Over the last six months, we have had many arrivals. But making it to Panama City this week felt different to most.
This sweltering metropolis marks our southernmost point in Central America. It means that, in the six months since we first breathed in Alaska’s glacial air, we have crossed an entire continent. It means that, with more than half a year of travelling behind us, and Christmas just a few days away, we can see our journey’s end.
That thought alone has given us cause for reflection. It feels inconceivable that a journey which, at its beginning, felt endless is now reaching its final stages. It has also prompted us to ask ourselves: what will come next? As we have made our way South from Alaska, it has been a source of enormous inspiration meeting so many people who have made enormous changes to build lives motivated by a purpose they value.
Few people embody this more than Blue van Doorninck, who traded a life in Vancouver for one on a Nicaraguan ranch. Travel with Blue in her pickup truck through the muddy streets near her home and you’ll hear the air filled with calls of “Hola Doña Azul!”. You’d be forgiven for thinking she was born and raised in this wild corner of the world, so deeply is she embedded in this place – and it in her.
A force-field of energy, Blue is the cowgirl and visionary behind Rancho Chilamate, a ranch hidden in the hills outside the jewel in Nicaragua’s tourism crown – the laid-back surf town of San Juan del Sur. Blue is also spearheading Big Sky – a breath-taking residential and equestrian community being created on virgin coastline 10 minutes down the road, which embodies the same social and environmentally conscious approach of Rancho Chilamate.
Blue has woven social and environmental considerations into everything she and the Ranch do
Those lucky enough to stay at the Ranch are treated to lazy days by a sparkling pool overlooking the paddocks, gallops along nearby beaches in full cowboy gear (complete with chaps, if you’re brave enough...) and evening meals eaten family-style with Blue and her fabulous ranch crew. We planned to join them for a night – and only left Nicaragua more than two weeks later, utterly captivated by both the place and its spirit.
Blue has woven social and environmental considerations into everything she and the Ranch do. Not because of its potential appeal to increasingly conscious consumers, or because she feels she needs to. It was simply a natural continuation of choosing to base her life and business here. It’s just how things are done. You look out for each other, and the space you live in.
Local co-operative Manos Unidas (“hands together”) is an excellent example of this ethos. Based in San Juan del Sur, this cooperative for adults with disabilities was founded by expats Bastin Vrancken and Brooke Rundle. Meeting on weekdays, its students make beautiful tote bags from recycled rice sacks, and earn a weekly wage out of the sales.
The morning we spent with Manos Unidas left a huge impression on Dom and me. The impact this initiative has had on the lives of its students has been enormous. Not only have they been able to develop valuable skills – from sewing, to how to manage their earnings – but many of the students’ parents have remarked on improvements they have seen in everything from their children’s language development to their social skills. Bastin and his team have woven opportunities for learning and personal growth into every aspect of the students’ weekly schedule, and have been rewarded with making not just a desirable product, but also an immeasurable impact on the lives of those involved.
Blue and Bastin are part of a growing number of expats who have chosen to leave their lives in other parts of the world behind, and build a base in Nicaragua. We too were bitten by the same bug and are currently working on plans which will hopefully see us incorporating this place into our lives in the future. Its beauty captivates you first – a wild Pacific coastline with some of the best surf in the world, vast tracts of untouched jungle disturbed only by swollen rivers and the occasional dusty road. But it is its soul which seals the deal.
Blue and Bastin are part of a growing number of expats who have chosen to leave their lives in other parts of the world behind, and build a base in Nicaragua
Scruffy but charming, the pastel-hued town of San Juan del Sur retains an authenticity many popular coastal parts of Central America have lost. In between buzzing coffee and surf joints, remain local families who have lived here for generations. Come dusk, pavements become cluttered with rocking chairs (beloved across the country) housing chattering adults, while kids play noisily in the streets. The town is developing quickly – with luxury homes, good WiFi and a proliferation of hip hangouts all appearing at a rapid rate – but has miraculously managed to retain its character.
Nicaragua is, however, not without its challenges. Years of political turmoil have left its mark, and the extent of poverty remains starkly apparent. Time will tell whether the current administration will continue with its welcoming attitude to foreign investment, or return to its more radical roots.
We threw our travel schedule out of the window soon after arriving in Central America, so quickly did we realise that we wanted to spend as long as possible in this part of the world. With our departure date from Argentina in February now approaching at alarming speed, we are having to speed up our journey. As a result, we spent only a few days in Costa Rica after our time in Nicaragua came to an end – mainly dedicated to catching up on admin and travel planning – and headed straight to Panama City.
Initially, we assumed Panama City would have a thriving entrepreneurial eco-system. It has resources and infrastructure that are light years ahead of many other Central American countries. However, the growth of entrepreneurship - especially social entrepreneurship – appears to have lagged. In part, this seems to be a function of Panama’s small population size. There is a sense here of everyone knowing everyone else, and a fear of failure (and the associated social implications) seem to pose a significant deterrent to aspiring entrepreneurs. Co-working spaces lie empty, and government seed capital grants receive few applications. But things are changing.
Serial entrepreneur Sebastian Mendoza is on a mission to turn this tide. “My purpose is to put Panama on the map,” he told us as we chatted in the boardroom of My Office Panama, a co-working space. Having built a successful shipping technology business, Sebastian is now focused on working with all players – from entrepreneurs to government – to help foster the growth of entrepreneurship in Panama.
The impact Sebastian has made already is impressive – he spearheaded the creation of a co-working space in his hometown of Chitre and has pioneered initiatives such as launching the Panama City chapter of First Tuesday (a monthly entrepreneurial networking event).
The future looks bright if the response to Sebastian’s efforts are anything to go by – First Tuesday events now regularly boast around 250 attendees. In a country where a select few have tended to rule the political and commercial spheres, the growth of a new generation of entrepreneurs holds enormous disruptive potential.
Central America has provided us with a richer experience than we could have ever imagined. Its beauty has left us awe-struck, its people have welcomed us into their lives with warmth and generosity. Its entrepreneurial communities are rich and vibrant, and have a vital role to play in fighting the corruption, crime and poverty which continue to cast a shadow. For us, Central America offers the perfect combination of adventure and opportunity. For now, our sights are set on our finish line of Argentina – but I suspect it won’t be long before we return.
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