IRTRAMMA

I had the opportunity to meet with the General Director of Managua’s Transport Regulatory Agency (Instituto Regulador de Transporte del Municipio de Managua). He graciously shared a number of interesting facts about their work and gave me some great maps about land use, bus routes, and transit planning in the city.

In the Managua, there are approximately 800 local buses that run on 34 different routes, with 855,000 unlinked boardings daily. The agency’s ridership statistics come from BEA infrared passenger counters installed at the entrance and exit of each bus. Initially, convincing the bus owner cooperatives to allow the installation of these bars was difficult; the owners soon realized, however, that passenger counts would allow them to determine how much fare revenue the drivers were filching (it turned out to be an average of 40%).

A few years ago, President Daniel Ortega announced his Modernization Plan for Urban Transport in Managua. Since then, hundreds of buses amarillos (“yellow buses,” as Nicaraguans call the former school buses) have been replaced, mostly by new 28-seat Kurgansky Avtobusny Zavod (Kavz) buses donated by Russia. These buses, though they are more comfortable for passengers and less polluting for the environment, have had a number of “acclimitization” problems (including with bearings, lubrication, and brakes). Nonetheless, the agency is planning to order 250 additional 40-seat Kavz buses, as well as 300 more buses from Mexico, to arrive by March. I especially enjoyed in looking over a report of specifications and finite-element analysis of these new buses; it was a definite highlight to be sitting with Managua’s head transit planner (and an automotive engineer by training) discussing, in his words, “the design of the perfect bus.”

IRTRAMMA’s long term plans are also interesting. After replacing all of the old school buses, by June 2011, according to plans, they will start implementing a bus rapid transit system tentatively named Metrovia. The agency is in the process of analyzing ridership data from the onboard passenger counters, and they plan to consolidate the thirty-four currently operating routes into eighteen BRT trunk lines and feeders. The Director stressed that they were attempting to optimize these new routes by using a scientific, data-driven approach.

Overall, IRTRAMMA’s goal is to facilitate efficient, safe, comfortable, and economical transport service in Managua. Groups like the BRU in Los Angeles or TRU in Boston might find this last priority interesting; the director explicitly stated that affordability, “to favor the people with the fewest resources in society,” was at the top of his agency’s political agenda.

A couple of years ago, the government proposed raising the bus fare from 13¢ to 15¢, sparking disruptive student strikes that eventually convinced the government to forgo the fare increase. Maintaining affordability while modernizing the fleet and improving bus rights of way will, in the Director’s words, require a “step by step” implementation over a number of years. Aid from other countries will also help (more on that here).

Surfing and Turtles

After the tranquility of Ometepe, San Juan del Sur was a big change. A major stop on the Gringo Trail, the surf town recently finished hosting the crew of Survivor: Nicaragua. In my two days there, I was able to steer clear of most of the cruise ship buses, etc., and I managed to meet some great locals and enjoy my seaside respite from Managua.

UPDATED: I should note that picking up the baby sea turtles was done at the instruction of the park rangers. Because sea turtle gender is determined by the temperature during its incubation, and because this year has been so hot, park rangers harvested a number of eggs and allowed them to incubate in cool places to maintain a gender balance in the hatchlings. They gave us a basket of newly hatched turtles to take to the beach and place on the sand.

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Buses and Road Construction on Ometepe

The former school buses on Ometepe were quite durable. I talked with one of the island’s first bus owners, and she told me about how, despite the island’s rough roads and lack of any garages (meaning the buses have to take the ferry to the departmental seat of Rivas for maintenance), the buses hold up pretty well. After completing a paving project between the port towns of Moyogalpa and Altagracia, the government is now slowly proceeding to pave the road out to the town where I stayed, Mérida. I unexpectedly got the chance to help out with this construction work.

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Ometepe

Ometepe, recently designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is an island formed by two volcanoes in the Lake of Nicaragua. I enjoyed my two days there climbing (the inactive) volcano and biking/hiking to a nice waterfall. The island’s quiet, relaxed vibe made it one of my favorite places in Nicaragua. The richness of Ometepe’s volcanic soil makes for famous rice and beans, and the gallopinto I had there did not disappoint.

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Granada

One of my Spanish teachers invited me to a jazz concert at La Casa de Los Tres Mundos, an cultural center in Granada co-founded by Ernesto Cardenal. Interestingly, a Taiwanese jazz group sponsored by the Taiwanese Embassy was performing. Nicaragua, a relatively socialist country, maintains diplomatic ties with Taiwan instead of communist China, like the rest of Central America.

The concert was a good excuse for me to return to Granada, one of Nicaragua’s most tourist-friendly cities. Andrea, a fellow Spanish student, and I went down for the concert and enjoyed doing some sightseeing around town. Highlights included dinner in the town plaza and a stunning sunset from the bell tower of Iglesia La Merced.

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Rivas

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Aerial Views

León

One of my first weekend trips outside of the Department of Managua was to Las Peñitas, a surfing beach near León. The surf was marginal, but the bumpy ride on the Old Highway on the way there was redeemed by sharing the smooth ride back on the New Highway with a rooster.

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