Weekly Edition: Vol. VIII, No. 73 - San José, Costa Rica, July 4 - July 10, 2003

COLLECTIVE member Francisco welcomes guests to
Finca Magdalena.
Tico Times/Gaëlle Sévenier

Island Farm Encourages Collective Backpacking
By Gaëlle Sévenier
Special to The Tico Times

Finca Magdalena, a cooperative of 27 associates, has managed, after years of struggle, to become one of Central America's favorite backpackers' places.

Also known as the Carlos Díaz Cajina Cooperative, it's in the foothills of the Madera volcano on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua.

In the Nahuatl language of the indigenous Chorotegans, Ome means two, and Tepetl means hills. This "place of two hills" consists of two volcanoes: Concepción (1610 m) and Madera (1394 m.) linked by a narrow isthmus.

A 20-minute walk from the village of Balgüe leads backpackers to the beautiful farm. At sunset, guests on the patio can admire the stunning views of Concepción across the lake. The Finca offers horse back riding, guided tours to the petroglyphs ($4), waterfalls ($5/group), coffee plantation tours, and expeditions up Madera ($15 per group), which is a seven-hour hike through the rain forest on a muddy trail leading to a beautiful lagoon.

Constructed in 1888, the finca was confiscated from its owners four years after the 1979 Sandinista revolution, to be redistributed to the people who had been working on the land for generations. Those people formed a cooperative, a system by which the land of the farm is held, administered and regulated by the workers.

José Luis González, today one of the associates of the farm, was present in 1983 when the Sandinistas passed an agrarian law saying the owners who were not working on their land had to cede the property over to their workers or repay large debts to the national bank.

"I had never heard of a cooperative before," he remembers. "The day they came, I didn't want to be a member, because I was thinking of my 'patrones' and wanted to keep working for them. It was all because of a lack of knowledge."

Before the agrarian reform, the land workers were paid 50 cents per day, and were peons in a system with no rights or voice.

Today, the finca is a cooperative of 27 associates, with about 250 people, that sells coffee in the United States, Canada and Europe. It elects a president every two years, with a four-year maximum. The associates earn the same as workers, with variations according to the number of dependents per family. Today the members still consider themselves Sandinistas, but have no problems working with other political groups in order to advance the island's community.

"We still feel a lot for our party," explains co-op president José Santo. "However, we shouldn't look at politics but at the necessities that exist in our community, with the desire to get better. We don't have any problem with other political ideas."

On the island, most of the other cooperatives failed when they couldn't pay their debts.

"It is a source of pride for many people that our cooperative succeeded," says José Luis. "During the war, many people died to free the land, so we owe them to stay united in our cooperative, and to survive."

"Working together, we have more strength, and we are very lucky to have many friends," says Santo.

One of these friends is David Mitchell, a computer network administrator from Bainbridge Island, Washington, who first came to Ometepe in 1988 with the Bainbridge-Ometepe Sister Island Association (BOSIA), which has been helping the island since 1986.

When he and his wife fell in love with the island and the Nicaraguan people, he realized that the Magdalena cooperative was struggling financially because of its mortgage, and was in danger of losing the titles to its land.

"In 1992, my wife and I had some money and we wanted to help," explains David. "Though we didn't want to make it just a gift. So we asked for the possibility to make membership payments."

Since that date, the Mitchells are the 26th and 27th associates of Magdalena, helping sell coffee in the United States, designing a Web site and coming to visit once or twice a year.

The other associates consider the Mitchells as part of their families:

"David works with us as a volunteer," says Santo. "He does everything for the love of the Ometepe Island."

The idea of turning Finca Magdalena into a backpacker's place came slowly.

A few hikers stopped by the farm as they were climbing Volcano Madera. Two Italians suggested the farm could become a tourist business, since it has such a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside. The farmers decided to test the feasibility by buying a fridge and selling beers and sodas. As more and more people came for a drink on the way down the volcano, the collective decided to prepare simple and cheap meals for the hikers.

Today, the Finca has five fridges, and has the capacity to host and feed up to 80 guests. A hammock costs $1.50, camping $1.25, a dorm room $1.75, a single $2.25, double $4.50 and a cabina with shower is $15.

"We don't have any experience with tourism," says Agustín Paladino, another associate. "We have been working rustically, and we do our best to communicate with the customers since we don't have the chance to speak their language."

Farm members seem to have a good connection with the customers, who leave the place delighted to have met such kind and welcoming people. Members also have a positive opinion of the visitors, noticing that they respect nature.

Some volunteers come to spend time on the Finca to work on the coffee plantations, or on any other crops grown in the farm.

Agustín is always very happy to meet more foreigners and has lots of ideas to make the place better, such as building a small bar on the side or build a little shop to sell coffee and home-made honey.

David Mitchell doesn't need to help the collective with tourism.

"They keep saying 'We don't really know anything about tourism,' but they are so gracious. People who come here are impressed with the quality of the food and with the friendliness of the people. They are doing a very good job."

For more information, call (505) 880-2041 or see http://www.coop-cdc.com/

Getting There

From Granada or Managua, take a bus to Rivas, where the ferry will take you to the Ometepe Island. The ferry lasts about 1 hour and costs 20 cordobas ($1.30).

Arriving to the island, take a bus to Balgüe (a one hour drive). From the village, you will need to walk about 20 minutes to the Finca Magdalena.

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