A car without four-wheel drive would have a tough time making the journey to Ramon Navarro's house. It's only a short ride off the main highway south of Pichilemu, on Chile's central coast, but it's an unforgiving one. The house, which Navarro built himself and which he shares with his wife and 4-year-old son, is a rustic two-story affair made of cypress wood and a provincial adobe mix the locals call quincha. Its value is less in its walls than its location: It rests atop a hill with a line of sight to Punta de Lobos, Chile's finest pointbreak.
Thirty-five-year-old Navarro is the only pro surfer born and raised in Pichilemu. He is 5’7″, has dark, smoldering eyes, and wears a perennial chevron moustache and goatee. In surfing photos he is easily identified by his posture on the board: a deep, low hunch. In person he is soft-spoken and disarmingly humble—traits often attributed to his upbringing as the son of a poor fishing family. In the press, he is rarely seen without a Red Bull hat. As a professional big-wave surfer, his star is rising. He and a friend bought the land overlooking Punta de Lobos in 2009. Navarro paid for his share with the $5,000 he won with the Monster Drop award in that year's Eddie Aikau big-wave contest in Waimea—his first major international competition. "I got lucky," Navarro says, meaning with the land, not the contest. "This land is way more expensive now."
In the past decade, Punta de Lobos has become a keystone of Chilean pro surfing, the foremost proving ground for the country's up-and-comers, and an international sensation. In 2009, Quiksilver picked the break as the stage for an annual big-wave contest. In 2014, it was selected as one of six stops on the Association of Surfing Professionals’ Big Wave World Tour. It's the only left-hander on the Tour. The attention has cast a spotlight on Pichilemu and on Navarro.
Pichilemu is a three-hour drive from Santiago along a wending two-lane highway. Traditionally it was a small fishing village and a weekend getaway for summertime beachgoers from the big city. In the past decade, however, the popularity of surfing has catalyzed a contentious transformation. A building boom is sweeping the area, inflating property values and cutting off public access to parts of the coast traditionally utilized by fishermen and divers and, more recently, surfers. Cookie-cutter wood frames of dozens of unfinished cabañas and condominios line the highway leading to Punta de Lobos and several have sprouted up in the half-mile clearance between Navarro's house and the break. "I have a picture from six years ago looking out toward the beach and there was nothing between him and the water," says Rodrigo Farías Moreno, Navarro's manager and main photographer. "In two years, Ramon has 25 new neighbors."
"'I cannot cover all the sand with one finger,' we say here. I can't block all the construction. But we can pick the one place to fight for. This is the place."
Behind the bright cabins is a broader sense of injustice felt by coastal natives of modest means who have watched passively as the tourism land-grab has unfolded around them. Often their communities are worse for the wear. The break in front of Navarro's childhood home, Infernillo, has been completely built out. Apart from the surge in tourism properties are industry pressures and poorly conceived infrastructure projects. Massive commercial fishing freighters from the north have just about erased the livelihood enjoyed for decades by artisanal fishermen like Navarro's father. Pulp mills, timber plantations, and thermoelectric power plants popping up along the coast eat resources and produce waste of a quality and scale that alters landscapes and wave breaks. In terms of acting as a countermeasure to the rampant development, government planning structures "are not properly suited to the nature and speed of the transformations which are occurring in coastal zones," according to a 2010 report from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. The private sector is moving faster than government regulation.
"There aren't many restrictions to build in Punta de Lobos," says Nicholas Davis, president of Santiago-based financial services company EuroAmerica. He leases a plot of land on Punta de Lobos and built the Hotel Alaia—a grouping of modest, low-slung bungalows—at Punta de Lobos last year. "We could have done 50 rooms, not 12. There is very little regulation."
Navarro feels partially responsible for the tourism melee. As his fame and surf stature have grown, more exposure has been lavished on Pichilemu as an international surfing destination. The future of Chile's best spot, Navarro's home break, now hangs in the balance. Navarro would rather take his chances taking matters into his own hands than entrust the future of Punta de Lobos to government bureaucrats or to foreigners whose stake in the land ends at their property lines.
"'I cannot cover all the sand with one finger,' we say here," Navarro says. "I can't block all the construction. But we can pick the one place to fight for. This is the place."
WATCH: A full-length documentary on Ramon Navarro, The Fisherman’s Son
Read Our Review: Fisherman’s Son, Chilean Hero
This is an excerpt from “The Tip of the Diamond,” our feature on Ramon Navarro’s plight to save Punta de Lobos, in our April Issue.