Cynthia Nevin Hoen used to start her days long before the sun came up, exercising to pre-empt the day’s stress. Arriving in her New Jersey office at 6am, she’d deal with contract negotiations, committee meetings, corporate staff issues, outside counsel matters along with compliance and risk management concerns and disputes for one of the four hospitals where she operated as President of Cynthia N Hoen Associates.
These days, her alarm clock is the pre-dawn call of howler monkeys screeching in the trees and her first words of the day are spoken to Alli, her 125-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback hound who sleeps in her room. Perched halfway up the Mombacho volcano in southern Nicaragua, Mombacho Lodge is her home, her business and her sanctuary. Her living room couch is a hammock. Alli, along with Fritz (the enormous Belgian Malinois guard dog) and Tigre (the cat that Alli adopted) are her house mates. Her five young Nicaraguan staff members are her corporate team.
Where she once navigated the choppy waters of corporate medical bureaucracies, she now hauls the steering wheel of her hulking old Landcruiser over gnarly tree stumps and potholes. Her aerobic exercise comes from the dozens of times she strides the 240 steps from her airy jungle house to the lodge, where tourists stop by to relax and Cynthia extends a hand of hospitality.
She cooks the meals, shops for provisions, monitors the power supply, charges the batteries, oversees the staff, purchases fuel for the generators and water bottles for the drinking supply and does some marketing for the Lodge through social media. She’s also immersed in jungle life, stopping to watch leafcutter ants march along a shadowy path, commenting on a ”wonderful bug” she found and commenting “These days, I often prefer the company of animals to people”.
On TripAdvisor, she’s described as “friendly”, “special and “inspired”. In our eyes, she‘s pretty darned incredible – strong, capable, independent and extremely warm.
Cynthia is not a woman to be trifled with. Where she used to launch into battle with executives in corporate boardrooms, she now squares up with the elements, confounding Nicaraguan authorities who govern her business and all that goes with building an ecolodge in the middle of the jungle. Picture a female Indiana Jones with worn hiking boots half sunk in muddy jungle mire, machete strapped to her side, flanked by two mammoth dogs while monkeys flit from branch to branch overhead.
We met Cynthia when we housesat for her at her lodge last month. After meeting us at our hotel in Granada, she stopped by to pick up a generator which had been fixed, visited a local mechanic to get the rattling in her truck taken care of, then picked up Alli from a friend’s house and loaded the gentle beast into the rear of the truck before heading back up the volcano. All in a morning’s work.
That night, over dinner (prepared by Cynthia on a small barbecue in pitch darkness) Cynthia shared her story and how she’d ventured so far off the grid that she was hardly recognisable as the corporate executive of her earlier life.
It began when she met Alex on a dating site in 2005. She found him to be a kindred spirit and the couple travelled to Central America on vacation and ended up purchasing the shell of a hotel in Granada (Nicaragua) in 2007 after deciding they wanted to spend more time in that region of the world.
Alex moved to Nicaragua to supervise construction in 2008 and two years later, Cynthia followed. The two continue to be integral parts in one another’s lives.
“In 2008 and 2009, further work and responsibility was put upon me to the point I was experiencing physical illness from stress and was completely burned out,” she said. “So, I quit, was surprisingly given a nice severance and moved down to Nicaragua in June 2010 to live immediately following my daughters’ graduation from college. Because I had a house and friend here, it was a no brainer.”
According to Cynthia, “Mombacho Lodge kind of just happened”. She’d purchased the land as an investment in 2011 and was living in Granada, doing some consulting work for her previous employer, learning Spanish, helping Alex with construction and riding horses when she lost her 24-year-old daughter Katie in a tragic accident back home.
“Now, I really needed something to do for my mental health, hold Tricia (her other daughter) together, support myself and find my own place to live, if I was going to stay here, and I had no desire of returning to my life in the States.”
In August 2012, Cynthia starting planning the ecolodge, designing cabins on the SketchUp computer programme ( 3D modeling computer programme used for drawing applications) and buying wood for the first deck and cabin.
“I’d always wanted to live off the grid and had looked into it 25 years ago when I was living in Colorado, “she said. “At this point, I didn’t know much about what it entailed to build an ecolodge and learned most of what I had to learn online and with the help of Alex.
“We had some experience with batteries, inverters, chargers and generators from building Alex’s house, as well as water collection and storage, but on a smaller scale. Alex had to review structural requirements and I had to learn about it as well as more about plumbing, electric, batteries, water storage and septic. We read blogs, watched YouTube videos and studied US building codes. I just jumped in with both feet and believed.”
The project was completed in June 2013 and Cynthia opened Mombacho Lodge on July 15.
She runs the place with a firm but gentle touch, training her young Nicaraguan employees to be self-sufficient when she is away and providing them with guidance and kindness that will pave the way for their future. She helps one with his education, trains one to cook, teaches them all about the importance of saving and treats each one as a valuable friend. Like a Nicaraguan version of Karen Blixen, Cynthia has experiences you’d read about in a novel
Like the time a neighbouring farmer attacked her beloved guard dog, Fritz, almost cutting off the dog’s head. Clutching the bleeding animal in one arm, Cynthia was on the phone, contacting emergency services at the same time as trying to contain the bleeding and save her dog’s life. Days later she blocked the assailant’s exit with her truck, demanding that he apologize and pay restitution for the attack. Neither side is backing down so far, and the battle continues.
Another day, she was rear-ended by an oxcart when picking up water supplies. And on another, she had a horse fall through the tin roof between her two septic tanks.
“I have to make operational decisions on the fly to keep the business going and while dealing with day-to-day financial and provisional issues,” she said. “We are the water department, the sewer department and the electric department.
“I am humbled at how hard my employees work and how much they care about their jobs, and me when they have so little. It makes me happy to be able to help my employees in the small ways that I can in return for their loyalty. I am immensely proud of them as they grow into responsible young men with maybe a bit better future, or at least more hope than their parents may have had. Here, you cannot help but see how fortunate you are compared to others.
”I have experienced greater personal growth than I would have, had I remained in the States. Since I moved here and started a new life, my daughters and many of their friends see that there are more options available to them than “working for the man” so to speak.
“The rest of my family thinks I am out of my mind”.