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Editor's Pick

Feb 10, 2016

Perfect Waves and Prostitutes: Stories of surfing in Central America

It was quite a contrast in those days.


Jon Coen

We’d be camping on some beach somewhere, surfing until the wind came up, then crawl under our van for shade to read a book in the heat of the day. When the wind died, we surfed again. We’d cook meals on the fire and let the hermit crabs clean the pots overnight. We’d collect the pots in the morning. Paddle out. Surf. Repeat.

And after days of this, we’d usually find our way into some bustling Central American town. I remember the ones in Costa Rica the best. We’d eat fresh fish with rice and beans for cheap, then it was out to a bar and some good-natured fun with western backpacker girls. At some point, there was some degree of nakedness, usually the funny kind.

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Nicaraguan surf pioneer, Shay O’Brien, from Miami, seeks to improve the lives of the locals near his hotel (don’t call it a surf camp) without radically altering the community. © Michael John Murphy

But as the nights wore on, the local charm would wear off. The cute local chica your friend was talking to would turn out to be a hooker. The goofy expat we’d met earlier was just a train wreck escaping his problems back home. And whereas there was someone peddling dirt weed in every town, now we were being offered darker demons. All around were hustlers, pimps, and guns.

It was the 90s and the land grab was on – North Americans, South Americans, Australians, and Europeans buying up farms and coastlines in this Latin world. Unchecked resorts were growing faster than infrastructure. The coastal villages that surfers had turned into simmering party towns were boiling over with vice. The money now streaming in from all over the world wasn’t being reinvested in the community, but supporting the growing plague of corruption. Today, Jaco, San Juan del Sur, Bocas del Toro, Tamarindo and others are rife with casino hotels and sex tourism. And the beach up the coast, the one where we’d slept on the dirt floor of a palapa (simple Costa Rican thatched roof structure with no walls) and enjoyed empty waves, has a paved road to a hotel owned by some foreigner. Costa Rica is no longer cheap (the Guanacaste Peninsula dubbed “Gonna-cost-ya”) and in some spots in Panama or Nicaragua, the cycle is happening again.

“I believe in sustainability and maintaining the local community, but whether you want it or not, places are going to change,” says Tim Daley of New Jersey, who has done backside hacks in almost every Latin American country. © Michael John Murphy

It’s nice to be in a remote spot again

Fast forward to last January. The accommodations are clean and affordable. The staff is friendly, but not awkwardly so. Most importantly, the ceviche, that phenomenal Latin dish of fresh fish “cooked by the acid of lime juice) is amazing. We’re on a photo trip to Nicaragua with Jetty, a US apparel company that I have watched grow in the last 11 years from a few friends printing t-shirts to a business selling to 100 stores in the US and Europe. They’ve certainly “arrived” as you might say, but still maintain that grassroots authenticity. This is a perfect spot to get footage of team riders and work on branding for the coming year. I’m along for written documentation and to schlep extra clothes during the shoots.

While it’s a longer drive through the Nicaraguan countryside from Augusto C. San Dino International Airport in Managua, we all seem to prefer being off the gringo trail. There are a few other travelers about, but its clear from the warmth of the locals that obnoxious Americans haven’t turned them sour yet.

But every day in Nicaragua on this short recent voyage unearths memories of that road trip we took 15 years ago. A few childhood friends and I had bought a big Ford Econoline and went bumping through seven dusty countries for six months. We were rushed by bulls, shaken down by corrupt officials, struck down by bacteria, and engulfed in political debates with Peace Corps kids. We also snowboarded in Colorado, trekked the Grand Canyon, surfed our way through Mexico, visited Mayan ruins in Guatemala, survived El Salvador, got lost on dirt roads in Nicaragua, did six weeks of waves, volcanoes, and jungles in Costa Rica before the long drive home. We slept in a combination of banana-fields, surf hotels, beaches, the van, and brothels (a cheap place to stay when you don’t get a girl.)  It was the kind of trip that shapes who you are.

That same year, just after the turn of the century, Miami surfer Shay O’Brien flew to Central America with his friends. Seeking more powerful waves than Miami had to offer in the 80s, he developed a deep relationship with the barreling beach breaks of Puerto Escondido, Mexico. He and his wife Loretta own the property where we are staying on this 2014 trip. I got to chat with him one evening in the restaurant of his hotel: “That’s where I really learned to surf – where I rode barrels a 7’6 and felt like I was doing something special” he told me. “I was spending two to four months a year there. I had local friends and met other travelers who I would stay with all over the world. It was my version of doing time on the North Shore in Hawaii.”

Nicaragua : Laying down roots

Shay saw a change in Puerto Escondido in the mid-90s: “The surf companies came in and just made it a circus. By 1997, it no longer had that feeling of adventure. I think Puerto went through a bad time and this place I loved …

I was over it.” The next year, he was in Bocas del Torro, then a somewhat uncharted collection of islands and bays on the Caribbean side of Panama. There, a fellow surfer told him and a friend about Nicaragua’s empty waves and prevailing offshore winds. They found waves at the end of every dirt road … with no one around. At one point, O’Brien did find himself in a hotel with a few other surfers who turned out to be the Americans that separately created the original surf camps in Nicaragua. “None of us had any real business ambition. We just wanted to surf. I respected all of those guys,” he remembers. The same year that my friends and I crossed from Honduras into Nicaragua finding a volcano covering the severe poverty in a morose gray ash, Shay O’Brien and his crew rented a 4×4 and decided to drive down every dirt road that led to the beach. They continued to drive to more remote regions until one day, from the top of a hill, they spied a beachbreak with a rivermouth, an island just offshore and whitewater everywhere. He and his friends likely did something that few surfers will ever get to do. They discovered a surf spot. They surfed the thumping peaks alone, like gleeful children. “It was great, but I can’t say we were the first ones to surf it,” admits O’Brien, “Some people surf a wave and jump up and down and say, ‘Look at me.’ And they promote the place. And it doesn’t count unless they put it on Facebook. But that doesn’t mean they were the first to surf it. But we surfed here for three years before we saw another surfer.”

A little more work. Fifteen years ago, you could stretch your wallet pretty far by camping on the beach and building shelters from the blazing sun. Saved your colones without burning off your cojones. © Jon Coen

They put down roots and let them grow organically

They had seen the ass backward development of other beaches in Central America and wouldn’t be responsible for the same. But that wasn’t everyone’s plan in Nicaragua. Shay O’Brien: “A few years later, I’m in Miami, and I see flyers stuck on cars promoting a surf camp in Nicaragua. And I just knew these weren’t real surfers promoting it. There’s a respect among them because they love to surf. But there’s another kind of surfer. He’s the guy who casually surfs. He doesn’t know the history and he doesn’t care about the culture. For him, finding a new wave is finding money.” Two years later, there were surf camps in Nicaragua – prepackaged tours, shuttling people to the camp and then out to the waves, booked through offices in California. “It was just corny,” Shay remembers, “And the guy who had promoted it – I saw him in the line-up zero times!”. And while Nicaraguan towns are not as far along in their overdeveloped Central American counterparts, some coastal areas are sprinting toward self-destruction. And this is a cycle unique to anywhere in the developing world. “Its hard to speak to the ugly. We’ve all seen it. It’s a double-edged sword. Tourism brings employment, opportunity, and an avenue to leverage both,” offers California native Bo Fox, of Waves Of Optimism a.k.a., Project Woo. Fox is speaking from the Philippines, where his group is gauging the viability of long-term community-based development projects in the region most affected by recent Typhoon Haiyan. Woo has joined with two similar NGOs, Surf for Life and Waves of Hope. They channel traveling surfers to communities to work on health clinics, businesses, education, gardens, renewable energy, and other projects. A week earlier, Fox had been in Nicaragua at the inauguration of a new high school just minutes from Shay O’Brien’s hotel. Built by the efforts of these surfing groups and supported by the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education, it will allow 150 students to continue their education. “We’re not in the business of ensuring that locals can compete with the foreign businesses. However, we do support and have headlined entrepreneurial trainings geared towards supporting such individuals with technical tools to be successful and capitalize on such opportunities” says Bo Fox.

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Travel today is generally easier, cleaner, quicker and more generic than the 90s, but countries like Nicaragua still hold that Central America authenticity for those who get off the Gringo Path. © Michael John Murphy

Bumping Rails: The double-edged sword of surf travel

On our own recent trip, I traveled with Jetty team rider, Tim Daley, from Brigantine, New Jersey. Daley is a full time fire fighter, sponsored by Jetty, representing the company for free clothes, promotion of his talent, and the occasional surf trip. He has traveled and surfed 16 different countries and notes: “It happens. Places get crowded and locals get jaded. If you go to Bali, the locals will just take off like you’re not even there. Hindus will burn you!” he laughs. “But everyone you meet in these developing countries are so genuine” he admits. “They want to meet you and talk. I believe in sustainability and maintaining the local community, but whether you want it or not, places are going to change. I hate to think that way and I will always work for the opposite, but when we visit a place and try to do the right thing, there are ten more people with money who are going to come in and do the wrong thing. But things also work in cycles. Eventually parts of Costa Rica will just look ghetto and no one will want to go there. Then they’ll return to simple ways.”

For myself, although this is a working trip, it’s pretty relaxing compared to my earlier voyages when $40 had to last the week. And while there are few things in life more liberating than surviving on dollars a day and making your own luck, it’s nice to have a bed and not be looking over your shoulder for the next bandito.

And as Fox explains: “Surfers are explorers by nature and often times we are the first points of foreign contact. As such, this affords us the opportunity to affect positive change. Woo’s model for community-based development is dependent on local participation and engagement. Building from trust, we’re able work intimately with all the stakeholders, including the visiting surfers, using education as a way to involve them in the process.”

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Traveling surfers are extremely influential to young locals in Central America. Some surfers leave a positive message about protecting the ocean while others just leave vices. © Michael John Murphy

The locals are religious people

Drugs and prostitution are a big deal to them. The O’Briens have now been living in Nicaragua for 14 years. “The objective was to start a hotel. We didn’t want to call it a surf camp. We kept it simple and let it grow by word of mouth,” says Shay. Loretta, his wife, adds that there are no televisions on the property. The ceiling of their restaurant is not covered with broken surfboards. They’ve maintained a family atmosphere. The bar offers last call at 9 p.m. O’Brien won’t allow anyone to smoke herb in plain view and when the odd surfer has returned from the city with a prostitute, he informs them that they are both to be gone first thing in the morning. “This is a rural area. The locals are religious people. I’m not going to have a young local girl that works for me being stressed out by some guy smoking his jibber at a table, or having a woman here who’s obviously a hooker.” O’Brien has taught many of the locals to surf – including how to be respectful in the line-up. He feels that the type of surfers his place attracts has a positive influence on the kids. On the other hand, he admits that he has had to sell several properties from his nine acres to provide for his family, properties which will see houses erected where more surfers will stay, further crowding the line-up. “I can’t change what I’ve done. It will have an impact on the surf spot, but it’s nice to see people come here and enjoy themselves while respecting the locals.” The O’Briens recognize that they are not Nicas and do not have the right to turn the nearby fishing village inside out. They employ locals at fair wages and seek to be good role models to young workers. They also learned long ago that while charity may be well intentioned, it can be harmful when not thought out. “We found that if you hand a pair of sunglasses to a kid for free, it’s not fair to the next kid. So every month we put together raffle bags that the schools distribute to deserving students. It’s a lot of stuff our guests donate. We throw in candy and school supplies. You see the parents, aunts and uncles wearing the clothes and that kid has such a sense of pride for giving that to his family. That kid earned it instead of just getting a hand out.” Loretta adds that the students do a song for them each time they present the bags. “I still get choked up every time we do it,” she admits.

This recent trip included a good morning of fishing. We took out two pangas, mostly trolling a mile offshore and hooked up two snappers, a mackerel, one little tigerfish, and a mean looking barracuda. They’ll all be eaten between our crew and the captains’ families tonight. We get dropped off just outside the break, swimming with our tackle and coolers to the black sand beach. The wind is offshore, and the tide is filling in to reveal fun little bowls. We’re surfing within ten minutes. For now, there’s no mega-resort looming. A few local kids will have a better future thanks to the new school. No one is peddling tacky crap on the beach. The village isn’t going hungry and no one’s daughter is going to be pimped out tonight. All is good in this little corner of Central America.

This story features in the Fall Issue 01 of The Outdoor Journal

Feature Image: One thing has changed dramatically since the author’s first journey through Central America. The locals are killing it these days. © Michael John Murphy

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Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.



Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.


I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.


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