A legendary place famous for having the second longest left hand surf break. It has a rich history that goes much deeper than surf. Commonly known by foreigners as Pavones, the famous surf town is actually called Rio Claro, named for the clear river waters that spill into the Pacific Ocean at the aperture of the Golfo Dulce, or Sweet Gulf. The word Pavon refers to the district within which the town of Rio Claro exists. Its name comes from a large bird called the great curassow, locally known as pavo, which at the time of modern settlement was abundant.
The female great curosow, locally known as pava. The male is called pavo.
The district of Pavon is bordered by Rio Coto to the North, the county of Corredores and the nation of Panama to the east , and the Pacific Ocean comprising the southern and western borders, extending all the way down to the Burica Peninsula, possibly the most remote region of Costa Rica.
Map showing Pavon district located in the very southwest of Golfito County within context of the Osa Conservation Area (ACOSA). Image source: http://www.inbio.ac.cr/ecomapas/acosau/generalidades.html
Pavon has 44 different settlements, each with their own primary school. The largest town in the district is the crossroads town of Conte. The largest town on the coast in Pavon is the surf town of Rio Claro.
The Golfo Dulce was first explored in 1522 by Gil Gonzalez Davila. At the time it was called Golfo de Osa, thought to be named for an indigenous chief named Osa, in what is now the village of Punta Banco. The transformation of the name from Golfo de Osa to Golfo Dulce was thought to be due to the pronunciation of the native Italian language of the ship captains: Golfo de Osa pronounced as Golfo Dossa with further phonetic transformations to Dolche, which would finally be translated to the Spanish Dulce, hence Golfo Dulce.
Gil Gonzalez Davila, the first European to explore the Golfo Dulce. Image source: https://espaxioinformativo.wordpress.com/2012/06/03/la-conquista-historia-de-nicaragua/
Over the exploratory years, there was evidence of indigenous settlement in the area of Pavones, although it appeared to be in low populations numbers. The indigenous folks were reported to be welcoming and helpful to the explorers. It is thought that the natives that existed in the region at the time would now pertain to the Boruca tribe. They were adorned in gold that they believed help them to communicate with the source of life.
The Golfo Dulce was revisited in 1563 by Juan Vasquez de Coronado. Since 1630, the Pavones region has been reported as a great source of coconuts as noted by Captain Diego Ruiz de Campos. By 1675 Catholic Spanish missionaries had reached the Golfo Dulce.
In the 1680s the Golfo Dulce was mapped for the first time by Basil Ringrose, an English cartographer adventuring with the British pirate Bartholomew Sharp. At this time other famous British pirates were also in the region, including but not limited to Francis Drake, John Coxon, Henry Morgan and Edmund Cooke. At this time the Golfo Dulce was given the name “Port of King Charles” and was even decorated with a British flag.
The first map to be made of the Golfo Dulce. Click image to see in detail.
In addition to the British pirates, at this time the oldest recorded Arab explorer of the New World was also visiting the Golfo Dulce. Native to Iraq, Elias Ibn Hanna Al-Mawsili found rivers spattered with gold and a pearl the size of a garbanzo bean.
As time passed the Golfo Dulce became more isolated. According to John Cockburn, a Scottish sailor, by the mid-1700s the Golfo Dulce was sparsely inhabited by indigenous people. Perhaps the boldest and most extensive visitor to the Golfo Dulce, Cokburn walked the entire coast of the gulf, starting at Matapalo and finishing at Punta Burica, at the tip of the Burica Peninsula.
In modern times Pavones was settled in the 1960s by Ticos from the northern parts of the country and by Panamians from the southeast. Word got out that there was “free land” to be had and the countries homesteading laws attracted these folks to settle the area.
A huge ecological and cultural asset to Pavones is the Ngäbe-Buglé Conte Burica Indigenous Territory, which is comprised of 11,910 hectares (29,417.7 acres) and according to the 2011 Census, home to some 1,626 people. The indigenous territory was established in 1977 in response to an influx of Ngäbe people coming from Panama to the southwest of Costa Rica in search of “free lands.” As a people they had outgrown their comarcas designated for them by the Panamanian government. There exist four other reserves in the southwest of Costa Rica for the same people. The Ngäbe people are bilingual, speaking their native tongue Ngäbere and Spanish. They survive via slash-and-burn agriculture, supplemented by occasional hunting and government assistance. Entrepreneurs that live near enough to touristic areas sell handcrafted goods and receive guests in their homes. Almost all of Pavones’ primary rainforest is located in the Indigenous Territory, making the Ngäbe guardians of the forest, with a government program in place that pays individuals for protecting tracts of forest. Some Ngäbe people also work as laborers in industrial agriculture. As high school education is becoming more accessible, via the improvement of schools and scholarship programs, today’s youth are seeking a mainstream education in order to pursue professional careers in hopes of escaping the poverty in which they were raised.
According to modern surf history, the Pavones wave was discovered by a North American surfer named Kenny Easton in the early 1960s. It was estimated that at that time Pavones was inhabited by 20-30 families. Surviving by swidden agriculture, hunting and fishing, these bold pioneers hacked a living out of the pristine and fertile lands of Pavones. The beach and horseback trails were their means of transportation. When commercial goods were necessary to supplement their subsistence agriculture, locals took a 2 hour boat ride to Golfito to sell their surplus crops and to shop.
Easton shared his knowledge of the wave with another North American surfer named Danny Fowlie, who would soon become a legend, some even calling him the King of Pavones. From the years of 1974-1982, Danny Fowlie purchased 80% of the Pavones coastline, comprising 15 miles of beachfront property. Only four of the original owners refused to sell to Danny Fowlie. At the time that Danny Fowlie made his land purchases, Pavones had no modern development. Danny Fowlie used barges to transport horses, heavy machinery and materials to build his new kingdom. He built the Pavones beach road and also the road that connects Pavones to Conte, a remote tropical crossroads. He additionally built schools, a soccer field, bridges, a cantina, a medical center, a sawmill, two airstrips, and contributed to reforestation and agroforestry.
Pavones was seemingly a paradise for ten years, as Danny had a personal playground where he invited an elite group of surfers to play, and employed many locals in the development of the area. The year 1985 was a turning point for all involved. This was the year that Danny Fowlie was charged with drug possession and became a fugitive from the United States government. In the same year the United Fruit Company closed its operations in the port town of Golfito. The Golfito site was no longer a profitable endeavor for the Banana Republic Kingpins, as the laborers were learning about unionizing from communist organizers. Combined with the rise in real estate values due to the influx of foreign surfers, and Danny Fowlie on the run, Pavones was ripe for turmoil. The Pavones version of the Wild West had begun. The communist organizers, now unoccupied from the banana labor movement, were bussed into Pavones to squat the valuable land. Even some of Danny Fowlie’s entrusted caretakers and employees fell victim to greed and sold off his properties. For 13 years Pavones was a tense war zone where many packed heat, and unfortunately culminated in multiple deaths over the years. This led to a month long travel advisory warning put out by the US Department of State in late 1997.
Map showing the extent of Danny Fowlie's properties before he was sentenced to prison. Source: Danny Fowlie.
During Fowlie’s 18 year prison term, of which he was sentenced for 32 (but released on good behavior in 2004), unscrupulous sales of his lands fueled questionable land transfers to the present day with properties changing hands multiple times. Regardless, the 2000s saw a calming in the environment and the area steadily developed as a surf paradise. Over the years the local economy shifted from subsistence agriculture for the local Ticos, to one based on tourism and property maintenance for foreign landowners. However, a great number of locals still practice subsistence agriculture, especially in the remoter villages and mountain areas less affected by foreign investment.
Pavones has joined the modern world with the installment of electricity and telephone lines in 1997 and internet in 2008, although both of these services are still not available in all parts of the district. Pavones has maintained a strong local flavor despite foreign investments due to multiple factors. First off, the remote area has essentially been ignored by the municipal government in Golfito, unfortunately ranked one of the worst in the country. The public roads remain unpaved and are maintained once a year; there is the lack of an adequate aqueduct; and the great majority of Pavones’ coastline remains unconcessioned. Combined with the questionable titles as a result of the Fowlie land grab, big money has stayed far from the area, resulting in a charming boutique town full of mom-and-pop businesses and totally lacking in corporate ones. This has inspired alternative nature lovers and outdoor recreational enthusiasts to move to the area.
Pavones is now well known for yoga tourism, with multiple yoga based hotels; and for ecotourism, with active conservation projects like the sea turtle conservation project and the scarlet macaw reintroduction project, with attempts also made in monkey conservation. The sea turtle project started in 1995 in order to protect the Green (Chelonia mydas) and Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) sea turtles that nest on the beaches. The macaw reintroduction project started in 2002 with the founding of the Wild Macaw Association in 2014. All of these projects were supported by the Tiskita Jungle Lodge, pioneers in ecotourism in Costa Rica.
The year 2011 saw the formation of the grassroots local Integrated Development Association (ADI) which has contributed significantly to improving local life and the community is learning how to interact with the municipal and federal governments, sending a clear message that Pavones will no longer be neglected. As of early 2016 there are a variety of infrastructure projects in the works including a proper aqueduct and a regional airport, whose realization is hard to predict considering the lengthy processes and government inefficiencies.