Surfing in the Galapagos Islands

Matt Rode

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Updated 121d ago

It’s a story that we’ve heard far too many times. Surfers discover the latest and greatest Shangri La. Backpackers follow, then masses of mainstream tourists. Unsupervised hedonism leads to crime and pollution.

Local governments don’t care because the economy is growing, which they erroneously believe is the goal (when in reality a sustainable economy should thrive rather than grow). No one does anything to protect the area until the lineups become congested to the point that the expat and local surfers have ruined it for themselves. Only then do we try to regulate, through Surfrider Foundations and Save the Wave Coalitions, but by that time it is usually too late. The environment and local culture are irreversibly damaged, and things only get worse from there.

Surf guide: Galapagos

© 2019 - Sarah Lee

This happens virtually everywhere surfing goes, with the same results and the same problems. Except for the Galapagos Islands. In the Galapagos, the problem is the complete opposite.

When Roberto Plaza moved from mainland Ecuador to the Galapagos Islands 25-years-ago, surfing was still relatively new in the area. That was a golden age of sorts for the locals, as they had the pleasure of exploring the coasts of the various islands, searching out new waves and new ways to enjoy one of the world’s most important ecological reserves.

© 2019 - Sarah Lee

But five years after his arrival, new administrators assumed control of the national park, and new regulations and restrictions were introduced. When the idea of outlawing surfing in the islands was proposed, Plaza authored a paper explaining the benefits of the activity for the local community, and asking that the administrators do an assessment before deciding to outlaw surfing altogether.

At the same time, he and others in the community started a surf club on Santa Cruz, the most populous island in the Galapagos. The club was eventually sanctioned by the local government, which also provided land and a building in which to house the club’s headquarters.

The Santa Cruz Surf Club.

The Santa Cruz Surf Club.

Unfortunately, at the same time, rules governing access to certain areas (and even the ability to own a private boat) began to come into effect. Today, 97 per cent of the Galapagos region is accessible by permit only—and, aside from a few private vessels that were grandfathered in, all boats in the islands require commercial licenses for their various activities, with these licenses being limited in number, and extremely expensive.

While these regulations are aimed at preserving the islands’ unique and fragile ecosystems—a goal they have succeeded in admirably—they have also created an environment where it is virtually impossible to engage in independent adventure activities.

© 2019 - Sarah Lee

Currently no boat operators in the islands are permitted for surf tourism, which means that theoretically the only way to surf remote zones is to hire a boat with a fishing permit for a specific area, and then quietly use that boat to surf instead of fish.

But the legalities of this arrangement are dubious at best. Plus, they are further complicated by the fickle nature of surf conditions, and the fact that regional permits have to be arranged ahead of time. In other words, while it may theoretically be possible to bend the rules and get a permit to visit a specific surf spot, if the conditions end up being better farther up the coast, your permit might not cover the zone with the best waves on any given day.

© 2019 - Sarah Lee

This regulatory system affects more than the occasional tourist looking to do some independent exploring and share a few waves with the sea lions. The local surf community (which numbers at around 200) is also technically limited to surfing within the 3 per cent of the islands’ area that is accessible by car or foot, and that doesn’t require a permit.

This is why most of the known waves in the Galapagos are located around the two biggest towns—because those are the only places were access to the waves is actually allowed. On San Cristobal this tends to work out, since the main town is located on the west coast, where both north and south swells can filter in and the predominant winds during blow offshore.

© 2019 - Sarah Lee

But on Santa Cruz, where the town of Puerto Arroyo is located on the southeast coast, its either flat or onshore the majority of the time. Meanwhile, dozens if not hundreds of setups on the other coasts and islands—many of which have confirmed waves—are inaccessible due to park restrictions.

Despite still being a young man, Michael Moreno is one of the elders of the surf community on Santa Cruz. He’s a direct product of the local surf club, having been one of the first young members to join all those years ago. He’s also the man who hosted Kepa Acero when the affable Spaniard visited the Galapagos Islands (and subsequently entertained the world with his viral, homemade edit). Together, the two pushed the limits of permitted exploration as far as possible, and ended up discovering one of the area’s newest, highest-quality waves.

Today, the local kids consider Moreno to be one of the area’s best surfers. But more than that, they look up to him as a mentor and teacher. Moreno runs a surf school that caters occasionally to visiting tourists, but mostly to the island’s school kids. These extracurricular surf lessons are part of a holistic approach to education that Roberto Plaza, his wife Reyna, and the other parents on the island are trying to create for their children.

Spot guide: Galapagos

© 2019 - Sarah Lee

If the surf club is Plaza and Moreno’s pet project, than the school is Reyna’s. The only private school on the island, and the only one that teaches all courses in a bilingual setting, the school is anything but traditional. Although it is required to meet the government’s curriculum standards, it does so in an open-minded, nature-centred atmosphere where the hallways are planted with trees and the children are encouraged to learn and recreate in a mature, self-directed way. The kids are also encouraged to pursue healthy, drug-free, extracurricular activities, like playing in the ocean and caring for the environment

The kids are also encouraged to pursue healthy, drug-free, extracurricular activities, like playing in the ocean and caring for the environment. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that parents like Reyna who support the school consider these skills to be of the utmost importance.

Roberto and Reyna have made it their life mission to build a model of what eco-conscious sustainability can look like, while stressing the fact that it is possible to do so without sacrificing luxury. They have turned their property into a sustainable, off-the-grid coffee plantation and eco-lodge that hosts adventure/yoga retreats throughout the year. When developing their property, they sourced local materials from the island of Santa Cruz as much as possible, with the result being a beautiful central house and separate yoga centre set on a self-sufficient working plantation.

© 2019 - Sarah Lee

They generate their own power, grow their own food, compost virtually everything (including the fruit that their coffee beans are harvested from), and have enough fresh water stored to survive the occasional drought. Their property is also located near the migratory path of giant land tortoises, which run wild across the acreage under the careful eye of their 16-year-old son Cayetano, who can tell you practically everything there is to know about the exotic creatures that call the Galapagos Islands home, and about sustainable living in general. The kids who surf in Moreno’s after-school classes spend as much time cleaning up the beaches as they do in the water

In other words, these are exactly the sort of people you want to be looking out for the ocean resources in the Galapagos Islands. The kids who surf in Moreno’s after-school classes spend as much time cleaning up the beaches as they do in the water, which is exactly why Plaza’s son gets to be involved in the program.

While surfers elsewhere have to be reminded to “take three for the sea” rather than leaving beaches dirtier than they find them, the surfers in the Galapagos Islands are the natural stewards of their environment, which makes it even more of a shame that they only have access to a small portion of their home’s coastline. Not only are these local surfers missing out on their islands’ waves, but the islands themselves are missing out on a voluntary army of motivated environmentalists.

When to surf: Galapagos

© 2019 - Sarah Lee

As I sat and chatted with Plaza and Moreno outside of the surf club during my last night in the islands, they explained to me that that the administrators of the national park are not bad people, or even bad administrators—they simply aren’t surfers. They don’t understand the priorities and motivations of the local surf community, or how valuable it could be to the entire region if a compromise could be found.

But Plaza and Moreno believe that by educating those who are in power, it’s possible to shape a future where the local surfers can once again access—and protect—the waves and coastlines that they grew up surfing. In fact, that very day Plaza had met with the woman in charge of the office managing public use in the national park.

As a product of that meeting, the local surf club had signed a letter of agreement with the Galapagos National Park to work together to find a permanent solution to the surf access problem.

While Plaza excitedly told me this, Cayetano walked by with a handful of kids from the surf club and told us they’d be surfing early the next morning before my flight, if I wanted to join. I asked how the waves would be, and Cayetano said, “Onshore. It’s always onshore, because we can’t surf anywhere else. But at least we will be in the water.”

Hopefully, with his father’s help, the winds of change will soon blow the other way.