Playas del Coco History

Playas del Coco does not have a written history so sources are empirical. One still might find pottery shards that attest to an unsung indigenous population who inhabited the coast before recent history, but to date there have been no major archeological finds right in Coco. Jade and gold have been found in outlying areas; such findings attest to the occurrence of trading as the Chorotegas were known for their pottery and their descendents still work in the art in nearby villages.

Based on articles from the first newspaper of Playas del Coco (El Coqueño, 1982) interviews with descendants reveal that Playas del Coco counts its beginning from the arrival by boat in 1856 of Agapito Barrera.

Agapito’s origins have been questioned but most likely he came down from Nicaragua when he fell in love with Coco’s unspoiled beach. He built a house where the plaza now stands and planted rows of coconut palms on the beach. He called his home El Coco.

A fisherman and builder of dugouts, Agapito began to create a flotilla to harvest the pearl oysters that were abundant at that time. Connections with buyers were made by traveling on foot, by horseback or in oxcart to nearby Sardinal or Liberia. More divers came to settle and Coco’s first industry was born.

The Pearl Industry
A Diver’s Story
Although the pearl industry reached its peak in the 19th century, it eventually died. A diver from long ago tells the story.

Gilberto Espinoza Cruz was born in Coco in 1908 into a family of divers originally from Sardinal. In his youth, all the west coast of Costa Rica was rich with pearl oysters. Divers went in dugouts of about 7 varas (vara = 33 inches; meter = 39 inches) diving up to fifteen varas deep (more than 40 feet)! One has to remember that at that time there were no masks or fins.

“We got into the water naked, with nothing, and we looked for the shells with our hands at the bottom of the sea,” Gilberto tells us, “with open eyes we saw the bottom a little”.

In a good spot, the diver would find one or two shells each time he dove. In a good day he would get about 2 quintales (100 pounds) of shells.

And the pearls? “It was a question of luck,” said Gilberto. “There were divers who found many and became rich, and others who earned little. In my day I was quite lucky.”

There were three classes of pearls: pink, white, and gray, with a value in the same order: the pink pearls being the most rare. The pearls sold for about ¢200 per carat to a Chinese man in Sardinal and a Turk in Liberia, Antonio Esna, whose family still lives there.

The largest pearl found by Gilberto weighed 18 carats (that is, a value of ¢3,600: a fortune in those days; Agapito Barrera sold the northern half of Coco for ¢1,000 en 1926).

In 1928, when there were still many pearl oysters, a Venezuelan business arrived in Coco with large boats of 13 to 14 varas, with 10 to 12 crewmembers each and modern diving equipment. They were able to harvest great quantities of shells, and in order to open them more easily; they cooked them over open fires in immense pots on the beach.

The Venezuelans were in Coco for a year and when they left, they took the wealth of the coast, leaving fewer shells. Many divers left and those that stayed started fishing for red snapper and shark with fishhooks and harpoons.

In 1932 the pearl oyster industry finally ended. In that year between November and December, the pearl oysters died on the entire west coast. Of what? Many people from Coco believe that the Japanese and Germans poisoned the waters to kill the competition of the natural pearls with their new cultured pearl industries. Gilberto says that this is not true.

“Neither the fish nor any other marine animal died–only the pearl oyster and these all in one month. Along the whole coast the bottom was full of dead shells. It was a plague, a sickness.” Today, sometimes, one can find pearl oysters but very few. The former abundance has never returned.

Las Lunas del Marzo
The Most Picturesque Era of Coco
At the beginning of the 20th century the rough route from Sardinal still only let horse traffic through to Coco. In addition to the divers’ camp, there were six houses of divers and their families who decided to stay in Coco: Joseana Canales, Cervando and Dario Espinoza, and Seferino, Jose and Ramon Mendez–all from Sardinal.

In 1913 Isabel Gutierrez de Barrera died and Agapito was left alone in the big house on the north side of the beach where he continued to care for his coconut grove and his corn, rice and peanut fields.

Little by little the road to Coco improved so that oxcarts could travel on it and so the oxcart drivers arrived with their families; for example, Juan Felix Morales in 1918, the grandfather of the Garcia family, south of the beach.

In 1926, by now in his 70’s, Agapito sold all the land to the north, from the hills to the beach (half of Coco) for the sum of ¢1,000. The big house on the beach lasted much longer than its founder; in 1930 the police occupied it, and they offered hospitality to visitors.

Playas del Coco continued to be isolated from cities like Liberia during eight long months.

A few dozen families lived in Coco permanently, dedicated to agriculture on a subsistence level and fishing only to eat. There was no commercialization of local products and some inhabitants anxiously awaited summer because they were helped by the additional arrival of summer visitors who bought meals. Such is the case of Balvina de Barrera, Rosa Rivas, Jesus Guillen and Lidia Angulo. A full day of meals was purchased by the wealthy tourists for ¢5 and by the people who came from areas closer to Coco for ¢1.25.

It was then that the most picturesque era of Coco began. The season was called Las Lunas del Marzo and coincided with the extreme tidal activity. Oxcarts filled with kitchen equipment arrived with families from Liberia and sufficient workers who set about creating a clearing to accommodate family groups and their guests who arrived to spend their vacations. It was there that the grand celebrations started with groups playing guitars and having a good time in each of the clearings. Then the marimbas appeared accompanying the frequent dances for people who arrived on horseback and by oxcart from neighboring towns. The dances were paid for–that is, in order to charge a fee the marimba players had a system which consisted in passing over a rope to isolate those who paid a “peseta” (25 centimos).

When they finished charging, they began another melody and the rope again began to do its duty; a special requirement for attending these dances was to bring plenty of pesetas. At the end of every song the musicians repeated the final refrain as a courtesy to the dancers. Bonfires were a part of the celebration where meat was constantly roasted, both land and sea animals.

The fishermen of Coco sold their products at such low prices that today they seem ridiculous; lobster was ¢1.35 per pound; everything was within the means of the visitors, some people went and others came, until the season culminated with Holy Week, which was when the greatest number of people came to Coco.

At that time conditions or installations did not exist for such a quantity of people; but 3 kilometers of virgin beach, the goodness of its inhabitants were a favorable sign for the most paradisiacal vacations that anyone could imagine.

After Holy Week the rains came and the people left. For the next eight long months only happy memories of vivid moments remained. This memory would last a long time in the minds of those who were lucky enough to enjoy it.

That was Playas del Coco up until 1954.

In that year when the flooded roads with the usual huge puddles, demanded creativity to traverse the road by foot or by horse, a commercial transaction was taking effect; for ¢3,500 eased by payments Lidia Angulo sold her house on the beach–that was also a small business called “Las Quince Letras” (The Fifteen Letters). The buyer had some experience in tourism, with a desire to succeed, but who had a great deal of difficulty (lack of money); for this reason even though he had great ideas, five more years passed without any notable change in Coco; however during this time and counting on the help of the inhabitants, the road was made passable with the help of the drainage of the huge puddles.

Fourteen culverts and with the help of oxcarts and picks and shovels the muddiest parts were filled with rocks; this met with the rustic road to Sardinal and Comunidad contributed by the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, the road from Sardinal to Coco was passable in the rainy season thanks to the people of Playas del Coco and with contributions from the first occasional visitors from the Central Mesa, until the early 1980’s there was no central or municipal government help in the fixing of this road.

The Fifteen Letters was evolving somewhat, the name was changed to Casino Playas del Coco; a small gasoline driven electrical plant lighted the first hours of the night, there was already a plumbing system fed by a 500 gallon tank, taking advantage of a hand-dug well, the main tube ran 300 meters in ¾ inches, it was only an example of what would be in the future. Important people from National Politics began to visit Coco and to become interested in some of the problems.

It is worthy to note that in 1960, five years after the transaction of the Fifteen Letters, Coco had reached a certain level of progress, and the bases for the existing businesses of today (1980’s)–Luna Tica with Freddy and Emilia de Barahona fought along with the Casino Playas del Coco facing great economic difficulties in order to create a different presentation to their installations.

A gas station appeared and two ice factories, which could not support the economic problems and so they disappeared; but in 1960 a change toward a great transformation became apparent, there were at least 20 houses of people from the Central Mesa.

The school of Coco gave classes up to second grade. There were efforts to commercialize fishing and although nobody was successful it was marking the standard that would take place for the growth that occurred from 1960 to 1970.

The Foreigners
The Adventurers
One part of the history that hasn’t been written is that of the arrival of the first foreigners. Somewhere in the 1950’s Maury and Alma Gladson sailed into Playas del Coco on their gaff-rigged schooner, Doubloon. Not knowing the language they were helped by a young man, Milton Gutierrez, to buy supplies and fuel. Later Milton attended UCLA and stayed with the Gladsons in the Los Angeles area of California. In return the Gladsons stayed in a home built by Milton (who by this time was one of the owners of the Pizza Hut franchise) on the beach in Coco until Alma died in the 1980’s and Maury died in 1998. Maury was a ham radio operator and many knew of him because he hosted a morning program of cruising news and he directed people into the bay.

Of the foreigners who arrived long ago and are still here is the Bragg family: Wilson (Rusty) who owns and operates R&R; Tours and Lighthouse Realty as well as boat and home construction businesses; Mike who owns and operates Papagayo Seafood Fish Exports, has several boats, Papagayo Seafood Restaurant, as well as a realty and a construction company. Rick Bragg is Mike’s right hand man managing the fishing business and Roy Bragg owns and operates Papagayo Marine Supply. At the time they arrived the colon was worth 5/$1.

Ramona Reid is one of the younger people who have been in Coco a long time. Her parents, Walter and Teresita Reid came as Peace Corps workers in the late ‘60’s. Ramona was born in Costa Rica and presently works as an independent teacher in Coco.

In the first part of the decade of the 70’s the colon was valued at 8.54/$1 (the 1000 colone note was worth $117.10; a beer cost 3 colones). There were several cruising boats anchored in the bay and the foreigners numbered about 20. Mostly they were young people from the United States (one Australian) and they gathered in the evenings at Claudio’s (the Casino) to watch the sunsets and, also, to watch yachties tumble in the surf coming ashore. A road existed in front of the houses on the eastern side of the beach but it disappeared in the pounding surf of one winter storm. The road to Coco from the Tamarindo turn-off was finally paved in 1978 and its inauguration was celebrated in Coco with Daniel Oduber, the President of Costa Rica, as Honored Guest.

Rick Wallace came in the early 70’s and leased one of the islands in front of Coco where he lived when he first came. He was a surfer and adventurer from California who became a pioneer in the development of Playa Ocotal. He presently has a construction and realty business.

Tom Epling and his wife, Leslie, drove into Coco in 1974. They delivered one of the sailboats in the harbor to Jamaica and returned to settle in Coco. Tom became partners with Rafael and Fernando Hurtado in creating the original Papagayo Bar, which is presently called Papagayo Pura Vida. At that time there were only Claudio’s and the Papagayo to attract the tourists from San Jose. Tom also brought several fiberglass pangas from El Salvador and became instrumental in accommodating scientists, as well as tourists and residents, by acting as a guide and assuring his clients with his boat handling expertise.

He worked with the anthropologists who had a dig in Culebra Bay, geologists who charted land formations and composition along the Papagayo Gulf Coast, biologists working with the sea turtles at an undisclosed location, taxonomists who studied species dispersion, toxicologists who contracted Tom to hunt sea snakes for an undisclosed purpose, the original owners of the house on Nacascolita Beach to bring building supplies, and surfers, fishermen, divers, and campers who wished to find what used to be the Secret Spots and spend some time in solitude enjoying Costa Rica’s unspoiled natural beauty. Along with the pangas, he brought sea kayaks to help promote water sports for the local tourists who would come from San Jose and stay in as many as 30 buses parked in the center of town. He also built several houses and the structure which was the original Pizzeria Pronto across from the pharmacy in Coco.

Tom died in 2001 and Leslie continues living in Coco working with CATUCOCO and as an artisan.

Susan Fletcher, who runs the Gourmet Shoppe in the Super Luperon, came with her family in the late ‘70’s and settled in Playa Panama. Her daughter, Liana, is married to Kristian, the son of the owners of the Luperon.

Jim Procter sailed into Coco in 1974 and went on to build and eventually sell Rancho Armadillo. He maintains properties here while working in Panama.