Nicaragua has always attracted an unconventional tourist, starting with the pirates and Californian gold prospectors who came here centuries ago. A new breed of visitor appeared after the Sandinista revolution -- thousands of internacionalistas intent on joining the great leap forward and helping the country's poor and impoverished (the less than committed were wittily referred to as Sandalistas). Those idealists have now morphed into ordinary people doing amazing things, and Nicaragua is now officially a hot spot for volunteering opportunities in Central America. Below is a list of the more established volunteer organizations offered in the country, but just scratch the surface, and you'll find many more. If you are serious about taking up a good cause, you need to commit considerable time (at least a month) and have basic Spanish skills to get the most from your experience.
Building New Hope (www.buildingnewhope.org) is a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization that runs a learning center for underprivileged kids, among many other projects in Granada. The volunteer organizer is Donna Tabor, and she can be contacted through their website. Tax-deductible donations are also welcome.
Hogar Madre Albertina is a girls' orphanage that sorely needs money and volunteers. Desperate to get rid of an old laptop? You can donate yours here, as well as donate your time by teaching a word-processing class. The orphanage (tel. 505/2552-7661) is located 2 blocks north of Colegio Padre Misieri.
La Esperanza Granada (tel. 505/2552-7044; www.la-esperanza-granada.org) helps educate locals in rural areas, as well as offers badly needed healthcare. They provide cheap accommodations and can organize homestays if you're looking for total cultural and language immersion. Their office is located in Hospedaje Central, 1 1/2 blocks east of the central plaza.
San Juan del Sur
San Juan del Sur Biblioteca Móvil (email@example.com) is sponsored by the Hester J. Hodgdon Libraries for All Program. Teachers and donations are required, as well as Spanish books, which can be sent to the library's U.S. depository at 1716 del Norte Blvd., Loveland, CO 80538, or directly dropped off.
The Newton-San Juan del Sur Sister City Project (www.newtonsanjuan.org) is a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization that sends teams of doctors, dentists, and builders to San Juan. Visit their website or contact local representative Rosa Elena Bello at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fundación A. Jean Brugger (www.fundacionajbrugger.org) focuses on children's educational needs, offering uniforms, school supplies, and scholarships to students from poor backgrounds.
Habitat for Humanity (tel. 505/2772-6121; www.habitatnicaragua.org.ni) is a Christian organization that builds decent housing for the poor, in an effort to "change Nicaragua house by house." They have projects all over the country, including in León and Bluefields. Their Matagalpa branch is located 2 blocks east of the Deportiva Brigadista.
Centro Girasol (tel. 505/2772-6030) is a community center that can hook you up with different organizations that require volunteers such as indigenous rights campaigners Movimento Comunal and Comunidad Indígena. Their offices are located in the yellow building at the bridge, as you enter the city from Managua.
Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (www.nph.org) operates an orphanage in San Lázaro that offers volunteer programs on the island and in other parts of Central America.
La Suerte Biological Teaching Station (www.maderasrfc.org) is dedicated to protecting tropical rainforests and wildlife. They offer teaching opportunities to students and professors, and accommodate educational groups with the goal of "Bridging the Americas."
Bainbridge-Ometepe Sisters Island Association (www.bosia.org) does countless good works on the island, including promoting fair-trade coffee and creating schools, scholarships, and water systems.
Sí a la Vida! (www.asalv.org) works with troubled kids and expands their opportunities through education, sports, and art. They seek volunteers with experience in healthcare, construction, and agriculture. They also operate a retreat on Ometepe Island.
Casa Ben Linder (www.casabenlinder.org) is a meetinghouse and resource center devoted to helping alleviate poverty.