Ok, so first things first. Quetzaltrekkers is a trekking and outdoors association so technically we weren't running together. However, this project already has enough facets to it that I'm not about to introduce another sub-narrative around outdoor adventure, and they certainly fit the remit of organisations or initiatives using physical activity to create positive social impact. Oh, and there was some running later on.
León is the second largest city in Nicaragua behind Managua, housing a population of around 200,000 people. It is a university city with the 'tourist friendly' centre housing the majority of it's impressive colonial architecture. Churches, a huge cathedral, plazas and photogenic buildings as well as many restaurants and bars catering for both local and western tastes. The narrow streets are constantly buzzing with people and traffic. Cycle rickshaws, old US school buses a.k.a 'chicken buses' (that serve as public transportation), taxis and cyclists all battle for the limited space. It's hot. I mean, people cross over the road to walk in the shade because they can hear their skin sizzling hot. Outside of the city limits, the fishing village/beach community of Las Peñitas sits 20km to the west and in the countryside to the north-east sit the famous strip of volcanoes which bring much of the tourism income. Back in the city, twenty minutes walk beyond the centre, you encounter lower socio-economic areas with rudimentary housing, few foreign faces and visible issues with poverty, homelessness, alcohol and substance abuse. Something that many visitors to the city probably never get to see, experience or understand. That is why organisations like Quetzaltrekkers and the projects they support are so important.
So, as you have probably gathered, volcanoes are big business in León. There are a growing number of operators in the city competing for business. All offering a myriad of activities from multi-day treks with camping, volcano boarding (more about that later) to being driven out to a viewpoint so you can say you went up a volcano at sunset but didn't actually have to do any exercise.
What makes Quetzaltrekkers special?
Why did Quetzaltrekkers catch my eye? Well, a volunteer-run (apart from a couple of salaried managers and local staff), non-profit organisation that offers adventures and treks through the volcanoes in León's surrounding areas and donates it's profits to locally-run projects working with disadvantaged youth of the city. Hike volcanoes, help kids. That's a pretty cool premise - no?
I had been speaking with Rafa, one of the directors of the organisation before I made it to León and we had a fruitful chat over coffee on my arrival. We compared stories of projects we had worked on and found that there were a lot of similarities in models that we'd seen that had been proven to 'work' i.e. they result in sustainable funding for projects managed by/employing local people that aim to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in the community.
Quetzaltrekkers donates its profits to four projects in León. The guides also volunteer each week at the projects:
Asociación Las Tías - a non-profit organisation that provides a safe space for at risk youth in two day care centres. In Nicaragua, children only attend school in the morning or afternoon, consequently, many children spend a large part of their day on the streets. Without supervision or structure, children are at risk of joining gangs or developing addictions to glue. Las Tías offers at-risk kids a safe, adult-supervised space to study and play. In addition to offering psychological support for kids who have lived on the streets, the organisation provides nutritious lunches, homework help, and other activities such as sports, arts, and traditional dance.
Las Chavaladas - a project that helps rehabilitate street children addicted to drugs and living in especially difficult circumstances. They work toward their reintegration into family and school through a comprehensive intervention program, which includes prevention and awareness of these issues.
Minibiblioteca Manuelita Sacasa - created as a project of Nicaragua Education Cultures and Arts Trust (NECAT), a British social organisation dedicated to improving access to quality education among impoverished children living in Leon and its surrounding neighbourhoods. Named after the local poet and cultural promoter Manuela Sacasa de Prego, the Minibiblioteca offers educational workshops and activities to local students as well as provididing a space and supportive environment in which children can receive homework help and pursue their academic interests.
QT Scholarship Fund - provide scholarships to children who were unable to attend school as they lacked the financial resources to afford the necessary books, uniforms, transportation, and other school supplies. Continuance of scholarships is conditional and dependent on academic achievement and parental support
After this brief introduction, I was keen to spend some more time getting to know the organisation and bending Rafa's ear about the Quetzaltrekkers ('QT' from hereon in) model, successes and learning so I agreed to join him on one of the two-day hikes the very next morning.
The two day El Hoyo hike is rated 'medium/difficult' and allows you to climb three volcanoes and swim in a crater lake in the space of 48 hours. It's around 12 miles of hiking with 3000ft of elevation over the two days.
After a truck ride out of León, you pull up beside the first stop - the imposing 'Cerro Negro'. You are given a briefing on how to toboggan down the side of a great big black rock (something most people probably haven't done before). You then hike up a volcano for half an hour carrying a piece of kitchen worktop (or something) into a fairly vicious wind before riding back down on said worktop. If you really want to be at one with the rock, you can forget to cover your face and ears on the descent and upon reaching the bottom, realise that every hole in your head is full of black dust which may be in there for some time.
Cerro Negro - 'black hill'. Hike up, get blown all over the place, toboggan down
The remainder of the day is spent hiking upward to the peak. This is definitely something to get the heart rate going. Especially with a pack on carrying your food, six litres of water and sleeping gear. As it turned out, we had quite the winning group, all excellent company and game for setting a challenging pace. So much so that we reached the peak earlier than anticipated. This gave plenty of time and daylight to soak in the gob-smacking views of Laguna Asososca and Lake Managua below and make camp (despite the best efforts of an increasingly strong wind) in an old crater. All that remained was a clamber upward to see a very striking sinkhole before watching the sun set and returning/stumbling down to camp in the darkness to get a fire going and eat enough marshmallows for a national scout jamboree. I'm not sure my limited vocabulary can do the views justice so I will hope that the pictures can.
The Quetzaltrekkers campsite (in a crater, obviously) with quite some view
Sunset from the top of a volcano
After a cold, windy night out on the ledge, we woke at 5.30am to some much needed coffee and watched the sunrise over Lake Managua. All that remained was a speedy two hour stride downward through jungle to the Laguna Asososca for a refreshing swim (an ideal opportunity to wash thirty six hours of dust out of various orifices) before lunch and a triumphant team return to the baking heat of León and some ice cold beers.
Lagunas. a) refreshing and b) good for cleaning dust out of your privates.
One of the things that stuck with me after the hike was that if QT is the only provider that pledges it's profits to community projects then why do people choose to go on adventures with other providers? From my experience the level of experience, knowledge and care is right at the top end of what you would expect. I get that the younger, more boisterous crowd may want to go with a slightly more reckless, booze-laced operator and have a rum-heavy experience but why would everyone else choose to go with other similar organisations who are operating for profit? Is it that they don't know about the QT model? Or it's not something they see as important when they choose? Do they prefer t-shirt designs from the other operators? Is that a factor? Maybe it's just a matter of QT marketing their proposition better so that people know what they do and can make a choice. Anyway, that was one of many useful (for me, anyway) discussions that we had during my time in León. The last thing I wanted to do before I left was to visit one of the QT funded projects. It was an eye-opening and sobering morning.
Project visit - sports day with Las Chavaladas
From my initial conversation with Rafa, I had said that if it would be useful to do some running and movement work with the young people from one of the projects then I would be keen to plan and run a session. When Rafa told me that we would go to visit Las Chavaladas and accompany a group of their youngsters for their weekly sports session I had to think carefully about the optimal approach. Some of the lads that Las Chavaladas work with are in pretty serious trouble. Most of the group that we spent time with are on the streets and using solvents. I have seen some pretty heartbreaking scenes in the short time I've been doing this kind of work but witnessing kids in their late-teens and early twenties whose bodies are seriously under-developed from long-term solvent abuse, openly inhaling glue on the streets to the point where they can barely stand up isn't something I will forget in a hurry.
QT funds the staff at the project as well as providing the food. Drugs are forbidden on site so anyone who is using needs to leave their gear (in this case, soft drink bottles filled with glue) outside the centre. The lads are able to get a meal, wash themselves and their clothes, play games, receive education/intervention and use a dormitory on site (it appears that few of them take this offer up for obvious reasons). The hope is that with this education and intervention these boys will be able to get off the drugs and back with their families. On the positive side, some of the lads we saw on this day were further down on their journey and hopefully on their way to being clean and returning to their families and education.
In the end, anticipating some reluctance to participate and low levels of energy and concentration, I had planned a fairly low impact session where the QT volunteers would join any of the boys that were willing in some basic movement drills and then a relay race. Some of them joined in but it was distressing to see that half of the group had sloped off to the shadows with their bottles and would play no part in the session. One of them spent the entire time slumped up against the wall, speechless. As with many young men all over the world, the sight of a game of football managed to generate some enthusiasm and coax a few more out onto the field. A surprisingly intense game followed which ensured everyone (including the volunteers) managed to get a sweat on, as well as an inch of dust. A brief game of baseball was the final event which baffled the Europeans amongst us somewhat before we walked the lads back to the project. Those that took part seemed to have a little extra spring in their step so you can definitely see the benefit of doing something like this on a weekly basis. Especially if they are spending time with some positive male role models who have their well-being at heart and are able to provide some mentorship. All in all, a worthwhile but tough morning.
Relay race to introduce some fun and competition
5 a side football (on a baseball diamond)
The group after a dusty, sweaty (and extremely competitive) game of 5 a side football
So that's about it. I think all this talks quite nicely to a running theme I'm seeing throughout this trip. That there is another, alternative way of travelling and there are plenty of decent people out there embracing it. It's an opportunity to share the education, knowledge and skills that your privilege of being born in the right place at the right time allowed you to gain. Taking time to see if these skills, whether they are related to business, technology, trades, sport or arts could benefit people in the communities you are visiting, either by directly passing them on in a 'train the trainer' approach or by forming organisations that can utilise people's skills to raise funds to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in those communities. I'm hopeful I can meet a few more of these people and organisations on my journey and share them with you.
My sincere thanks to Rafa for being such a great host, for giving up his time to answer my endless questions and generally being an all round top man.