Set off a winding, dirt road and tucked out of sight amidst a bevy of tropical trees, La Mariposa Spanish School located in La Concepción, Nicaragua, offers an unbeatable one-two punch of language school and ecotourism hotel under the same roof. Approximately 45 minutes south of Managua and 45 minutes west of Granada, La Mariposa feels more remote than it actually is. Chirping birds and scurrying spider monkeys provide backdrop for one-on-one Spanish language classes. When you aren’t racking your brain to remember subjunctive verb tenses, you can volunteer at the local cultural center, elementary school, nature reserve or bakery (among many other opportunities). La Mariposa also offers a myriad of afternoon excursions—from horseback riding around the nearby active Masaya volcano to exploring rural farming communities. On weekends when class is out of session, longer trips are arranged to Granada, León (two hours to the northwest) and the nearby Pacific Ocean.
Days at La Mariposa follow a pleasantly disarming routine. Whatever life it is you’re leaving behind for a week or two, you are certain to forget it quickly upon arriving in this hot, verdant land. Breakfast is served early and consists of a Nicaraguan-style (rice, beans, and vegetable-heavy) meal, all of which is locally sourced. From there, you attend four hours of Spanish language class, usually taught one-on-one with a nearby resident of La Concepción as your teacher. Lunch awaits after your class concludes, followed by an afternoon excursion—I especially loved the horseback riding activities—or volunteering. As with breakfast and lunch, dinner is a delicious, locally sourced meal. (Who knew you could make so many distinct dishes with a foundation of rice and beans?!) I fell asleep every night awash in the contentment of simple efforts at self-improvement.
To reach any town other than La Concepción, you’ll need to stand on the side of the road, thumb raised, and flag a collective minibus as it screams past. The first time you successfully accomplish this feat, you’ll feel indescribably victorious. La Mariposa’s location, far removed from Nicaragua’s notable tourist attractions, is intentional. Owner Paulette Goudge selected this slice of rural Nicaragua to give visitors an unvarnished view of the country—friendly, colorful, and yes, impoverished—while also providing ample jobs for the community. It only takes a nanosecond to realize what Nicaraguans lack in money, they make up in smiles, friendliness and generosity.
After two weeks at La Mariposa, my Spanish language skills had improved significantly, but that was to be expected. What I hadn’t anticipated was the comprehensive understanding of Nicaraguan culture, geography and history I’d acquire during my stay. The colors of the colonial city of Granada; the lizards and wild ponies and swimming holes of Isla Ometepe, which can be reached only by a ferry that plies the waters of Lake Nicaragua; the way the sunlight was smothered by smoke rising out of Volcán Masaya‘s crater; the haunting political murals of León; the impish smiles of children I’d encounter on farms, in the street and on the beach—these are the things you cannot plan and do not anticipate, and they are the things you remember most acutely long after the verb tenses and grammar rules have faded in your mind.
All-inclusive Spanish school packages (room + board + classes + activities) will set you back $480 per week. Should you wish to habla español más, for an additional $80/$140 you can study 30/40 hours per week rather than the standard 20 hours. All rooms in the eco-hotel come with a private bathroom, solar-heated shower and wifi. (http://mariposaspanishschool.com/)
Isla Ometepe/Lake Nicaragua
Masaya Volcano National Park
Scenes from Granada, León and La Concepción