Real Estate

I moved from Toronto to Guatemala to start a surf resort with my family 

“For the first few months, we lived in a temporary tiny house on the beach—a plastic tarp supported by bamboo.”

“We found a beautiful undiscovered beach in El Paredon, a fishing village where fishermen still use harpoon spears to catch their lunch from the river.” (Photograph by Sarah Roe.)

I grew up in Guatemala. When I was in my late teens, I left home to backpack around Central America and surf on its beaches—I was always happiest when I was surfing, and wanted to see how waves in different places compared to each other. I learned how to make jewellery when I was a kid and funded my travels by selling hand-carved coconut pendant necklaces and macramé bracelets to locals and tourists. After travelling through Central America for a few years, I eventually settled in Costa Rica: it had great waves and lots of tourists who loved my jewellery. I travelled every few months in search of better waves, and on one trip to Nicaragua, I met my future wife, Sarah, a 20-year-old Canadian travelling around Central America on an archaeology trip. We clicked right away and started backpacking together from there.

For the next few months, we travelled across Central America. I taught Sarah to surf, and then we surfed together every day. It became a lifestyle for us as we progressed into our 20s: we surfed and gave surfing lessons in Central America all winter to help fund our travels, and then spent our summers in Canada, where I would run my jewellery business out of Toronto’s Kensington Market while Sarah worked as an archaeologist. I would surf every day for eight hours if I could, and I wanted to share that passion and lifestyle with others: surf in the mornings, cook together in the afternoon, and hang out by a fire at night. Eventually, Sarah and I came up with the idea of building a surf resort and a community where people could do just that.

We weren’t sure how to make this a reality, but we knew that the first step would be to find a beautiful location to build our dream. In 2010, when I was 25 and Sarah was 28, we put our plan into action. We rented a car and drove down the Pan-American Highway in Costa Rica to see if we could find an undiscovered quiet beach with great waves that could house a resort one day. We spent weeks veering off the main road for three hours at a time to remote oceanside villages, only to find that the huge waves broke directly on shore and weren’t surfable. Places that looked promising on the map turned out to be duds once we drove down. We looked throughout Costa Rica and Nicaragua before expanding our search to Guatemala.

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That’s when we got lucky. We found a beautiful undiscovered beach in El Paredon, a village where fishermen still use harpoon spears to catch their lunch from the river. The lot was a forgotten piece of land eight hours from the nearest city, where nobody surfed. And yet the wave was perfect, consistently rising and flowing onto the shoreline. In 2010, without any loans or financing, we dug into our savings and bought a 29,000-square-foot sandy lot on that beach, with the goal of one day building on it.

We had no investors—we wanted to build our dream business ourselves. So our plan was to raise money from our day jobs in Canada and come back for a few months every year to gradually build our resort. We started from scratch: we moved onto the lot to work out a site plan and gather materials. We had no running water or electricity, so we built a temporary tiny house for ourselves on the beach—a plastic tarp supported by bamboo—and we dug a hole in the ground next to it and made it our outhouse. Our neighbour cooked us meals three times a day for three months: five or six fried fish with tortillas, lemon and salt.

The construction was challenging. We were an eight-hour commute from the nearest city, and lugging traditional materials felt impossible. So we hired local builders to help us construct guest houses and communal buildings made of bamboo, which were inspired by a design we saw on a surf trip to Indonesia. It took seven years of surfing lessons and selling handmade jewellery to raise $40,000—enough to fully landscape, build the houses and construct the full resort. In 2017, we opened Hidden Wave to the public with two self-contained casitas—small houses for two people. It was exciting to break ground on a project we had worked on for so long. Business picked up quickly: we listed the resort on Airbnb as soon as we opened, and received a booking after just one week. We were also juggling parenthood. Sarah gave birth to our first son, Walter, in 2016, and she would carry our then one-year-old in her baby carrier as she managed the resort and greeted guests.

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Since then, we’ve reinvested to grow the resort to five palm roof houses that hold 12 people and surround a large communal open-air kitchen and pool. We conceived it as a hybrid between full communal living and a solo vacation: everyone has their own room and porch so they can do their own thing but also have people around for meals and surf sessions. We have two staff members living there full time, and part-time staff from the area also lend a helping hand year-round.

Business has been so busy that we’ve spent most of our time in Guatemala, while travelling to and from Toronto during the summer. At the resort, we’ve hosted hundreds of people to date, and we welcome surfers of all skill levels, who either take classes that we offer or do their own thing. We caught a lucky break when a travel shuttle started driving between our beach and Antigua Guatemala, a popular city for tourists, cutting the eight-hour drive down to just two. It has made our resort sell out quickly; this year, we were completely booked from January to April, when tourists from Canada, the U.S. and Europe come to escape winter. We’ve been busy thinking about expanding our resort to create more rooms; last year we built a guest pool on the grounds. We want to continue sustaining and growing the resort, but the whole venture isn’t about the money. The satisfaction comes from having had a dream and a goal together, and having made it a reality. Now we get to wake up and surf every day just like we wanted: this work is an extension of our lives.

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That being said, Sarah loves her work as an archaeologist, and I love my jewellery shop in Kensington Market. Sarah’s been on maternity leave for two years, and we now have three kids, who are seven, three and two. But now that her leave is coming to an end, we’re trying to figure out how to balance our commitments in Canada with our new life here. We’re so busy at the resort during the winter months that I could not imagine spending them anywhere but Guatemala. It’s a good problem to have, because we love our jobs in Canada and we love our lives in Guatemala.

Every now and then, we’ll look at the resort and laugh because we think of what it looked like when it was just a beach with a plastic tarp and an outhouse. That’s why we’re so attached to it: we took this idea we loved, converted it into a way of life, and are sharing it with other people. It’s maybe the best decision we’ve ever made.

As told to Alex Cyr

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