Melba Ayala Provides an Eco-Tour and History Lesson

This Sierra Club volunteer loves being out on the water and in nature

Interview by Wendy Becktold

July 5, 2020

Melba Ayala

Illustration by Jon Stich

  • Name: Melba Ayala
  • Location: San Juan, Puerto Rico
  • Contribution: Sierra Club Outings leader

How did you become an Outings leader?
One morning, I was watching the local news, and the meteorologist said, "If you would like to take people to beautiful places in Puerto Rico, there's a club that is going to start training people to do that." I wrote down the phone number and called. It was the first training for Outings leaders here in Puerto Rico. I was 17, the youngest of the whole group. I had no idea what type of outing I wanted to do. Someone suggested I organize a boat tour of the San Juan Bay estuary. I arranged the first one in summer 2005.

Now you have your own tour company, right?
Requests to visit the estuary were coming in constantly, so in 2008 I started my own eco-tour business, essentially offering the same tour. Local fishermen take us through the lagoon system. We see birds and mangroves. We talk about how the ecosystem used to be and about the Caño Martín Peña, which is a waterway at the center of the estuary that is very polluted. There's a long history of how it came to be that way.

What's the gist of it?
In the 1930s, people migrated here from the countryside to look for job opportunities in San Juan, and they started filling in the waterway. It got narrower and narrower. Debris would get stuck, which led to flooding. The neighborhoods that built up around it had no infrastructure or plumbing. Raw sewage went directly into the water.

In 2004, these communities created a land trust and came up with a plan for economic development and environmental restoration, which included dredging the canal. Of about 3,000 structures, over 1,000 have already been connected to a sewer system. My family has lived here for five generations, and I talk about all this on the tour. I fell into being an Outings leader and an activist for the land trust at the same time. I am also one of the first entrepreneurs to come out of the communities of the Caño Martín Peña.

What do you do in your spare time?
I take my kids to the beach or the river. But I don't have a lot of spare time. Aside from Outings and my business, I have a full-time job with the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico. I'm an environmental interpreter. I pretty much do the same thing—show people natural areas in Puerto Rico. I just enjoy nature. It's so freaking awesome.

This article appeared in the July/August 2020 edition with the headline "Out on the Water."