Central America Explodes: The world watches as surfing changes the face of the region

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By David Small

Central America has been through hell–decades of civil war, uncontrollable poverty, earthquakes, hurricanes, and active volcanoes. Headlines of devastation and political turmoil have flooded the American media for nearly twenty years, causing popular misconceptions that have only recently begun to fade in the minds of potential travelers. While Costa Rica–the region’s wealthiest and most stable country–has flourished as a popular destination for American surfers over the past two decades, the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador left the countries too dangerous for travel, and Panama was simply branded negative by association. But their respective wars and political troubles have ended (several years ago, in fact), their governments have stabilized, and the word is out that Costa Rica’s less fortunate neighbors have everything to offer–world-class surf, empty lineups, tropical paradise–and nothing to lose. Economically, the exposure could be exactly what the countries need to get back on their feet. But knowing the possible cultural expense of their countries’ pending growth, many natives are accepting the exposure with anything but enthusiasm.

The reason Central America has only recently attracted such attention is fairly simple. “Finally, the fear factor has died off. Everyone realizes it’s safe now,” says Florida native J.J. Yemma, who saw promise in Nicaragua while searching for empty waves in 1998. “It’s incredible how many people in the last two years have been turned on to it. In my area (of Nicaragua), there’re just surfers everywhere.” The 25 year old runs a surf camp near San Juan del Sur with his wife, playing host to an exponentially growing number of traveling surfers.

Their neighbors Lance Moss and Kristin Dotsey, another Floridian couple, run surfing and fishing safaris and are booked solid nearly year-round. “(Over) the past five years,” says Lance, “the number of people coming down (to Nicaragua) has almost been doubling. It’s really blowing up, especially this year with the Indies Trader coming down. It’s getting a lot of exposure.” Lance believes the exposure is wonderful for the country. Surf camps create jobs, bringing money and employment to areas stricken by poverty.

But when you see dozens of Web sites advertising such camps and guided surf tours, boasting “uncrowded, warm, perfect waves in a tropical paradise … don’t miss out!” you have to wonder: if nobody is “missing out,” how can it be uncrowded?

For now at least, camp owners like Lance, who base camps in remote areas of Nicaragua, don’t seem too worried about the growing population: “There’re a lot of places to surf. Most of the people kind of stick to certain areas, but we’ve got the boat, so we can run around.” Since traveling has become safer over the past few years, surfers are exploring new areas of Central America’s coast, and new spots pop up regularly. While the average traveler usually is responsible for adding to the crowding at media-famed breaks, experienced guides find new, empty spots. The problem is that when the number of surfers expected to travel to Central America continues to grow exponentially, the number of new, empty breaks can only get smaller.

Every break anyone has ever surfed was once referred to as “the secret spot.” No matter how perfect or how sacred or how “secret” a break may be, it will get named, and it will–eventually–see crowds. It’s the ultimate paradox of surfing: everyone wants to surf the best waves in the world, but if everyone surfs them …

Gary Saavedra, Panama’s national surf hero, feels the fruration of foreign invasion, but can’t discount the value of exposure as a professional surfer. “It’s not like we’ll be happy about many people being in the water, but if the point is to start the industry of surf here … it’s okay,” stated Gary on one of surfing’s touchiest subjects. Because there is little that can be done now, he simply tries to stay positive about the situation, accepting the down side as “the price of exposure.” Gary adds, “A few years ago, when the ’QS came here, some people said ‘No, no, it will change everything!’ It’s not perfect, but it’s probably good for the country, it’s good for the economy, and good for (sponsor-seeking) surfers.”

At the same time, however, Panamanian surfers witness the exposure and tourism that drastically changed their neighbor, Costa Rica, and fear this will happen to them. Panamanian surf-tour host Fidel Ponce still knows where to find empty waves, but having seen the effects of mass tourism on local culture, fears the modest country’s future: “I have seen paradises with not a single footprint, (and) that makes me want to keep it that way, but at the same time (it) is impossible. This means that we could one day get to the level where Costa Rica is right now. But I would not want our beaches to have banks, McDonald’s, roads, hotels, drugs, localism, and 200 people surfing at the same time.” Fidel continues, “I understand that the evolution has to happen, that people discover new places every day, and I still accept it even if it hurts.”

Costa Rica’s neighbors cannot offer the modern luxury of its hotels and resorts but are prime territory for the hardcore surf explorer. “A newly exposed area can offer more of an untouched, secret feel. It feels like more of an exploration, like it’s actually new,” said Strider Wasilewski after surfing Nicaragua with Tom Carey aboard the Trader in September 2003. This “new” feeling is what separates the region from other world-class surf destinations like Indo, Mundaka, or Hawai‘i. There are still countless spots that can be surfed without a crowd, spots that don’t even have names, but this attribute has historically been short-lived.

After seeing so many empty lineups turn into surfer stew, it’s impossible not to wonder how long this “untouched” feeling will last. The common attitude toward this issue seems to be reluctant acceptance. “Panama is like Costa Rica was ten years ago. Now it’s (closer to) five years. For sure I know it’s gonna feel the same as Costa Rica, but not for a few years,” says Gary.

Nobody’s posting maps to secret spots on the Internet, but they seem to have accepted the inevitability of having more than three guys on a wave. Says Strider, “People know there’s surf all around the world. They’re gonna look for it. People are smart enough to find new spots.” The word is out that these guys are surfing perfect waves every day, and more surfers will continue to show up at their breaks.

While crowding is inescapable, the territorial localism found throughout the surfing world simply doesn’t fit the atmosphere in Central America–jungles down to the water, undisturbed beaches, paradise. When describing the locals, only a few words come to mind–friendly, warm, welcoming. Kindness seems like a regional virtue–they are pure, unselfish people hounded by bad governments and plagued with natural disasters, including a recent earthquake leaving 350,000 more homeless in El Salvador. After all they’ve been through, local people only want to piece their land and their lives back together, and their vibe has clearly rubbed off on all those who’ve been there. While localism still thrives at competitive, overcrowded spots, many locals have stopped trying to ward off potential visitors, and, instead, simply ask that those who come bring positive attitudes and leave a good impression on the natives and their land. Perhaps the idea that these waves belong to anyone pretty much fades away after living amongst people who have next to nothing.

An increase in surf travel and positive media exposure could be exactly what these countries need, but it has to be an even trade. Business owners like Lance hope that travelers will show the land and its people the utmost respect: “If all the people who come down here are really good ambassadors of our country (America) and can influence everyone they meet in a positive way instead of coming down and getting wasted or buying drugs from them, then it’ll work out. Just sort of keep it on its own vibe.” As the first stream of tourists to the region’s undeveloped areas, surfers are in a unique position to set the tone for future travelers. If they bring smiles and respect along with their money (and you won’t need much of the latter), the impending tourist boom could work out for everyone.

Costa Rica, the wealthiest and most modern country in the region, has taken full advantage of foreign interest and has reaped its benefits. According to pro surfer John Logan: “Population is definitely on the rise, but the way they’re doing the country is great, because they’re putting a lot of money back into the infrastructure–the electricity and phone lines. There’s great Internet access now. We have cable TV, things like that. And they’re putting a lot of work into the roads, which is really good–making it the best third world they possibly can, basically.” John currently owns the Playa Grande Inn in one of Costa Rica’s many natural parks–a location he chose to avoid the chaos of “out-of-control” spots like Tamarindo. With modernization, however, Costa Rica has also been the first to see the risk of spoiling the natural beauty that makes the land so intriguing, a downfall the country is currently experiencing.

After decades fueled by American tourism, Costa Rica’s government is currently trying to slow commercial growth in certain areas, limiting construction to protect national parks and wildlife preserves, which make up over 25 percent of the nation’s land. In similar efforts, Nicaragua places restrictions on the purchase of land by foreigners. When J.J. first bought property for his surf camp in 1998, he paid only 360 dollars for a beachfront lot. Six months later the government took it away, claiming he was building on land that wasn’t his. As frustrating as that must have been for him, preserving beachfront property is unquestionably necessary to preserve the country’s natural assets–that is, if they don’t want their beaches looking like much of America’s West Coast, lined with hotels, restaurants, bars, and parking lots. El Salvador currently has no government land-protection program, but it’s conceivable that will soon change with the expected foreign interest.

Economically, countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador can only hope for the success tourism has brought Costa Rica. Plans for five-star hotels are already in progress. The invasion of the modern world is coming and will undoubtedly affect the land and local culture. The nature of Central America’s future will likely be determined by its visitors, says Lance. “The (native) people here (in Nicaragua) are super stoked and super friendly. They’re really excited to see Americans coming through, and tourism. I think it’s really benefiting everyone, but hopefully in the next few years when it really starts blowing up, they can keep their own identity.” Lance feels privicompetitive, overcrowded spots, many locals have stopped trying to ward off potential visitors, and, instead, simply ask that those who come bring positive attitudes and leave a good impression on the natives and their land. Perhaps the idea that these waves belong to anyone pretty much fades away after living amongst people who have next to nothing.

An increase in surf travel and positive media exposure could be exactly what these countries need, but it has to be an even trade. Business owners like Lance hope that travelers will show the land and its people the utmost respect: “If all the people who come down here are really good ambassadors of our country (America) and can influence everyone they meet in a positive way instead of coming down and getting wasted or buying drugs from them, then it’ll work out. Just sort of keep it on its own vibe.” As the first stream of tourists to the region’s undeveloped areas, surfers are in a unique position to set the tone for future travelers. If they bring smiles and respect along with their money (and you won’t need much of the latter), the impending tourist boom could work out for everyone.

Costa Rica, the wealthiest and most modern country in the region, has taken full advantage of foreign interest and has reaped its benefits. According to pro surfer John Logan: “Population is definitely on the rise, but the way they’re doing the country is great, because they’re putting a lot of money back into the infrastructure–the electricity and phone lines. There’s great Internet access now. We have cable TV, things like that. And they’re putting a lot of work into the roads, which is really good–making it the best third world they possibly can, basically.” John currently owns the Playa Grande Inn in one of Costa Rica’s many natural parks–a location he chose to avoid the chaos of “out-of-control” spots like Tamarindo. With modernization, however, Costa Rica has also been the first to see the risk of spoiling the natural beauty that makes the land so intriguing, a downfall the country is currently experiencing.

After decades fueled by American tourism, Costa Rica’s government is currently trying to slow commercial growth in certain areas, limiting construction to protect national parks and wildlife preserves, which make up over 25 percent of the nation’s land. In similar efforts, Nicaragua places restrictions on the purchase of land by foreigners. When J.J. first bought property for his surf camp in 1998, he paid only 360 dollars for a beachfront lot. Six months later the government took it away, claiming he was building on land that wasn’t his. As frustrating as that must have been for him, preserving beachfront property is unquestionably necessary to preserve the country’s natural assets–that is, if they don’t want their beaches looking like much of America’s West Coast, lined with hotels, restaurants, bars, and parking lots. El Salvador currently has no government land-protection program, but it’s conceivable that will soon change with the expected foreign interest.

Economically, countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador can only hope for the success tourism has brought Costa Rica. Plans for five-star hotels are already in progress. The invasion of the modern world is coming and will undoubtedly affect the land and local culture. The nature of Central America’s future will likely be determined by its visitors, says Lance. “The (native) people here (in Nicaragua) are super stoked and super friendly. They’re really excited to see Americans coming through, and tourism. I think it’s really benefiting everyone, but hopefully in the next few years when it really starts blowing up, they can keep their own identity.” Lance feels privileged to be a part of the region’s promising future.

With more incredible photos, videos, and stories coming from Central America every day, there is no doubt it will see drastic changes over the next years. For now, the entire surfing world is watching, waiting for Central America to explode.–David Small

 

For info on surfing Central America, visit surfaricharters.com, playagrandeinn.com, panamasurftours.com, or contact J.J. Yemma at surfnicinc1@hotmail.com.

rivileged to be a part of the region’s promising future.

With more incredible photos, videos, and stories coming from Central America every day, there is no doubt it will see drastic changes over the next years. For now, the entire surfing world is watching, waiting for Central America to explode.–David Small

 

For info on surfing Central America, visit surfaricharters.com, playagrandeinn.com, panamasurftours.com, or contact J.J. Yemma at surfnicinc1@hotmail.com.