How Water Pollution Killed Two Kiteboarding Schools

This is a guest post by one of our community members. The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not reflect the views of inMotion Kitesurfing.

With the increase in water pollution around the world it’s hard not to think about where you next want to kiteboard…

Dead Angel Fish Water Pollution Yucatan Mexico

Everyday countless articles are posted about the Fukushima disaster, plastic killing marine life and the devastation of coral reefs which are easy to read, feel angry about and then to move on from. If you don’t play and/or work in the ocean it’s easy to forget, but for some of us it hits deep. What can we do? The problems are too big to solve, but yet our livelihoods are slowly being destroyed.  

My own experience with water pollution might come as a surprise, but I guarantee I’m not the only person who has had to deal with these situations. All over the world it is happening daily and by the time you are finished reading this article you might think twice about your next kiteboarding holiday destination.

Let’s start back in 2009 when I moved to Nicaragua. I went to set up a kite school based out of San Juan Del Sur with the Surf Ranch boys. They had this big idea to set up an action sports resort where you could rock climb, skateboard, paintball, kitesurf & surf. I loved the concept right from the start and was excited to be part of the team. When I arrived in Nicaragua and met the boys I was shocked to find out the ranch was not built yet and there was nothing more than paint-balling set up!

I’m not sure what felt worse…. my foolishness for jumping on a plane so quick or the fact I was now stuck somewhere new and dangerous with no job, very little money and only survival in mind. I was stressed to say the least!

After some time and a lot of socializing I found a guy named David who owned a surf shop in town. He said he had some old kite gear in storage that he wasn’t using and I was welcome to work with him in the shop. Dave literally saved my ass because by this point I was completely out of money. Within about a month I had a couple of lessons booked and ended up finding the perfect location on Lake Nicaragua to teach from. The Barrios family owned a large piece of land right next to the Costa Rica border where they also had a wind farm. Their private beach on the lake was large and clear, making for a beautiful spot to kite from. I developed a wonderful relationship with the family and to this day we stay in touch. Everything was coming along nicely with my kite school until I started getting eye infections every time I went in the water. I’ve never been prone to this sort of thing, so I began to look into why it was happening.

Kiteboarding Lake Nicaragua

What I discovered is not as shocking as it is disturbing. None of the cities or villages in Nicaragua have sewage treatment plants. They pump the sewage directly into the lake, and for a population of nearly 6 million people, this is just downright gross! Upon finding this out, I sent emails to different government officials addressing this issue. The only reply I received was from one of the officials who wanted to learn to kiteboard and he was asking about lessons. We got talking via LinkedIn about the lake pollution and he told me there were no plans in place to treat sewage in the near future. After hearing this I decided it was not worth risking my health, so I packed up and looked for a new place to set up.

2010, and the Yucatan, Mexico, was my new home. Miles and miles of untouched beaches and year round wind… a kiteboarding paradise. I had never heard of Merida before I moved there and when my cousin offered me a place to stay I was excited about the new adventure. Shortly after I got there I researched the local kitesurfing community and discovered there was a competition being held the following week. I messaged each one of the people attending the event explaining I was a kiteboarder new to the area. I was welcomed to the competition and I ended up making really good friends with some of the local riders who supported me in setting up the first official kite school in the area. It was a bit of a slow start but soon I was so busy teaching locals from Merida I could hardly keep up. Eventually I began receiving more and more clients from abroad and realized there was a distinct lack of places for them to stay and be comfortable in while traveling. My next step… rent a luxury villa on the beach from which to run my school and accommodation for traveling kiters. Between the local clients and my all-inclusive packages my school was doing well. Then people started getting sick.

At first I thought it was just a serious flu going around but in time I began to see the correlation between the amount of time people spent in the water and when they got sick. Clients who booked rooms in my villa were leaving early, my students were too sick to finish their lessons and I was losing too much money to continue. Finally after seeing an Angelfish dead on the beach with bulging eyes, my partner Nick began researching the water quality in the area and stumbled upon some unbelievable reports right on our kite spot via Google Earth.

Water Pollution Yucatan Mexico

The report was longer than many others we found describing the hypoxic and eutrophic conditions. Eventually we found multiple articles talking about two things, one the sewage being dumped directly in the sea from many local businesses and two, the oil leak Pemex had not fixed on the pier. Apparently the local gas company had a small leak on a pipe leading out along the four mile long pier in the centre of Progreso. The amount of money they were losing from the leaking oil was not as much as the cost to repair the leak properly, so after a couple of years the water became toxic. In fact Pemex’s checkered history with oil spills started as far back as 1979 with the Ixtoc I oil spill. An area which used to be rich in sea grass feeding populations of manatees was dead. The pods of dolphins no longer passed by in the mornings and tropical fish were washing up with eyeballs popping out of their heads. Time to leave…. Again!

Closing down two schools I put my heart and soul into setting up was difficult to swallow. The thing that makes me upset more than anything is the reason it happened. I am still constantly being asked by people about traveling to Nicaragua or the Yucatan for kiteboarding and although both places are great for their own reasons I would use caution when riding there, especially in Nicaragua. My reasons for closing down my schools may come as a surprise to you, but with the clean water situation becoming such a big problem, I feel it’s my duty to tell the truth.

The reality is, picking up garbage here and there is great, but the bigger problems seem beyond our control. It’s sad…

When looking for the best spot to learn or improve your kiting, I recommend taking a look at the area on Google Earth. Zoom in and you will see if they have any toxic reports wherever you see a fish bones on the map.

Currently Nick and I are based on Barbados, available privately. It’s where we believe the water will stay clean and blue for the longest.

If you’ve had any similar experiences with water pollution at the spots you kiteboard at, please let us know in the comments below. We need to expose these issues and create awareness. We’d also love to hear your ideas on what we as kiteboarders can do to make a difference.

Written by

Jessica Winkler

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  1. Not all water is polluted in Yucatan. There are many other amazing kite spots in the Yucatan Peninsula:
    “The answer my friend…is blowing in Mexico”

    • Jessica Winkler says:

      I agree Jaime, there are so many beautiful places to kite and visit in the Yucatan. I actually wrote a 4 page article for the annual travel guide for The Kiteboarder Magazine on the Yucatan. This article is only stating what happened to me and does not mean it will happen to anyone else.

  2. Thanks for an interesting article. How do you look for a toxic zone? Can I look them up on google maps or I need to download google earth?

    • If you download google earth you can see very clearly all the pollution in the world. Even in Barbados there is a bad amount of pollution but luckily it is where the cruise ships are which is not anywhere near the kite spot. I feel that pollution is everywhere but we just have to do the best we can.

  3. Yep, they have the same problem in Boracay, Phillipines, the “swim” beach is ok, but all the sewage goes into the other side of the island – the kite beach. Most people were getting sick after a couple of days. A pity, because otherwise, the place was really nice.

    All the best,


    • Hey Jorge, I’m sorry to hear you guys are also having problems with water pollution, especially sewage…. It sounds like you can’t kite there anymore, or do you brave it anyway? Hopefully something will be done about it soon… there must be better ways! Thanks for sharing this with us, and all the best in Boracay.

  4. Glen-Erik Cortes says:

    Hi Jessica. I’ve swam and kitesurfed in lake Nicaragua more times than I can count and drank plenty of water in the process and never got sick. Your article makes it seem like 6 million people pump their sewage into lake Nicaragua which is simply untrue. Lake Managua ( a different lake) is a true sewage destination for the capital, Lake Nicaragua is not. They have already started to clean up lake Managua but that is another story/lake anyways. To put it in perspective, lake Nicaragua is pristine compared to many lakes in the US I kitesurf in. Nicaragua in particular has pretty clean water considering you can drink it straight from the tap with no issues.

    Trying to open a kiteschool with no money in a country with no kiters in a spot no one goes to without any accommodations seems like the real problem. I am a big advocate for clean water, organic agriculture, and sustainability but Lake Nicaragua is not a good example of a dirty lake.

  5. Hi!
    what a sad story. i have never kitesurfed and now travelling across Central America I thought I could try it in Nicaragua and looked for a kite surf school.
    I am disappointed I won’t do it, but cannot imagine what it meant for your efforts to discover pollution here and in Yucatan.
    good luck!

    • I’m sad to have this experience and hope that things will get better in many of these countries once they develop and start putting in waste treatment centres but as far as the general health of the ocean it’s tragic. I would recommend learning to kiteboard in a Costa Rica or Panama Michal, there are plenty of nice places throughout central america. Enjoy your trip it’s a beautiful area of the world!

  6. Alexey Plastun says:

    Jessica, Thank you for a very interesting and thoughtful article. Every time we go somewhere I choose the spot with the thought in mind on where the sewage goes :) What do you think of the water quality San Juan del Sur? My girlfriend and I are planning to go there for kiteboarding.

    • Hello Alexey,

      There is nothing wrong at all with the water quality in the ocean in Nica its just Lake Nicaragua you need to look into. Since I was there in 2010 i’ve heard they are doing water improvement projects in the area so lets keep our fingers crossed they are improving the overall situation. Another great kite spot is just a short drive south from SJDJ in Bahia Salinas in Costa Rica.

  7. Carlos Alvarez says:

    Helo Jessica,

    Hope this threat is not too old. I am very sorry about your schools in both places, it sounded like you put lots of effort in them. I would have loved to have a kiteschool close by (makes you feel safer when kiting in new places). I am moving to Nicaragua this march to study an MBA at INCAE (monte tambor, 15 min from Managua). I was wondering if you knew of a place, spot or town I could kitesurf on weekends close by and how to get there (hours driving, buses, etc).

    Thank you!

  8. Hello, very interesting article. I run a kitesurf school, in the caribbean of Nicaragua. There we are lucky, because we are in a small island with no industry. So we have clean water, and now it is the most important thing.