Finca Magdalena : An Oasis in the Ometepe Island, Nicaragua
By Gaëlle Sévenier
April 03

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

Francisco Albarecruz, one of the Finca's associates

Finca Magdalena, Ometepe

Volcano Concepcion
Finca Magdalena, otherwise known as the Carlos Diaz Cajina cooperative, is located on the foothills of the volcano Madera on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua. In the Nahuatl language of the indigenous Chorotegans, Ome means two, and Tepetl means hills. This "place of two hills" is an island on the Lake Nicaragua with two volcanoes: Concepcion (1610m), the higher of the two cones, and volcano Madera (1394m), both linked by a sealed narrow isthmus. A twenty minute walk up from the village of Balgüe leads backpackers to a beautiful farm, which over the years has become one of the most peaceful hostels in Central America. At sunset, guests can admire on the patio the stunning views of the volcano Conception across the lake. The Finca offers horse back riding, guided tours to the petroglyphs, waterfalls, coffee plantations, and expeditions up the volcano Madera which is a seven hour hike through the rain forest on a muddy trail leading to a beautiful lagoon.

Constructed in 1888, the Finca Magdalena 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 in common by the workers who in turn administer and regulate it in an independent, self-sustaining management. Jose Louis, today one of the associates of the farm, was present in 1983 when the Sandinistas passed an agrarian law saying that the owners who were not working on their land had cede the property over to their workers or repay large debts to the national bank. "I had never heard of a cooperative before. The day they came, I didn't want to be a member, because I was thinking of my patrons and I wanted to keep on 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 nor voice. Today, the Finca is a cooperative of 27 associates, with a total of about 250 people including the wives and children, selling coffee in the United States, Canada and Europe. They elect their president every two years with a 4 year maximum mandate and work together on a rotation system in order to generate more work for their collectivity. Equality is pervasive with the associates receiving the same amount of money as the workers, with some variation considering the number of dependents per family so that everyone remains equal in the collectivity. 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 the president, "however, we shouldn't look at politics but at the necessities that exist in our community, with the desire to get better. We do not have any problem with other political ideas."

On the island, most of the other cooperatives failed as they were sold or taken away by the state because of the impossibility of the members to pay their debts. "It is an source of price for many people" tells Jose Luis "that our cooperative succeeded. Our fight is always to keep on. During the war, many people died to free the land, so we owe them to stay united in our cooperative, and to survive." The president of the cooperative, Jose Santo, adds that "it is possible to keep growing if we stay together instead of alone. Working together, we have more strength, and we are very lucky to have many friends."

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. As 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 their mortgage, and were in danger of losing the titles to their 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 be a membership payment." Since that date, the Mitchells are the 26th and 27th associates of Magdalena, helping them sell their 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 is working with us as a volunteer" says the president of Magdalena, "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 idea that this 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 one 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. "We don't have any experience with tourism" says Agustin 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." All the members of the farm have a very good connection with the customers who leave the place delighted of having met such kind and welcoming people. All the members have a very 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. For the president, "every group that comes to the Finca is considered by the members of the collectivity as part of the family." Agustin 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 for late costumers who "sometimes find a girlfriend or boyfriend among themselves!" 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." Those of us who have spent a little time here will agree that Finca Magdalena is one of the most friendly and relaxing hospedajes in Central America, a rare Oasis not to miss.


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