Volunteer on the Coffee Farm

Volunteer on the Coffee Farm

P1000871

Welcome to Miraflor Nature Reserve!

The view from the back yard, looking at the cloud forest (c) Michael Hurwitz
The view from the back yard, looking at the cloud forest (c) Michael Hurwitz

In this community, called Sontule, you are welcome to live with a local family and experience the true "Campesino" lifestyle. Growing organic shade-grown coffee is a lot of work. If you are able to help them work on the plantation you will be contributing to an important economic activity in one of the most challenged economies in the Western Hemisphere. You'll be supporting the efforts of organic farming and fair-trade practices and most importantly, you will be helping to foster solidarity by learning about the campesino way of life and exchanging knowledge of the skills that you know. There are  numerous opportunities to volunteer within the community, and you are by no means limited to agricultural activities.

What you'll be Doing on the Farm

The maintenance of a coffee plantation is year-round, although the activities will vary depending on what month you are visiting:

  • February-June: establishing plant nurseries, planting seeds (slower season)
  • June-December: clearing old coffee plants and planting new one
  • December-February: harvest and wet processing *this is an exciting time to visit
  • Year-round: Weeding, pruning, cleaning, cultivating land and planting shade trees
Coffee cherries fresh from harvest (c) William Lishman
Coffee cherries fresh from harvest (c) William Lishman
IMG_5098
Coffee beans emerging from the cherries.
Coffee pulp is turned back into organic fertilizer
Coffee pulp is turned back into organic fertilizer

Other Volunteering Activities

The Sontule School
The Sontule School

In the community of Sontule, there is a primary school and two preschools. There is also a small computer classroom in the community centre where students can learn how to type and use word processing, excel etc. before they go to university in the city of Estelí. Volunteers would be welcome to contribute to any of these educational institutions during their visit, and they are also welcome to form their own. Volunteers in the past have given adult English classes in the community centre, taught guitar lessons and there has also been some interest in yoga or exercise classes. Any crafts or any skills that you might have would be a welcome contribution to community life in Sontule.

What You Should Know About Living Conditions

The family home. (c) William Lishman
The family home. (c) William Lishman

The family you will stay with are not on the electrical grid. Some electricity is provided by a solar panel (enough for a stereo and a few halogen lights). Water is now available from a faucet once every few days or is otherwise brought from a well ~ 1 km away. The family lives on very little monetary income, but they live well and certainly no less than any other family in the area. There are beds for visitors (up to 6 people) and plenty of blankets. Sometimes an extra sleeping mat will make sleeping more comfortable if the mattress is a little thin. If you prefer to camp in a tent in the yard, this is also fine.

The letrine.
The letrine.

Visiting volunteers are not asked to pay for the accommodations, but to help with the cost of food - $3.00 US per meal.

Marta and the other members of the family are aware of the health and safety hazards on the farm - volunteers are advised to use the expertise of the family if they are feeling unwell or are unsure about something. Marta knows how to purify water for consumption by visitors, and she will make it clear where your water can be found.

Traditional Nicaraguan food served at dinner time. (c) William Lishman
Traditional Nicaraguan food served at dinner time. (c) William Lishman

The food is delicious traditional Nicaraguan fare, but some find it monotonous after several weeks. You can expect to eat 3 hearty meals of rice, beans, tortillas and eggs every day. If you would like something different in your diet you are advised to purchase it in the local city of Estelí beforehand (i.e. oatmeal for breakfasts, pasta, bread etc).

Because there is no running water at the house, there is no shower. Bathing can be done at the well or in a little wooden shower stall with a bucket of water. A favourite of past volunteers has been to bathe at the well with a bucket under the canopy of a cloud forest!

The toilet is a simple outhouse, several meters from the house. We recommend you bring your own package of toilet paper and take the roll of toilet paper back and forth with you from the house to the toilet or it may get wet in the outhouse.

Before you come to the farm, you should ask yourself:
- Do I like camping?
- Can I handle bathing with cold water?
- Do I like being in a new and unfamiliar culture?
- Do I feel comfortable sharing accommodations with people of a different culture?
- Can I eat just rice and beans for days on end?

If you answer "No" to any or all of those questions you should reconsider coming to the farm because you might find it difficult to be comfortable.

What You Should Bring With You

We recommend that you have:
- rubber boots
- clothing for both hot and cool weather (i.e. long pants, long sleeved shirts, sweaters)
- a sleeping bag
- towel, shampoo, soap, flip-flops
- sunscreen, hat

It also helps to have:
- bug spray (at leat 50% deet)
- your own pillow
- water purification tablets
- preferred foods
- working gloves

How to Get to the Farm

We are located in the North of Nicaragua. Approximately 1-1.5 hours by bus from Esteli. The bus that goes to the community of Sontule is called the "Camino Real" (see right) and departs from the "Cotran Norte" bus station on:
Mon, Tues, Thurs, and Fri at 13:40.
Saturday at 15:30.

El Camino Real - the bus to the farm.
El Camino Real - the bus to the farm.

Once on the bus just ask the driver to drop you at the "Finca de Adolfo y Martha."

The trip will cost you C$25 each in the dry season, and C$30 in the rainy season (from May to November). This is roughly $1-$1.50 US. A different road is used in the rainy season and will take ~2-3 hours.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What kind of work do farm volunteers do?
A. This depends entirely on the kind of work you would like to be involved in. There is always work to be done in the coffee plantation, but if you find that just 2 or 3 days a week doing this is enough, there are many other activities to engage in. Daily domestic activities are interesting to engage in (making tortillas from scratch, caring for the livestock etc.). In the morning, after bathing, we ask that you bring back some water from the well to use in the house. The family also has a vegetable garden that always needs some love and tending, one day a week dedicated to this would be a wonderful contribution.

Q. How is daily life on the farm?
A. Every day there are a number of chores that must be done: fetching water from the well, preparing all the food for the day (corn for tortillas, rice, beans and vegetables), tending to the vegetable patch, and foremost, work on the coffee plantation will usually take up about 5-6 hours of a person's day (see above for types of activities according to month). Most of the physical labour is done in the early morning until the early afternoon. By mid-afternoon there is usually a rest time and evening is spent listening to music, talking or dancing.

Beyond these daily activities, however, the day-to-day life will vary considerably throughout the year. Sometimes there is maintenance that needs to be done on the well (cleaning it) or on the house. Sometimes there is fencing that needs to be repaired. Another major aspect of life there is involvement with the community. Each family in Sontule is just one part of the larger community and there are lots of ways to get involved in the community. The family members are all involved in community activities like skill-building workshops and the politics of the cooperatives so every week there is at least one meeting to attend. On Sundays, for example, some of the family members will play baseball. Saturdays are usually spent studying. Volunteers are welcome to tag along or actively engage in any of the activities the family participates in, and should feel

Q. How is community life on the farm and in the village?
A. Sontule is a community of about 400 people (and probably 2000 chickens!), in ~5 extended families broken into ~40 nuclear families and their households. There is no area in Sontule where all the houses are close together, so it doesn't exactly resemble a village. Rather, the households are spread across the mountainside and are connected by walking paths and one gravel road. Life in Sontule is very laid-back and very cohesive. Solidarity is a moral pillar to the citizens of Sontule and when a neighbour or a friend is in need, there is no lack of support from the rest of the community. This community spirit is one that visitors often remark on; from the moment you are invited to share a coffee and a conversation with someone in Sontule, you know you are welcome to join the community spirit. There a numerous ways that community members come together: through cooperative organizations (there are 3 in total), sports (mostly baseball, some soccer), religious activities, birthday parties or just hanging out on the road.

Q. How long can/should I stay? Do you ask for a minimum stay on your farm?
A. You are welcome to stay for as long or as short as you want. Some volunteers have stayed only 5 days and others have stayed for 3 months. Some come to the farm with plans to stay for just a few days and love it so much they cancel the rest of their travels in order to stay on the farm. We ask for no minimum stay, we are very flexible.

Q. How many hours of work per day do you require?
A. Again, this is up to you. Most volunteers have worked the 5-6 hours on the plantation and helped a little with the domestic chores by bringing some water back from the well after bathing. Your help is greatly appreciated, but we don't demand a certain number of hours from you. You will be in a new setting with new food and sometimes you will need to rest instead of work.

Q. How do I do laundry there?
A. Typically you would do your own laundry by hand on the washing rocks near the well, before or after bathing. You can also ask Francys or Marta to do it for you for a few extra dollars. When you visit the city of Estelí you can also take it to a laundromat.

Q. Are there any means of communication?
A. In order to call home you can borrow a cell phone from the family, put credit on it and climb to the top of a hill where there is cell reception. There is no internet at the house, you will need to visit Estelí to use the internet.

Testimonials from Previous Volunteers

Carlie who visited in 2013:
"I had such a great time. Sontule is such a special place."

Cliff who visited in 2013:
"My experience on the farm was great! At times I could get a little bored, but I had some books and of course I could always talk with people too. The farm work was fun and the variety of different work I did was interesting."

Andrew who visited the finca from the United States wrote:
"I found myself at the finca after two months of traveling around Honduras and Nicaragua. After previously staying on another WWOOF'ing farm in Honduras, I didn't know what to expect. My spanish was mediocre, and I was exhausted already. Immediately after sitting on the "Camino Real" bus from Esteli to Sontule, I knew something was different about this place. Everyone seemed to know each other. Everyone was laughing, having a conversation, and really enjoying themselves. Arriving at the finca, I felt immediately at home. The family was incredibly hospitable, helping me with my things and feeding me the largest plate of food I could have imagined. Luckily, I settled in nicely, really trying my hardest to become a member of the family, and pay attention to what was going on around me. My first job at the finca was filling starter bags with dirt to plant around 4,000 new coffee trees. We worked in the forest, with the birds swooping right over our heads and the sun shining... it was truly incredible.

I believe that I was the first WOOF'er to stay with the family, and it was a great experience. I had plans to travel more, but I ended up staying with the family for the remainder of my time in Central America. The community, the people, and the forest were all beautiful, inviting and accepting of me, my culture and my language abilities. In my 7 weeks there, I made great friends and learned more than I ever thought I would. "