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Report | Responsible Tourism | Costa Rica


Pavones: the most widespread secret in Costa Rica

Arturo Silva Lucas | Alba Sud

Jeremy Evans' book, "The Battle for Paradise" (2015), reconstructs the fascinating story of a coastal community in which surfing ended up playing a leading role in how this destination is defined. But what balance can be made of what this activity has brought to the community?

Photography by: Guillermo.d, under creative commons license.

Paradise found; paradise lost. That phrase summarizes countless destinations that, due to their value and natural attractiveness, will never be free from the threat posed by the massification and commercialization of the globalized tourism industry. However, there are destinations that despite the passage of time remain in a relative state of isolation. Such is the case of Pavones Beach, in the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Located 377 kilometers from the capital San José and only 34 from the natural border with Panama, Pavones has been historically forgotten by the Costa Rican State and mentioned in the media when speaking of drug trafficking or surfing.

There are some academic studies on peasant struggles for access to land in Pavones and its surroundings, although not as many as in other Costa Rican rural communities. Recently, in February 2019, regarding the opening of the new university campus in the central district of Golfito, Pavones received the visit of a delegation from the University of Costa Rica with the intention of strengthening community capacities for tourism activity. Despite this visit, little has been done regarding its tourist history. One of the few texts that includes this Pavones story is the one written by the american journalist Jeremy Evans in the book titled The Battle for Paradise. Surfing, Tuna, and One Town's Quest to Save a Wave (University of Nebraska Press, 2015).

Written in 2015, Evans covers the past 60 years since it was discovered as an idyllic surfing destination by Daniel James Fowlie. Going through the land wars between Costa Ricans and americans until the outbreak of the conflict against the installation of tuna farms at the beginning of the 21st century. To finally arrive at the current moment, in which Pavones has managed to establish a small-scale tourist model focused on seasonal surfers. Evans builds a plot line from the prominence of surfing as a local tourist product that seeks to preserve an ecologically balanced environment. Not surprisingly, his american status allowed him to interview key actors. This provides the text with a testimonial richness that would otherwise have been difficult to obtain.

This article reconstructs that Pavones story taking Evans's book as a first source and as well as reviewing journalistic and institutional sources that serve as support for what the author wrote.

The king of Pavones

Historically populated by the Gnöbe indigenous community in the highlands, Pavones Bay changed its social composition in the 1960s and 1970s. The little, but constant migration of surplus labor force from the big cattle ranches or “haciendas” and rice and sugar mills from the province of Guanacaste, makes Pavones become a small fishing town.

In 1974 the american citizen Daniel James Fowlie, now popularly known as The King of Pavones, and also Danny, arrived on a charter flight. Born in California, Fowlie discovers through friends' accounts the existence of a Central American coast in which there is a wave of exceptional qualities. According to specialized media, the Pavones seabed provides one of the best waves in the world, thanks to its geography and the tide that goes from southern Chile to the Southen pacific of Costa Rica. With a left wave break that can reach up to a kilometer and a half, it allows to cover the wave for up to 7 minutes. Quite an exception if we take into account that the normal course of a wave does not exceed 1 or 2 minutes.

In statements to the press, Fowlie affirms that he invested 6 million dollars in the 11 years he lived in Pavones until 1985. Taken out of the pages of a Latin American historic novel, Fowlie financed the construction of the first school, health clinic, church, soccer field and the first canteen. He built special facilities in which he received sports photojournalists and professional surfers from the United States in the seasons of the best waves. It was a space where both locals and foreign guests could share, although with the condition that they did not disclose the name of the beach to the mass media. He also built the roads that today connect Pavones with Golfito and hired professionals in agronomy to buy stems, endemic seeds and wood outside Pavones so as not to alter the local coastal ecosystem.

Fowlie's actions seemed to go towards the realization of a modern fief. He acquired 14 property titles, which together covered eighty percent of the Pavones Bay, including 25 kilometers of coastline. Controls on capital inflows were quite loose in the 1970s [2]. It was enough to have some local contact and title unclaimed properties to appropriate large portions of land, sometimes in collusion with the local government.

This was stated by Fowlie in statements to the Tico Times on February 17, 2016: “From the first moment I realized how beautiful the place is. In '74 I looked for Cullo López, the owner of a canteen facing the sea. I bought 100 hectares of land for $ 30,000, 10,000 in cash in advance. I think I spent $ 500,000 on land alone.” As if he were a benevolent dictator, he made sure not to displace the local inhabitants. Rather, he built close relationships based on investments and buildings for communal use. The stories of how Fowlie paid off debts, sea voyages to the provincial hospital for the seriously ill are abundant.

After two years evading justice in his own country, in 1987 Fowlie was arrested in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, accused of trafficking marijuana to the United States in the framework of a larger investigation that included the Guadalajara Cartel. His name enters the radar of the US authorities after he became involved with Robert Vesco in money laundering activities in Central America [3]. He was sentenced to 30 years to prison in California of which he only served 18 years for good conduct. At the time of his apprehension he owned 1,500 hectares of land in Pavones. After his arrest, Fowlie's land went through various speculative processes. Faced with the uncertainty of Fowlie's return, resident american friends sold parcels with false titles to fellow U.S. citizens, others simply deserted, leaving land without an owner to claim it.

At the same time that Fowlie defected in 1985, the United Fruit Company also ceased operations. This banana Company; was the main employer in the southern part of Costa Rica at the time. At this point, many unemployed workers in the area carried out land recuperation actions for landless peasants.

The conflicts over land use and property rights in Pavones extend until 1997. For ten years, the confrontations between Costa Ricans and americans were resolved with firearms and knifes or “machetes”. Until the intervention of the Costa Rican authorities became necessary due to the death of two people, a Costa Rican and an American citizen, in dispute over the rights to a plot. The intervention of the Costa Rican authorities was motivated by pressure from the United States Embassy.

In statements to the press on December 15, 1997, one of the peasants in the area stated: “I am leaving here the day Danny comes and takes me out. I know that this land belongs to him, not to these gringos who present themselves as owners and are not.” On the other hand, one of the Pavones-based american who served as Fowlie's front man during the conflicts concluded: “As much as he is credited with building everything here and the good that Danny did, he should also be blamed for the bad things that happened after he left” (Evans, 2015: 159).

Tuna farms 

The void left by power structures is seen as a business opportunity by others. The new century welcomes Pavones with the promise of employment and development from the hand of other foreigners. The company Granjas Atuneras de Golfito S.A., of spanish and venezuelan capital, began in 2006 community meetings and environmental studies to implement the first tuna farm in Costa Rica.

Tuna is the most consumed marine product in the world. As a consequence of the overexploitation of bluefin tuna, the yellowfin tuna market has exploded in the last 30 years. By placing cages 50 meters deep in which the fish could reproduce, the company aimed to achieve earnings of $ 25 million a year and provide 180 direct jobs. The project, despite having all the permits from the country's environmental and fishing authorities, found opposition from non-governmental organizations of an environmental nature that later found echo in Pavones residents with two fundamental arguments, which are later used by the prosecutor hired against the project. On the environmental level, PRETOMA and Vida Marina argued that placing an indefinite number of marine cages was going to produce a significant amount of fecal matter that sooner rather than later was going to affect the ecological balance of the area. The cages due to their size, concentrating up to half a ton of fish, were going to attract other hunting-sensitive marine species such as sea turtles. On the social level, several residents of Pavones questioned the veracity of the communal consultation carried out by the company. It was stated that the sample taken was not representative of the community and some of the collected signatures were collected with false premises. In addition, they argued that the placement of the cages and processing plant for the tuna was going to affect the landscape and local economy based on visitors who appreciated the natural environment and qualities of the wave.

Pavones. Colorado_Chris, under creative commons license. 

The prosecutor in charge of the case, Álvaro Sagot, developed a strategy based on the nullity of environmental studies and community consultation. Sagot affirmed that the studies lacked the mandatory due process in the Environmental Technical Secretary (SETENA). The environmental impact studies were carried out in 3 days without considering the variations and changes in the tides throughout a year. At the same time, almost ten thousand signatures against the project were collected not only from the coastal population but also from other surrounding villages such as the Gnöbe settlements which they claimed were never consulted.

The conflict against the installation of the tuna farms allowed that the two opposing sides during the eighties and nineties now had a common adversary. Evidence collected in Evans' book reveals a truce between nationals and americans over land. One of the testimonies says: "We realized that the project was not going to make anyone richer, but the loss of the wave was going to make us all poorer here." (Evans, 2015: 189)

After two years of litigation, the Constitutional Chamber ruled in 2009 that the tuna project had not carried out exhaustive studies that gave feasibility and environmental sustainability. In a sentence similar to those seen in other socio-environmental conflicts in Costa Rica, the Chamber made the continuity of the project conditional on the due studies being carried out, giving one year as a grace period. The ruling also ignored popular opposition to the project visible in the collection of signatures. As well as the testimonies during the trial that claimed to have been deceived to attend informative meetings, which were later used to adduce a supposed satisfaction of the community with the project.

As of today, the tuna farm project has not been carried out. The businessmen in charge withdrew the financing, arguing that the community's rejection, added to the history of violence in the 1980s and 1990s, did not guarantee the conditions to invest in large-scale projects. 

Surfing, as a third alternative

The then environment minister, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, stated that: “The project does not really stop because of the legal arguments presented by the communal opposition. But because of the repercussion that the conflict had, mainly at the international level” (Evans, 2015: 183) Rodríguez maintained that all that the Constitutional Chamber sentence did was delay the project. But what ultimately removed the intentions of the businessmen was the support network that was built around the community. International organizations dedicated to surfing in ecologically healthy environments provided the community with an important political and discursive muscle.

While the trial was held, Pavones was visited by Andy Bystrom, an american activist in defense of coastal destinations. Bystrom stated: “We realized that the legal channels were not working. We needed external influence to point out to the government the economic impact that this activity would bring. Costa Rica presents itself to the world as a country that cares for its nature, affecting that would have a negative impact on tourism… that was our strategy” (Evans: 2015: 182.) To do this, he used a questionnaire that revealed the main attributes of the community. In descending order were my neighbors, my people and respect for nature. He then held a series of workshops on environmental surfing as an economically viable activity. Using the slogan "Save Pavones" environmental activists and professional surfers from the United States created a support network that reached articles in international specialized magazines. Fowlie himself, who was already living in freedom in the United States, provided funds and contacts so that the communal movement was strengthened.

The argument of these new actors was based on experiences in other countries where they had already had tuna farms. They argued that bacteria from fish feces would kill offshore marine life. This would cause not only contamination but the visit of sharks and other predators that would make it impossible to continue surfing, Pavones' main tourist product.    


With a tourist demand that is condensed in the months when the surf conditions are optimal, Pavones escapes the interest of the general public, national and foreign tourists. Today, however, the appearance of apps that forecast the exact day and time of the arrival of waves has affected the local economy. If surfers used to visit Pavones for days waiting for the surf, now they know what day and time they should arrive. This reduces the visitor's length of stay significantly affecting the local economy. As in other coastal destinations, tourist activity coexists with other traditional economic activities. Thus, artisanal fishing is also an important income for Pavones.

Regarding Fowlie, he still lives. He resides in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and from time to time threatens to return to Costa Rica to recover what was once his land. Difficult task since the current occupants rely on the agrarian legislation at the time of the land grabbing, which grants property titles after a year of living on land proven to be idle. But it is clear that Fowlie's greatest heritage to Pavones was surfing. Through him, the destination becomes relevant, first as a secret and then as part of a speech that appeals to environmental protection and care of a destination with special conditions for surfing.

Several different international organizations that promote environmental surfing pick up this heritage and include Pavones on their agenda. Although it’s obvious that this responds to some extent to the distress due to contamination or massification of historical destinations such as California or Hawaii.

Pavones experience also leaves a series of questions that can be addressed in future studies in Costa Rica. For example, does surfing naturally comes with overcrowding, pollution, and other ills associated with mass tourism or can it also be a tool for the care and protection of coastal communities? In Pavones' experience it would appear that it does, but other experiences in Costa Rica seem to indicate the opposite. It would also be worth knowing how these support and coordination networks operate in defense of favorable destinations for surfing.

The Costa Rican Tourism Institute values ​​the importance of surfing as a tourist product. But this practice is part of a broader menu of activities. According to their own studies, few tourists come solely to surf. These conditions the importance given to groups with specific agendas.

Today Pavones is at the gates of what could be a new chapter. The work that the University of Costa Rica started in February 2019 could be a great support for the construction of a tourism offer with strong local content.



[1] Evans, J. (2015). The Battle for Paradise: Surfing, Tuna and One Towns Quest to save a wave. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

[2] In the early 1970s, there were still many legal loopholes regarding the protection of coastal areas and capital control in Costa Rica. For example, Law 6043 on the Terrestrial Maritime Zone appears until 1977 and the first reference to the control of capital inflows is included as an article in Law 7786 on narcotic drugs in 1998 after the signing of an agreement with the United Nations against Transnational Organized Crime.

[3] Robert Vesco, a fugitive from U.S. justice, is accused of financial crimes and illegal donations to the Richard Nixon presidential campaign. In Costa Rica, he is remembered for having bought the favor of former President José Figueres Ferrer to reside in the country. Vesco died in Cuba in 2007.

This article is published in the project «International campaign of visibility of human rights vulnerations due to tourist inversion in Central America» developed by Alba Sud with the support of the International Relations Direction of the Diputació de Barcelona (call Human Rights 2017). 

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