Thoughts on the pursuit of living sustainably SOB (south of the border), plus a vetted listing of cultural, environmental, and educational programs where you can actively give back to the environment and local communities that you visit while in Mexico!
Do you want to make your trip to Mexico truly memorable and one of meaning? Do you want to contribute to real sustainability while having fun and seeing the country? If so, then this post is for you!
The following is a listing of places where your touring dollar or volunteering efforts can really make a difference. These listings are not typical eco-tourist destinations operating loosely under the guise of being “green” or culturally beneficial. Rather, these sites all have proactive environmental sustainability, education, or relief services as core aspects of their operating mission. These organizations have been individually selected and vetted as places where you can enhance your experience of mexico by actively participating in legitimate projects that really do provide a benefit to the planet.
Please note that many of these locations are working organic farms, ranches, research field stations, schools, etc. and, as such, take volunteers or other visitors on an advanced approval basis only. Unless noted, please be sure to contact the site ahead to make any necessary arrangements for your visit.
I hope that you’ll comment on your experiences, and suggest your own secret spots for helping to have (our) touring dollars & volunteering efforts make a positive difference! This list will be updated frequently and your suggestions will be added. Please provide links, or any other contact info in the comments section (click on comments bubble above).
Bien Viaje! Enjoy the tour!
Nearest City: Tepic / Sayulita
Type of Visit: school + center for preservation of indigenous peoples (Huichol) / volunteer work exchange (2 month min. + spanish). Advance arrangements suggested
Name: The Huichol Center for Cultural Survival
contact info: Susana Valadez firstname.lastname@example.org
State: Jalisco (El Tuito)
Nearest City: Puerto Vallarta
Type of Visit: eco tourism + education / extensive tropical gardens & organic restaurant. No advance booking required.
Name: Vallarta Botanical Gardens
contact info: email@example.com
From within Mexico: 322-223-6182 From outside of Mexico: 011-52-322-223-6182
State: Jalisco (Mayto)
Nearest City: Puerto Vallarta / El Tuito
Type of Visit: working organic ranch + campground / guided horse, botanical and educational tours / volunteer work exchange programs (10 day min. – by application) + longer internships & homesteading options
Name: Rancho Sol y Mar
contact info: firstname.lastname@example.org
State: Jalisco (Mayto)
Nearest City: Puerto Vallarta / El Tuito
Type of Visit: Turtle Research Camp / nightly turtle releases in season (no advance booking required). Volunteer work exchange programs (contact for further info)
Name: Campamento de Tortugas
contact info: email@example.com
State/Region: Jalisco / Lake Chapala
Nearest City: Chapala
Type of Visit: eco farm + education + community development / volunteer work exchange
Name: Acá Centro Ecológico
Baja Peninsula (California Sur)
State: Baja (Cal Sur)
Nearest City: Cabo San Lucas
Type of Visit: eco tourism / working organic farm / eco visit or volunteer work exchange
Name: Rancho La Venta
Contact info: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nearest City: San Jose Del Cabo
Type of Visit: wellness / creative arts center + organic farm + CSA / volunteer work exchange
Name: La Semilla / Raices y Brasos
Contact: local #: (624) 142-3794 US #: (802) 734-9808
Nearest City: Tiajuana
Type of Visit: Cattle Ranch being converted to organic farm / volunteer work exchange
Name: El Papalote
Contact Info: 52+661-100-0000 (land) 52-1-664-194-7514 (cell)
State/Region: Baja California Sur
Nearest City: La Ribera
Type of Visit: botanical gardens / teaching center / volunteer work exchange
Name: Buena Fortuna Jardin Botanico
Website (blog) http://buenafortunapermaculture.wordpress.com
Contact Info: email@example.com
Central + South Central Highlands
Nearest City: San Miquel de Allende
Type of Visit: center for sustainability & appropriate technology workshops (contact for workshop schedules)
Name: iCATIS Mexico / Instituto Tierra y Cal
Contact info: Dylan Terrell firstname.lastname@example.org
Nearest City: Oaxaca
Type of Visit: off grid living / volunteer in exchange for learning about solar, chickens bee keeping, and grey water
Name: Sn Fco Lachigoló
Contact info: Daniel Ellsworth 52-1-951-142-1849
Nearest City: Oaxaca
Type of Visit: urban / relief work with children, primarily education. No advance necessary.
Name: Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots
Website/Contact Info: http://www.oaxacastreetchildrengrassroots.org email@example.com
Nearest City(Guevea de Humboldt)
Type of Visit: organic coffee plantation / volunteer work exchange
Name: Linda Vista / ConDoy Coffee Farm
Website (blog): http://condoycafe.wordpress.com
State/Region: Michoacan (Lake Pátzcuaro)
Nearest City: Pátzcuaro
Type of Visit: organic permaculture farm / retreat center / volunteer work exchange (2 wk. min.
Name: Bosque Village
Website/Contact info: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nearest City: Malinalco / Tenancingo / Mexico City (D.F.)
Type of Visit: organic farm, school & retreat center / volunteer work exchange
Name: Rancho Cazahuate
Contact Info: Anya Loizaga Velder www.ecomundi.info or
State: Chiapas (Teopisca)
Nearest City: San Cristóbal de Las Casas
Type of Visit: non-profit farm & community development / volunteer work exchange (1 month min.)
Name: El Porvenir
Website/Contact info: 52+9671107386 / 52+1+ 9671149914(cell)
Nearest City: Amatlan
Type of Visit: Yoga/Healing Center
Name: Garden of Eden Healing Community
Website/Contact Info: http://www.moving-overseas-guide.com/2012-awakening.html
Yucatan Peninsula + Chiapas
State: Quintana Roo (Tulum)
Nearest City: Cancun / Playa Del Carmen
Type of Visit: Eco tourism, biological reserve park & lodging. Nature Tours. Reservations suggested.
Name: Sian Ka’an Bio Reserva
Website/Contact info: (http://www.visitsiankaan.com)
Nearest City: Playa Del Carmen
Type of Visit: Working organic farm / volunteer work exchange, 2 wk min.
Name: Tumbem Ha
Contact info: email@example.com
Nearest City: Vallodolid / Merida / Cancun
Type of Visit: Sustainability courses / volunteer work exchange (3 wk. min.)
State: Qintana Roo
Nearest City: Cancun
Type of Visit: Environmental & cultural educational tours offered (fee).
Name: Project Mayan Encounter
Nearest City: San Cristóbal de Las Casas
Type of Visit: After school student center in indigenous Mayan Community.
Name: La Chozita / Chiapas Children’s Project
Contact Info: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nearest City: Teopisca
Type of Visit: Education, community development, environmental protection
Name: El Porvenir
Contact Info: 52+9671107386
Nearest City: Playa Del Carmen
Type of Visit: rustic organic farm / volunteer work exchange
Name: Tumben Kuxtal
contact info: 52-1-998-133-4486
Nearest City: Xalapa
Type of Visit: aquaponics classes / urban organic farm / volunteer work exchange
Name: Semilla Verde
website/contact info: http://www.facebook.com/semilla.huertoshidroponicos
Nearest City: Juarez
Type of Visit: orphanage / volunteer work exchange
Name: Rancho Los Amigos
contact info: Patti Kidd ph: 407-232-3009
State/Region: Nuevo Leon
Nearest City: Monterey
Type of Visit: Relief Work (distribution of food & clothing)
Contact Info: Info@ammac.com.mx
Nearest City: Puerto Penasco
Type of Visit: medical clinic staffing
Name: Manos de Ayuda
Website/Contact Info: email@example.com U.S. (520) 760-8645
Pay-For Volunteer Programs
Nearest City: N/A
Type of Visit: Pay-for volunteer programs (teaching, medical, schools, etc. – $270 U.S. per week to participate)
Name: International Volunteer HQ
website/contact info: International Volunteer Head Quarters (volunteerhq.org)
S State: Various
Nearest City: N/A
Type of Visit: Pay-for volunteer programs (promote peace & justice, work with children – $2,295 U.S. per week to participate)
Name: Global Volunteers
website/contact info: (www.globalvolunteers.org)
State: Nayarit & Jalisco
Nearest City: Puerto vallarta
Type of Visit: Pay-for conservation, cultural, and ecology-oriented “expeditions”.
website/contact info: http:
Nearest City: N/A
Type of Visit: 72 listings for (mostly) pay-for volunteer service organizations operating in Mexico!
website/contact info: http://www.goabroad.com
Nearest City: N/A
Type of Visit: Eco tours + some coordination with local NGO’s for more extensive volunteer / service options.
Name: Glocal Travel
Passive Eco Tourism Destinations
In researching this post I came across numerous quasi eco tourist establishments that adorn themselves with green labeling but have little if anything to offer in the way of active environmental or cultural payback. Following is a link to tourist resort properties that appear to be offering truly low impact, mostly sustainable amenities, even if they don’t offer opportunities for active service.
Sustainable Mexico? Is there such a thing? You bet! And as environmental protections, governmental programs, and NGO’s are coming online at a rapid pace, I thought I’d create a blog that explores the various ways that we can all participate.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s buzz out to 80,000 feet for an overview.
First of all, let me ask if you are any of the following:
Are you a volunteer, looking for the right spot to make use of your fine energies. Do you want to meet others operating at the same frequency; working hard, having fun, doing right by the planet.
Are you an experienced Wwoofer, looking to take it to the next level. Maybe you’ve got a bit of money saved. Maybe not. Either way, Are you looking for some good soil and, hopefully, some good community, where you can sink your teeth in deeper? Plant some roots?
Are you a seasoned farm hand or CSA worker, looking to homestead or start your own business?
Are you looking for intentional community to join, or thinking of banding together with friends to buy some land and forming one?
Are you a farm family, facing yet another harsh northern winter; stacking wood, canning veggies, worrying about heating oil contracts, thinking that there must be another, better way…
Well, if you’re any of the above, or anything like it, then this blog is a place to share ideas, options, and stories of what you think about, struggle with, and strive for.
My disclosure: I’m not an expert with pat answers to the above. I have enough experience with setting up solar photovoltaics systems to give specific advice and recommendations on that. My wife and I have an off grid working ranch, campground, and sustainability education center in mexico (www.ranchosolymar.com) and have enough knowledge of animal care (specifically goats & chickens), food production, managing water resources, and running businesses, to have some good, solid, practical advice to offer on those fronts as well. But really, there are plenty of other informational sites where one can find advanced farming and off-grid living knowledge. Instead, with this blog, we’ll be exploring topics that we considered vital to our basic decision making process, but which we’ve been unable to find to be well considered elsewhere. We’ll also be getting postings from time to time from some of the volunteers that have helped us at our ranch, to get their perspective, to find out what works and what doesn’t. Hopefully we will be drilling down more deeply into specific sustainability topics as the blog it evolves, hopefully offering some fresh perspectives and some useful advice!
General Topics This Blog Will be Covering:
- Consider Moving toward the tropics! One theme we’ll be revisiting frequently is the role of LATITUDE in the pursuit of sustainable living. One of my growing pet obsessions is the idea that living north or south of 35 degrees latitude presents inherent physical challenges, that, in many ways, simply don’t make good , common, practical sense. It’s all a matter of energy, really. The energy is takes to prepare for and survive winters (heat energy, and also “life” energy) can be put to much better use if one is living closer to the equator. By moving south (although this could be “north”, of course, if you’re located in the southern hemisphere. For simplicity here, I’ll be using “south” as the general catch all direction for considering a move) you can automatically liberate much of your life energy for other pursuits – pleasure and/or leisure time being not insignificant! There’s also a very basic baseline of security to be had by leaving winter behind.
- The costs and benefits of having animal “partners”. On this topic we’ll bounce around a bit; from the responsibility and expense of animal husbandry, to the practical benefits and shear joy of life with animals, we’ll explore many of the considerations that having animals “brings to the table”.
- “Farming Photons”: A general discussion of the use of renewables, particularly solar, as well as the practical considerations; costs, benefits, off-grid vs grid tie, siting, general equipment recommendations, and other specific information. (see “Our Solar Story” below for the first post on this…)
- Defining your goals and figuring out how to make them profitable: Having both run & sold successful businesses, Holly and I have spent a lifetime developing tools & strategies for defining and promoting one’s own niche market. Whether you are growing veggies, raising animals, or producing a value added product, we’ll explore some simple techniques for figuring out what “makes you sing” and how to turn it into a profitable business.
- Crossing Borders: We’ll look at both the literal implications of seeking out a sustainable life across the border, (in our case Mexico, but much of this discussion can apply to any cross border situation) but also the more metaphysical aspect of re-mapping one’s own life. What are the possible challenges and benefits of breaking out of your old, often worn out, geographical paradigms??? (see “Secret Sustainability South of the Border” for more on this…)
- Stories of sustainability: Stories can entertain as well as instruct. We’ve got a growing collection and would love to hear yours!
So, there you have it. It is my intention, above all, to make this blog a useful sounding board for your own pursuit of sustainability. Working toward true sustainability can and should be a joyful, fulfilling, lifelong experience. The hours will be long, and we’ll each have our own path to follow, but we’ll also have much commonality to share and helpful wisdom to impart. I hope that you’ll participate and make this blog part of your own virtual homesteading community – a place to cultivate, share and learn from!
Note: the following post describes, step by step, how my wife & I went from total solar neophytes, to living completely off grid and harnessing the power of the sun for its help with much of the daily work and comfortable lifestyle we enjoy here in Mexico. I’ve included a fair amount of techno speak for those who, as I once was, are craving the empowerment of understanding and implementing solar, but are struggling though some of the initial phases. Readers are encouraged to post questions or comments about the systems or processes described here in that all questions, no matter how basic, may be of some help to others that follow…
The first couple of winters visiting the property we had purchased near Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast of Mexico (2005-2007), my wife Holly & I were still in the process of securing title, and thus reluctant to put any money into infrastructure improvements. The modest, one bedroom mexican ranch house we occupied had one existing 15 watt solar panel direct wired to a 12v marine battery and running one long string of 12v incandescent lights when we bought it. Despite twelve hour days of cloudless skies, we had, at best, an hour of light once the sun went down. For refrigeration we parked our faithful old pickup truck camper next to the house and used the onboard dometic gas refrigerator. Around that time I had launched and was chairing a municipal energy commission back in the states, and was growing increasingly interested in sustainability in general, and solar in particular.
By the second winter, we hand carried down three Sunsei 17w panels and I began learning about charge controllers, inverters, and the always dreaded “voltage drop”. At that early stage of learning, it took quite a while to figure out that voltage drop inherent with using the existing #12AWG house wiring for 12v, combined with a tired old marine starting battery, far too small solar panel array, and energy sucking incandescent bulbs, were all conspiring to keep us literally “in the dark”.
“Poco a poco” (little by little) is a favorite expression of our mexican neighbors, and poco a poco it was learning the ins and outs of solar. Around the second year in, a mexican neighbor told me he knew of someone with some panels, and soon four Sharp 175‘s, of unknown origins, were purchased for a good price, and stored safe & sound in our rickety goat shed. Using the SEI guide “Photovoltaics Design & Installation Manual” plus help from Lee Consavage, an engineer friend, and other input from online chat groups such as Arizona Wind & Sun, I began designing our first real PV system. Finally, after stumbling int the dark – literally – we were well on our way to a brighter future! On the next trip SOB (south of the border), Holly and brought down in our carry-on luggage an Outback MX60 Charge Controller, a 1000watt Go-Power inverter, and miscellaneous fuse blocks and cable connections. Three sweaty days later, much of which was spent crouching gingerly atop spanish roof tiles, drilling holes through cement walls, and making numerous, nervous, electrical decisions well above my pay grade, I flipped the switch, and lo-and-behold, “the miracle of the ranch” had finally occurred! Truly; seeing that little green light go on for the first time, hearing the gentle hum of the inverter, and realizing that we were now sucking power, real power, 120v power sufficient to run ample lights, a small 7cubic foot refrigerator, blender for margueritas, play music, and charge computers, right out of the sky, right out of the either, felt as close to something miraculous as I expect I’ll ever experience!
Since those early days, we have upgraded our batteries from the original 4 trojan T 105’s and now have 8 Trojan L-16’s for over 700amp hrs @ 24volts DC, plus a larger, 1500watt Xantrex inverter to run a heavier duty washing machine than we had originally. Still, even with the larger battery capacity, we rely on a small, portable gen set to top off the batteries from time to time in extended periods of rain during the summer months.
A note on inverters: 1500watts with a 2000peak load capacity seems to be the break point providing enough amperage to run a decent size washing machine and virtually any home power tool except a welder. Pure sign wave inverters run quieter and provide cleaner power, while the more economical modified inverters tend to hum, both the unit itself, as well as through stereos and certain other electronics. We have also experienced two appliances that wouldn’t run at all on the Xantrex modified sine wave inverter; a yogurt maker, and also a dehydrator which actually burned out as a result.
Fast forward another year from building the original house system, and I had completed my NABSEP coursework from the AltE learning center in Hudson Massachusetts, and I was ready to take on much more significant solar project. By this time Holly and I had also expanded our vision for the ranch to include an off-grid campground, solar water pumping & heating, and various other projects. In the fall of 2009 we both sold our companies (I had been a commercial architectural photographer and Holly had a financial planning firm) and we committed ourselves to the dream of living and promoting sustainability full time. Currently we rent out our house in New England most of the year and we’re forging ahead with creating a broader scope, regional, sustainability center. Our ongoing projects include building with stone, compressed earth block, & other local material, organic farming & gardening, goat cheese production, composting, tree planting, water recycling, biofuels experimentation, and numerous other initiatives.
In the winter of 2009/2010 we learned to mix mud for adobe, and with much help from visiting family & friends, and our mexican neighbors, we built the campground bath house and solar shed which houses showers, bathrooms, a laundry room, a workroom, the 2.4kw solar array, an Outback 3600w pure sine wave inverter, sixteen Trojan L16 batteries for 700amp/hrs at 48volts, and the balance of the electrical system. Our campground “Camping Sol y Mar” (Camping Sun & Sea) is, as far as we know, the first completely off grid campground with RV hookup sights in the americas, if not the world. This winter are building on a new backpacker bunkhouse, and with that in place will begin hosting workshops and work exchange Volunteers.
The entire project has been a huge learning curve but we have an increasingly steady stream of adventure campers and wonderful volunteer work exchange participants using the facilities. In addition to the solar which produces up to 15kw per day (enough to budget 2kw for each of the 5 hookup sites – sized for small to mid-sized campers – plus a couple more kw for a modest sized cheese cooler for Holly’s goat cheese making operation, the building also boasts solar hot water showers, and grey & black water recycling systems. The increasingly “edible” campground also features an herb spiral, rapidly growing fruit trees (see “Eat This Campground! post below) and a natural wood fired pizza oven coming online soon Thank you Katy & Alex, our amazing summer caretakers this year! ).
I wish I could say it’s been easy and smooth getting this far. Sometimes it feels as though every step is a battle. Attempting to cut costs, I opted for creating my own array racking. Big mistake! The thousand dollars saved cost me countless hours piecing together a custom aluminum framework on a completely uneven roof made from timber milled with a chain saws and machetes. Simple tools like a drill bit and bolts long enough to through-bolt the 6” timbers all had to be brought down from the states as needed. After my experience of working atop spanish tiles on our home system, I opted to leave off having tiles under the bath house array, and instead lay down a roofing of clear polycarbonate laminate. Constructing this, and making it all waterproof and structural enough for potential hurricane force wind loading turned out to be incredibly tedious, and much more of a project that I had ever bargained for. Still, the roof works really well, in that it provides nice passive daylight to the workroom below where the rest of the system is housed, as well as the fact that the laminate stays perfectly cool under the panels, even on the hottest of days.
Yet another error I made was the purchase of the Outback FX inverter rather than GV model. The FX series won’t accept the voltage vagaries of supplemental charging from generator backup (a subtle distinction missed by both myself, and the sales agent that recommended the FX unit for my specific application). Outback was kind enough to supply me with a replacement board to convert the FX model since bringing the inverter back to the states for replacement was impossible. Still the changeover meant dismantling the guts of the system after it had been already been completed.
Occasionally my wife and I ask ourselves, “if we had it all to do over, would we simply have tied in to the power lines less than 100 yards away?” That definitely would have been the easier, less expensive route to take. But
then we realize that if we’d wanted easy, we would’ve been better off just staying in the states. Rancho Sol y Mar increasingly is our home now anyway. A crazy, inventor friend of ours just finished building us a fuel alcohol still, so tackling renewable transportation is the next learning curve looming. We also have 100‘s of fruit & coconut trees planted, a small, first crop of corn coming up, and loving, productive, adorable animals on all sides, Our dream of 100% independent living is increasingly becoming a reality. We realize we’re a little crazy, and a more normal life would be easier, however were strapped in now, and taking the ride. I guess that as long as the sun keeps shining, we’ll be here in Mexico seeking to sustain ourselves and others from it!