By Christina Spilsbury.
A Brief History of Tamarindo
Tamarindo has witnessed a number of changes over the past 35 years, waves of development that reflect the fashions, economies, migratory patterns and politics of the larger world. Tourism is now firmly established as an industry in Tamarindo - cabinas, hotels, restaurants and bars proliferate. There are banks and supermarkets, doctors and lawyers, and even artists can find a way to make a living here. Lots of people from all over the world make Tamarindo their home. But when those first surfers arrived here in the early 1970s, Tamarindo was a small town at the end of an unpaved road, without running water or electricity.
In the early 70s, access to Guanacaste was very limited. The only international airline that flew from the US to San Jose, Costa Rica was Pan Am, and air service was infrequent. In 1970, the Pan American Highway in Costa Rica was still a gravel road from the Nicaraguan border at Penas Blancas to Puntarenas. Roads within Guanacaste were poorly maintained dirt paths. The road to Tamarindo washed out every rainy season – residents had to walk to Villarreal to take the bus to Santa Cruz.
Most of the foreign visitors in those days arrived here in vans, trucks or converted buses that they drove down from the United States. Their journeys lasted for months, and even years, and their vehicles were their homes. Rigs were decked out with beds, kitchens, and storage for all the gear the self-sufficient traveler needed on the road. They called the route they followed the Gringo Trail. Stops included Oaxaca, Palenque and the Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico; Lake Atitlan and Tikal in Guatemala, and La Libertad, El Salvador for the surf. Most of the surfers never got past La Libertad – word was that Costa Rica had no waves. Surfers who made it to Tamarindo discovered a perfect surf break that no one seemed to be riding. It was a well kept secret. There were few housing options, and most of the young travelers from the United States chose to camp in their vehicles in what is now Tamarindo Circle.
Adelita Zuniga, a woman born and raised in Santa Rosa, was the first to see the tourism potential in Tamarindo and petitioned the government for a lease on the land from the Pochoton (a big pochote tree in front of what is now Nogui Bar) to the Tamarindo Estuary. The government gave her a concession for the price of 12 colones (the exchange rate was then 8.5 colones to the dollar). Adelita built the road, dynamiting through the hill at the estuary to provide access to the beach. She built Hotel Doly, and gave land to family and friends who built summer homes. Luis Medaglia built Cabinas Medaglia in 1965 – a collection of rustic huts surrounding a rancho restaurant. Tourism was limited to the season from Christmas to Easter, and visitors were mostly families from San Jose or nearby Santa Cruz. In 1973, Luis Medaglia teamed up with Danilo and Fabio Alfaro to build the Hotel Tamarindo Diria to cater to the international travelers just starting to arrive in Tamarindo. Soon afterwards, Lewis and Randy Wilson, Mary Ruth and Warren Sellers started Papagayo Excursions for sportsfishermen from the States who wanted to catch the sailfish and marlin found just off the coast.
The Lopez family opened a pulperia in the circle in 1982. Before then, food options were limited. An ice cream truck would come to the beach occasionally. So did the Bimbo bread truck. Walter Martinez had a smokehouse for cheese before he opened the Zuly Mar but seafood was always plentiful. Lobsters could be picked up off the beach and in the rainy season, there was a pond full of fresh water shrimp next to what is now Witches Rock.
Blocks of ice were delivered on Thursday. Beer would stay cold until Saturday and after that; it was served “au natural” – warm. Rum was also available but fresh water was at a premium. The wells went dry one by one throughout the dry season. By April all the water was salty. (The rural acueduct of Playa Tamarindo was built in 1977 with the help of AyA and the community of Tamarindo. Coopeguanacaste brought in electricity in 1974. Phones arrived many years later, in 1996.)
The economy of Tamarindo has certainly changed over the past 35 years but so has the topography. The San Francisco estuary used to empty onto the beach just south of the Tamarindo Resort Club and the area now called Playa Langosta was reachable only at low tide. Local surfers mourn the day in 1975 when tractors arrived at the point break and shoveled out the sand to provide fill for the road to Langosta; ruining possibly the best surf break in Costa Rica. A group of real estate developers (who were obviously not surfers) had bought the island between the estuaries where cows were grazed and wanted to improve access to their property.
Playa Langosta was always a great surf break. It was also the mother lode of pukka shells and in the early 70's half of Villarreal was making a living from pukkas. A single strand of the disc-shaped white shells sold for $50 or more. Evidently there were only three places in the world where these valuable shells were found: the Phillippines, Hawaii and Playa Langosta. So some entrepreneurial surfers started what came to be known as “Pukka Madness”. The fever lasted about two years until the market was saturated, cheap plastic imitations arrived and fashion changed.
Nogui Bar was the hub of this busy market. Two guys named Pete and Andy (knee boarders from California) were the first to exploit the market. They had a 55 gallon drum in the back of their van to transport the pukkas back to the States at the end of their vacation. They organized local kids and their girlfriends to collect the shells. Men rode their horses out to Langosta to fill their saddle bags with pukkas. A baby food jar was the original measure. Pete and Andy paid 15 colones for one jar of perfect shells. Imperfect shells were discarded. The entire floor of Noguis was covered with pukka bits.
Competition between vendors soon got out of hand. Locals remember fights between Pete and Andy and the guy they called the Pukka Baron but it was the gringo known as “Boca Chancho” who had the hermit crab trade all to himself.
Boca Chancho lived in one of the original houses in Tamarindo Circle. Evidently, he thought there was a market for pet hermit crabs and would pay kids 25 cents for crabs he could resell for $1.00 in the United States. Boca kept the crabs in a large cage at his house. The sound of thousands of scuttling crabs punctuated the nighttime silence in Tamarindo Circle long before the days of disco music and all night bars.