Setting up an eco lodge in Nicaragua

Ever wanted to know what it is like to take the plunge and set up your own eco-lodge? We go behind the scenes at El Coco Lodge in Nicaragua to discover the reality behind the dreams we have all had.Amongst the myriad of surf lodges and hostels that line the coast and overlook the many famous surf spots of Central America, El Coco Loco surf lodge in northern Nicaragua really stands apart. A pipeline dream for 3 Canadians that was 3 years in the making, they finally opened their doors in January, and are fast growing a reputation as one of the new breed adventure choices that are trail blazing a path to a ‘much better’ future for the local environment and community too.As one of the recent additions to the community, we heard from the guys about the adventure they have been on to set up the lodge, their hopes and dreams for this inspiring place, and of course to get their tips for the best surf.So who are you guys, and how did it all start?Ben, Jamie and myself (Earl) all went to the University of Ottawa. After graduating Jamie and I were in South Korea where we taught English and enjoyed travelling around Asia whenever possible. Meanwhile Ben ended up in Guatemala, volunteering at a centre for disabled children. As Ben was nearing the end of his time in Guatemala, Jamie and I were both returning to Canada from Korea. We had no jobs and a little bit of money saved, so we decided to visit Ben and back-pack around Central America. This was when the three of us really became close and we first put together our ideas and plans for our own place. What did the plan look like?After meeting up with Ben in Guatemala, we travelled through Honduras and Belize before returning to Guatemala for a few weeks. It was there that the idea first came up. We had been staying at many small hostels for weeks. They were all cheap, but not exactly clean and/or inviting and the food was not always great. The ironic thing was that these places were almost always full! So our first idea (after consuming more than a few beers) was to try and buy a place that already existed. We figured that we had all travelled quite a bit, and that just by doing a few extra little things that we could really make a place work. That plan changed quickly, but some things stayed consistent. We always wanted a place that was quiet and a little bit “off the beaten path”, and we always wanted to keep things as simple as possible – basic principles like cleanliness, friendly atmosphere, comfort food, and reasonable prices. Environmental sustainability was also a big part of our plans from day one. Making use of grey-water and taking advantage of the seemingly endless sunshine seemed to be no-brainers to us. Lastly, the community quickly became a big priority for us. It was clear not long after arriving in Nicaragua (and Central America for that matter) that there was a great deal of people living below the poverty line. We were always of the opinion that if we were lucky enough to buy a piece of land and start a successful business that it was our responsibility to give back to the community and share anything that we could with the locals. Why Nicaragua?At this point we had never been to Nicaragua. At the same time, we had heard nothing but great things about it, and were quickly drawn in by the idea of quiet beaches and great surfing (although none of us had surfed before). Once we got to Nicaragua it took no time at all to realize that that was where we wanted to set up shop. And after our initial brainstorm, the idea had been growing daily and our back-packing adventure quickly changed to a proper business trip. Over the next two months we met numerous real estate agents and worked endlessly at putting together a business plan and figuring out exactly how we could make it work.So how did you go from pipe dream to reality?Near the end of that first trip to Central America/Nicaragua, we realized that we were not in a position to start this project right away. So we all returned to our respective homes to work and save the money we need to return. After about a year and a half Ben decided that he could not wait anymore and returned to Nicaragua to resume the search for land. For more than a month he travelled up and down the coast checking out potential spots. When he did find what is now our land he called Jamie and I and we then went down and camped on it for a night and discussed all the possibilities. The next day we got a lawyer and began the long process of buying it. That was January 2008. We started building in the fall of 2008, and just opened at the beginning of 2010. We currently have five private cabanas which can sleep up to four people, and two larger dorm style cabanas which can sleep up to 8 each. We also have a restaurant and bar and are close to putting in a small pool. Part of our plan has always been to offer everything that people may want to do. Right now we offer volcano hikes, sand-boarding trips, surf board rentals/lessons, horseback riding, beach volleyball, board games, book exchange, dvd’s, fishing trips, etc. etc.What is the longer term vision for El Coco Loco?Long-term, I think our biggest plans are to continue making El Coco Loco exactly like what we had originally dreamed of. Although we have come a long way already, and people have been enjoying our place, there’s still many aspects that we have yet to master. Ideally we’d like to have all three of us down there in order devote more time to various things. We’ve learned that it is very hard work, especially when we’re still trying to complete construction and building. We seem to have an endless list of small things that we’d like to complete in order to make the place a little more comfortable and enjoyable. More importantly, our Waves of Hope project is becoming just as big as Coco Loco. We have been more than excited about how it has gone so far. We have had four or five long-term volunteers come and go now and they have made some incredible progress in our community and surrounding areas. One of our volunteers taught a small group of girls the basics of manicures, pedicures and massage, they now operate their own business within the community and at Coco Loco. Another volunteer shared his expertise on surf-board repair with one of the locals, we now take our boards to him when they need work. Great progress has been made at our local school as well where we’ve given away approx. 250 backpack kits which contain a school uniform, and all the necessary supplies to last for a full year of studies. Some of our future plans include a large community garden, further work at various schools, scholarships for students going to high school and beyond, and possible a census in order to identify all of the families in our area and gage their input on where they would like to see more assistance in the future.So come on then…..what about the local Nicaragua surf? Northern Nicaragua is a surfers paradise. Although we are mostly still learning ourselves, it’s been easy to recognize great surf breaks, and numerous famous surfers who frequent the area on a regular b
asis. The beach right outside of El Coco Loco provides beginner waves which are perfect for most of our guests who are just learning or even getting on a board for the first time. About half a kilometre to the north however is Nahualapa, a beach break that consistently brings in 6-10 foot swells and rarely sees many surfers. A few miles to the south is “Boom” which is a powerful barrel that regularly attracts some of the best in the world and is steadily growing in popularity. What other surf areas in Nicaragua do you recommend?Although there are numerous good breaks along the entire coast, the most popular are definitely farther south, closer to San Juan del Sur. Playa Maderas is likely the busiest wave in Nicaragua, partially because it’s a great break but also because it’s a major tourist area. Other well known breaks include Popoyo, Playa Santana and los Penitas.If you are looking for eco and ethical holidays, you’ve come to the right place!