While at Hacienda Merida on the Isla de Ometepe, we ran into Alvaro Molina, the hostel’s owner. Molina and his family have taken on many local sustainability projects to benefit the island in addition to running their hostel. Our favorite project was in building plastic bottle schools and other structures with recycled waste.
One of the most unique projects Molina has taken on is a plastic and trash recycling initiative. He uses a few different incentives to get Mérida locals to bring in old plastic bottles stuffed with trash they’ve collected. Hiking guides must bring in bottles for the privilege of leading Hacienda Merida’s guests. Locals can also pay with bottles for use of the hostel’s WiFi or massages. Additionally, Molina will pay $.22 per bottle out of the hostel’s profits to anyone who brings them in. Large families can stuff 30-40 bottles in one weekend and earn $8.00 extra for their needs.
What are the bottles used for? The answer is perhaps the most innovative part of this project! Hacienda Merida uses them as building material for construction projects! The bottles are used as the base and concrete is shaped around them to solidify the structures. So far a large picnic table and benches have been built, and a one-room schoolhouse to be used by local children is in progress. Molina is also planning to pay the teacher’s salary once the schoolhouse is up and running.
It was great to see this unique, environmentally sustainable project being unselfishly funded by a successful hostel. Hacienda Merida is a prime example of what can happen when a business invests in taking care of the local community and environment!
About a month ago, we reserved our sailing trip from Cartagena, Colombia, through the San Blas Islands and into Panama. This put us on a schedule and, wanting an entire week on the Colombian coast, we had to cross the interior without stopping. From the Ecuadorian border, it took almost exactly 48 hours to travel up to the Caribbean beach of Taganga. It was a grueling journey but we were also very excited to be back in Colombia where the adventure began. I remember writing about the country when we first arrived in South America. At the time it had seemed so scary, chaotic, and poor. Now, after our travels, it looked very safe, orderly, and rich. It’s amazing how much your perceptions change after a few months on the road.
We planned poorly in picking our time to depart for Central America. All the Colombians were headed to the beach for Easter week which greatly inflated bus prices and made everything a lot more hectic than normal. You just can’t ever remember which day Easter is supposed to be until it’s upon you! Luckily we found a hostel to review which saved us from paying the horribly expensive holiday accommodation prices. So we rolled into Taganga in a taxi, not really sure what to expect. A friend who had traveled to Colombia several years ago described the place as a “relaxing and quiet fishing village with a slight hippie vibe” which sounded kinda like exactly what we were looking for. Oh, how things can change in a couple of years.
What we found was something very different. Some words to describe the new Taganga would be as follows: dirty, overcapacity, loud, commercial, expensive, annoying, and did I say dirty? Lets go over each of those adjectives one by one. Dirty: The town lacks proper trash collection to deal with the hordes of irresponsible Colombians that just throw their garbage everywhere. (Let’s be honest…we’ve observed that it is mostly the Colombians, not the North American/European/Australian tourists that litter everywhere. It’s probably an education problem.) The beach is a straight environmental nightmare piled high with beer bottles, plastic plates, all kinds of trash, much of which ends up in the ocean. It made us sick how no one really seemed to care. It’s sad when people have so little respect for the world around them. Overcapacity:The town is just too small for this amount of people. The road is completely blocked up with taxis all day long, and the infrastructure is years behind the demands on it. Since we’ve been here, transformers have been blowing up all over the place from the amounts of electricity being used, turning the power on and off all over the town. Ahh, what a mess. Loud: You just can’t escape the noise. The town is in a little bay and sound just reverberates off the surrounding hills. Commercial: There are some hippies selling cool bracelets and things along the beach, but most of the shops sell generic garbage that you find everywhere else. The restaurants have nothing new or exciting, and it is hard to find anything out of the usual. Expensive: Sure it’s Easter week, but the cheapest thing to eat is about $5. The hotels in the area have inflated prices at this time, but their usual rates are still way higher than other places along the coast. It’s just so not worth it. Annoying: You add expensive and commercial together and combine it with thousands of boom boxes and Colombians trying to show off their drunken English, and what you get is classic annoyingness. SOOOOOO DIRTY: People should really be ashamed of what they are doing to the beautiful beach.
Good things about Taganga include some spectacular sunsets that just made us sadder thinking about what this place used to be like…
Taganga is a classic case of what happens when a place gets too popular too fast. We wish we could have seen the Taganga our friend saw two years ago, the Taganga we were hoping for. While the tourism boom is surely benefiting local businesses, I’m afraid that if the infrastructure doesn’t catch up fast, the environmental effects of this many visitors in this tiny, unprepared village will be disastrous.
Latin America has a growing trash problem. In the major cities the garbage lines the sides of the roads until locals start small fires to diminish the piles. This creates smog and the cities smell more and more like trash. There are a few ideas that we have had to help with the problem. The first and most major problem is that everyone buys the small single serving plastic water bottles. This problem is intensified by the fact that the water from the tap is not drinkable in most places. Sure, tons of people have drank the tap water from birth, and most boil, but everything else is purchased in small bottles. They do sell the big bottles, but people don’t think ahead, “Maybe I will drink more than 600ml of water before I die…” And to make maters here worse, NO ONE knows how to use trash cans. When you are riding in a bus someone will eventually come onto the bus to sell small waters and sodas. As soon as people have finished the drink, they open the bus window and dispose of the bottle onto the highway. There along the highway it will sit for years and years making a larger and more disgusting pile. Is this the peoples’ fault? Yes and no. I don’t think there has ever been proper education on disposal of trash. Many times you have to carry your trash through half the city before you can find a can to toss it into. There is no recycling system set up. Sure, there are people (pickers) that sort through all the trash for recyclables and sell what they find to the recycling companies, but there is no specific place to throw the recycles. Not that the average person would even know what can actually be recycled. In a few cities we have been to there have actually been three cans side by side, (like in San Francisco) “Trash, Compost, Recyclables” but, since no one knows (or cares) which is which, the three cans are all full of the same things (mainly plastic bottles).
What can be done and who is at fault? There needs to be better education on how and where to dispose of your garbage. There needs to be more trash cans and more reliable collection. Basically, the South American governments need to start addressing this as a serious problem. Yes, there is major poverty, hunger, class division… but by the time they fix these problems, the entire continent is going to be covered in an inescapable pile of filth. Compared to all the stupid things that I see governmental money going towards (like huge stupid statues in the center of every tiny village…) I think they could spring for a few trash cans and a couple of people to collect garbage. Maybe the whole problem is that life is so hard for so many people here that it’s nearly impossible to get them plan farther in the future than tomorrow. The attitude is to worry about today first, then think about tomorrow.