By Linda Ball
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
Near the southern border of Nicaragua lies Lake Nicaragua, the largest freshwater lake in Central America. Its size is formidable – the largest lake in Central America and 19th in the world. Within the lake is Ometepe [map], a peanut-shaped island that is home to around 40,000 people and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
“It’s one of those untouched places,” said Kate Zylland. “Why do we have to pick apart everything?”
She and her husband, Jeff Zylland, veteran guides, founded a nonprofit on Ometepe, Guias Unidos. She is 4,200 miles northwest right now, in West Seattle, taking care of her ailing mom. He is on Ometepe, working to ink a rental deal on a building to serve as Guias Unidos’ headquarters and resource center.
Both have other relatives in the West Seattle/White Center area. But Ometepe holds their hearts. The Zyllands first visited in 2011. They fell in love with the island because it is a place that hasn’t been destroyed. Kate said there are petroglyphs on the slopes of Maderas volcano. Not much is known about them, but the island may have been inhabited as early as 2000 BC.
The couple has led an unconventional life.
Kate, a native of Whatcom County, said the two met in college at Western Washington University in Bellingham. She was a physics major; Jeff was a bio-math and German major. After graduation she joined the Peace Corps, traveling to Tanzania to teach physics in English. Jeff went on to graduate school to get his degree in ecological engineering. Kate eventually received her masters in physical science to round out her scientific education.
For a while Jeff worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in West Virginia, basically trapped at a desk. But this was not the lifestyle they wanted, so they both spent 10 seasons working as park rangers in various U.S. locations. Kate said they had four amazing seasons in the Florida Everglades, three seasons closer to home in the North Cascades, a brief stint in Utah’s Bryce Canyon, and time in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. “There is really incredible geology there – badlands geology,” Kate said.
Additionally, she spent time at New River Gorge in West Virginia, and he pulled one season at Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico. To get a job in parks along the Mexican border, however, the Spanish language was pretty much a requisite, so they decided to go to Nicaragua to immerse themselves in the language, work on erosion reduction, and volunteer with other organizations. That’s when they discovered Ometepe.
“Tourism went from 0-60 in the last 10 years on the island,” Kate said. The problem was, it’s still very rugged and the guides on the island were not well-trained. The Zyllands met a guide named Arlin, who cares very much about the island, and wanted to learn the skills they had, such as wilderness first aid and how to deal with tourists from the U.S. and Europe.
Last year they went back to Ometepe and stayed for six months working with about 30 local guides. That’s when they formed Guias Unidos, which translates to Guides United. They work under the umbrella of Berkeley- based Earth Island Institute. Their mission statement: To inspire community-based, conservation-minded tourism, by unifying local and international expertise and resources.
Along with the aforementioned UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Ometepe has two volcanoes, one of which is active (Maderas). Despite its remoteness, the island has electricity, generated by wind. Kate said Internet connections are sketchy as is cell reception. Even though tourists have started to arrive, there are no huge, glitzy resorts, but rather boutique hotels, small resorts, and B&Bs. It’s important to the local guides to safely show off their home to outsiders. Through Guias Unidos, the couple is training the local guides how to use computers, training them in wilderness first-aid (below), small business administration, and other skills.
But like most non-profits, they need help. They need volunteers to teach those skills as well as others – such as people who know how to break trails – how to site them and figure out the safest, most stable routes so as not to cause instability on the mountain and cause slides. The caveat – you have to pay your own way there.
If you can’t offer boots on the ground help, there are options. Of course, cash donations are always welcome. Guias Unidos was fortunate enough to have received a donation of 18 pairs of binoculars from Minnesota birders, but they need more. They also need walking poles, sturdy boots, medical kits, and gently used computers.
What started out as being park rangers, which Kate and Jeff love because they were “paid to learn about amazing places,” has turned into a love for an island you probably hadn’t heard of. Kate contacted us back on Giving Tuesday, mentioning Guias Unidos, and we thought you might be interested in her and Jeff’s story. If you happen to be interested in helping, you can find out how at guiasunidos.org.