On April 24, 1991, a 7.5-scale earthquake shook Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast for 30 significant seconds.
The six bridges that connect the 60 kilometers from Limón to Puerto Viejo were destroyed. Small villages were cut off with no electricity or power; they had only each other. Expats packed their belongings and skipped town. And because policing the area was low on a long list of priorities, petty theft rose quickly. Word spread through the travel and surf communities that the Salsa Brava area was “sketchy.”
Gilbert Brown was only 9 years old when the quake hit. He sees this time differently though, as one of beauty and compassion, when his people persevered through a tremendous natural disaster. The earthquake shook the land so hard that the ocean floor raised a meter and a half, making the surrounding reefs more exposed and the waves more hollow. Young Gilbert created a life in the slab-ridden Caribbean Sea and his love for the area, as we’d come to find, is as inherent as his desire to share it. Ignoring the standard Pacific escape, CJ Hobgood, Eric Geiselman, Balaram Stack and SURFING photographer DJ Struntz ventured to the Caribbean to revel in Gilbert’s wonderland.
All photos by DJ Struntz
Gilbert Brown: I started surfing in 1992, about a year after the earthquake. Puerto Viejo was a ghost town for like two years. The American and South American guys that used to live here packed up and left. But I loved those times because they united the town like a big family. I was just a 9-year-old kid so I didn’t really know what was going on, but it was pretty special.
People don’t get the right information about the Caribbean. They say Costa Rica and people only think Pavones or Playa Negra or Playa Hermosa, you know? Witches Rock. The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is one of the sickest Caribbean places in the world.
People think it’s not secure but CJ, Balaram, DJ and Eric can say, “Hey, it was totally cool, everybody was so cool.” They had an amazing time and they liked the place, which is the most important thing. Bad rumors are spread by the expats to keep surfers out. But once you get here you can make your own opinion about the area.
I was telling DJ not to worry about outing the name Salsa Brava or the Island in the magazine because those waves are not new; they’re not secret spots. If you are a tourist in Puerto Viejo and you walk around the town and you just look at the ocean you’re going to see the waves and there’s no way you can miss Salsa Brava. Puerto Viejo is a nice town with good rooms for rent and good restaurants. My mom has a restaurant and my family works in tourism, so for me I want everybody to come to Puerto Viejo and surf Salsa Brava. I don’t want to hide any spots from them. In Limón my friend is the only one that drives people to the Island. He tells me, “Hey, tell the tourists to come here so I can get more business.” The wave is sometimes empty at the Island on perfect days. I am happy to invite everybody to come surf the Caribbean and have the time of their lives. Just make sure they get in touch with me to see if the waves are good because it’s not all year long.