Nicaragua’s ‘La Mariposa’ Fights for its Life

Andra Belknap
Jan 10 · 5 min read
Charley, a young woman with cerebral palsy, does physical therapy with the help of Marisol, a La Mariposa employee, atop a rescued horse.

Leelo en español

La Mariposa is a Spanish school & eco-hotel in San Juan de La Concepción, Nicaragua. It’s not a traditional business; it is not run for personal profit.

All profits from the school and hotel support a constellation of projects provided to the community free of charge: physical therapy for children with disabilities, English language learning and enrichment programs for poor families, protection of local open space, animal rescue and much more.

Nicaragua has suffered political challenges in recent months, and tourism has completely dropped off. As a result, the Mariposa team is having trouble funding its vital programming. That’s where we come in.

The year 1987 is the first in the story of La Mariposa — a Spanish school and eco-hotel in Nicaragua’s San Juan de La Concepción, a small community that sits in the shadow of a smoldering volcano.

Paulette Goudge, an Essex native, made her first trip to the Central American nation that year.

The country was at war. Counter revolutionary forces financed by the United States government and Sandinista fighters — many of them poor young men drafted into military service — fought bloody guerrilla battles across the country’s northern border with Honduras.

As a volunteer in a Managua orphanage, Paulette wasn’t party to the battles raging to the north. The Contra War claimed at least 30,000 lives; children were not spared from the strife. Young people disabled by wartime injuries or orphaned by the violence took refuge in Managua, the country’s capital.

It was 1987 when one war orphan, a toddler, was abandoned on a bus heading in the direction of Managua. To this day, her early years remain a mystery. Upon arrival at the orphanage, the girl would not allow anyone touch her, even when offering food.

A woman named Guillermina thought to feed the malnourished child by dripping liquid into her open mouth — without touching her. The toddler, now a 32-year-old woman, today carries the name Guillermina — for the woman who saved her life. The younger Guillermina (also known as GG) speaks Spanish with a British accent. It’s a result of the influence of her adoptive mother, Paulette. The two bonded to each other after their meeting in that Managua orphanage and never separated.

Guillermina and Paulette, 1990.

While Guillermina and Paulette came together in Managua, a future administrator of La Mariposa, Ismael Calero, was embedded in the jungles of northern Nicaragua, where he spent three years as a Sandinista fighter.

Today, Guillermina calls Ismael ‘papi,’ as do many Mariposa employees; he’s a deep well of wisdom and support for younger staff. Ismael came to the Mariposa as a member of the hotel’s construction crew. He’s worked by Paulette’s side ever since.

Years before Ismael and the construction team broke ground, La Mariposa began to take shape in Paulette’s thesis for her PhD in development studies. Her concept was simple, but revolutionary: to start a tourism-based business in a developing country that had suffered at the hands of Western imperialism. Profits would come from visitors from wealthy, western nations. Paulette, in turn, would use the money to fund community projects and hire local employees — to return a small piece of the wealth she believes has been stolen.

Construction began at La Mariposa in 2005. Paulette, Ismael and Guillermina welcomed their first guests, largely Paulette’s friends from the United States and the United Kingdom, in January 2006.

La Mariposa soon became the largest employer in San Juan de La Concepción, with more than 80 locals on the payroll. The largest, costliest project the Mariposa team has taken on provides free physical therapy for local children with disabilities — their conditions range from cerebral palsy to autism to Down’s Syndrome. Each Monday, a fleet of 20 rescued horses lend their backs to children who need to work on their physical strength or balance. On Wednesdays, children who struggle with motor issues practice walking independently in a community swimming pool, supervised by trained physical therapists employed by La Mariposa.

Guillermina supervises all swimming classes — she’s the self-appointed lifeguard. As a woman with learning difficulties, she’s dedicated to helping other young people with similar challenges.

Everything changed April 18, 2018, when a wave of protests gripped Nicaragua. Western countries announced warnings against travel to Nicaragua, and Paulette lost all of her hotel reservations, and the income La Mariposa was counting on, in a matter of two weeks.

La Mariposa’s employees have survived on half pay since May 2018. Most tourism businesses have closed their doors, or significantly cut their staff. Paulette has refused to do either.

Nicaraguans are rather accustomed to upheaval. It is, after all, a nation of 19 active volcanoes. Most families have experienced war, profound violence, food shortages and desperate poverty. “La lucha sigue” or, “the fight continues” is a common phrase that seems embedded in the hearts of the Nicaraguan people. Every day is a struggle — Paulette and her staff aim to alleviate just a few of the hardships these families face.

And she will not give up. At 68 years old, Paulette is considering emptying her pension funds to continue the work of La Mariposa. She’s a Nicaraguan citizen who has, with the help of many, created a safe, enriching environment for her own daughter and 38 additional children with learning difficulties. Her family has grown to include the 80-some employees she supports, along with 79 rescued dogs, 20 horses, and a handful of rescued monkeys, turtles and other wildlife.

Guillermina and Paulette, 2017.

The Mariposa is fighting for it’s life. And it’s in our power to continue the work, to continue the fight.

We hope you’ll consider supporting the work of La Mariposa today.

The best way, of course, to support the Mariposa is to visit. Paulette’s primary goal is to provide sustainable employment for her employees, and the Mariposa is open for visitors.

At the time of publication, the author has stayed at La Mariposa for six weeks. If she had her way, she wouldn’t leave.

Visit to donate.

Visit to learn more about La Mariposa or make a reservation.

Andra Belknap

Written by

Writer, intermittent political professional, Spanish enthusiast, rambunctious feminist.

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