Sunday, November 19, 2017

Back in Nicaragua for 2017/2018

A blog by Jeff:
That's not Nicaragua, it's Denali National Park.

We're at it once again. The seasonal park jobs are over, and we're back to working full time with Guias Unidos. At least as full time as we can. It's been a challenging year--professionally the timing has been good, but personally the timing has been a tough. Because of family needs, Kate had to decline her job in Denali this summer and is living in Seattle permanently. I had to rove Alaskan Range by myself. Well, maybe not by myself, but without Kate.
Ranger Jeff leads a "Discovery Hike," an off-trail wilderness trek in Denali

Not tied to the intense ranger schedule, Kate has been involved with the National Association of Interpretation, NAI. She went to their international conference in Mexico (boondoggle, baby!) and she just returned from their national conference in Spokane (must be legit if it's in Spokane?). When I came back to Seattle in October, we were just in time to take NAI's Certified Interpretive Guide Trainer course to become certified trainers. That means we'll be official soon!
The CIT class of 2017, at Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park in Seattle

Timing has been good to not migrate back to Florida for the winter, even though we will miss our alligator-infused river of grass. The National Park Service (NPS) was never designed for the oxymoron of the "permanent seasonal" employees that we used to be. They are cracking down on rehire if you work more than 6 months per year. That means this is the right year to do something different for the winter, both for me and potential volunteers.

I am working with lots of partners in Nicaragua to get new activities up and running, and Kate is running administrative support from the gray chill of the Pacific Northwest. And speaking of chill, after having spent a summer in Alaska, Nicaragua feels very hot to me right now! But the cool trade winds blow over Lake Nicaragua and between the volcanoes at night, making it livable. Let's not discuss the bugs right now, though.
This is the view of the farm from my bedroom. That's Volcan Concepcion in the background.

Guias Unidos has a lot of new things planned in Nicaragua this year. New England Biolabs Foundation awarded us a grant to set up a resource center and pay some guides to help with our programs. We've also gotten some generous donations from friends, family, and a few strangers to help with all the expenses. We've also hand some generous equipment donations from a network of people. Amy Simso Dean and some generous birders from Minnesota donated a suitcase full of binoculars to us. Kate's cousin, Leah Schedin, transported them to Seattle, from where I took them to Nicaragua. So even though our budget is tight, we think we can get a lot done with it. We're planning on having a few volunteers/students join from the USA, so that will help out.

Well, that's the news from Lake Nicaragua, where all the bull sharks are strong, all the birds are good looking, and all the volcanoes are higher than average.
The twin volcanoes of Ometepe Island.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Recruiting volunteers!

We've been quiet lately, but we've been plugging away in the background, we promise! We have some big news about a grant coming up soon, but first, please check out our new recruitment video for volunteers:

We'd really appreciate what help we can get from skilled folks. One major project coming up (more in the blog about the grant) is starting a guide-ranger program to help compensate guides for work in the Maderas Protected Area that in a US National Park would be done by rangers - trail design, search and rescue, and understanding the use patterns in the Protected Area to prioritize what should be done. There will still be guide training opportunities, as well as many others. A big change is that Kate may not be able to go to Nicaragua for a long period of time due to family commitments in the US, so Jeff will really need any help he can get down there!

If any of this is of interest to you, check out If you think someone you know might be interested, please pass this on! We appreciate your help.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Donations are now tax deductible!

Due to our new status as a project of a non-profit (501 c3) organization, we can offer tax deductible status for donations. You can donate at our new Acceptiva page by clicking here. All information about tax deductions comes to your email once you put your information into that site.

Thanks in advance!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Earth Island Institute

We have big news! Guias Unidos has been accepted as a project of Earth Island Institute (EII). EII is a "fiscal sponsor," which is a less-than-clear name for an umbrella organization that helps small projects like ours with the administrative parts of being a non-profit organization. So now we can officially get tax-free donations and apply to grants that are only for non-profit organizations, but we don't have to go through all the complicated business and law messiness to become a non-profit ourselves.

This also means that we have been "vetted" by an organization, EII, that has a more than 30 years of experience in what they do. They currently have about 75 projects under their watch, and some past projects have spun off to become their own major players. EII was started in 1980 by the first president of the Sierra Club, David Brower, and is to this day run by a group of people with lots of experience in social and environmental work.

We spent a couple days with the EII team in Berkeley, CA getting aquainted to their resources and work, and we're pretty excited to be working with them. If you'd like to see what they do, check them out at, and especially the Earth Island Journal at

Speaking of journals, Jeff got an article published in Ranger Magazine, the journal of the Association of National Park Rangers. You can read it on pages 15 and 16 (pdf pages 17 and 18) at We're hoping to get more word out there about our project soon.

For now, we're still applying for funding for the next steps. Some ideas include to create a resource library in one or two locations on the island (an office, basically, with computer training and guide books, etc.), and paying guides to be like rangers on the trails, keeping track of who is there, what is being done, and helping out where necessary. Likely, we won't have enough funding (the goal being $15,000) to go in June, so we're also applying to summer park jobs in the US. Not a bad backup... We'll likely be going back to Ometepe in October, and staying through March or early April.

And, of course, we're still having fun. We took the opportunity of being in the Bay Area to spend a weekend in San Francisco. So beautiful!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Finishing in Nicaragua for 2016

We knew the fun had to come to an end, so we made sure to squeeze in one more project before our time was up.

After our first-aid training course we took with the Ometepe Guides in June, we decided that the theory was helpful, but we wanted more practice (and more tourist-specific topics, such as heat exhaustion, dehydration, and sanitation), and we thought the guides should have first aid kits to go along with their training. In the USA you may be able to stop by your local convenience store and buy a first aid kit, but it's not so easy in rural Nicaragua. We were able to get lots of supplies from the local pharmacy, and using our sewing skills and some ideas from the internet, we put together our own custom kit--well stocked for the wilderness.

We then hired a local tailor to make us 18 more (Gracias Angel Vela!).

The kit rolls up and fits in a small bag.

It ended up costing $27 per kit, which would be a great deal for US standards, but we had to consider that this kit costs about an average week's wage in Nicaragua. Would you spend a week's wage on a small first aid kit? I wouldn't! Since we had some funds left over from the generous donations of our supporters, we subsidized the costs of the kits down to $7 each, and we put together a refresher course and practical training workshop for the guides who signed up. We had a nice crowd that afternoon, especially as our last workshop doubled as our despedida (good-bye festival).

We put together kits

Then used them to treat simulated injuries.

Then went straight for the piñata (which happened to be a yellow-naped amazon parrot--one of the threatened species that finds refuge on the island).

By the end of the night, the parrot's head was on Willmore's head.

We also had our last classes with the Si a la Vida kids. We read The Giving Tree again.
And we read the Lorax.

Both of these books we also bought with your donations, and left behind with our partners in Nicaragua.

The school put on another big despedida for us, just two days after our first despedida with the guides. The kids danced for us,

and we had another piñata!

And after a beautiful morning spent together on the beach, we had to say good-bye to the kids as they left on their "school bus."

We also said good-bye to our home on the farm. Kate planted some interesting plants with the hopes that they will grow and bring us food next year when we return. You can also see the doors that Jeff varnished in the background.

We left our island home, with hopes of returning to see all of our wonderful friends there again soon. We'll leave out the details of how Jeff managed to get another stomach bug the night before leaving, oddly similar to the stomach bug he got the night before leaving the USA to come to Nicaragua.

It wasn't over, however.  We still had 5 days (or so we thought) to do some sightseeing in Masaya and meet with some folks at the Embassy before flying home.

There's an active volcano in Masaya, so we couldn't turn down seeing that. There's an active lava lake in the volcano--even better! For health and safety reasons, you can only visit for 15 minutes, but we designed our tour around it. We hired transportation that brought us to the edge. We looked down into the glowing caldera.

listened to the glowing-red smoke spew out of the depths,

and we saw the lava lake bubbling and sloshing in the bottom. We took some video of the event and put it on youtube:

Due to a strange twist of luck and unluck, the very same night as the volcano we noticed that there was a hurricane heading to Florida on the day our flight was to arrive. We had tickets with one of those discount airlines, you know the ones that don't have mutual agreements with regular airlines, so you can't just reroute your flight. I won't name the airline, but let's just say it rhymes with "Schpirit." Anyway, they only have one flight every other day, so if a flight is cancelled, displaced travelers could spend a week or more trying to squeeze into the following flights. Well, on our way to the volcano, "Schpirit" put in a travel advisory that allowed for free ticket transfers. The only flight available for us to change to was two days earlier than our planned departure. In other words, it was that very night, just a few hours after our volcano tour. And we booked it. So on the way back from our lava lake excursion, Jeff found a taxi would take us to the airport in Managua (about a 50 minute drive). Suffice to say, the next morning we woke up in Fort Lauderdale, and the Nicaragua chapter of our 2016 adventure came to a close.

Monday, September 26, 2016

More workshops and teaching

 One of our big goals in our Guias Unidos project was to perform guide training workshops. We haven't written a lot about this yet, but we've been busy with workshops and other projects. In August we set up a pair of interpretive method training workshops--The basics of presentations one day,
Jeff gives an example of using audience participation techniques
 and then practice presentations on a separate day. Kate and I both came down with the zika virus (not officially diagnosed, but extremely likely according to our symptoms) in the middle of our workshop series. Kate was bedridden with an intensely-itching, full-body rash and some aches.
Kate's back with the zika rash
  I (Jeff) got a light rash with aches and swollen joints. Kate couldn't even wear clothes, so since I was just sore but decently attired, I completed the workshops on my own. I admittedly did not do a good job, but we were on a tight schedule. I hooked them up to microphones and filmed their talks so that we could watch them later, when we would be in a better state of mind.
Yilmer tells us a story about the crazy Magpie Jays here.

Willmore shivered in his coat when as temperatures dropped into the mid 70s.  
  As soon as we felt better, we had to go to Costa Rica for our visa run and to visit the projects we had planned (see our previous blog post).

After returning to Ometepe, we got back to teaching.  We did a couple birding workshops in the field, one taking place at Charco Verde, and the other at Peñas Incultas, both popular birding and hiking spots. Some of the guides were experienced, and others were complete beginners with birding. We did a basic intro on how to use binoculars, how to use bird books, then we went out for a couple hours and helped each other out with identifications.
Birding at Charco Verde
  Each day we were able to identify 25-30 bird species. This would not have been possible without your donations and the grant from Idea Wild that supplied us with binoculars and books. Thank you to everyone!
Birding at Peñas Incultas
Although we've been busy, we've tried to help Arlin with his free English classes for the kids of Altagracia.
Arlin teaching English
 We co-taught a few classes (though Arlin is doing most of the work), and we took the kids on an environmental education outing one weekend. We looked at birds, bugs, and monkeys,
Kids stop to look at howler monkeys in the trees
 And we made animals in the sand at the beach.
Playing in the sand at the beach
Both English skills and environmental awareness are important skills to have in this area where ecotourism is a growing economic force. So we applaud Arlin for this endeavor, and we hope to support the classes more next year.

We also took a day trip with the folks who work at the Finca (Farm) Si a la Vida (where we live now). We visited Finca Bona Fide, the permaculture farm where we worked 3 years ago. We bought a few plants and we’re going to use some of their techniques on our farm's volunteer housing area.
Si a la Vida crew visits Finca Bona Fide
 Next, Kate put together a Geology 101 workshop after spending nearly a week studying her favorite subject. Kate also spent a day preparing with a local Peace Corps Volunteer (Thank you Lindsay!) who is a geologist working on local risk maps for our volcanoes. Kate gave us a basic intro, geology 101, took us out on a "timeline of the earth" walk,
We hopped from shady spot to shady spot during the timescale walk--it was hot out!
 then gave us a nice slide show about some local details of the geology on Ometepe (Thank you Angelica from Fauna and Flora International for lending us the projector!).
Nothing like rocking chairs in a colonial house for our classroom!
 We also put together a short video of some of our experiences this summer and watched it with the guides. I hope to make a better one when I have more time and a better processor, but you can see what we put on Youtube:

For our last week here, we have one more workshop planned: first aid kits, but we’ll tell you more about that next week.

Since I don't have a good conclusion, let's just end with a picture of our farm's newest addition, a puppy named Duquesa (Duchess)! She's cute, and she now officially likes our hammocks!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Being Tourists

Nicaragua has a couple of high seasons, times when tourists flock to the country and guides have plenty of work. August is the peak of high season, so our work on Ometepe was more of a strain for the guides than a help. It was the perfect time to take off for a couple of weeks to see some other tourism hotspots in the region, to learn about how they work - and to have fun, of course!

We have a long list of places in Nicaragua that we have yet to see, and Rio San Juan was one. It is a river that feeds from the southeast side of Lago Cocibolca, the lake our island is in (but we're on the western side of the lake), to the Caribbean coast. Nicaraguans take a special pride in Rio San Juan - those who have been tell of its beauty, those who have not generally want to go. It's on the border of Costa Rica, and is strategically important, so I'm sure politics have something to do with the pride.

The trip starts in San Carlos. It is less of a tourist town and more of a hub for transport, especially for produce, as evidenced by these plantains recently arrived from our island.

We grabbed a seat on a fast boat to El Castillo, a famed tourist town on the river, known for its nearly 350 year old fort.

Town is quite pretty, and the fort above makes for an impressive arrival.
We got there late, but were immediately impressed by the calm and beauty of the town - and its sunsets.

Not a bad place to work for a bit.
Our original plan was to stay one night, check out the fort, and be on our way. But El Castillo captured us and kept us for three nights, so we could enjoy the place a little more.

Our guide for the tour of the fort, Holga, has been guiding for twenty or thirty years, most of those in El Castillo, so she really knows her stuff.

She is also quite aware that a lot of her job consists of taking photos of tourists :-)

The fort has incredible views of the river and town.

It has quite a nice little museum, as well.

Town isn't exactly huge, with perhaps a couple thousand residents, but we could just walk around for hours. One reason it's so walkable is that there are no vehicles at all - you boat in, then you walk. Period.
No exceptions.

Main Street.
But the main attraction of Rio San Juan is the huge tracts of untouched rainforest, including the Indio Maiz reserve. It's not somewhere you can just walk to, however. You have to take a boat to get there, and that means hiring someone. The rules in many Central American national parks and reserves are very different than what we're used to in the US - you can't just go anywhere you like. You must have a guide with you (it's illegal not to), and you must stay to very specific trails. Most of the reserve is completely off limits to the public, only open to biologists by permit and the native people who have always lived there.
The red dot on the map is where the open trails were.
The dark green is the reserve - it's bigger than Yosemite.

The two trails, for a total of 3.5 miles.
So, we found a guide and booked a tour. Jeff chanced upon Juan Ardilla, who turned out to be one of the best guides in town.

Juan was excited that Jeff wanted to look for birds, and planned a tour for us leaving at 6 am. Oh goody! We took a relaxing float down the river in a canoe, looking for birds along the banks and enjoying the early-morning quiet. When we arrived at the reserve, we found armed military soldiers protecting the trailhead - also a little different than our US parks, but whatever works. They apparently practice their skills at their camp in the reserve, as there were several pits dug around the place for them to lay in and shoot from.
Not expected, but interesting.
We put on our rented mudboots and got going on the trail. Mudboots are a good thing, let me tell you.

As any of you who have hiked with birdwatchers know, you don't work up much of a sweat. We stopped a lot to look up, and to look things up.

But looking down was important, too. Juan found a bullet ant nest, and a few wandering bullet ants, who are famous for their unbelievably painful sting - and he made sure to display a little of the Latin machismo by getting one to walk on his arm for a photo op.

There were other poisonous critters about, this being the jungle and all, but some were awfully pretty.
Poison dart frogs!

Nicknamed Rana Jeans (jeans frog) because it looks like it's wearing blue pants.
Spikey plants should be avoided, as well.

But some critters that looked dangerous weren't at all - although this lady was at least the size of a US quarter.

There were suprisingly few flowers, for how Hollywood likes to depict the rainforest, but this one was abundant.
"Labios calientes" - hot lips. No kidding!
By far more abundant were the fungi, which I found fascinating.

Humid, much?

Lunch was to be provided by the river - with a little effort put in.
One of Juan's catches.

Fellow tourist Lieve caught one, too,
although she was a little creeped out by it.

Jeff had less luck, but fed a lot of worms to the fish, so someone scored.
Alas, the weather had other plans. While fishing, a true jungle downpour dumped on us. We were fishing, bailing out the boat, laughing, and just sitting and watching it all.

Our ride home, a motorboat, showed up, so we hitched the canoe to the back, climbed in, and took a "cold" ride home. Juan was cold, anyway, and Jeff was getting there. Kate was finally feeling comfortable.

Then, it was off to Costa Rica, the more famous, more visited, and economically better-off southern neighbor of Nicaragua. Eight years ago, we visited Costa Rica for a short vacation, back when we had "real" jobs with only two weeks' vacation time per year. We were the typical tourists from the US, wanting to see everything in a short time, speaking almost no Spanish, and amazed by palm trees. (The palm tree thing hasn't changed, actually.)

We remembered from our first trip the tiny town of Tortuguero, another place with no vehicles and a small-town vibe. As the name implies, turtles come to lay eggs there every year, which brings in a lot of tourism in turtle season. The first time we went, it was off season, so there was hardly anyone there. This time, however, there were a lot more tourists - partially because of the season, partially because tourism has grown.

We went in the way we came out last time, considered the "back way," and then only used by locals. Things have changed...

It was cool to be in Tortuguero to see the turtle nests. The beach looked like it had been dug up by excavating equipment, complete with tractor tracks.

We did see one turtle - dead, unfortunately, but dang, it was big.

The one we saw was a green - but the really big ones are the leatherbacks:


We didn't go out on a night tour to watch the turtles nesting. Something seemed a little strange about standing around in a group while some poor turtle laid her eggs. But we did go on a canoe tour one morning, again with a lot of birding.

It was lovely out there, so peaceful in the canoe, except when we came upon a caiman. Just like in the Everglades, they were easy to find - just look for crowds of tourists:

Again, like Nicaragua's Indio Maiz reserve, there was just one walking trail tourists were permitted on, and it was a bit short. But we did go. Jeff got a bit muddy in the process (Kate used her rented mudboots).

There was only a little wildlife on the trail, since it was so close to town, but we did get a good look at a Golden Orb Weaver.

We got better looks at wildlife at our hotel, as it turns out. The owner came around one evening to bring everyone back by the laundry station to see the famous Red Eyed Tree Frogs, which happened to be en flagrante at the time.

We also found this little guy on the wall of our room - never did figure out his species, but he's big for a tree frog!

We spent a fair amount of our time on this trip discussing training with the guides we toured with and other guides we met along the way. The difference between Nicaragua and Costa Rica was distinct - there are no real regulations for the guides in Nicaragua, but training was mandatory in Costa Rica. The Costa Rican government requires two years' training, but makes it relatively easy by bringing teachers to each place to train the local guides. Several years ago they had been to Tortuguero, where they stayed for two years. This is quite a surprise to me, as Tortuguero is pretty out of the way, and there are about 150 guides there. But Costa Rica takes its tourism economy very seriously.

Now that we are home, we are taking some of the lessons we learned from the guides and community in Tortuguero (and in Ostional, where we visited the projects of Paso Pacifico in July) to the guides of Ometepe and seeing what we can do to adapt them to the realities of guiding here. It is unlikely that we could (or would need to) require so much training time from our guides, as they are already guiding and have families to support. But hopefully we can create some in-between solution that will provide enough training to bring Ometepe's visitor service standards up, while acknowledging what our guides already know from experience.

Our last month here is during the slow season for tourism, which means we have a schedule packed with workshops and meetings. Birds and rocks and first aid, oh my! Look for blogs soon detailing the work side of our work - we don't just travel, we promise :-)