off again with a vague hand drawn map. Few vehicles traveled this unpaved road and Raul asked every vaquero on horseback and campesino on foot we passed for directions.

After several wrong turns, there were cheers all around when we finally found our destination, the farm of Dona Corina Picado.

Then it was pointed out these were the bathrooms we’d need to use. I sure hoped the horseback ride would carry the weight of it’s expectations.

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Fishermen throw their nets out on the lake,

And they soon have their catch.

Women wash laundry on concrete tables set up in the water, 

But the beach is not theirs alone.

Cooling off (and often bathing) is done in the lake,

And friendships are easily made with the locals.

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We tried to order a mojito but there was no mint, we were told. We asked if they could make a naranjita, but there was no rum.  A margarita? Nope, no tequila.

“What could you make?” Brian asked.

“We can make a caipirinha,” our waiter said confidently.

It had been a big day. We’d ridden a ferry across one of the largest lakes in all of Central America, Lago Colcibolca, to Ometepe, the island throned with not one, but two volcanos.

We’d wandered the beach

Walked nearby trails

Even found monkeys

And we’d watched the sun set

Dinner was Creole fish and sirloin steaks and pastas, all were fine but unremarkable.

But the caipirinhas? We were fortunate the lodge was out of everything else. The caipirinha became Brian’s cocktail of choice the remainder of the trip. Hailing from Brazil, caipirinhas are made from cachaca, a spirit made from fermented and distilled sugar cane juice, and lime and sugar. If you don’t mind your cocktails strong, you’ll find it especially refreshing in the tropics.

Caipirinha

2 oz. cachaca

4 small key limes

2 tsp. sugar

Cut limes into wedges and place in an old fashioned glass. Sprinkle sugar over wedges and muddle the flavors together. Fill glass with ice and pour in cachaca. Mix well.

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After an amazing stay at Miraflor, we were ready for a shower and a flushing toilet.

It took most of the day to get there, but as soon as we stepped into the courtyard of Casa San Francisco in Granada, we knew we’d be able to relax and renew ourselves.

We met “Baby Bird” and “Chips”,

and cooled off in the pool,

and fell in love with the architecture.

The next morning, this was breakfast:

Can you tell how much Remy loves fruit? The orange juice was fresh squeezed, the coffee was rich, dark Nicaraguan coffee. Casa San Francisco cooks up familar foods, like eggs and toast, and beautiful fruit plates, and french toast, but adds their unique Nicaraguan touch. After finding my bliss in the back country, my family found theirs here. 

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Immersion is my favorite way to experience a new country. And you couldn’t wipe the smile from my face the days we spent at Miraflor Nature Reserve in Nicaragua. Not only were we deep in the heart of Nica countryside, we were also on a coffee farm.

Besides being a protected haven for flora and fauna, Miraflor hosts an agricultural cooperative where campesinos farm plots using organic methods. We stayed with Dona Corina Picado at her farm, La Posada Sonada. 

We explored the coffee fields, learning this is what a coffee berry looks like:

And a coffee flower smells like an orange blossom. 

And that coffee plants grow well under bananas.

We stumbled upon a few farmhands filling American-style backpacks with hand picked berries. Clearly, harvesting was a slow process.  We watched this young man dump the day’s harvest into the machine to wash and sort the berries.

Here’s where the berries dried:

Dona Corina showed us her earthen oven, fueled by a wood fire, where the coffee is roasted. And this is how coffee is ground, outside the modern world:

It was here that I learned a cup of coffee should be drunken slowly, and savored.

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It’s International Women’s Day and I’ve spent the day thinking of these two women.

“Mary” cleaned rooms, served meals, cooked and washed dishes at Petit Byahaut. She was a single mother of four daughters: two teenagers and two young school girls and when she wasn’t sleeping at Petit Byahaut, she lived at her mother’s house with her daughters.

Mary made some of the best soups I’ve ever tasted out of ingredients that I had always thrown away. She was relieved when her mother bought a television so her daughters would go straight home from school and stay inside watching tv. She washed her clothes in a five gallon bucket while I washed mine in a washing machine. She scolded me when I tied the knot of the plastic sugar bag too tight to easily open it—even a loose knot kept out the insects. Sometimes she was resentful. Sometimes she was proud. Sometimes we laughed together.

Dona Corina Picado lives in the northern mountains of Nicaragua and, with the help of just a few assistants, operates her farm and rents out a few guest rooms. She has no plumbing, no vehicle, no refrigeration, no modern stove.

The first time we met, she was returning to the farm from a forest path with a farmhand. She told us she was tired and then went on to discuss what we’d like to have for dinner. After settling on a menu, she asked if she could make French fries for our children.

A faded t-shirt hung on the wall of the dining room with the word, Sandinista, screen printed on it. The bloody war that left land mines in the mountains she called home began in the prime of her life. I longed to know more from her and about her, but my Spanish wasn’t up to par for such an important conversation. 

She reminded me so much of my grandmother: independent, tough, capable, but soft on the inside. She couldn’t resist serving something special only for the children at each meal.

These two women who live so far away from me, with circumstances so different from me, really are me. Who are the women that have made an impact on your life?

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