For my birthday this year, we had the pleasure of discovering some ecotourism in Nicaragua, while staying at Haceinda Merida on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua. Though the last 7km cycling down the dirt road to the hotel was a bit of a challenge, it was worth it in the end.
Hacienda Merida is a unique hotel, as it provides funding to a number of different projects, as well as using eco-bricks to build a free, bilingual school for the kids in the area.
We spent 4 nights at the hotel, and had the opportunity to explore the school as well as visit the Ometepe Biological Station, which is the starting point for the hike to San Ramon waterfall.
What are Eco-Bricks?
Hacienda Merida buys eco-bricks from the community. An eco-brick is essential a 1.5L plastic bottles, filled with rubbish. Each brick cost US0.50 cents, and contains 500g of non-organic waste. This incentive helps to educate the local community about non-organic waste, as well as reducing the amount of waste that ends up in the environment, or being burnt in the streets. These bricks are then used to build the walls of the school, and other structures such as outdoor tables and chairs.
Public education is free in Nicaragua, however it’s generally not very good, and definitely not bilingual. The Ometepe Bilingual School is funded solely by Hacienda Merida, and offers free quality education to children. The school currently has 84 students, and is bilingual, with the aim to educate children in environmental awareness, sustainability and ecotourism.
Haceinda Merida: The Hotel
The hotel was established in a pre-existing building, so no land was cleared to create the hotel. The hotel also promotes sustainable activities such as cycling, hiking and kayaking, opposed to renting a motorcycle. It was also one of the few places I discovered in Nicaragua that actually separates recyclables and organic waste. All organic waste (such as left overs from the hotel restaurant) is used to feed the hotel’s pigs and chickens. The food served in the hotel is locally sourced, reducing the carbon emissions generated from transportation. I believe they also have a generator that runs off solar panels.
Volunteering at the School
The school offers a volunteer program to either long or short-term visitors. Contact Hacienda Merida to find out more.
Send Emails, Blog or Vlog
I briefly met the owner, who told me about his concerns about the pollution and rubbish in Nicaragua. He believes that tourists provide an opportunity to make a difference, by putting pressure on the government to invest in a better wastage/ recycling system in Nicaragua. So, instead of just bitching about the rubbish you see, amongst your friends and family, write to the country’s politicians or governing body and voice your opinion. He believes if enough people do this, then change will happen. Whether this is true or not, there is only one-way to find out.
Admittedly, I’ve travelled through a lot of countries that have issues with rubbish, and I’ve never considered writing about it before. So this time, I will take 5 minutes and send an email voicing my opinion, and I urge others to do the same. After all what’s 5 minutes of your time.
Stay at the hotel
Currently 40% of the profits generated by the hotel goes towards funding the bilingual school, eco-bricks and a few other sustainable projects on the island. By staying at the hotel you are supporting a great cause, and ensuring your money goes towards protecting the island and promoting sustainability.
If you enjoyed this article about ecotourism in Nicaragua, check our some of our other ecodiscoveries.
We spent about 5 weeks cycling around Nicaragua – check out our Nica post to find out what else we’ve been up to!
Our first day exploring Nicaragua was spent mostly sleeping, eating and procrastinating over putting the bikes back together after the long flight to Latin America – ok so not much exploring. This resulted in us spending an extra day in country’s capital though, which I don’t really recommend.
So, did our bikes make it?
Yes, they did. There was a minor issue with my bike, but we managed to resolve that issue a couple of days later. Michael and I spent around 3 hours piecing the bikes back together in the carport of our guesthouse. We even had some young kids join in with the rebuilding of the bikes.
My cough still hadn’t improved since arriving in Managua. In fact we were actually worried that it had got worse after I coughed up some blood the day after we arrived. I might not know a lot about injuries and illness, but I know coughing up blood is definitely not a good thing, so I spent the morning visiting doctors, getting x-rays and picking up prescriptions. Everything seemed to look fine and I was told it should clear up with time. As you can imagine, I was pretty relieved over this news.
The next day, we packed up and cycled about 60km to Granada. We planned to take Spanish classes (at a chocolate mansion – I know, I have a chocolate addiction) and rest until I was well enough really start exploring Nicaragua and to cycle long distances again.
On the road exploring Nicaragua y bicycle… breifly
Nicaragua was definitely a lot more humid and hotter than New York State, so we decided to get an early start cycling. This proved to be pretty much pointless. I decided it would be a great idea to follow google map’s shortest route to Granada. This route took us down some pretty questionable roads, and into what we think was a sketchy part of town. It took us an hour to cycle 5km from the guesthouse, and we were nowhere near getting out of the city limits. In the end, we backtracked to the main road where the guesthouse, was and took the longer route towards Granada, sticking only to the main roads.
Lesson 1 learnt: stick to the main roads, especially when leaving big cities. Don’t be tempted to take the shorter route – it won’t be quicker.
The rest of the day’s cycle was actually awesome. We passed local properties, farms, plantations, volcanos and mountains. The main road was surprisingly well paved, with a good-sized hard shoulder. Even the drivers seemed courteous to cyclists, and we felt no aggression on the road. Originally, we had planned to take it slow to make sure I didn’t over do it. We thought the 60km cycle would take most of the day, but we ended up arriving in Granada around lunchtime – also the hottest part of the day. We checked into our Airbnb, hit the showers and had a siesta.
Granada is a beautiful, colonial town, but extremely touristy, and therefore, also a little bit more expensive than we were expecting. The colourful buildings, and rustic doorways give a lot of character to the city, and I can definitely see why the city is known to be a photographer’s dream.
For the most part, I rest in Granada, though we did decide to cycle to a nearby lake, which actually turned out to be 15km up a volcano to a CRATER lake. It was beautiful, but it was definitely a hot, sweaty and very difficult cycle day. Surprisingly we saw loads of local cyclists out on the main road between Granada and Masaya (this was before the turn off up the volcano). These cyclists were not the usual commuting cyclists we had seen, but road cyclists.
After our time in Granada, we planned to leave the bikes at the Airbnb and head into El Salvador and maybe Honduras for a week. This plan changed once we arrived in Leon. For some reason, I’ve started to get a bit motion sickness in anything that goes faster than my bike. The 3 hour shuttle we took to Leon, proved not to be too enjoyable, and I couldn’t think of anything worse than a 10+ hour trip to El Salvador. On top of this, Michael wasn’t too phased about visiting either country, so we decided to stay in Leon, do an overnight hike and visit the Flor de Cana rum distillery before heading back to Granada to pick up the bikes and continue exploring Nicaragua.
During this time Michael and I were discussing our plans for the trip. We made a few realisations and ended up changing our plans once again!
Overall the flight to Nicaragua was a bit of a nightmare. This was the first time we had ever tried flying with bicycles, and unfortunately it didn’t go completely smoothly.
First, we caught the greyhound from Buffalo to Toronto. This was probably the only part of the trip that went smoothly. There were only 4 people on the bus and the Greyhound staff didn’t even charge us extra for the bikes – score! We had no issues headed back through the Canadian border. They didn’t even want to x-ray our bike boxes, or any of our bags – double score! At this stage, I was quite hopeful and thought the smooth bus trip was a positive sign for things to come…
Toronto Airport: Flying with bicycles!
It was all downhill from the moment we arrived at Toronto Airport! Once we arrived at the airport, we started to make our way to the departure hall. This turned out to be unnecessarily difficult, when we discovered that the elevators aren’t actually wide enough for our bike boxes. This meant, holding the elevator open while Michael pushed each box into the elevator along with all our bags. Taking up the lift for so long, doesn’t make us too popular with the other passengers. It also turned out we were departing from a different terminal, so we had plenty of small elevators and a train to overcome.
When we finally made it to departures, we checked in then proceeded to the oversized luggage. Now being oversized, you think that would mean they have x-ray machines large enough for oversized baggage. Well, they don’t! The customs officer actually tried to squeeze our bike boxes through the small x-ray machine. Mine managed to fit through. Michael’s on the other hand got stuck. We then spent the next 30 minutes trying to push Michael’s bike out of the x-ray.
At one point, Michael had the end of a broom, and was pushing the box from one end, the customs officer was messing around with the belt… reversing it and then moving it forward again, and another lady was trying to pull the box from the back. It almost seemed to comical to be reality, and part of me was waiting for the “You’ve Been Framed” camera crew to appear around the corner. After 30 minutes had passed, I was convinced that they would have to dismantle the machine to get Michael’s bike out… but, finally, somehow the box was freed and popped out the machine.
After all this, the officer then told Michael he had to open the box to search it – so much for the 4 rolls of duct tape we used to tape up the box. Finally the officer was happy and our bikes disappeared along the conveyer belt. We hoped the next time we seen our bikes would be in Nicaragua – this turned out not to be the case!
Connecting in Mexico City
We were flying from Toronto to Managua via Mexico City. Originally, when I booked the flights I thought that since it was all with Aeromexico, our bags would be checked all the way through. There was no mention ANYWHERE on the ticket on website, that this wasn’t the case. During check out, we were informed that we would have to pick up the bikes and re-check them in for our next flight. Bummer!
When we arrived into Mexico City, we proceeded to the baggage claim and collected our bikes and bags. FYI in Mexico City you need to pay for the baggage carts – great when you are only planning on being in the airport for 2 hours and have no Mexico pesos on you. Luckily, a local came to our rescue and gave us money for a cart – seriously, an amazing random act of kindness, which put me in a good, positive mood.
The airport staff told us that our bike boxes would need to be checked at customs, so after collected our boxes, we headed to departures! Luckily, Mexico Airport has wider elevators, so getting around the airport wasn’t so much of a drama as it was at Toronto. Once we arrived at the oversized luggage check in, we were told we had to wrap the boxes in plastic wrap. Even now this makes no sense to me, as we were told they would have to open the boxes up and check inside – so wrapping them in plastic before the check really seemed pointless and wasteful. Regardless of our attempts of reasoning with the customs officer, we paid $50 (no joke) to get each box wrapped in plastic. Then we headed back to the oversized baggage, and said “goodbye” to our bikes, once again.
Later, when I did open my bike box, I discovered a piece of paper inside informing me my box had been checked by security – so I guess they just paid for the bike to be rewrapped again? At least I didn’t have to pay for the “plastic waste” again.
Flying with bicycles: the last leg
The flight from Mexico City to Managua was extremely rough and I was extremely happy to be on the ground when we arrived in Managua. On the plus side, the views flying over El Salvador and Nicaragua were amazing. Lots of volcanos, lakes, mountains and beaches greeted us as we made the descent through the clouds.
Clearing border security was easy – we weren’t even asked about an onwards flight (which is great, as we didn’t have one)! We headed over to baggage collection to pick up our bikes – hopeful that our bikes made it ok!
I think from being wrapped in plastic, the ground staff couldn’t tell what were in the boxes and they had been thrown around A LOT! The boxes were extremely beaten up, with several metal parts protruding from the box.
Initially we had planned to put the bikes together at the airport, and then ride to the guesthouse we had booked. I don’t know what we were thinking. It was stinking hot, we hadn’t slept for over 24 hours and we weren’t 100% sure that our bikes were going to be functional ever again! Eventually, we decided to jump in a taxi, squeeze the bikes and all our gear in, and head to the guesthouse to deal with the situation there, instead of in the arrivals hall, with hundreds of touts harassing us.
I had booked a guesthouse that was only 2km from the airport. Our boxes were squeezed into the back of a taxi, and tied down with some rope! After a 5 minutes ride, we arrived at the guesthouse and paid our overpriced taxi fare (got to love that “gringo” tax – man, I hate airport taxis!) We ended up spending 2 days in Managua to put the bikes together and sort our shit out!
So that was our first experience flying with bicycles! Did our bikes survive the trip? Was I well enough to start cycling again? How was it going to be cycling in Nicaragua? You’ll have to wait until the next post to find out.
Lessons Learnt from our experience flying with bicycles:
Don’t use a cardboard bike box when flying with bicycles! I think next time we’re going to just try wrapping it in plastic (though my environmentalist instinct hates this wasteful idea).
Try and get a direct flight, if this isn’t possible, double check with the airline whether the flight will connect your baggage, or whether you will need to collect it during transit.
Riding from the airport when you haven’t slept for 24 hours is never a great idea! Don’t fool yourself!
Aeromexico has shit customer service – no way around this!
Don’t count on being able to put the bikes together at the airport! Even if you want to try and put them together, have a back up plan in place, in case it’s not possible.
If ground staff can’t tell it’s a bike, then they will probably toss it around, A LOT!
If you have some tips on flying with bicycles, then let us know! We definitely appreciate any advise to help make our next experience not so stressful.