Project Directors Jeff and Kate Zylland are devoted to promoting community-based ecotourism, education, and guiding. Since 2010 they have lived the seasonal life, working for up to six months at a time in National Parks and environmental education centers in the US, and volunteering internationally.
While volunteering in Nicaragua during the winter of 2011, Jeff and Kate visited Ometepe Island and met a tour guide named Arlin Hernandez. Arlin spoke of organizing a cooperative of guides on the island to educate and set quality and safety standards for tours. Training and educational resources, Arlin said, could be hard to come by. But as park rangers and environmental educators in the United States, Kate and Jeff had access to training resources. They also saw volunteer opportunities for outdoor professionals who are often underemployed in the USA winter. An idea was born.
Guías Unidos, or “Guides United” has grown from the initial idea to include us, our many partner organizations, and the volunteers who help us out from both sides of the border.
Guías Unidos began pilot projects on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua during the summer of 2016. We developed guide training programs, environmental education for children, and we partnered with local organizations and stakeholders. In November 2017 we began developing our volunteer program and creating an office and resource center to operate and administer our projects. Some of our successes include:
Maintenance, reconnaissance, and planning of trails on Ometepe’s protected areas. Trever, a volunteer intern and seasonal Park Ranger in the USA, focused much of his work on the trails initiative.
Geology field training and training workshop run by Chelsea, a masters student with University of Montana and seasonal park ranger in the USA.
With funds raised from our “Nature Libre” campaign, we are sponsoring school field trips. We have already brought nearly 100 students, teachers, and parents to Charco Verde, a natural reserve popular with tourists. For most participants, it was their first time there, and their first field trip ever.
In April 2018 a political uprising caused enough tension in the country that we can no longer host international volunteers due to liability. It also reduced the number of tourists to a trickle, and the local guides we work with no longer had the income they were accustomed to. We shifted our focus from majority guide training and building ecotourism infrastructure, to community education and building local support for ecological preservation.
Our current projects are showing promise, with up to 50 regular English class participants per week, enthusiastic attendees at English Cafe, 5000 tree seedlings planted, and the beginnings of an organic garden enterprise. Kids come hang out in Centro PUMA and read books, play with educational toys, learn musical instruments, and have a safe space to be with friends. Tour guides and teachers are getting regular work despite the slow tourism.
Our project model is for us, as park rangers, to focus our work on Ometepe during the US winter (October-April) when there is less ecotourism work in the USA. During the US summer, we return to the US for the summer tourism season while our Nicaraguan guide partners continue running the program.
Cooperativa Guías Turisticas de Ometepe is the group Arlin and his colleagues formed to bring better guiding services to Ometepe Island.
Sanito Nicaragua develops sustainable solutions to social, economic, and environmental problems. As they are a registered nonprofit in Nicaragua with experience in managing an environmental fund for the Amigos de Ometepe, we are contracting with them to help manage our labor and financial needs.
Amigos de Ometepe is a new, grassroots organization of Ometepe ecotourism professionals, hotel and business owners, and other stakeholders who want to help protect the island’s natural resources. Guías Unidos is a partner, lending our experience in public lands to the protection of the Volcan Maderas Nature Reserve.
Fauna y Flora Internacional Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been active in Nicaragua since 1998, contributing to biodiversity conservation and strengthening local and national partners. The FFI programme in Nicaragua works together with the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, local NGOs and communities to support the management of protected areas.
Loreros Observando Conservando Ometepe (LOCO) organized around protecting the Yellow-naped Amazon, an endangered parrot with a remaining stronghold on Ometepe. Deforestation and the illegal pet trade threaten its wild populations, so the LOCOs are working on projects in local education, reforestation, and rescue and rehabilitation of parrots.
Si a la Vida (SALV) works on Ometepe as well as in Managua, to prevent substance abuse and domestic violence through reaching out to at-risk youth in local communities and providing after-school tutoring, counseling, and out-of-the-box education. Guias Unidos has taught environmental education classes and sponsored a nature field trip with the SALV kids.
Guias Unidos is a project of Earth Island Institute (EII), a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. EII is a fiscal sponsor for over 70 environmental and community activism projects.