July 2005. Driving a rented-for-cash ’94 Nissan Sentra, rusty like a pinto stallion, my buddy and I barreled west on the Inter-American highway. Windows down blaring Beck’s ‘E-Pro’ through tiny speakers, we blew past the many famed El Salvadoran right-hand point breaks listed in our $9.99 downloaded surf map. We had our sites set on a grander prize – the blank stretch of coast beyond Punta Los Cobanos near the Guatemala border. There the map read only “unexplored surf possibilities.”
My memories from those next few days would be seared in my mind. After hours of u-turns, dead ends, and closeouts, we shared a peeling, head-high, glassy beach break with a handful of local groms each riding different pieces of yellowed, broken surfboards. There was not another gringo for 50 miles, or so it seemed. Smiles came easy as we shared waves. We were invited to one of their homes for dinner. After a night camping on the beach in front of the family house, we moved on, knowing that we had found the vagabond surfer’s paradise. I was hooked. For years, I remained unfettered by snarling locals or crowded lineups – I just kept driving.
The Pacific coast of southern Nicaragua is a surfing treasure. While it boasts the revered elements of any tropical surf paradise – warm water, relentless swell, and countless breaks – many of which you can still find relatively uncrowded – the massive inland Lake Nicaragua makes this stretch of coastline special. Due to it’s sheer size and proximity to the ocean, the lake generates consistent offshore flows, grooming perfect barrel after perfect barrel. With arguably more surfable days than anywhere else in the world, Nicaragua is on any traveling surfer’s bucket list.
The surfer is a trail blazer, an explorer, an early adopter. Paradise discovered by bearded and barefoot vagabond surfers catches the romantic interests of backpackers, and soon paradise sells cold beer, langosta, and offers cheap rooms for rent. Ten years later, paradise is a teaming tourism mecca. Nicaragua is no exception. Following Costa Rica’s lead, Nicaragua has staked its future on tourism. And why shouldn’t they? For developing world economies globally, tourism is the second largest industry behind oil and gas. For a nation with limited infrastructure or manufactured exports, Nicaragua’s beaches are its future.
Richard Butler, a bespectacled professor of hospitality and tourism at the University of Strathclyde, coined a phrase – Butler’s Curve. In 1980, after years of study, he published the widely accepted Tourism Area Life Cycle (TALC) model. He basically stated what is obvious to many seasoned travelers: A beautiful paradise is discovered. Tourism development grows to accommodate the growing hordes. Then, at a certain point, the development, ie: tourism itself, finds a way to erode why people came in the first place – whether it was natural beauty or local culture. Over-development, environmental degradation, drugs, prostitution, cultural erosion – tourism eats itself into a collapse.
I stopped driving, in a sense, when I found Playa Gigante, Nicaragua. Rather than hit the road and leave paradise to the droves of tourists to come, I joined a band of Nicaraguan community leaders, ex-pat business owners, do-gooders, traveling surfers, and people who had never set foot in Nicaragua to take a stab at improving the impact of tourism to build healthier communities. We are Project Wave of Optimism, a non-profit organization who has been working in Gigante since 2006.
My highway companion from that original El Salvadoran road trip, Bo Fox, has been living in a cinder block shack perched atop the rocky point north of Gigante for the last two years. As Project WOO’s Nica-based Executive Director, Bo has spearheaded Project WOO’s recent efforts including the Surf Mentorship Program that provides boards to local kids who earn credits through community service, the Gigante Bus Project that has increased high school participation by over 80%, a community waste management program, and a host of other community projects and programs.
In between power outages, mosquitoes and befriending Gigante’s many stray cats and dogs, Bo has spent the last year working with the Gigante Health Committee – a diverse group committed to a healthy future for their community. Comprised of a University student, local business owner, farmer, young mother of three, regional community leader, and a gringa surf camp proprietor, the committee has researched, designed, raised money for, and are now constructing the Gigante Community Health Center. The center will not only provide healthcare for the 1,000 residents in the surrounding area, but will also serve as a platform for a community health education program. All of the entities that have come together to contribute to the project, including Gigante businesses, homeowners, resort developments, the local community, and countless visitors make this project a shining example of sustainable tourism. Over $65,000 has been raised of the project’s $90,000 budget and a crew of workers are laying the foundation as you read this. It is a proud hour for Project WOO, the Gigante Health Committee, and all of those who have generously supported the effort.