The laughter of children pours through a garden full of orange and banana trees and tropical flowers. Tourists sip organic coffee under adobe arches and clay roof tiles, dreaming of volcano hikes and of teaching English to kids. Years before, when we visited Nicaragua as a pair of seasonal park rangers from the United States, we never imagined we would end up training baristas and serving customers at a gourmet vegetarian café on an island named Ometepe. So how did we get here?
In 2012, we connected with a tour guide cooperative while traveling in Nicaragua and soon developed a shared vision, a “ranger exchange” program for seasonal US rangers and Nicaraguan tour guides. We worked the famous flat-hat summer jobs as National Park rangers, alternating with infamous winters of unemployment. Our project would be a solution to the seasonality of tourism: The slow season in one country is the high season in the other. Two of the cooperative’s founders, Arlin Hernandez and Elieth Alvarez, proposed that together we could train tour guides and use ecotourism to fund community projects on the island.
Ometepe, among the largest freshwater islands in the world, is both a tropical dream and a place full of challenges. Situated in the great Lake Nicaragua, the island is plagued by volcanic eruptions and landslides, but is also blessed by rich soil. It’s known for its export-quality plantains and coffee, and travelers are drawn to the pair of volcanoes, one of which is still active, that rise out of a panoramic expanse of freshwater. When tourism exploded in the early 2000s, farmers abandoned dollar wages as field laborers to earn twenty times as much guiding volcano hikes. Hernandez and Alvarez have dedicated their careers to sustainable tourism. Guías Unidos (Guides United), our joint project, was born in 2017. But as soon as we invested in this communal dream, everything changed.
Situated in Lake Nicaragua, Ometepe is among the largest freshwater islands in the world. A pair of volcanoes on the island, one of which is still active, are a major tourist attraction. Photo by Milei Vencel.
When tourism slumped in Ometepe following a 2018 political crisis and three years of pandemic isolation, a few of Guías Unidos’ side projects, including Centro PUMA, a community center and café (pictured), suddenly became
its primary focus.
Two kids prepare for their Junior Ranger nature excursion at Centro PUMA. The center also hosts organic gardening and other classes for local children.
A political crisis in 2018 was followed by three years of pandemic isolation. When these challenges reduced tourism in Nicaragua to a shadow of its former glory, a few of our side projects suddenly became our primary focus. Donation-supported English classes for children, after-school tutoring, and reforestation initiatives kept the project afloat, along with one additional idea inspired by Cuba Libro, a social justice project in Cuba that uses a bookstore café to unite people. If Cuba Libro could attract socially minded tourists and locals to a secluded suburb in Havana, could we, perhaps, attract like-minded people to Ometepe with local coffee and healthy food? This led to the birth of Centro PUMA — a community center and café named after our objective, Protectores Unidos por el Medio Ambiente, or United Protectors of the Environment.
Learn more about this Earth Island project at guiasunidos.org.
As the pandemic eases and foreign tourists return to Nicaragua, huge challenges remain. Ometepe lacks basic tourism infrastructure: Electronic banking and payments are rare, transportation is difficult, and shared resources such as trails, emergency response, and tourism information have no central organization. Much of the fantastic produce grown on the island is exported. A subsistence diet of beans and starch with the occasional meat leaves locals deprived and tourists hungry for fruits and vegetables. These barriers to tourism have become our opportunities.
At Centro PUMA we organize tourist information and coordinate with stakeholders to improve infrastructure. Among other things, we have been working with other local groups to use tourism income to improve trails and set up a better emergency response system. Local kids learn organic gardening and enjoy fresh produce grown in our courtyard. In the summer low season, classes and environmental projects still keep locals employed.
Although many local guides quit their dreams over the past several years, Hernandez says Centro PUMA kept him on Ometepe. For Alvarez, the project gave her the flexibility of a part-time job as she works on her farm and cares for her mother and aunt. For us, it is a winter occupation to complement our summer jobs. But mostly, for the community and youth who learn English, plant trees, and dream of working in tourism, and for the visitors who advocate for sustainable ecotourism, Centro PUMA is a dream for a better future.
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