The Silent Epidemic Behind Nicaragua’s Rum

This piece was a monster to get through. Or rather a monster of a piece to write. It took more than a month to finally get it online…a lot of research, a lot of drama, a lot of opposition, a lot of words. Really gave me perspective on how lucky we all are.


“This is so amazing!” I quip as I am being driven into the heart of the rum factory. It’s a gorgeous campus of manicured grass and palm trees. Distillery tanks are painted a pearly sheen of white, and hundreds of oak barrels imported from the United States are neatly stacked on top of each other. Each distillery tank contains one million liters of alcohol; there are 18 of them on the campus. From the corner of my eye, I see a group of thin, gaunt workers dressed in dirty protective gear pass by, standing on the back of a large truck—their eyes icy and unemotional.

I’m inside the Flor de Caña rum factory in Chichigalpa, a small town in western Nicaragua, playing the part of an enthusiastic tourist with an extreme knack for questions. With me is a genuinely thrilled family of four visiting from Mexico.

Flor de Caña is Nicaragua’s best-known export, and it has an impressive stash of slow-aged barreled rum—one of the largest in the world. You can find the liquor at virtually every bar in Nicaragua and it’s exported to over 40 countries. My tour guide tells me that the number-one market is Chile, followed by Canada, the United States, and then Nicaragua. The rum is good, and the company has a diverse portfolio. The liquor is smooth, slightly dry, and the aged varieties have hints of vanilla and oak.

Flor De Cana Drink - Clarissa Wei

Flor de Caña is operated by Nicaragua Sugar Estates Limited (NSEL), a subsidiary of Grupo Pellas. Grupo Pellas controls more than 20 companies in the country and boasts $1.5 billion in annual sales, equal to 13 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Carlos Pellas, the major shareholder in the company and a close friend of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, is Nicaraguan’s first billionaire. His nickname is “the sugar king.”

Chichigalpa’s citizens, many of whom work in the sugarcane fields, are dying at an alarming rate.
Many citizens of Chichigalpa are employed by Flor de Caña and its sugarcane mill, Ingenio San Antonio (ISA). Sugar is Central America’s largest agriculture industry and makes up about 4 percent of the nation’s GDP. ISA produces more than 63 percent of the country’s sugar, equaling almost 17,000 metric tons per day. It also provides Flor de Caña with all the molasses for its rum.

At the rum factory, the Pellas family is naturally regarded with high esteem. There’s an entire exhibit dedicated to their legacy.

I’m shuttled to an old theatre where I watch video presentation chock-full of facts and statistics that praise the Pellas family and its efforts the benefit the community and sustainability. Chichigalpa is a monoculture town, built entirely on the sugarcane industry and intertwined with ISA and Flor de Caña.

I learn that the company has planted 50,000 trees. In the spirit of social responsibility, it has set up schools and a food aid program in Chichigalpa. Its hospitals have facilitated 2,929 births and 9,036 surgeries. It even provided the city with shiny new parks.

The family I’m with on the tour nods with enthusiasm after the video ends, and the five of us pile back on the tram to a private tasting room.

Three miles past the glistening rum factory, down the main street and into the core of the city, the landscape couldn’t be anymore different from the trimmed, green factory grounds. I spend a morning at a community center. Volunteers are preparing lunch when they realize there is no water. A local tells me that water and electricity is unreliable, and by 9 PM, water is shut down.

But it’s more than just shoddy utilities that set this town apart: Chichigalpa’s citizens are dying at an alarming rate.

Read more on VICE

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Happy Thanksgiving


I celebrated with King crab legs back home in Los Angeles with my Taiwanese parents who described Thanksgiving as “the white version of Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.” Touche parents, touche. I prefer crab to turkey.

Meanwhile, in Nicaragua, my friends have informed me that they slaughtered a live turkey:

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 10.30.36 AM Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 7.01.04 PM

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Post-Nica Life

Nica life was definitely a lot more interesting...

Nica life was definitely a lot more interesting…

For one, I’ve been taking a lot less showers.

Bathing everyday doesn’t really seem as necessary in Los Angeles. Grime doesn’t accumulate here as easily as it did in Nicaragua.

I’ve also become strangely cognizant of how much stuff I have here at home. I don’t need more than a bag worth of clothes, yet I have an entire walk-in closet full of Things I Don’t Need. I’m putting off on throwing it all away because I’m leaving soon for China anyways.

There really wasn’t much of an adjustment period otherwise. Within hours, I was spending more than $15 on food, saying hi to the folks in my community and hugging all my friends.

But it’s strange going from living in a small town and seeing your friends everyday without trying… to living in a very big town and scheduling in time to see your friends.

And then there’s all the rules and the Things You Have To Go Through to see your friends: the traffic lights, the long drives, looking for parking, calculating tip, the thousands of options of bars and coffee shops and restaurants. All of the above are part of the wonderfulness of Los Angeles, but I’m beginning to be more convinced that Los Angeles just simply isn’t the place for me right now.

I’m hoping China is. Two more weeks.

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A Honduran Coffee Shop With A Cause

I stumbled across this gem while scuba diving in Utila. Talked to the staff and immediately, knew a story had to be done.

22871982045_542a0b7fdb_oRio Coco Café is an oasis within an oasis. Located on the East side of Utila—a small island right off the coast of Honduras—it’s one of the few places on the Caribbean island where inhabitants can score freshly roasted coffee. And it’s certainly the only place that serves it in mason jars.

“We roast all of our own coffee,” says owner Michael Bagby, who’s currently based in Florida. “We do high altitude coffee and so the beans grow at an elevation of over 1,500 meters. There’s a lot more fat and flavor in these beans and they become a lot more dense because of cooler temperature.”

Rio Coco offers a thorough selection of coffees from around the world, though they pride themselves especially on their Honduran and Nicaraguan varieties. They serve blended coffees and espressos priced between $2 and $4. The iced cups of coffee infused with a shot of coconut are an ideal relief from the perpetual Caribbean heat. There are baked goods, board games and themed nights. They also sport an immensely photogenic patio—a thin dock that stretches out to crystal blue waters.

Rio Coco is entirely volunteer-run and the profits go to schools along the Rio Coco River in Nicaragua.

But Bagby’s business model is rather unconventional. The coffee shop is run under his non-profit Seek The Lamb—a Christian company dedicated to fundraising for impoverished children. Rio Coco is entirely volunteer-run and the profits go to schools along the Rio Coco River in Nicaragua. The schools, set up by Bagby and his wife in the 1980s, service a very poor community of Miskito Indians.

Read more on Eater

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10 Iconic Foods Of Nicaragua

Posted originally on Tastemade’s Snapchat channel

When I took my first steps out into Leon, after settling into my dusty room and after the most basic of introductions, the first thing I sought out was food. I turned at the first block and saw a line of people sitting on the ground, eating off of a plate of banana leaves. A vendor was serving it out of a makeshift stand on the corner of my place of residence. The dish is called vigoron — a typical Nicaraguan dish with boiled yuca on top of chicharron and on top of all of that, a slaw of cabbage, tomatoes and onions.

I ended up getting rice and beans that day from a local commodor (or eatery) instead of vigoron. I chickened out because I didn’t want to risk food poisoning. It took me a solid three days to work up the courage and conversational skills to order vigoron and when I did, I regretted not doing so sooner. At around two dollars a plate, vigoron is a hearty bowl of protein and carbs that’s unique to this country. Chicharron is coated in a liberal douse of spice and the slaw is seasoned with vinegar, salt and chili. Grease and fat is balanced with the acidity of the veggies; the banana leaves make it an extremely biodegradable meal.

Since that day, I’ve been in pursuit of Nicaraguan staples — foods you can’t find anywhere else in the world, foods that were invented in Nicaragua and that has flourished here.

While adventurous eaters have seen Nicaragua as the land of bull testicles, grilled iguana and armadillo on television, the food is a bit simpler on a day-to-day basis. The cuisine here is heavy on corn; beans and rice are so plentiful they’ve become a sort of a running joke (I see T-shirts on the streets mocking the nation’s dependency on gallo pinto). A typical cafe has black beans, white rice and a protein of your choice — sometimes grilled chicken, other times stewed beef and many times pork with bell peppers. Look a little further and you’ll find indio viejo or chicha de maiz on the menu. Here’s a guide:

21773874886_63f5945e58_o1. Chicha de Maiz: This drink almost always comes in a plastic bag and is dyed with a popping hue of Pepto-Bismol pink. Drink it and the first thing you’ll taste is a lot sugar with a hint of pineapple. Wait a bit and you’ll discover the slightly savory aftertaste of the corn, which gives the drink its richness and gritty texture. Chicha de maiz is traditionally made in a clay pot with corn and pineapple and sweetened with cane sugar. Red colorant is put in to achieve its signature color.

manuelita-2_21809457941_o2. Manuelita: Manuelita is a lovely crepe that can be found at most commodors or at the local market. Made with a thick batter of flour and milk, it’s stuffed with queso seco — a lightly smoked and very salty cheese that is crumbled up. You won’t find whipped cream or strawberries on the crepes here. The Nicaraguan interpretation of the crepe is much simpler than that. It makes for a casual dessert that can be eaten with the hands.

gallo-pinto_21612122778_o3. Gallo pinto: Perhaps what makes gallo pinto so renown throughout this country is how prevalent it is. As the unofficial national staple of the country, it’s surprisingly simple. Gallo pinto is basically rice and beans, sometimes fried with a mixture of onions, sweet pepper and garlic. It’s especially beloved during breakfast hours, usually with an egg.

caballo-bayo_21809462371_o4. Caballo bayo: I was invited to a caballo boyo feast by a colleague of mine, who happens to own a small coffee shop around the corner. Though caballo means horse, there is no horsemeat in this dish. Caballo bayo refers to a feast of meats and the rendition that I got to try had a smorgasbord of pig blood cake, chicarron served two-ways, pork, guacamole, beans, shredded beef, chorizo and cheese. All the meats are heated over clay pots. You choose what you want and it’s served over fresh tortillas.

sopa-de-res_21180174373_o5. Sopa de Res y Punche: There’s a quaint little soup restaurant called Sopa de Leon across the street of my Spanish teacher’s house with a makeshift roof and a concrete floor. They do a soup of beef that’s mostly oxtail and flavored with the carcass of half a small crab. Also inside: yucca, taro, chayote, tomato and baby corn. This is one of the many soups that Nicaragua is known for – a bit ironic considering the country’s perpetual humidity.

quesillo_21612132068_o6. Quesillo: My first exposure to quesillo was most welcoming. It was after a two-day hike to a local volcano, and we were waiting at the local bus stop at La Paz Centro for a ride home. At the stop was a drink and candy vendor, who happened to be selling quesillo. It was wonderful and simple. Quesillo is a very common street dish with a tortilla base. I found out later on that it was actually invented in La Paz. Inside is a chunk cheese seasoned with diced onions and vinegar. A touch of cream is put on top, and then a dash of salt.

vigaron_21178801223_o7. Vigaron: Vigaron is said to have been invented in Granada, but its reach is most definitely nationwide. In Leon, vigaron vendors are especially prolific in the local markets. The main base is chicharron and yucca, topped with a marinated slaw of cabbage, tomato and onions. It’s always served on banana leaves.

nacatamal_21788229532_o8. Nacatamal: In Leon, nacatamal is more commonly found on Sunday mornings. People make it out of their house — you just have to know where to look. It’s the Nicaraguan version of tamale and it’s made primarily out of masa and lard. Inside is chorizo and pork adobado. Wrapped in large banana leaves, the tamales are cooked in a large batch over a wood fire and each portion amounts to less than two dollars a pop.

indio-viejo_21809467791_o9. Indio Viejo: Indio viejo means “old Indian” and it’s a dish that dates back to pre-Colombian times. What it is: is a condensed stew that takes on a curry-like texture. It gets its viscosity from corn dough, which is mixed in with meat, onions, garlic, sweet pepper and tomato. The version I got had shredded beef. It’s served with rice and flavored with orange juice and achiote paste.

cosa-de-horno_21613101939_o10. Cosa de horno or perrerreque: I spotted this in large quantities at the local market, being advertised as sopa leche. Baked in a wood-fired oven, it’s a custard corn cake made with masa, milk, cheese and topped with a bit of ground cinnamon. Warning: Nicaraguan desserts are extremely sweet. This is no exception.

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I Wrote About Volcano Boarding For Outside Magazine

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 3.56.04 PMIn 1999, a series of earthquakes in western Nicaragua set off the 2,388-foot-tall Cerro Negro volcano outside the city of León. For two straight days, the volcano gushed magma and spewed steam and ash, prompting evacuations in surrounding villages and crumbling parts of Leon.

“Everything around here was destroyed,” says Flora Velasquez, a lifelong resident of León. “We had nothing.”

Fast-forward 16 years, and that same volcano has helped revitalize León as a bustling hub of adventure tourism: Cerro Negro has emerged as the top global destination for so-called volcano boarding, a dirty and sometimes dangerous activity.

Read more on Outside

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“So What Attracted You To Her?”

I’m at Pan y Paz right now — a French bakery in Nicaragua and for the past hour, I’ve been trying to write a piece… but the words are coming out clunky and broken. All of a sudden, I hear: “So what attracted you to her?” from the group of American guys sitting to my right. The tone is soft. They speak slowly. I, being a complete creeper, transcribed the entire conversation. There was something refreshingly intimate about the way these guys were talking that made it irresistible to listen in.

And the way the guy responded was beautiful. He spoke so delicately, as if he were painting his words with soft, pastel strokes.

“So what attracted you to her?”

“For one she’s easy to be friends with,” one guy says. He lets that thought sit. His voice is so calm, like he’s reciting a mantra. I can tell right off the bat this girl is special.

“On Halloween night. I spent it with her. Just spent the evening dancing with her goofily. And it was just fun…”

He lingers.

“It was just fun joking around with her. And we rode the bus back together and I had a real conversation with her. I found out some stuff about her. About her adoption.”

[Long pause]

“The thing I remember most of it is we talked about stuff that is broken in this world. …I think she’s a super compassionate person.”

“I — I relate to her a lot.”

The other two guys nod. A phone rings.

The monologue. ends. They begin talking about something else. The softness of their voices fade and flatlines to small talk.

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I’m A Certified Freediver!

Today’s my last day in Utila and even though I’ve been here eight days… I wish I had more time to spare. I came here with the purpose of scuba diving, but I’m leaving with so much more.

I took a two-day freediving course with Freedive Utila and on the second day, reached 70ft pulling down a rope and 50ft kicking down fins. Apparently this is pretty standard for beginners… but to be able to swim through this beautiful reef without being hooked up to bunch of equipment was absolutely liberating.

The more I swim, the more hooked I am to the ocean.

As a kid, I used to have these reoccurring dreams of me gliding through the air. But it was never easy. It was always an intense mental game. If I stopped focusing, I’d fall. (Gently, like a feather)
Freediving is a bit like that. It’s mostly a mental game.

At first it’s tremendously loud. Your brain screams at you because it’s uncomfortable and you panic when you realize how deep you are. Or rather, you panic because you don’t know how deep you are.

But once you get the breathing right and fall into a trancelike state, it gets wonderfully quiet down under. To move underneath the surface without heavy gear is most magical feeling. It fulfills all my childhood dreams of being able to fly and glide weightlessly.

My favorite part is when the body hits positive buoyancy; because then you fly up like Superman. Gently, of course.

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In Where I Make Traditional Nica Drinks

In the marketplaces of Nicaragua, drinks are condensed into powder and sold in plastic bags. At home, one adds sugar and water to taste. This DIY-approach is especially recommended because pre-mixed beverages purchased at any street vendor stand are almost always too sweet.

Nicaraguans love their sugar. Sugarcane, after all, is the largest agricultural industry in the country and makes up about four percent of the nation’s total GDP. Everyday drinks utilize popular crops like sugarcane, corn, cacao, and the seeds of the gourd-like jícaro fruit. It’s all rather simple: ingredients are roasted, boiled and ground into powder. Just add water.

Below, three traditional drinks to know, with recipes courtesy of various vendors in the Central Market (an open-air indoor bazaar where locals shop for everything from groceries to clothes) of the city of León—a Spanish colonial town on Nicaragua’s Western side.

Read more on Eater.

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I Ate An Iguana

Soup in Nicaragua is a bit of an oxymoron. The tropical country is perpetually hot and humid, but every weekend—no matter how heated it gets—hoards of Nicas will reliably head to their favorite soup place for a bowl. They say it’s a typical weekend meal, perfect for after church. But really, it’s just an ideal hangover meal.

Gallina, or hen, soup is great; nearly its entire corpse is served in the bowl. (The head and feet, thankfully, are omitted.) Beef with crab is another popular variety. All soup is served with chunks of starchy root vegetables like carrots and potatoes. A large serving goes for about 100 cordobas, or roughly $4.

And if the restaurant has garrobo, or iguana, you can rest assured that they will eventually run out of it. Iguana broth is widely popular as a hangover cure and as an aphrodisiac. It’s especially beloved during the days preceding Easter.

Iguana, go figure, is Lent-friendly.

Read more on VICE.

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