PLAYAS DEL COCO – It’s unlikely that the dark sand of this beach on the northern Pacific coast of the province of Guanacaste had ever been formed into a 5-foot-tall castle with spires, staircases, ornate arches and even an outhouse before last weekend. But as part of the Papagayo Sand Fest, organized by the Guanacaste-based environmental tourism magazine Utopia, eight of the world’s best sand sculptors arrived in the popular beach town last weekend to raise their short-lived sand statues, as well as to raise what organizers hope will be a much longer-lived environmental awareness.
Yumi Davis, the 26-year-old Japanese born and world-educated editor of Utopia, said she and others from the magazine are concerned about the lack of long-term, environmental thinking in the explosion of development and construction in northern Guanacaste.
“People see this as an opportunity, and take it as an opportunity, but they think in the short term,” she said. “If you want people to keep coming to this area, you have to preserve what brought people here in the first place.”
According to the Costa Rican Construction Chamber, construction permit requests in Guanacaste increased by 762% in the past year compared to the year before (see separate story).
With that in mind, Utopia magazine, which has just published its fourth issue, launched the Papagayo Sand Fest, hoping it will become an annual event.
“We want to educate people, and what better way to do that than with sand sculptures,” Davis said. “Nobody can walk past a sand sculpture and ignore it.”
And they couldn’t. Spectators filled the beach to watch under the hot summer sun as artists from the Unites States, Canada and Mexico seemed to defy the very nature of their medium and, over two full days, turned the sifting sand into apparently very solid statues of a castle, two arm chair-seated arm wrestlers, a princess with an enamored frog and other sculptures.
Each artist worked in a patch of sand set off with yellow tape, but often crossed into each other’s areas to chat or help out. Bouncing between events in China, Belgium, Canada and other parts of the world, these elite sand artists all knew each other before arriving to Costa Rica.
“We’re like a big pile of puppies,” said Walter McDonald, the quick-quipping, lightspirited and white-bearded “sandcastler” better known as “Amazin’Walter”.
McDonald, from South Padre Island, Texas, has been building sandcastles professionally for more than 20 years, and is the founder of the Sons of the Beach (S.O.B).
“I call myself the disorganizer since it’s a disorganization,”McDonald said.
All it takes to become an S.O.B. is to be sworn in by another S.O.B., he explained, which simply involves raising one’s right hand and repeating the pledge: “I promise to have fun, to help others have fun, and unlitter.”
“To unlitter,” McDonald explained to Costa Rica’s first sworn Son of the Beach, this Tico Times reporter, “you must properly dispose of more garbage than you generate.”
The group of sand artists included other notables, such as Karen Fralich, from Ontario, Canada, who in 2004 became the first woman to win The World Championships of Sand Sculpture, held every year in Harrison Hot Springs in Canada.
The event also featured Calixto Molino, Latin America’s best – and only – competing professional sand sculptor. Molino, whose sculpture depicted the Aztec legend of the feathered serpent, said he likes to represent his culture, especially through pre-Columbian themes, when he participates in sand sculpture events.
Bert Adams, from Vancouver, Washington, in the United States, worked on a piece that he called “a political statement.” His sand sculpture featured a toilet, which read on the back “water-treatment plant” and spilled water down into an ocean of fish, rubber tires, kelp, cans and other marine life mixed with pollution.
Adams said he was inspired to do the piece after having a conversation the night before about how the lack of water treatment in the area leads to the presence of raw sewage in the ocean water.
Adams, who organizes sand sculpture benefits that have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, looked down the beach and qualified the Playas del Coco event, which was non-competitive, as a success.
“Just ask the people who are here,” he advised. “I’m amazed that this kind of thing can happen in a town this small.”
Kattia Rivas, a volunteer for the nonprofit children’s organization Proyecto de Luz (Project of Light) – which sponsors the local elementary school – and a life-long resident of Playas del Coco, shared Adam’s sentiments.
After Proyecto de Luz coordinated a Sand Fest beach cleanup that spanned the PapagayoGulf where Playas del Coco is nestled, residents of the area congratulated her and others for their work.
“It’s not only important for the tourists,” Rivas said. “We all deserve a better quality of life.”
The event, in addition to trying to raise awareness – which included a series of visits by environmental speakers to area schools – also raised money to be split between a recycling project and various organizations.
In addition to Proyecto de Luz, Davis said major support came from Ocotal Resort, Grupo Papagayo and the Playas del Coco Lion’s Club, while Continental Airlines flew four of the artists to Costa Rica for free. However, Davis added, the event was very grassroots, with a swell of support coming from local businesses – especially dive shops – and community residents.
How a Sand Sculpture is Made
Sand sculptures can be made two different ways. One way, known as hand packed, is as simple as mixing water and sand together in a bucket until it is saturated, and then scooping it out and stacking it, holding it steady as the excess water drains and it stabilizes. Add to this practice and patience, and the results can be stunning.
For larger projects, sculptors also use forms to hold in and stack up the sand, to which they continuously add buckets of water. At the Papagayo Sand Fest, the artists used plastic sheets to make circular forms, which got smaller as they stacked up.
Once built, the artist removes the top form – if forms were used – and starts carving his or her way down, removing first sand, and then the other forms as they work toward their masterpiece.
As they work, the sand artists use a variety of tools that look like they come from the tool belts of concrete workers and sculptors.
To protect against the elements – at least for a little while – the sculptures are also sprayed with a blend of water and glue, which mixes with the sand to form a thin shell.
According to the professionals, the quality of sand differs from beach to beach. “Ninety percent of beach sand is crap,” said Karen Fralich, the 2004 World Champion of sand sculpture, from Ontario, Canada.
The sand in Playas del Coco, however, was up to snuff.
“It’s all that volcanic stuff, the silt,” she said.