The Surfrider Trip
(photos are located within the article, scroll down to view)
It was 2 a.m. when I pulled in to the gated parking lot at Hotel Las Tortugas in Playa Grande. No lights were on, no night watchman around with my keys, only the sound of the surf crashing a hundred yards away. I drifted off to sleep in a hammock, knowing that the following days were going to be hectic.
I wasn't in Costa Rica for a surf vacation or to find love this time, it was a phone call that made me buy the ticket. Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, the Minister of Natural Resources (MINAE), wanted to meet me to talk about starting a Surfrider Foundation chapter in Costa Rica. It has been one of my goals in life since 1998, when I first moved to the Pacific beachside village Dominical and started the Basura Busters, a beach cleanup group made up of kids and surfers, spanish students and tourists. In the last five years under the guidance of the Surfrider Foundation Headquarters USA International Affiliate Program I've led cleanups, wrote newsletters, created a website (surfridercostarica.org), translated materials into Spanish, attended meetings and conferences, all as a Surfrider Foundation member interested in protecting the ocean, waves, and beaches of Costa Rica. This call may have been the catalyst needed to get things moving. A friend Scott Gallic was going to meet me in Jaco and join me to interview the Environmental Minister (who also happens to be a dedicated surfer). Scott, working in conjunction with the Surfrider Foundation National Headquarters, had received a Schoephlin grant from UCSD to research the possibility of Surfrider Foundation affiliates in Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama. I felt that together we could get answers and work with Mr. Rodriguez to find solutions to the problems of sea walls, pollution, drownings, and waste treatment near the coast.
Before the meeting I wanted to get some opinions from the locals about the state of their beaches. The first person I spoke with was Louis, the owner of Las Tortugas, who has surfed around Tamarindo since the early 70's. His concerns were the overcrowding on the main break right behind the hotel and the safety of the turtles that come to nest on the beach. He spoke about the violent nature of some of the locals who think they own the peak and take off on every wave. There has also been a lot of theft in the street parking lot. (During one visit, I had to chase off a thief who broke into a teenager's car, using a large tree branch as a weapon.) Next I spoke with one of Louis' employees, Ylario, who is a part of the Asociacion Protectoro del Recurso Marina y de Vida Silvestre (Marine Resource and Wildlife Protection Association). He explained in Spanish that the problem is the development along the coast from Grande to Tamarindo. The half-mile wide peninsula has condos, cabinas, and residences going up daily, all within fifty meters of Las Baulas National Marine Park, which contains the beach and the miles of estuary and mangroves inland. Street and house lights are disorientating the sea turtles, the water is getting contaminated by pesticides and human waste, and no one in his organization lives nearby to voice their concern.
Later in the day I drive into Tamarindo, which had grown tremendously since my last visit only nine months earlier. Three new mini-malls were constructed, the road was paved, two new neighborhoods had been opened up the hill, and now there were over 400 yards of seawalls along the beach. I found my friend Diana, who teaches surf lessons, and we caught the sunset at her house while chatting about the crowds at the beach. She told me about the problems trying to give a lesson with 60 other beginners flailing around in the shorebreak. The local grommets also paddle out in the middle of the pack, snaking waves from the longboarders, and narrowly missing the swimmers. The problem grew bad enough where the local newspaper The Howler gave it a full page story. The overcrowding wasn't just in Tamarindo, but at Ollie's Point, Playa Negra, Playa Avellanas, and Langosta. Surfcamps taking truckloads of surfers to different breaks and filling up the lineups with guests. The Environmental Minister Rodriguez took some drastic measures to ease the crowds at Ollie's and Witch's. He mandated that boats needed permits to enter the Santa Rosa National Park, and surfing visitors had to pay the entrance fee of $6, which goes back into park maintenance expenses.
I crashed that night at "A Surfer's Dream House" in Playa Negra. It is an awesome house, big enough for six guests with a huge oceanfront view of the break. At the same time I felt guilty since I was one of those at fault for bringing surfers to Costa Rica and crowding this spot. The beach house was a symbol of the development that I was against. Imagine a dawn patrol session at Negra with no one out until six longboarders come strolling down the beach and paddle out right outside of you. Imagine in ten years Playa Negra looking like San Clemente in the 1950's, with private neighborhoods obliterating the coastal ecosystem. I slept restlessly wondering what could be done to help?
The next morning I paddled out with a group of Ticos, some of them visiting from San Jose. At first there was a little tension since the waves were not that plentiful, but I made sure they all had their set waves before I took my first one. For the next hour everyone was cool, and we traded off waves with no paddle battles, no cursing, and a few hoots on the bigger sets. During the second session of the morning, I chatted with Forrest Folgers, who competes on a longboard and shortboard on the Circuito Nacional de Surf, Costa Rica's pro surfing circuit. His wife Gabriella also competes and has a lot of talent. I asked him about what he thought was a problem at Playa Negra and he mentioned the trash that came from up north in Tamarindo. There was not a water pollution issue since there weren't a lot of major rivers emptying in the ocean. I asked him if he was involved in any environmental groups, and he answered "No, it was too hard to organize the group and get things done. So instead I try to be an example of taking care of the environment. I grow food organically, compost waste, recycle, and teach these practices to my kids and others that come to my wife's day care center." I knew he was right since it is hard to have a meeting when the members are an hour away and don't have vehicles to get to a central location.
That evening I shared dinner and some Imperials with Joe Walsh, the owner of Witch's Rock Surf Camp. He has had his share of criticism for sending his guests out to all the major surf spots and was denied a boat permit to enter the Santa Rosa National Park. I wanted to get his side of the story. He defended his business using the following arguments, the first was that the camp spreads out their guests by only sending one vehicle to a popular break (Negra, Langosta, Marvella, Avellanas) each day. He also contended that a percentage of his revenue goes to pay for the lifeguards that work in Tamarindo, since the city does not pay their salaries. (The camp also gives donations to the neighboring elementary schools.) Finally, Joe had sent his guests who wished to visit Witch's Rock through boat owners in Cocoa, which have legal permits, unlike many other tour operators in the area. The blame for overcrowding could not be put on one person or business since there were six surf camps in Tamarindo, plus hotels offering boat tours, lessons, and board rentals.
My opinion has yet to be written in this piece, but here it is now - Surf businesses related to Costa Rica, from travel websites to board rentals, ALL are responsible for the increase in surfers in Costa Rica. So everyone must accept this responsibility and DO something to give back to the beaches they enjoy daily. Businesses must support programs that keep the beach clean and safe. They should be an example of an eco-friendly business - recycling and reducing pollution at home and on the job. They should not support other businesses that are damaging the coastline through pollution or over-development. The number of travelling surfers will only increase so surf businesses can succeed if they protect the resource that everyone shares, the beach.
At the crack of dawn the next day I drove up to Playa del Coco to visit Carlos Barrera, director of the boat owners association and operator of Roca Bruja Tours. We were going to take a trip into Santa Rosa National Park, and I was hoping to learn about the new tour policies for going to Witch's and Ollie's. (and to surf of course!) Carlos showed me the process where visitors signed in for entering the park, and by 7:30 a.m. there were five boatloads of surfers ready to start their trip. He explained that the boat captains all work together and own their own boats. They have decided to only allow eight boats into the park at one time, with a maximum of five surfers on each boat. If there is enough swell, the boats will not all be on the same peaks at the same time, thereby spreading the crowd out even more. All captains have cellular phones in order to communicate their arrivals and departures from each break, or to use if there is an emergency. Another safety measure Carlos had directed was that all boats must start back to Playa del Coco by 4 p.m., allowing enough time for a safe trip during daylight hours.
The cost of the boat trip was worth it just for the breathtaking beauty of the ride into the park. (it's currently $200 per boat, plus the park entrance fee) I saw a few dolphins, sea turtles, lots of frigate birds, and a couple of brightly-colored fish in the lineup. There were about 25 surfers at Witch's who were spread out along the two miles of open beach, although a tight pack of seven were sitting on one peak that appeared to have a cleaner shoulder to drop in on. At least six of the surfers out there were women, holding their own at catching the set waves that came through. I thought while paddling back out after a short tuberide that if Carlos could keep the crowds to this level for the next 10 years, that would be quite an accomplishment.
I left Playa del Coco after sundown feeling exhausted but satisfied with the progress taking place in Carlos' home town. The boats that Roca Bruja Tours uses all have four stroke engines, promoting cleaner emissions. As the association's director, he is helping the families of the other local boat captains, which in turn helps his community. The association also sponsors beach cleanups and visits the schools to teach about the ocean's environment. That is a good example of a surf business giving something back.
The next morning I took the back roads from Tamarindo to Nosara in order to check out a surf contest that Sunny Garcia was judging. It was organized by the Safari Surf School and promoted by Mango Surf Shop. Tim Marsh, the school's owner, commented "I saw the level of surf talent in Jaco and I thought that the local kids (in Nosara) should get a chance to show off their skills." The locals included surfers from nearby Garza and Samara, places still unaffected by crowds but also having environmental concerns. (A recent newsletter was addressing complaints raised by beachgoers over PWC noise and trash on the beach.) It was kind of weird that I was in Costa Rica, yet when I paddled out everyone was from Florida! It turned out that Epic Ministries of Jacksonville was down doing community service work, and nabbing some nice waves, too. In fact, I counted fifty surfers within 400 yards of the big palm tree, about half of them from the religious surf club. They were really nice, outgoing people who came down to help out the church in Nosara, and were respectful in the water as well. I wished that if surfers were coming to Costa Rica they would be this respectful to the local community, as opposed to tossing cigarette butts on the beach and giving everyone who paddles near them the stinkeye.
I spent that night at the Villa Taype, the closest place to stay to the palm tree on Playa Guiones, the epicenter of surfing in Nosara. It is strange that nearly everyone who comes to visit likes surfing right near this solitary tree. It does break a little better in front, but there are almost two miles of completely deserted beach to the north and south (not to mention the point breaks), and at times up to seventy surfers in front of the tree. Maybe the visiting surfers accept the crowds and only a few adventurers are willing to sacrifice an hour to find an empty lineup. On the way to Jaco I passed through Garza, a boating village next to a horseshoe-shaped bay with rock shelves at both ends and a small beachbreak near the center. I paused a few minutes watching two local kids out having a blast in the shorepound, and wondered what this beach looked like when a big Northwest swell charges down during the dry season.
It took almost five hours to get to Jaco. The first part of the drive was all rocky, then once the road improved my speed was rewarded with a traffic ticket. From there on I drove slowly over the new Tempisque River bridge (a gift from Taiwan in exchange for offshore fishing rights), and then south on the Pan-American highway. I took the route that allowed me to check Boca Barranca, which at high tide looked unsurfable, and then stopped again to take some shots of the gigantic crocodiles on the Tarcoles River - the most polluted river in Costa Rica. From there, it was only another thirty minutes to where I was going to meet Scott, at Cabinas Las Olas in Playa Hermosa.
Scott and I traded stories of our trips - he broke his board surfing double overhead Guatemala beach breaks and was getting to meet a lot of strong supporters of the Surfrider Foundation. We also ran into to Robert Barreca, a visiting college student who had been helping translate Surfrider Foundation materials and volunteering his time in Jaco. It felt good to know that more people realized they could make a difference to protect their favorite surf breaks.
After the morning sessions and a long line at the bank, Scott and I were prepped for the drive to San Jose to meet with Mr. Rodriguez, the Environmental Minister. However, we didn't know exactly where his office was and so our spanish skills saved us once we entered the city. The MINAE building was easy to spot, the only nine-story building amidst others half as tall, and the Minister's office was at the top. The antiquated elevator, which we felt may not have made it to the top, stopped on the eighth floor and we took the stairs up to his office. We spent the three hours drive preparing our questions and suggestions and now it was our chance to make things happen.
Well, once it started, the Minister of Natural Resources had control of the conversation. It became a chance for him to explain to us what the problem was as he perceived it - Overcrowding by foreign surfers who did not respect the locals and the environment. That is what he needed the Surfrider Foundation to help with. He explained that "Surfers are hard to organize because they are so indivualistic. We need to find a 'common thread' to bring them together. One example is the economic incentive from having a clean, safe beach. Surf business owners, as well as local contest directors that work with the local surf population and surf industry, could be the future leaders of Surfrider Foundation." Scott and I explained to him that an international affiliate of the Surfrider Foundation would be an autonomous group, capable of raising and budgeting their own finances and finding Costa Rican members (Note: Surfrider Foundation Class A International Affiliates are licencees of Surfrider Foundation USA). He ended the interview optimistically, telling Scott he would seek out some local friends to help create the organizing committee, and support the group after his political term was over. (The Surfrider Foundation is a NGO, non-governmental organization)
We left with our notepads still full of unanswered questions, but glad that we had the support of the Environmental Minister to continue our efforts in Costa Rica. Scott was going to hang around San Jose to interview the head of the Environmental division of the U.S. Embassy about their "White Water to Blue Water Campaign". I needed to leave at dawn the next day for a friend's wedding in Playa Dominical, a four hour drive through the Cerro del Muerte (Ridge of Death). Muy divertido!
Since I left early enough to avoid the tractor trailers flying around the tight bends in the road, and the sun was shining at 12,000 feet (rather than dense fog usually present at that altitude), the ride was 'very fun'. I arrived early for the wedding and had the chance to check the surf and drop by the river-side spanish school where I used to work. Most of the same friends were there, and we laughed about some old times. The only sad part was the changes made to the school after I had left. They had cut down 20 year old hibiscus and almendro trees to make the school yard brighter. In one of the trees, located right out in front of my old front porch, a three-toed sloth and her baby used to come visit. Now the tree trunk ended ten feet up, whacked. Had they done it while I worked there, I would have quit. Two other 'impovements' they made was to remove the composting and recycling bins and to build a second bathroom (with the open septic system ten meters from the river). This type of development, neglecting to take nature into account, can devastate a coastline through soil erosion and water pollution.
The wedding was magical, taking place at the bride's parents house facing a rain forest across the Baru river. Two small Cayman crocodiles swam up the current as the first speakers blessed the couple, and the ceremony ended as Catherine and Brek sang a love song they had written as their wedding vows. After that, mucha fiesta, mucha musica, and then mucha cansa as I was beat from the long day and anxious to wake early to surf.
The final days of the trip were relaxing, as I caught up with friends, made some new ones, and spent a lot of time in the water. Scott made it down from San Jose and wanted to speak to the leader of the recycling program in Dominical. Her name was Zeidi, and she had almost single-handedly kept the program operating. It was hard finding volunteers to sort through bottles and cans to categorize them for pickup, or to go through town asking business to save their recyclible. Not only does she lead that project, but also helps bring school children to National Parks and leads them in monthly beach cleanups. She also is in charge of keeping the town's clinic open, which only receives doctors once a month and has limited supplies if someone gets injured. And she has started a plant nursery with composted soil in order to replant species of mangrove and almendro trees along the river and beach.
Zeidi is the hardest working volunteer I have ever met in my life. She does her work seriously, keeps all the books in order, and rarely gets frustrated. But when Scott and I sat down with her to voice her concerns, she was livid. "There are five evil gringos in this area, they are going to destroy the environment around Dominical, and all they care about is money. They have bought the government and the police, and now it is almost too late to do anything about it." (I can not say these accusations are valid. I can say that the police department has a new vehicle, and the country's president was seen visiting the restaurant of one of the five men mentioned who has plans for building a marina in Dominicalito.) Zeidi seemed worn out from fighting the developments taking place, while the needs of the community (like clean drinking water) were being ignored. We sympathized with her, but shared her feelings that against people with a lot of money there was little that could be done. Projects would be completed while court cases were appealed, and there were scarce resources available to even investigate a case.
Scott and I had one final meeting before we took flights out of the country. It was with Jack Ewing, the creator of Hacienda Baru just north of Dominical. It is a 400 hectare reforestation project being funded by private investors, World Bank carbon credits, small grants, and a few eco-tours through the rainforest. On those tours I have witnessed sloths, snakes, anteaters, monkeys, poison dart frogs, and on separate occasions witnessed a jaguar and an ocelot (a smaller version of a leopard). Jack had done an outstanding job of bringing back nature to what used to be a cattle ranch, teaching the local communities to protect and appreciate their surroundings, and brought the Bandera Azul award to his local beach. (The Bandera Azul is an award given to Costa Rican beaches that have clean drinking water, clean oceans and beaches, safety signs along the beach, and educational programs in place to teach about the environment. Presently 26 beaches around the country have this distinction, awarded by the ICT - Costa Rica's Tourism Institute.)
Jack shared with us information on the projects he was directing. He also explained the difficulties involved after some grants were secured, how funds needed to be managed, and how hard it was to evaluate projects on their success. Since I had worked with him in the past I understood his concerns, and it was almost a personal warning for me to be careful applying for grants for projects that are not well thought out.
Driving north from Dominical to Quepos, the road is still not paved, but the bridge construction has started and soon the area would have more car traffic than ever before. It will mean major changes to the scenery, as more tourists will have access to the south western corner of the country, and businesses will pop up to accommodate them. Hopefully environmental leaders like Jack and Zeidi can convince the government to pass legislation to protect the rain forests and limit development along the beaches. And as a surf travel website owner, I will continue my responsibility to inform travelers how to respect Costa Rica's locals and environment, and publicize events important to surfers who care about clean oceans and beaches.
If you want to help, start by contacting your local Surfrider Foundation chapter to see what can be done to protect your local break. And if you want to volunteer your time and resources in Costa Rica, send me an email.
"The Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world's oceans, waves and beaches for all people, through Conservation, Activism, Research, Education...otherwise known as C.A.R.E."