Sunday, March 3, 2024

Projects for 2024 at Centro PUMA

Each year that passes we have been able to focus more on our projects and less on how to keep our organizations surviving. After most nonprofits were closed down over the past 2 years in Nicaragua, Centro PUMA has successfully completed our first year under the legal and financial control of the tour guide cooperative, COTUCOGUITO. The majority of our funding still comes from Guías Unidos, a project of Earth Island Institute (a 501 (c)(3) organization) in the USA, but now Centro PUMA’s projects also get financial support from our café and direct environmental grant organizations such as Green Grants Foundation, as managed by COTUCOGUITO. Here’s a look at our 3 main projects for 2024, the Junior Ranger program, free English classes, and a new reforestation experiment.

Junior Ranger program





Our Junior Ranger program is a year-long, environmental education program for 5th and 6th graders local to Centro PUMA. The heart of the program begins during January, the last month of “summer vacation” for 26 kids before returning to school from the holidays. We led half-day classes twice a week for 4 weeks, culminating in an all-day excursion around the island.

Classes included daily games and teambuilding activities.



Topics included Leave no Trace, plants, animals, water, ecosystems, and geology/volcanoes.

Field trips are not part of school curriculum, and locals rarely are able to visit and enjoy the tourist attraction that their local island offers, so we try to change that with our excursion. So we rented a school bus for the day



and took them to Finca Magdalena to visit the historic coffee farm and take a hike to the petroglyphs.
























Next, we went to Playa Peru and took each kid individually on a kayak paddle along the bay. It was each kid’s first time, so we paired each of them with an experienced adult, but we let the kids do the paddling, of course!


We visited Peñas Incultas, one of the best-preserved tropical dry hardwood forests in Nicaragua.


Peñas incultas is one of the best nesting areas for the yellow-naped amazon parrot, a critically endangered species that has one of its last strongholds on Ometepe Island. Sure enough, we saw the endangered parrots and even found a beautiful feather.







Finally, we ended the day on the beach where the kids got to play in the water (with 3 adult lifeguards around the kids at all times)



and play games on the beach until they were exhausted and brought home.



We are continuing the Junior Ranger activites on a monthly basis until they complete a final project and graduate at the end of the year. Graduated students will continue to be invited to events and to work with the project as they grow up, cultivating a new generation of stewards of the environment.




English Classes

Every year we put out a call to the community for free saturday English classes. Initially, it was hard to generate interest, but as our popularity has grown each year, things really started to grow, especially by last year, when we got over 60 students. Well, we weren’t quite ready for the explosion to continue at the same rate, so when over 130 kids signed up, we had a problem as the enrollment petitions didn’t stop. As we put the latecomers on a waitlist, we still had to figure out how to more than double our capacity from last year.

There were a few days of chaos, trying to organize the kids into classes at staggered times.



But we eventually broke the kids into groups of fewer than 20 kids into 3 periods of the day, for a total of 7 classes. This is followed by a 4th “period” of our English Café activity open to youth and adults to practice English over a complimentary cup of coffee.



Even with staggering the classes throughout the day, it was still necessary to have up to 3 classes running simultaneously. This had to be achieved while keeping Centro PUMA’s café open. Centro PUMA has one dedicated classroom and an auditorium that can be used as café seating or closed off as a classroom. The café has a reception/dining room, library, and an outdoor shelter for clients. In the past, we held English classes in the café areas, but with its increasing popularity this year, we no longer had this space available. To create more space, we fast-tracked a long-term project we’ve been planning, to build an additional shelter outside with a palm-thatched roof as an additional classroom area, the “Rancho.” The extra classes and the Rancho were not originally budgeted this year, but with a lot of local help and with a healthy donation campaign at the end of 2023, we were able to finish the Rancho just in time for English classes, and we hope to continue campaigning for sufficient funds to keep our classes going.



In addition to sustaining our English classes throughout the year, we are offering English classes and tutoring during the week to the kids waitlisted after the original enrollment of 130. In all, our small center is serving up to 150 kids with English lessons. It has been encouraging to see many tourists and foreigners inquire about helping, who show up at classes to read or talk to kids. Weekly classes are not enough to learn a language, but we hope to inspire kids by scheduling fun activities and exposing their ears to different accents and native speakers along with our local experts who use English with tourists.

Reforestation

We have been planting thousands of trees every year, but it has sadly become evident that just planting trees is not enough. With no actively protected areas on the island, most trees succumb to agricultural needs or are cut down for firewood. Our monitoring of our previous reforestation efforts has shown that fewer than 10% of the trees live for more than 3 years. This year, the guide cooperative of Centro PUMA is armed with a new grant from Global Greengrants Foundation to investigate new reforestation strategies. We will compare our previous strategy of planting on private and public lands upon invitation, but we will augment with 2 experimental strategies: paying landowners a yearly stipend depending on the survival of their trees, and renting land where we will plant and protect trees at our own expense. The ultimate goal of this project is not just to have better survival rates, but to identify the true cost of reforestation so that we and future projects can make more realistic budgets for true reforestation efforts.





There is a quote of unknown origin (sometimes attributed without proof to Martin Luther) that says, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” This is a good philosophy for our project. It’s hard to tell which of our trees will survive, which of our lessons will be remembered, which of our kids will be inspired. Though we hope to maximize our impact with proven methods, we take our projects day by day, creating small experiences for all our people involved no matter what tomorrow may bring.

Monday, April 10, 2023

2023: A new normal?

 This season was all about reestablishing Centro PUMA and its programs, and getting the café into full swing. 

Some things established themselves while we were gone - the garden went from a stomped-down construction zone with a few baby plants to a tropical oasis in less than a year.

Photos by Reese Hume

Somethings took a lot more effort, of course. These folks are who makes that happen!


After several months of being closed due to legal restructuring of our partner organization, we reopened the café in December 2022. We quickly got noticed by tourists, national and international, and locals on a date night. We offer vegetarian and vegan meals that can't be found elsewhere in our part of the island, and the best cup of coffee in Altagracia!


English classes continued for local kids, growing from a couple of dozen students to 60 with a waiting list. We are adding classes at different times to accommodate the overflow. New evening classes for adult beginners are also popular.


We didn't get our legal status in time to do our full Junior Ranger program this year, but we were able to do a few lessons in March, culminating in a final excursion to natural places on the island.


Photos by Reese Hume

The environmental education students also decorated the classroom with a new mural, featuring some of their favorite plants and animals:


The project is moving along, and we look forward to what we can accomplish together next year!



Thursday, December 8, 2022

A photo guide to getting from the airport in Liberia, Costa Rica to Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Note: As of July 2023, COVID-19 requirements are no longer in effect for Nicaragua and Costa Rica. No vaccine card nor negative PCR test are required. 

All of this information was gathered on our trip in early November 2022, so prices and other details may change. All prices are per person unless otherwise noted.

What you need before you go:
- Have your passport up to date, valid at least 6 months beyond when you plan to return to your home country. Have your COVID vaccine card with your passport so you can show it at the border. If you’re not fully vaccinated, a web search will help you keep up to date on what the requirements are for entering Nicaragua.

- There is a form for entering the country that usually is not asked for, but technically can be required of you to fill out at least one week in advance of entering the country. The form is found at https://solicitudes.migob.gob.ni/ and more information can be found at https://nica-biz.com/entry-to-nicaragua-online-application-form/. The most common difficulty in filling it out is when it asks you who invited you to the country - you can put down the contact information for a hotel or someone you know in the country. ***Update: this website seems to not be working for anyone. When you fill out the form and hit "submit," it gets hung up. No one seems to have had a problem getting through the border without the form (if you have had trouble, please let us know!).

- You need US dollars in exact change, crisp bills with no rips, stains, or markings. You’ll have to pay $10 for the Costa Rican exit fee (unless you pay ahead online at https://www.bancobcr.com/wps/portal/bcr/bancobcr/personas/solicitudes_en_linea/pago_impuesto_salida_terrestre/, then it’s only $8, but have a receipt!), $1 to enter the Nicaraguan border building, $13 for the Nicaraguan entry fee, and taxis will take payment in USD as well.

- Costa Rica requires proof of departure before 180 days is up. This is usually a flight out within 180 days, though it can be a bus ticket to some other country, though the bus tickets can be hard to get before you get to the bus station… Our latest flight in November was the first time we were required to carry proof of return flight while checking into the flight, so have it ready in whichever airport you are departing from! How to get past the 180 day limit is beyond the scope of this blog, but web searches can help.

- Nicaraguan immigration will want to know where you are going to stay when you’re in country. A hotel reservation screenshot or a friend’s phone number and address should suffice, but have those on hand when going through the border. They will also usually ask your profession, so have a simple answer for them – teacher, lawyer, something of that sort. Sometimes Nicaragua asks for a return ticket as well, but it is variable--better to have one ready just in case!

- Nicaraguan customs will take drones and binoculars from you, so it’s best not to try to carry them. If you have multiple laptops or smartphones, or anything else of great value, they may want to tax you. There were restrictions put on professional, journalism-grade cameras and on binoculars, but it seems at least the restrictions on binoculars were lifted around March 2023. Most cameras are fine.

- The trip from Liberia to Ometepe takes many hours, so unless you land in Liberia in the morning, you might want to plan to stay a night there. Our favorite place to stay is Hospedaje Dodero, and reservations via booking.com are recommended.

When you land at the Liberia airport, follow the crowd through immigration (an official will stamp your passport – they will ask about when you are leaving the country, so be prepared to answer here too), pick up any checked luggage, then go through customs (you’ll have to run your bags through an x-ray, and they will occasionally ask to see your passport). No forms are needed for immigration or customs. There are money changing booths in the room with immigration and another with baggage pick-up. I’m sure they’re not a great deal, but we just changed $20 to Costa Rican colones to have bus fare.

After the luggage x-ray, you’ll go through a door and be confronted by all kinds of drivers with signs for who they are there to pick up. There will be a person there to help you get a taxi if you want one ($20 to town no matter how many people, 10-15 minutes) – they keep the taxi drivers honest. Taxis are out the door to the right. If you would rather take a bus, go to the left and to the far side of the airport (30-45 minutes plus wait time, 600 colones (about $1), pay the driver at the front of the bus – they may ask you to go to the back of the bus if you have luggage, or to put it under the bus if there are many people with lots of luggage).




Busses from the airport to Liberia will drop you near the main bus station, often one block east. (Taxis obviously will drop you where you’d like.) Our favorite place to stay, Hospedaje Dodero, is two blocks north.

Photo: If you’re seeing this from where the bus drops you, the bus station is behind you.

In the bus station itself, the bus to the border is the third bus in, helpfully labeled “Frontera” (“border”) in the window and “Liberia – Peñas Blancas” up top. If the bus isn’t there, the folks wandering around selling food and drinks will be happy to point you in the right direction if you ask them “Donde estará el bus que va a la frontera?” You will pay the driver at the front of the bus (2000 colones per person as of October 2023, equivalent to less than $4), and also ask them to help you with any bags you want to put under the bus (which will be anything beyond a small bag you can keep in your lap) – your bags are going with you to the last stop, “terminal” or “frontera,” so be sure the driver knows that as they put them below. 





We always do this leg by bus, as taxis in Costa Rica are quite expensive. The ride from Liberia to the border is about $80.

The bus ride takes about 1.5 to 2 hours. You’ll get out at the last stop, which is inside the fence of the Costa Rican border building. Before you talk to the customs agents in this building, you must have a receipt for the Costa Rican exit tax (unless you came directly from the airport to the border - this tax is waived if you spend less than 12 hours in the country). Currently there are machines that look like ATMs inside where you can pay it with a credit card, but they have not always reliably worked. It can be paid ahead online (https://www.bancobcr.com/wps/portal/bcr/bancobcr/personas/solicitudes_en_linea/pago_impuesto_salida_terrestre/). If both of those options don't work, you must go back outside the fence (back the way the bus came) to the two houses where they will take $10, look at your passport, and give you a receipt for your tax. Either one of the houses will do.

Photo: Looking back from where the bus drops you off to where the tax houses are.




Inside the Costa Rican border building, you’ll need to show that exit tax receipt and your passport, and they’ll give you a stamp. 


Once you’re out, you’ll be walking a ways to the Nicaraguan side with a couple stops along the way to show random police your passport (if walking is too difficult, sometimes there are bicycle taxis who can help). Go north (the bus came from the south):


Cross the road just past the fence:


Just in case the police in the little white shed want to see your passport – they sometimes do, sometimes don’t.


Keep going north, and cross the road again so you can show the police on the sidewalk your passport and COVID vaccination proof.


You’ll finally get to the Nicaraguan border building.


You’ll first need to stop by the nurses’ window to show your COVID vaccination proof. They will give you a card to bring with you into the building.


Once inside the main building, someone will approach you to pay a $1 municipal tax to be in the building. They will often refuse to give change, so have $1 for them. Then you’ll go to one of the windows that is staffed and get your entry stamp – they will want to see your passport and get $13, and they also often don’t give change. They will likely ask for where you are going in Nicaragua, and this is where a screenshot of a hotel reservation or friends’ phone numbers and addresses will be useful. When done there, you’ll go to the x-ray booth to run your baggage through.

Our recent trip through the border was one of the fastest we have done, taking 50 minutes from when the bus dropped us off on the Costa Rican side to when we got out of the Nicaraguan border side. If lines are long or if immigration decides to ask you lots of extra questions (which happens to us since we have so many Nicaragua/Costa Rica stamps and typically won’t happen to tourists), it could take two or three hours. This uncertainty is why we only attempt the border crossing with a morning start from Liberia.

Once you are out of the building, keep walking north toward the exit of the parking lot. A couple bus companies can park their busses here, but they are the high-cost companies. If you’re looking for a cheap ride or a taxi, pass by these busses. Head for the exit, where you will show your passport one last time.


Photo: In the background is the last passport checkpoint. We didn't want to appear to be taking the police officer's photo, so this is the best we've got.

As soon as you are past this checkpoint, you will be bombarded with taxis, money changers, and phone sim card vendors. Rumor has it these money changers offer good value, but we don’t know from experience. We did get ripped off by a phone sim seller, so we won’t get it there again – we’ll wait until we can get to the real shop near home. If you want to take a taxi to the Ometepe ferry from here, the price should be $25 or less for a private taxi. A collectivo taxi (multiple people), might charge 100-200 cordobas, but they are hard to find among the private taxistas bomarding you if you look like a tourist. All taxistas will try to sell it to you for more, so prepare to bargain. If you want to take a bus, keep walking north a block or two’s distance until you see the bus station on the left.


The bus will be going at least to Rivas, and perhaps farther north. In Nicaragua, you talk to the bus’s “ayudante” (“helper”), not the driver. You don’t pay up front, you wait for the ayudante to come by sometime on the ride to take your money.

Photo: A particularly crowded bus with the ayudante taking money. If you don’t give exact change, don’t be shocked if the ayudante takes your larger bill and walks away for a while – they will return with your change before you leave the bus.

You will take the bus from the border to “la gasolinera” in Rivas (40 cordobas or just over $1, less than one hour). If you say you’re going to San Jorge (the mainland port town for the ferry to Ometepe), they should offer “la gasolinera,” and if you ask they will let you know when you’re near the stop so you can get off in time. It is easy to miss this stop if you are on a bus going beyond Rivas, so it's good to ask someone to help you, or take a taxi if you are not certain. Rivas-direct buses will turn into the bus station, about 5 blocks west of the gasolinera, where you will be bombarded with aggressively overcharging taxistas, so if you end up there, it's best to walk east towards the gasolinera and get a cheaper taxi.

Photo: The sign before the gasolinera in Rivas.

Photo: The gasolinera at the turnoff to the Ometepe ferry.

When you get off at the gasolinera, you may be lucky to have a bus going by to San Gorge and the ferry dock, but they are much less frequent than other busses. We usually take a “colectivo,” or a taxi that will pick up other people on the way (30 cordoba or $1, ten to fifteen minutes). They may charge you a little more for being a foreigner, or charge you up to double if you have extremely bulky luggage, but never pay more than double the going price!

Photo: “Colectivos” or taxi rideshares who will take you from the gasolinera to the ferry dock.

**NOTE** There have been reports of fraud at the port. If someone comes up to you here and tells you that you need reservations for transportation on the island, or that there are no hotels with space, etc – IGNORE THEM. They will give you ridiculous prices and dubious reservations. If someone offers to help you through the process of paying fees and buying ferry tickets, sometimes they are legit – but as soon as they say they can arrange transport, hotels, or tours for you on the Ometepe side, get away from them.

You will be dropped off outside the gate to the port. At the small booth next to the gate, you’ll pay a $1 (they keep up with the current exchange rate, currently 37 cordobas) port fee. You will be given a small receipt – keep this on you just in case you are asked for it, which rarely but occasionally happens.

Pass through the gate and walk past the parking lots. You will see a set of buildings on the left where you can purchase ferry tickets (50 cordobas). If the ferry is about to leave in the next ten minutes, skip this step and buy your ticket on the ferry during the ride. If you have time, though, they prefer you buy tickets at these windows. Check the schedule above the awnings for which ferry company is providing the next ferry, then go to that company’s window to buy your ticket. They are usually honest at the window and will tell you if they are the next ferry or not. We try to keep the schedule up to date at:https://sites.google.com/view/pumatoursometepe/ometepe-transportation



Keep walking toward the dock. If you have lots of extra time, there are a couple small restaurants that you can relax at, buying a drink or a meal. Once it’s time for the boat, you’ll pass through another gate where someone will approach you with a clipboard and ask you to write down your name and passport number. This is required by the government for everyone boarding the ferry.


Enjoy the ride! It takes a little over an hour from San Jorge on the mainland to Moyogalpa on the island. (One or two ferries a day go to San Jose del Sur, another port on Ometepe that isn’t too far from Moyogalpa – if you end up on this ferry, the landing is pretty simple, as there should be a bus waiting which will take you to Altagracia, etc. For the purposes of this blog, we’re assuming you land in Moyogalpa.)


The exact dock you’ll land at in Moyogalpa depends on the water level. They are close together, but on different sides of the bus stop (see 2023 note below - the bus stop is temporarily up one block). If you walk off the ferry and see a large sculpture of the island’s two volcanoes, go left to find the bus stop (see 2023 note below). If you walk off the ferry and see strange parking lots and have to walk through a small gate past a building to follow the crowd, the bus stop will be to your right (see 2023 note below). You are looking for a building marked “Ferry El Che Guevara.” We try to keep bus schedules up to date at: https://sites.google.com/view/pumatoursometepe/ometepe-transportation



Photos: Coming out of the higher-water port, with the bus stop to the right.


Late 2023 update - due to road construction, the bus is now picking up at Gasolinera Sta Ana, one block uphill/east/toward the volcano from the port - see photo below
Gasolinera Sta Ana, the bus stop while construction continues
1 block uphill/east/toward the volcano from the old bus stop

The bus will sometimes be waiting when the ferry comes in and take off shortly after, but sometimes it won’t. We had to wait about 45 minutes for our bus.

Busses from Moyogalpa all go to Altagracia first (22 cordobas, 1 hour), and will sometimes continue on to the other side of the island. Busses are the way to go on the island for the majority of your travel, as taxis are expensive here, $30+ to get anywhere. Some taxistas will tell you there are no buses to trick you into buying their service--be careful!

Photo: The bus stop at the park in Altagracia

If you’re heading to Centro PUMA in Altagracia, which we highly recommend, you’ll get off at the main Altagracia stop at the park, then walk one block ahead, turn left, and go one block more. We’ve got refreshing coffee and smoothies for the weary traveler, a chill place to hang out, and good tour info if you’re interested. Visit our webpage, google profile, or facebook page for our updated opening hours:
Our webpage: https://www.guiasunidos.org/centro-puma/
Google: https://g.co/kgs/7nhCLD
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/guiasunidosnicaragua/


If you’re heading to the Maderas side of the island, you can go into Altagracia and pick up a bus at the main station at the park going to Balgue or Merida. All Maderas busses will pass through Santo Domingo and Santa Cruz. Or if you want to skip Altagracia, you can get off the Moyogalpa-Altagracia bus at El Quino (pronounced El Key-no) and wait there for the next bus heading your way. Sometimes a bus is waiting at El Quino for the Moyogalpa-Altagracia bus to pass to pick up passengers transferring to the south end of the island (like the pink bus in the picture below). We try to keep bus schedules up to date at: https://sites.google.com/view/pumatoursometepe/ometepe-transportation

Photo: The bus stop at El Quino

Enjoy your stay on La Isla, the oasis of peace!