Volunteer with the birds and bees – organic gardening in Nicaragua

La Mariposa has possibly the most varied range of volunteer projects anywhere in Central America! Children’s reading projects, working with disabled children, including helping with hydro and equino therapy (using our rescued horses!), helping out in a women’s cooperative bakery……just some of the options available – our website tells you more.

We offer a volunteer package –

  • Mornings volunteering at a supported placement and working alongside workers from the local community, this also gives opportunities for practicing Spanish
  • Afternoons in Spanish classes – our Spanish school is one of the top rated in Central America, the classes are one on one
  • Living in the house of  a local family.
  • You get to eat your produce at lunch in La Mariposa with the other Spanish students.
  • The cost of the whole package is $280

One of our most popular placements has always been on our organic veggie farm. Paulette, the founder of La Mariposa, also lives here with her daughter and a few rescued dogs, in a small straw built house.


Over the 6 years it has been operating, we have developed the farm on sound permaculture principles and we are always looking to improve. Though very small, half an acre or so, you will find we grow an impressive array of vegetable and native fruit trees which are consumed mostly by La Mariposa guests. We have taken the Principles of Permaculture to heart – you can see how we value diversity and the marginal – this applies to our relationships with people as well as to the land. We believe in looking for small, appropriate solutions and don’t have to feel we have to move faster and faster in order to find immediate answers. Change is often difficult, especially when it involves destruction or death (of a person, a dog, a tree) but has to be integrated into the way things are. This does not, of course, mean that we do not take a stand when the causes of change are exploitation and greed.

On a practical level we are undertaking the following…

  1. Water conservation is of course critical. The local municipality supplies us with water twice a week and we store this in the “pila”, a large tank which holds water both for watering the vegetables and for Paulette’s house. We water by hand in order not to waste any – this also helps us maximize local employment. We also use a number of ways to conserve humidity in the ground. For example, we spread straw around the vegetables and split the trunks of banana trees, which contain a lot of water, putting them on the ground to maintain moisture. Grey water from the household is reused on flowering plants. Building with straw also uses  very little water, as opposed to concrete dwellings.IMG_0073
  2. Although the original house has an indoor flushing toilet, we have built a latrine from bamboo which we ask everyone to use. It uses no water at all and is perfectly sanitary. In the wet season we collect rain water using a very simple system of gutters and pipes. IMG_0062
  3. Constant use of organic material to fertilize and enrich the soil is essential. We use a mixture of rice husks, soil from our worm project (the worms consume manure bought from local families who are still using oxen as a means of making a living), as well as compost from garden waste (leaves etc) and kitchen waste from the house. We also practice a rotation system and plant nitrogen fixing plants such as the marengo tree and plenty of beans! IMG_0066
  4. We have learnt to respond to local conditions – for example for a long time we tried very hard to grow root vegetables such as carrots and beets. But they do not work well in our conditions so we now concentrate on what does well…lettuce, eggplant, okra, tomatoes, spinach, kale, beans…..IMG_0060
  5. We have planted a number of trees on the land. Some are fruit trees (papaya, mandarin, orange, avocado, coconut) and offer food for both humans and birds. Dogs too enjoy a slice of avocado! Others provide shade for the house and resting areas thus eliminating the need for fans in hot weather. And some are specifically for the benefit of birds, both for food and to provide living and nesting space.IMG_0079
  6. We are proud to share this precious piece of land, not only with humans, dogs and cats but with as much wildlife as is possible in a place so close to the town center. We do not allow toxic fumigations to take place, preferring to control the mosquito population through natural means such as spreading lime on the ground. We also try and ensure the survival of natural predators such as spiders, frogs, lizards and bats. We do this by ensuring their food supply and also, where necessary, providing housing for them. When we have a fallen orange tree, which happens from time to time, we leave it on the ground to provide food and cover for lizards etc. Not only does all of this help the veggie production, it also ensure a relaxing and peaceful place in which to work, live and just be!IMG_0068
  7. Over the years we have placed special emphasis on encouraging butterflies and birdlife. The latter has been so successful that it merits a separate post! For the moment, note that the bananas hanging in the aceituna and capulin trees (native trees which provide food for wildlife, including our pair of variegated squirrels) are there, along with seeds and water, to encourage birds. We are proud to say that we now have a large group of red legged honeycreepers who spend a good part of the year with us as well as 25 or so other species.

    The stunning aracari, known here as felices (happy birds!)

    The stunning aracari, known here as felices (happy birds!)

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN VOLUNTEERING WITH US – read the website thoroughly, it will give you a good idea of how we work and your options. Write to us at lamariposaspanishschool06@gmail.com. We will send you a simple form to fill in, telling us your preferences.

Please note – your money also towards maintaining our employment project as well as all of the other environmental and community projects we support.



Ross’ report on the Mariposa organic farm

Organic Farming in Nicaragua

Hello! This is Ross and I am writing this post from Nicaragua, where I am spending a year abroad! My study abroad opportunity is through IE3 Global Internships, UW Study Abroad, and is made possible in part by the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, the GO! Scholarship and the IE3-OUS Chancellor Scholarship. I really encourage any student remotely interested in studying abroad to look into these amazing resources and opportunities!

Before my internship beings in Nicaragua, I need to learn spanish. So I have been placed in a homestay  near a Spanish immersion school and hotel called, La Mariposa. The school is in an area known as La Concha, about an hour bus ride south of Managua, the capitol city.

The school serves food to students and hotel guests that is grown on its two organic farms (about a twenty minute walk from the school).

fresh food from the farm (except the rice and beans…however, they were grown in La Concha)

I work on one of the farms for about three hours in the morning, partly to subsidize my tuition for the school, but mainly to learn the names of the vegetables and some organic farming practices in Nicaragua. The farms are managed by Noel, a community member who comes from a long line of farmers.

Noel, farm manager

The methods he employs are based on experimentation and indigenous methods of cultivating food, many of which were lost when the Spanish arrived. However, he learned to farm from his family, who kept many of their traditional methods alive. These include building raised beds to keep moisture available to plants for longer, and growing crops that have been selected to survive in this climate, e.g. beans, corn, tomatoes, squash, yucca, etc.

Although many small farmers here cannot afford to use chemicals, Noel says a majority of farms in Nicaragua do use chemicals. He says that farmers and community members are slowly staring to realize the health and environmental benefits to growing and purchasing food grown organically. He says the farm at La Mariposa has helped families nearby learn about organic gardening; many people walk through the farm and ask questions about what they’re growing and what techniques they’re using. La Mariposa hoping to expand its impact on the community by holding educational meetings for families nearby.

I would like to share some farming practices used here that are different than those used at the UW Student Farm.

raised beds, rain nets and plantain leaves

During the rainy season (May through October), intense rainstorms can occur regularly. These rains are very fierce and farming practices during this time need to address potential damage from these frequent rainstorms.

these san diego flowers, which were planted to attract local pollinators, have been trampled by intense rain

soil is mounded around small trees and shrubs to protect them from heavy rainfall

nets are placed over crops to disperse energy from heavy rain

On top of making sure all the crops are protected, another huge issue related to heavy rainfall is soil compaction. Even on raised beds completely covered in crops, the soil is extremely compacted after a heavy rainfall.  Raised beds are chopped up and reformed after every harvest, however, even highly compacted soil from the walkways are incorporated into the new beds.

Noel levels a newly formed raised bed

The soil is then chopped up with a rake, then leveled and smoothed. The result is a fluffy bed ready for seedlings.

planting in new bed

plantain leaves are placed over newly sewn seeds for three to four days to protect from heavy rains

protected seeds

The leaves are then removed and composted.

compost piles are built around the base of larger trees

After the young plants have popped up, they are transplanted into bare beds.

the beds behind these plants have been left bare. the young sprouts will be transplanted into these beds

This may not be the best practice as some growing beds are left bare, exposing them to soil compaction and erosion. Additionally, it may not always be the best use of space to use growing beds as a nursery…

Even though we receive large amounts of water through precipitation, this usually occurs in roughly 1-3 hour bursts (during one storm, the rain was so intense I could barely see the house across the street…). Normally in October, rainstorms are too frequent to warrant watering, however, this rainy season has seen significantly fewer rainy days and stronger sun than usual. Therefore, we have been watering twice a day using water stored from previous heavy storms.

water is collected from this rooftop and channeled into this large tank

water from the tank is pumped into barrels around the farm where we draw water from for watering

I asked Noel what the biggest challenge is for small farmers here in La Concha. He said strong rains during the rainy season, and drought during the dry season can be difficult to manage. However, low wages and an inability to pay back bank loans can be an even greater challenge. Noel says the best thing for small farmers is to start small, growing crops that can receive the highest value on the market, and expanding from there. As for the climate challenges, Noel recommends growing traditional crops that are suited for this environment, and practicing traditional growing methods combined with modern techniques (e.g. using rain nets).

By far my favorite part of working on the farm is sucking the juice out of the maturing oranges we pick from the trees. They’re not ready for eating, but they’re full of refreshing, delicious juice!

nature’s juicebox

This is just one of many farms I will be learning about during my year abroad in Nicaragua. I know there will be tons of variations in how farmers are dealing with the vast array of climates, microclimates and social pressures present in Nicaragua. I will keep you posted as I continue my journey!

Meredith’s life as a Mariposa volunteer!

On Monday and Wednesday mornings I trek up the dirt hill from the Mariposa to the finca.  I turn left at the road with red flowers and Fanny’s Pulperia, then right at the 4-way stop in the pueblo 19 de Julio (which is like naming a town The Fourth of July).  Then I turn left at the white gate to arrive at the farm!   Most mornings we water all of the plants, and then I weed carrots and lettuce with Carlos.  We also clip the basil flowers so the plants will produce more leaves, and take off the diseased spinach leaves to save the good ones.  Noel prepares new rows for beets and more carrots, and we all get very dirty.  It’s incredibly satisfying to be planting and maintaining the vegetables I’ll be eating for lunch!  After I leave, they dry seeds and harvest the ripe fruits.  The cucumbers will be ready soon, and of course, more eggplant, which we’re overrun with at the moment!

Then today (Sunday) we drove a truckload of veggies to the Granada Finca Market.  A bunch of interesting sellers gather once a month in a fancy hotel’s courtyard.  We’re the only true farm, but there’s some really fun stuff (like guava-cheesecake-ice-cream).  We sold most of the spinach and carrots, all the okra and pineapples, and a lot of dragonfruit.  We managed to sell a half-crate of eggplant, and gave away even more to anyone who would take it.  Then at 12, when everyone’s packing up, the whole stand goes half-price.  Apparently, both weeks, a certain Hawaiian-Shirt-Guy has swooped in at that moment to buy his produce  🙂   Paulette and Guillermina went off to get Guillermina’s birthday present, and Alice and I bought ourselves some presents.  All in all we did pretty well- we made 2000 cordobas!  And got lots of good veggies out to people, which was the main goal.  So if you’re in Grenada on a second Sunday, stop by!







The above photo is of the finca and below you can see how wonderful the veggies and fruit are that we sell at the Granada Farmer’s market. Some of it is grown on our own (small) finca and some, especially the fruit comes from the community garden project that we support (financially and with seed donations) in the barrio of Santiago.







And just to show that the mariposa volunteers don’t work all the time, Meredith ziplining and at the top of the Mombacho volcano!!!







Santiago CSA Project

Written by Laura, La Mariposa Intern

This project began with two objectives for the families in Santiago: 1. Improve the nutritional health and diet of the participants and 2. Increase the income of the participants. The concept of improving the nutritional health of the families in Santiago is pretty straightforward with bourgeoning veggie-gardens, but increasing the income of the growers is where the CSA scheme comes in.

ImageWhen I first arrived as an intern in November, there were dozens of overgrown gardens protected by living fences throughout Santiago, installed by a previous intern, Claire.  Without the seeds and assistance that La Mariposa was previously giving, a lot of the gardens fell into disrepair. I was very early on introduced to Marta, one of the beneficiaries of the project in the past and someone who had shown a lot of enthusiasm and leadership within the community. Without all of the help and guidance from Marta, this project would look nothing like it does now, if it would exist at all. Marta and I, with the help of volunteers, visited nearly all of the families involved in the project and helped clear their land that had become overgrown by weeds from disuse over the last few months. During these first few weeks clearing land, I learned just how tough Marta is: if you need to spend hours in the sun with broken shovels, Marta is someone you want by your side. She gave the esteemed title of “force of the bear” to any volunteer that could work even half as hard as her. I was given the title of “force of the little chicken”—not nearly as prestigious, but I’ll take it!

ImageIn a matter of weeks, we had prepped several huertos for planting. We’ve used the raised bed method for many of the huertos and have seen fantastic results. Here’s a small excerpt about the beauty of raised beds from Lazy-Bed Gardening (a book lent to me from our drop-off in Managua): “Imagine yourself as a plant and think about where you would like to live. You cannot walk around and look for food and shelter—they have to be within each reach of your roots…Because the soil is loosened so deeply, the plant roots are able to penetrate deep into the soil, instead of needing to spread out in search of water and nutrients.” This method has been especially helpful with a lot of our root-veggies, like carrots and beets. ImageAlthough the La Concha area is famous for it’s citrus fruits, and root crops are generally averse to acidic soils, we’ve had a lot root crops grow well in the huertos. Franklin, the manager of this project, has helped the huertos along with a lot of the technical knowledge he has gained from studying Organic Agriculture at university. He has been helpful in explaining how to plant and manage different types of veggies that some of these families have never grown before. Huerto owners such as Angel and Jorge have never grown any other type of vegetable other than tomatoes! That hasn’t dampened anyone’s spirits however. Jorge for example has an abundance of lettuce, carrots, green beans, eggplant—even kale!

ImageAll of the seeds that we have used are completely donation based and come from the generosity of guests and volunteers that come through La Mariposa. We have been able to sustain our current levels for planting thanks to the continued kindness from guests who always seem to know just when we are about to be completely depleted. Also, help has come from the La Mariposa organic farm as well: we’ve used a lot of seeds that we took from very successful bean plants growing at the farm and they’re coming along wonderfully in the huertos. I’m currently working on contacting suppliers in the U.S. that can hopefully add us to their roster of donation recipients. If we can depend on a consistent flow of seeds, this project can grow to its full potential.

ImageImageIn every aspect of this project it’s important to remember that every family is different, and every plot of land is different, and every watering situation is different. Water is the most interesting aspect of this project to me, and it’s remarkable to see how the huertos grow in relation to the available water supply. Some huertos have connections to the municipal supply but that doesn’t matter when the water runs out; most do not depend on the municipal supply and are dependent on a delivery system that comes twice week.  Marta, for example, does not have an irrigation set-up like Annielka or Angel. Luckily however, Marta’s source of water is reasonably close to her land, unlike Jorge’s and Arlinda’s huerto—where their water is at the bottom of a steep hill and huerto at the top of the hill. Yscenia has a small huerto and collects her water in a kiddie pool near her huerto whereas Jacqueline’s huerto is watered by her daughter.   These systems, as varied and complex as they already are, are going to get extremely complicated now that the dry season will fully take hold and water will become even scarcer. The weather is already so hot that carrying the heavy buckets of water to and from the huerto can only be managed very early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Most of the families water twice a day: once at 5am and once around 4pm.


The product of all of our hard work takes the form of our bright, veggie filled, yellow bags that are delivered to Managua every Thursday. Patrick Troy, the drop-off in Managua, has volunteered his time in helping to arrange and deliver the produce to ex-pats living in the city. Bags are $15 and all of the proceeds are sent directly back to the families growing the produce in Santiago. As of today, we have just completed the 11th bag! This week we had: oranges, mandarins, platatnos, coconuts, carrots, arugula, ginger, eggplant, okra, and spinach. Since beginning the CSA in January, we have also delivered: Imageavocados, beets, radishes, mustard greens, chard, quequisque, pineapple, cucumbers, kale, peppers, a variety of salad greens, spoon-leaf cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes, pumpkin, pipina, green beans, honey, eggs, and bread.  I am at a loss to explain how rewarding it is to write all of those veggies down and to know that we’ve delivered every single one. Not bad, huh?



If there is only one thing to say about the success of this project, it is because the families in Santiago are patient, amazingly good-humored, and extremely hardworking. Starting a CSA project in Nicaragua is not easy; there are a lot of different variables within one single huerto (insects and pests, chickens eating the crops, sunlight, soil, water!), and when we take that and multiply it by 7, it can seem daunting (LOTS of insects, pests, and chickens!) But going in to our 3rd month of this project doesn’t feel strange at all. It feels like we are exactly where we need to be: still learning, growing, and working together!