Pavones: Small Costa Rica surfing town faces big growing pains
PAVONES, Puntarenas — I came to Pavones to learn about surfing, so first thing Wednesday morning I went down to the beach and walked up to a man holding the biggest camera I’ve ever seen, sitting on a log snapping pictures of surfers.
He turned out to be Jim Hogan, 52, who in 2012 won the over-35 Master’s competition at the International Surfing Association’s World Games in Playa Popoyo, Nicaragua.
Jim just got back from the same event last month, cheering from the beach as Costa Rica captured the team gold, led by a brother and sister from Pavones named Noé Mar McGonagle, 19, and Leilani McGonagle, 15, who took gold and silver in the men’s and women’s events.
“Noé Mar posted two eight-pointers before any of his opponents could even find a three,” Surfline.com reported. “He finished the heat in devastating fashion, logging a brilliant 9.93 ride to officially give his home country the Team Gold.”
The second time I walked down to the beach Wednesday, I found Jim standing with an older friend of his I had seen before and a young friend I hadn’t, a tall, blond guy holding a white board.
“This is Noé Mar,” Jim said.
I did a double-take to meet the newly crowned champion, offered a handshake and said, “Congratulations!”
Noé shook, smiled and said thanks. I introduced myself and we chatted a bit. I asked if he knew when his sister Leilani would be back, because I had heard she was in San José to meet the president. Noé said she had just come back with him from meeting the president on Tuesday, and in fact she was already out in the water surfing right now.
I asked if I could record a quick interview on my phone, but when I turned it on, Noé looked out to sea and said, “Uh, can I go surf?”
“Yes, but this will be very fast, five minutes,” I said. “How’d you do it? How’d you win?”
“I don’t know, I think it was just one of my goals of my whole life and then the team just had really good support,” he said. “I don’t think without them it would have been possible. I was super-stoked to win, it was like one of my dreams to accomplish, a dream come true.”
I asked him if he caught a special wave or had a great ride that impressed the judges.
“The final, the waves were pretty good, and I started off really good, and I ended up getting one 9.9, you know, a really high score, almost a perfect 10, and another good wave to back it up, and was able to win from the start all the way to the end, and I was just rocking it,” he said. “I just felt like I was in the right rhythm of the waves and, yeah, just super-stoked.”
And with that, Noé went off to surf.
Pavones is famous for what is reputed to be the world’s second-longest left break.
It starts with a south swell that pushes into the Golfo Dulce from the Pacific Ocean, squeezing between the southern tip of the Osa Peninsula and Pavones on the mainland, where it collides with a rocky point that spins off the famous left.
Jim drew a diagram in the sand with a stick to explain the wave, saying, “It’s on a peninsula, so it’s at an angle, at a 45-degree angle, and what happens is the swells come in and they hit the top of this point here, and it makes the swell peel all the way down to about 800 to 1,000 yards, about 8 to 10 football fields.”
“It’s a wave machine,” said Bradley Curth, 32, of Dover, New Hampshire, a left-handed carpenter who works part of the year in Antarctica and surfs goofy, with his right foot forward. “The general direction of the swell that comes out of the Pacific Ocean comes from the south, and so it’s just the geography of the point, it hits the rocks and it peels right off the rocks just the way you want.”
A left break is a gift to anyone who surfs goofy, allowing them to face the wave on the toes rather than try to ride it on the heels. Brad said last year he surfed the world’s longest left, in Chicama, Peru, 2 kilometers long.
“Same scenario,” he said, “where it’s a point and it comes up from the south swell, and it hits some rocks, because beaches move, the storm and sand and such, but the rocks are always there, and they always create the same break, over and over again.”
There are two big pastimes in this town: surfing and watching other people surf. The seawall between the water and the little town is a popular place to sit and watch the surfers.
In front of this wall is a nice, walkable beach. If you walk to the south, toward where the wave starts, you come to the fordable Río Claro, knee-deep or so, with a lagoon behind it where families with children are usually swimming. Cross the river and you come to a road, and right across the road you’ll see the green mesh of the fencing that surrounds Pavones Point, the 60-unit condominium project that most people in this town seem to think is a terrible idea.
Virtually all the expats here are against it, and many of the Ticos too, but some of the locals are 100 percent for it, welcoming the jobs it will bring, hoping it will help to get the roads paved, to improve the water supply.
I walked up to a gate at the worksite and asked if I could talk to the foreman, and within five minutes I was shaking hands with José Luis, who agreed to show me around the property.
Two buildings are currently under construction, still concrete skeletons, with the first models scheduled to be completed by October.
Each building will contain four two- or three-bedroom condominiums, with prices starting at $475,000. Eventually, plans call for 15 buildings, or 60 units, which according to my math should be worth around $30 million.
I walked to the Tico-Mex restaurant to meet Ana Guiselle Núñez, a friendly young woman who serves as the local point person, so to speak, for Pavones Point. She said four of the condos have already been sold, not counting those that the owners will occupy.
Ana Guiselle said the construction project currently employs 28 workers, of whom about 11 are from Pavones, though the numbers fluctuate. Some of the workers are from Nicaragua and some from Pérez Zeledón, she said.
I had heard that Pavones Point swept into town promising all kinds of jobs, but then it employed very few locals.
“At first they hired a lot of locals, but there were conflicts between the Ticos and the Nicaraguans,” she said.
“Women,” she said with a laugh. “They had serious problems. This is a small town, and there aren’t enough women. The workers were fighting over girls.”
Some people had to be let go, but she said the best workers are still working.
“The people who want to work, they go to work,” she said. “The ones who want to stay home, stay home.”
I told Ana Guiselle I had met a lot of foreigners who oppose this project, but I wanted to talk to Ticos who supported it. She sent me to Anabelle Valverde, 49, better known as Doña Julia, owner of the Hotel La Perla and mother of five.
Doña Julia greeted me on her doorstep and told me very clearly that she absolutely supports this project and the jobs it will bring to this town. She has no patience for foreigners’ arguments that Pavones, a town so small it has no ATM, should be kept small.
“I need customers to come,” she said. “I need a better highway. My kids live from fishing, and from trips to Matapalo, sportfishing and all that. I need people with more money in this town so that my children will survive.”
I told her I had learned that the project currently employed only 11 people from Pavones.
“There were some, I heard, who said, ‘Mae, I went into work drunk on Monday and they fired me.’ Well, what do you expect?” she said.
Doña Julia believes this project will attract people with money who can help develop this town, improve the roads, improve the one-lane bridge with no rails. She said foreigners here don’t want the highway to Pavones paved because they don’t want more surfers competing for the waves.
“Forgive me for what I’m going to say, but it’s the disgraceful foreigner who lives in Pavones who doesn’t want tourism to come,” she said bluntly. “They have savings and they live on that. We don’t. I was born in Pavones. I was raised in Pavones. And we need tourism to survive, because in my business, I need tourists to make a living.”
So Doña Julia’s hotel thrives on people who aren’t from here, yet people who aren’t from here are the biggest opponents of the growth she wants to see.
“What can people say who came to Pavones four years ago, and now they say they’re from Pavones, they’re watching out for Pavones?” she asked. “I can say I’m from Pavones. I was born in Pavones.” Her mother didn’t go to a hospital in Golfito — she was born in a house, right here.
“So yeah, sometimes I think that the foreigner is getting into the middle of something that isn’t his business,” she said. “Pavones belongs to us, the Ticos, not to them.”
The surfboard repairman
The principal owner of Pavones Point is a foreigner, Sam Claiborn, of Houston, Texas.
And yet, you can hardly swing a cat by the tail in this town without hitting a foreigner who opposes the plan.
“What they’re doing is destroying nature,” said Brent Bourdeau, 52, who has been here 18 years and runs a surfboard repair shop called Brent’s Dents. “The more people you bring, the less quality of life you have here. There’s more traffic, more pollution, more everything. People think tourism is a good thing, but is it really? It brings more people in to take more resources out.”
We were sitting outside the La Plaza Restaurant having a beer, looking out on the soccer field.
“We don’t even have enough water in this town,” Brent said. “Right now we’ve been out of water for four days. We have no spring, we have no water. How in the hell can you build more stuff? There should be a building moratorium. When there’s no water, you have a building moratorium, because you can’t support more growth.”
Brent said the surfing here is already too crowded.
“People who are avid surfers, they don’t want to surf in crowds,” he said. “So they’re bringing in more people. The more you bring in, the less you want to surf. I don’t want to surf here because there’s too many goddam people, and they’re bringing in more and more and more?”
A blond teenage girl walked past us and Brent said, “Hey, girl, your board’s done.”
“Oh, it is?” the girl said excitedly. It was Leilani, Costa Rica’s junior national champion, new ISA silver medalist and recent winner of Brazil’s Rip Curl Grom Search.
The German hotelier
I walked up the hill past the Jolly Roger restaurant to the Mira Olas to meet Elisabeth Romano, better known as Lili, a 58-year-old woman from Cologne, Germany, who has been in Pavones since 1988.
“We’re always kind of skeptical about development, but it would be unfair to stop it,” she said in delightfully good English, speaking with what you might call a slow German drawl. “I mean, you try to stop it, and you don’t really have a basis for that, and so you just try to get that kind of development that’s beneficial for a community. And with Pavones Point, that’s not the case.”
Lili said plans call for building 15 structures of 800 square meters each, though in the first phase they’re building only two.
“But even with these two structures, there are environmental problems,” she said. “The septic system is totally inadequate. … And the leach field is totally unsuitable for the location because it’s so close to the beach, and it’s totally permeable soil, it’s just rock and sand, and underneath it’s bedrock,” she said.
Plans for the project do call for a wastewater treatment plant, and a brochure that Ana Guiselle gave me says, “All sewage shall be treated on site to meet and exceed health and environmental agency requirements and specifications.”
But the treatment plant won’t be built until a later phase of construction, so the first two buildings will have an ordinary septic system.
“It’s basically at the level of the highest tides,” Lili said of the leach field, pointing to the developers’ plans on her computer. “So it’s practically ensured that the river mouth, where all these people are always hanging out and going swimming, and the surf break will be affected, that there will be fecal matter going into that.”
The surfer dad
I paid a visit to Sean McGonagle, the 51-year-old owner of the Riviera Hotel and father of surfing champions Noé Mar and Leilani. He has been coming to Pavones since 1982, when he was 18, and he moved here permanently in 1993.
I asked him how it felt to have two kids who just led Costa Rica to its first gold medal in a world surfing event.
“I’m very happy for them,” he said mildly. “They’ve worked hard to get where they are. … It was a great event for them, great event for the whole country. More than anything, I think it’s just a great step forward for surfing, to get the people in the government that could help the sport to realize that these are athletes, not just bums on the beach.”
On the subject of Pavones Point, he wasn’t so complimentary, though he expressed his opposition in his measured, soft-spoken manner.
“A half-million dollars for a condo in a complex of four?” he asked. “You could buy a farm here for that much and build your own mansion. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Sean was born in England, his wife is from California, Noé Mar was born in Matapalo and Leilani was born in this house right here in Pavones. The children are equally Tico and gringo, blond and bilingual, with looks worthy of a Sports Illustrated cover.
“I don’t like to be Mr. Negative on what other people are doing, and I’m sure you’ve heard enough negativity,” he said. “But I just believe the way these people have gone about doing it, they haven’t taken in mind the community.”
As Sean and I were talking on patio chairs outside his surfboard garage, Noé Mar walked out of the house toward the river carrying a plate and said, “I’m going to go fillet fish, Papa.” Papa nodded and waved.
“I think for any town it’s a lot healthier atmosphere if a town grows like a town, a community, rather than a tourist place,” Sean said. “And that’s kind of hard, because our main attraction is the wave.”
“We can’t just think it’s going to be empty over there our whole lives,” he said, “this empty, perfect setting on the point, no one’s going to develop it — something’s going to happen someday. I just think their idea of what to develop there is kind of different. It’s not something I would do.”
Sean spent a lot of time telling me a very complicated tale about the plan regulador, the master plan drawn up by Sam Claiborn’s group.
“We spent about three years fighting it because when they did the plan regulador, they drew mojones coming up the river, which put our titled property into beach lease property,” he said.
Mojones are survey markers that define the maritime zone. Within 50 meters of the beach, you can’t build anything, and within 200 meters, you can’t truly own property, you can only lease it from the government.
To make a long story short, Sean said the agency in charge finally agreed to move the mojones to a place that made his house once again his house — and then the same agency denied that it had done so.
“I just think the way that group have been toward the people in the town is kind of like bowling over the community,” Sean said.
Sean, along with almost everyone else I talked to, does not believe Pavones Point will ever find the market to build and sell 60 condos in this town.
“So I’m not super-worried about the scar they’re going to leave over there,” he said, noting that Pavones has seen a lot of people with big plans come and go.
“Pavones is … you niche out little by little what you’re going to do,” he said. “You don’t just come in with your chest out, saying you’re going to do this and that. It doesn’t work that way.”
I met with Gerardo Mendoza, the 30-year-old mayor of Pavones, or to be more precise the president of the Asociación de Desarollo Integral.
“I don’t know if I should speak as the president or as Gerardo,” he said. I suggested that he speak as Gerardo.
“Personally, I don’t really like it,” he said in Spanish. “I feel that a development like this misses the pleasure of this town. We are a small community, and people like to come here for that. If people want development, there’s Jacó, there’s Tamarindo, there’s Guanacaste. People look for places that are tranquilo, with nature, with the pleasure of pura vida. Given something like this, things are going to change.”
Gerardo said a lot of people here have never been anywhere else, and they take the unspoiled beauty of this place for granted.
“Nobody knows what they have until they lose it,” he said. “You have to leave Pavones a few months, to another country, not on vacation, but to work, to live, and you’ll find out what we have here. As soon as you leave this place, you’re going to love even the rocks on the beach.”
Gerardo spent several months in the U.S. working for a moving and storage company. He said local people who have never been there only know it from the movies.
“It’s all like a movie to them, because they’ve never left this place,” he said. “In the movies they see the skyscrapers, streets with eight lanes, and you want to go there. But when you live that reality, you’ll see that you’ll prefer to ride a bicycle, tranquilo, looking at the lapas, rather than sitting in traffic.”
Finally, I spoke to Sam Claiborn, 66, one of the landowners at Pavones Point and several other properties in town. He spoke to me on the phone from Houston for 45 minutes, addressing my questions about the issues people had raised with me.
“May 1989 was the first time I came to Pavones,” he said. “I paddled out and sat in the lineup and looked at the land and said, I can’t believe this property exists and is undeveloped. Everywhere else I’ve been that’s a great surf beach, there are houses in front of it. Who wouldn’t want to live there?”
He said he was told that land was “a bag of snakes” full of squatters and drug lords, with multiple claims of ownership, but he decided he wanted to buy it anyway.
He spent years negotiating the purchase with a number of ownership claimants. Pavones Point was then a squatter encampment of 50 people or so, he said.
“It took me two years of building relationships with those people before I could get on the land to discuss the possibility of buying them out,” he said. “I settled with them on the courthouse steps in Golfito.”
Then he said four or five other people came “out of the woodwork” claiming to own the land, so he reached a settlement with them.
Several people had asked me why Sam’s group was allowed to write the town’s master plan, and why he was able to get concessions and permits from the government when other people weren’t.
He said that to design your own zoning plan you have to have 1 kilometer of beachfront property, which he did. He says he was successful at getting the plan adopted because of the years of hard work that went into it and the money he invested to hire the lawyers, engineers, architects and other professionals needed to conduct geology, hydrology, archaeology, socioeconomic and environmental impact studies.
“It’s a huge, huge undertaking,” he said.
I mentioned some of the concerns I had heard about sewage.
“Sewage treatment is key, and we will have the highest level and standard of sewage treatment anywhere around in Pavones and probably in the Southern Zone,” he said.
“I don’t want to be ‘that guy’ that pollutes the land, the surf break, the river,” he said. Tests done eight years ago found coliform bacteria in the Río Claro at the bridge, he said, and “that certainly wasn’t because of us, because we hadn’t built anything yet.” He said there are a lot of septic systems along that river, and he plans to build something far cleaner.
About the moving of the mojones that imperiled people’s property rights, he said, “I had nothing to do with that. The government came out to put these survey markers in, but I did not make the determination where those are. When they did go up the river, it created a problem. I spent a year and a half and thousands of dollars hiring expert witnesses to help determine that that was not a navigable river, and there was no legal right for mojones to be up there.”
Sam said he is trying to help this community in multiple ways — to help get an airport built, to help build a new bridge, to help supply the town with water.
“The zoning is designed to attract visitors to spend money at off-site businesses (sportfishing, nature hikes, surf lessons, yoga, horseback riding, etc.),” he wrote in an email, “as well as taxes paid which could help fund better roads, water, schools, bridges, etc. People who don’t have zoning are not required to build businesses, pay taxes, hire locals and meet environmental requirements.”
The town father
If some towns have a colorful past, Pavones’ past is positively kaleidoscopic. And the history is totally relevant to everything going on today, because otherwise you’ll never understand why there are so many disputes about who has the right to sell what to whom.
The man who basically discovered, developed and put Pavones on the map is an old surfer from California named Daniel Fowlie, who ended up spending 18 years in a federal U.S. prison on drug charges.
In the early ’60s, a childhood surfer friend of Fowlie’s from San Diego, Kenny Easton, was the first person to find and surf this splendid wave, according to thefactsaboutdanfowlieandpavones.com, a website that tells Fowlie’s side of the long story.
When Easton told Fowlie about this incredible wave in this nearly uninhabited place in Costa Rica, Fowlie wanted to come here to stay.
Fowlie came 10 years later, in 1974, and as he inquired in the cantinas of Golfito about who owned this land, he met Claudio Lobo, who owned 250 acres of beachfront property. Lobo provisionally agreed to sell it all to Fowlie that same night, the story goes, and a few days later Fowlie paid $30,000 for the entire property, including a sawmill.
From 1974 through 1982, Fowlie continued buying beachfront property here from every owner who would sell, until he owned 80 percent of Pavones and 15 miles of beachfront concessions, according to this website. He hired much of the local population to build roads, schools, a new sawmill and a new cantina, and reportedly to plant more than 200,000 trees.
Fowlie, who was sometimes seen in town riding a white horse while wearing a hat with a feather in it, says on a video that people called him the king of Pavones.
“I talked to my grandmother, and she always spoke well of Danny,” said Mayor Mendoza, whose family owns half the town today. “All of my family likes him. Because everything he had, he bought. He never stole anything from anyone. He never paid people less than what they asked. And he always helped the community. He was a person who wanted to build — he built the school, he built the roads, he built the bridges, he wanted to reforest the place.”
In 1985, U.S. authorities raided a ranch Fowlie owned in California and recovered an ounce of marijuana, as well as several large, empty boxes said to smell like marijuana. Fowlie was convicted on federal marijuana conspiracy charges and sentenced to 30 years, of which he served 18.
Authorities in Costa Rica seized much of Fowlie’s property in Pavones, and squatters claimed the rest. In 1997, while Fowlie was still in prison, a land dispute in Pavones turned deadly when U.S. citizen Max Dalton, 72, was killed in a shootout with reputed squatters, including Álvaro Aguilar, who was also killed.
When Fowlie got out of prison, he came back once to visit his former “kingdom,” and things got a little tense when he greeted people now claiming land that he still considered his own.
“When he got out of jail he did that one trip to Costa Rica,” Lili said, “and then there were so many people that had stolen land from him, that they went to the immigration and said, ‘How dare you let this drug dealer come back in here?’ And so they declared him persona non grata or something like that. At any rate, he was not allowed to re-enter the country.”
Fowlie still claims legal ownership of everything he originally bought, including the Pavones Point property, and has been fighting for years to recover the land, even though he is currently not allowed to set foot on it.
On Sunday, despairing that I could ever pull all these voices together to tell this story properly, I walked down to the beach to watch the surfers, because it’s what you do here.
A girl in a long-sleeve green top was floating in the water near the seawall, closer to the area where beginning or intermediate surfers would try their luck. As the wave rolled in I watched her paddle, paddle, paddle to try to catch it, but she missed it and it crested in front of her.
That incredibly consistent wave kept coming, and she paddled, paddled, paddled to try to catch it again, but she missed it a second time.
I kept watching her, and the third time she paddled, paddled, paddled and stood up! She rode the wave most of the way to the beach, and I was so happy for her. I was weirdly proud of this random stranger.
I thought maybe she might be a metaphor for this big development in Pavones: It’s in the right place, trying to do the right thing, but right now it’s still paddling, paddling, paddling.
It remains to be seen whether it will stand up, and if it does, what kind of ride it will get.
Contact Karl Kahler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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