He did what everyone dreams of doing: he opened a surf lodge in Nicaragua
It’s said that when the Mormon Brigham Young, having trudged westward in search of a suitable spot to found his church, finally nosed his horse into what is now Salt Lake City, he simply declared, with all the decisiveness that was in him, “This is the place.” And that’s pretty much what happened to Donald “Monty” Montgomery, a high-school phys. ed. teacher from Kamloops, B.C., who, at the break of 40, in the spring of 2005, gathered up his savings and went looking for land in Central America on which to stake his dream. Not a church, not quite. A surf lodge. And when he’d run out of west, he went north, from Costa Rica to Nicaragua – the suddenly Western-friendly redoubt of Daniel Ortega’s Sandinistas – and north some more, exploring away from the Waikiki-ish surf mecca of San Juan del Sur until he finally fetched up in the little fishing village of Jiquilillo (pronounced “hee-kee-LEE-yo"). His heart raced a little when he saw the beach.
Nine kilometres of fine white sand. Right in front of the plot of land he would eventually buy, the rollers steamed in before closing in on themselves – not huge, but steady (think Tofino, B.C., but 26°C). Farther out and a little north, a reef break produced big, Hawaiian-style barrels that peeled right before busting into spray. More amazingly, given that the surf scene down south in San Juan del Sur is quickly approaching three-to-a-wave density, this place was empty.
It was a seizable moment, and Montgomery moved. He moved the way people who record their dreams know to jot the details down right then, in the dead of night, or else everything will foam away and be gone by morning.
To better understand the dream, I flew south to Nicaragua for a week to watch the preparations un-fold. Montgomery had been scurrying around trying to get things on track for a planned official open-ing in December of 2007 – right about the time North Americans digging their cars out of snowdrifts would be thinking about a palmy respite. But in the eight months since he’d bought the land, there’d been some unexpected setbacks. All work had ceased briefly when a subcontractor vanished with building materials, then ceased again for three weeks as a typhoon blew through. Pretty much all of the trees Montgomery had planted had been eaten to stumps by the local livestock. ("Note to self: build a fence to keep the pigs and cows out.") Still, a fair amount had gotten done. There were now foundations and walls and thatched roofs. There were comfortable beds in lockable rooms. A care-taker had been hired, and she was living on-site with her sons, a puppy and a monkey named Charlie, though still high on Montgomery’s to-do list was to hire a local cook who could exploit the fresh lo-cal fruit and seafood. His idea was to keep it real: not bugs-in-your-bed real, but unspoiled-tropical-paradise real.
Montgomery hadn’t actually been around the camp much. He’d been bombing around in a borrowed car, hunting for provisions, trying to do the thousand little things new business owners have to do but have no idea they have to do until they have to do them. He was brimming with enthusiasm. But he was exhausted. There were two levels of things that had yet to be figured out: the quirks of running a surf lodge and the quirks of Nicaragua itself – none more obvious than what travellers encounter on the roads. A lot of the country’s streets, for example, have the same name, and the highway signs are confusing. Wherever a road has been rerouted, Nicaraguans don’t put in a new road sign; they just bend over the original one, the way you might dog-ear the page of a book. So you drive past it and ignore its advice (the way the locals do).
We were motoring north through the countryside toward Chinandega – the closest real city to Jiquilillo – when a policeman flagged us to the shoulder. Montgomery gave a no-worries shrug. “They just want to know the car isn’t stolen.” At the driver’s window, a solemn-faced cop appraised his quarry.
“Tres dólares,” he said, extending a palm. “Three dollars.”
Montgomery leaned out. “¿Por qué?”
The cop’s face broke into a grin. “Para Coca-Cola.”
Montgomery tensed a little with frustration – then relaxed and shelled out. “How long will it take to get to Chinandega?” he asked.
“Unless you drive really fast,” the cop added helpfully. “Then it takes half an hour.”
When his realtor first took him to Jiquilillo, in December 2005, Montgomery’s spirits soared. “It’s perfect. It is so perfect,” he heard himself saying as he appraised the property. Then his hopes crashed: the well water was brackish. Without a fresh water supply, this wasn’t going to work. And then things brightened again. It turned out that a big storm had salted the water table temporarily, and that the well, he was assured, would soon clear. (It did.)
The surf itself was made-to-order. “I’d just been in Jeffreys Bay, in Cape Town, which is supposed to have some of the best surfing in the world,” Montgomery said. “Then I came here. And you know what? Here’s better.”
The term “surf camp” implied there’d be some instruction available to guests. But Montgomery is no Laird Hamilton ("I’m not that accomplished a surfer,” he told me at our first meeting. “I’m not all that great. I’m terrible, actually"). He could impart the basics to beginners but had no clue as to who would tutor guests who already knew how to surf. Then he learned that his realtor’s neighbour’s teenage kids are among the top five surfers in the country; the boys agreed to come up and work at the camp when they weren’t on tour.
His face glowed at the memory. “All of these great things happened when I first came down here,” he said. “Everything was telling me this place was just meant for me.”
Obviously, Don Montgomery is an optimist. You pretty much have to be to sink your life savings into a business you don’t know that well, in a country where you hardly speak the language, a coun-try where the government (or rebel groups that overthrew it) has a history of seizing land other peo-ple thought they owned. It’s brave, like getting dealt a seven and doubling down.
You could call it a “midlife crisis,” and a certain kind of analyst no doubt would. How else to explain a man who quits his job, abandons his old life and makes for the tropics? The decision calls to mind Paul Gauguin, fleeing his mundane life as a stockbroker. Or John Darwin, the Brit who recently faked his own death and (it seems) arranged for his wife to sink the life-insurance windfall into wa-terfront property about 300 kilometres from here. It’s the move of someone on the run.
But there’s another way to look at it. It wasn’t that there was anything particularly wrong with Montgomery’s old life. There just wasn’t enough right about it. He’d been a teacher for 14 years, and loved the kids. But he was growing increasingly agitated by the expected endgame. “You make a down payment on a house,” he said. “Then you work to pay the house off, then you get your pen-sion.” You stay put, dig the groove deeper – until someone digs a groove for you, roughly seven feet long by six feet deep. Who instituted the mandatory beetle-brow at age 42? Who said life couldn’t be fun again, the way it used to be fun, when you were out every day feeling for the ragged edge of things? “Is this a leap of faith? Absolutely,” Montgomery told me. “But I didn’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t try.”
At 4:30 one morning during my stay, a young man named Eddy Maradiggo arrived. One thing Mont-gomery had figured out is that surf-camp guests need rest days. Often as not, keen but inexperienced surfers go full-bore the first day and wake up the next feeling as if mobsters have worked them over in their sleep. They can’t surf for a while, but they’re still game to explore. So Montgomery was working up a menu of options. He had bicycles for bumbling around on, and a nearby villager kept horses that could be rented for, say, sunset beach rides. But a good, guided hike was a must – which is why Eddy Maradiggo was here at this ungodly hour: to help scout out Mount Cosiguina, a spec-tacular volcano upcountry.
Maradiggo is a young ecotourism graduate from the nearby village of Padre Ramos who leads tours of the mountain. And by 8 a.m. he was in his element, taking gringos on the path to the summit. This was “dry rainforest,” laced with vines and asterisked with butterflies that magically accompanied us on up. At one point, Maradiggo halted the group’s progress and bent low, a coral snake on the path. In its mouth was a gecko, wedged sideways, way too big to go down. The snake looked like a guy who’d hit the wall in a hot dog eating contest as it remained frozen there on the path, inert, its ambi-tions in a standoff with its own physical limitations as everybody trooped on by.
Maradiggo knows this mountain. He held forth about the land, about the slow disappearance of its monkeys and sloths and songbirds as their habitat is destroyed by locals felling trees for fuel. He was – is – the real thing, and Montgomery decided to make him a part of his plans. (Maradiggo’s shot-spring truck was perhaps a little too much of the real thing, so it wouldn’t be part of the equation. The camp’s customers, Montgomery was pretty sure, wouldn’t go up Parnassus if it meant six hours in transit sitting on a board in the back, baking in the sun like macaroons.)
Nicaragua, the largest and second-least populous country in Central America, has lagged well behind Costa Rica in traveller-friendly eco-sensitivity, largely because it has until recently been politically unstable. (One tends not to worry about biodiversity when quelling uprisings.) Regulation of the abundant natural resources has been lax, and aid agencies worry about the forests and the water sup-ply and the inequitable distribution of wealth. Against that backdrop, modern-day Nicaragua emerges as a blank canvas for social change, and an opportunity for tour operators who do care about the envi-ronment to get themselves noticed.
All of which – with Maradiggo now on the scene – gave Montgomery another idea. It turns out that the Padre Ramos ecological reserve, just walking distance from Montgomery’s beach, is a birder’s paradise. Essentially untouched by human influence, the area is home to more than 175 species of birds. Plant your spotting scope on the bank of the estuary and there’s every chance you’ll see roseate spoonbills, spot-breasted orioles, rare woodpeckers and all manner of fabulous migratory songbirds. So it was settled. The volcano trip was in. And birding tours were in. Montgomery made a mental note to post birding photos on his website and to take down the snorkelling shots. (The snorkelling around Jiquilillo is really no great shakes – unless one swims in the estuary, which is rich with life that also happens to include alligators.)
“You know about the tortugas, right?” Maradiggo asked.
The words made Montgomery’s skin prickle: sea turtles.
Magnificent turtles belly up on these Nicaraguan shores to lay their eggs, and Maradiggo was involved with the local environmental group that monitors the nests and protects the eggs from preda-tors. Turtle watching! Come witness (the brochure would say) the miraculous life cycle of nature. Except that the turtles show up in the fall, when there are no guests. “Tortugas in December, ¿por fa-vor?” Montgomery implored. Maradiggo. Please, man, send me a turtle or two in December.
The whole issue of sea turtles, including their threatened future at the hands of man, raises a delicate question that every adventure-tourism operator must confront: How to enjoy nature without degrading it in the bargain? Or, in more general terms, how “green” – environmen-tally, ethically, socially responsibly – can you reasonably make your whole operation and still turn a profit?
In Montgomery’s most perfect blue-sky dreams, the surf lodge would be like something out of Rob-inson Crusoe, with sun-heated showers and guests peddling makeshift bicycles to pump well water. There’d be shells for door handles and tiki torches planted to line the path to the ocean, like runway lights at Shangri-La Airport. “If what you want isn’t washed up on the beach,” as the idealistic dad in Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast put it, “you probably don’t need it.” Though Montgomery wasn’t prepared to go quite that far. French-pressed coffee is unlikely to wash up on the beach, but you definitely need it. Ditto fruit shakes corrected with Flor de Caña rum.
A couple of days earlier at suppertime, the electricity suddenly cut out, plunging the camp into dark-ness. (Because of increasing demands on the power grid, the government had instituted rolling black-outs.) The caretaker, Juana, snapped into action. She found a piece of sap-stained wood, split it and held it in the fire to make a torch that glowed for more than an hour. It was atmospheric as all get-out. But Montgomery realized he needed a gas-powered generator.
Earlier in his planning he had contemplated solar panelling and composting latrines but was not sure he could make the numbers work. To develop the infrastructure of a no-footprint operation required capital he didn’t have. Probably it would be a compromise. Most things are. He could try to get the little things right – like buy his coffee from the mountainous Matagalpa region, where the coffee co-ops produce the fairer stuff. At the very least, he decided, he would plow 10 per cent of all proceeds back into the community. Guests who wanted to scratch that itch further would, he hoped, be able to volunteer at the local school or teach English to the villagers. In fact, to some extent, the lodge ex-perience would be as ecologically correct as the guests themselves made it – choosing, say, to borrow one of Montgomery’s bicycles to explore the area instead of taking their car; indulging in the local delicacies while curbing their cravings for off-coast luxury items.
The surf camp that Montgomery’s was being loosely modelled on – one he’d seen in Costa Rica on an earlier Latin American trip – had made what he considers a cardinal error: they staffed the place with friends of friends. That meant the bar was tended by flaxen-haired surfer dudes who could shave ice for your mojito on their abs, “but as soon as the surf was up, they were gone.” And they took all the surfboards with them, leaving none for the guests. Montgomery promised himself he’d hire only locals. After all, he reckoned, his clients were looking for authentic local flavour. Particularly since Jiquilillo is not Cancun. That much was clear within days of Montgomery’s arriving and getting a glimpse of the cast of local characters, including a boat captain who raises fighting roosters and a supporting cast of cackling toddlers chasing livestock through open-air huts. “The way I look at it is, Do you want plastic or do you want reality?” Montgomery said. He also decided his two daughters would spend a month or two here every summer, to inoculate them against First World suburban en-nui. “They’ll see other kids who don’t have a lot but are still happy.”
At the surf camp, the labour force worked on MST (Mañana Standard Time) – as if time were an ab-stract concept, as if the tools downed on Friday would be right where they left them in five years, or 15. But they wouldn’t be. Coastal Nicaragua, like so much of the world’s foreshore, is changing. If you ride the surf into the sugar-fine sand in front of Montgomery’s place, and the undertow pulls the curtain of the sea just so, you may feel something hard underfoot. Something made of cement. It’s part of the foundation for a hotel. As recently as the early ‘90s, this stretch of shoreline was the play-ground of Nicaragua’s idle rich. Hotels and clubs dotted the beach – until a tsunami wiped them out. That the sea is coming ashore again is surely a “when,” not an “if.”
“I’m thinking about building a couple of palapas on stilts,” Don had told me, early on. “Of course, we’re right on the beach.” He half-shrugged, then, with a certain Zen-like insouciance. “If a hurricane comes through it’s all gone, anyway.”
Bruce Grierson is the author of U-Turn: What If You Woke Up One Morning and Realized You Were Living the Wrong Life? (Bloomsbury USA, 2007; $24.95). He lives in Vancouver, B.C., with his wife and two daughters.
Postscript: One month after the author left Nicaragua, a typhoon swept up the east coast of Latin America. Montgomery’s Jiquilillo Surf Lodge was untouched. The lodge is now open and slightly expanded, with five private rooms and a dorm-style sleeping area with seven beds. For more details: nicaraguasurfbeach.com