At the ages of 19 and 21, in Kelowna, B.C, Canada, my brother Travis and I booked a plane ticket to Nicaragua, after an unrealistic conversation about owning land while drinking in our parents hot tub.
We grew up skateboarding and doing a variety of action sports, and the idea was to buy some land, and build a skateboard park, airbag jump, rock climbing wall, paintball, etc…all surrounded by a resort where people could stay and take part in these activities. The world’s first action sports resort.
The only problem, was that we had no experience, and no money.
First time in Nicaragua
No later than a week after our hot tub idea, we were getting off the plane at the International Airport in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. We booked a shuttle to take us straight to San Juan Del Sur, where we planned on buying the land, this was in 2008. It was a surreal experience being in a different country, the humidity, different language, landscape, etc… Even on the drive in the shuttle was an experience in itself, especially seeing it for your first time. Old ladies hassling you for money at the gas station, swerving around people, dogs, ox carts and animals on the highway. Seeing 2 accidents, with people surrounding the bodies, brains splattered everywhere. 2 hours of this, and we already felt accustomed.
We arrived in San Juan Del Sur, and stayed at a hostel called Hotel Joxies, which was around $15 a night, we made this our home base for the next 2 weeks. We also spent the next 2 weeks drinking and partying every day and night, just like most 19 and 21 year olds would do.
The last few days, we finally got our act together and needed to go look at land for sale. We actually went on a real estate tour, days prior, and had some land in mind, but it wasn’t until we were walking down the street, midafternoon, hung over, that we heard someone yell, ”I hear English”. We look over and it was a friendly guy from California renovating a building. Keep in mind, 2008, October in San Juan Del Sur, there was not much tourism, so seeing another tourist was rare.
We starting talking, he said he had some land for sale, out of town but close by. So we went with him to go check it out. It was 2 acres on a river, with a nice little jungle. Instantly we knew this was the spot. We had dinner that night with him and his wife at their house and made them an offer. We only had $1000 USD max combined. We got the land down from $30,000 to $21,000 USD, then made him an absurd deal that we would pay him $1000 USD, then the rest of over a year as we had to move back to Canada to get jobs to pay it off. Somehow he agreed and we were in shock. We spent the next few days with lawyers, writing up a contract, then we flew back home.
We spent the next year or less in Canada, with the idea that we would save up, and pay off the land in Nicaragua. That is what we did, we even worked at a gas station for some of the time, it did not matter, and we had one goal in mind and needed to make it happen.
Around 2009, the land was paid off, and it was time to go back to Nicaragua. We had a few more problems. We spent all of our money on the land, we both had girlfriends for the last 5 years who did not want us to go, and doubts started kicking in, like they naturally do.
We posted an ad on the local town’s website, looking for investors. $35,000 USD for 10% of the company. To our surprise we met with 6 different people, all at the same Starbucks. The people ranged from pilots and tanning salon owners to local entrepreneurs. The good thing was that we had options to choose from. We chose the guy with the same mind set as us, who was about 25 years old at the time, he wrote us a check for $10,000 USD, told us to go down and start it, and he would send the rest in installments. We knew even $35,000 USD was not enough, but we had to begin somewhere.
Starting the Resort
We rented a small wooden shack style house in town, bought machetes, $5 bicycles (no brakes), and biked to the land every single day to start hacking away at the 10 ft. tall grass now on the property. This was our first lesson in Nicaragua. We realized after 2 weeks, that we sucked at using a machete, and realized we could create a job and hire a local for $5 per day to do it for us, while we used that time to plan out the first building.
At some point, our minds switched from thinking, let’s try to make this happen, to knowing it will happen and that it is up to us to make it happen. Being young, with nothing to lose, is a powerful thing.
After about 3 months in the country, we knew we did not want to go back, and one night we had to cut the ties that were holding us back. We called our girlfriends and told them we were not coming back. It sucked, but we knew it had to be done, and our girlfriends understood.
With the initial money, we built a small house, which we eventually would live in for a year. (It has now been turned into the kitchen/reception). While we were living in this house, there was a 1 foot gap from where the wall meets the roof, so all types of insects would fly in, snakes, scorpions, you name it. We got used to it. It got pretty boring out there, so we built a small mini ramp that we would skate every day, and also bought a pool table for $100. After a year of building the house and living on the land, we ran out of money. Our time was limited now and we saw the possibility of having to move back to Canada and face reality. This was not an option for us.
One day, in the house we built a make shift wooden desk out of 2×4’s, using a bucket as a chair, and an unreliable internet stick, I started playing online poker, (maybe because of the boredom), I entered a Sunday Millions competition on Poker Stars. I wasn’t good but I just knew I had to beat the majority of people and try to make my way to the top. I started around 12pm noon. Travis said he was meeting up with 2 girls he knew and to come with him. I said jokingly “sorry man, need to win this poker comp”, I sat there for the rest of the night, somehow making it through each round.
It was around 2 am, and I was in the last few tables. Travis came back, we were already in 160th place and if we would lose now, we would win around $2000 USD. So we stepped up our game, started bluffing, raising, etc… and luck was on our side. We finally lost on a crazy hand, but won $3300 USD. We starting drinking to celebrate.
We needed to figure out how to make more money from this win, so we decided to go online and buy paintball guns and open a paintball course. So this is what we did. We opened the course, and we had groups come out almost every day, making around $200 – $400 from each group. With this money, we put back into landscaping and started building the skateboard park.
If we wanted to finish the resort anytime soon, we needed to make some real money, so we came up with the concept of selling units to investors in which they could own, get to use and make 50% of the monthly rental income when we opened. It was a long shot, but we made a design for a villa, and posted it online. Within a few weeks, we had our first buyer, which was actually a girl that went to our high school, with the same last name as us who I never met before as she graduated a few years earlier. After this first sale, we knew it could be done.
Back to Reality
Everything almost came to an end. One night, we met a couple in town, and brought them back to our house for dinner and to drink. We cooked ribs that night on our make shift BBQ made from cement blocks and the grill from a shopping cart basket. We were having a good time, it was around 6:30pm as the sun was going down.
We finished around the same time and all went back into the house. Once the last person entered, we heard people swarm the house, and yelling in Spanish, we thought it was a joke by our French friends we partied with days prior. However when we turned around and they were all wearing masks, and had their guns pointed at us, we knew we had an issue on our hands.
It was obvious who they were. They were the cousins of our guard who we fired days earlier as we felt we did not need a guard. These 4 guys actually came over the day before this and helped us in the paintball field as we were building it, they asked to come in the house for water, when I guess they scoped it out. Sure enough, it was the same 4 guys, 3 short, and 1 tall guy.
They were all about 16 years old, but knowing they have nothing to lose is a scary thing too. They told us to get down on our knees with guns pointed at our heads, while they filled up bags with our stuff (cameras, computers, etc). They then told us to all get in the shower and tried to throw a blanket over our heads, but we took it off and we were ready to attack if they shot. There was only one guy with a gun pointed at 4 of us in the shower, so we knew if a gun shot went off, we were ready to attack, as the chances were good. What felt like hours, was only minutes in reality. The thief yelled something in Spanish then ran away. My brother Travis and I were filled with adrenaline and stupidity, as soon as he ran, we ran after them, we knew they cut through the jungle, so we went to our vehicle (surprisingly they did not slash the tires), and we tried to flank them on the other side of the jungle. Looking back, it was probably good we did not run into them again that night. We spent time in court against these guys and we won, but that is a different story in itself.
After this experience, we wanted to give up and go back to Canada. However we were not going to let a bunch of punks ruin our dream, so we decided to bump up security, and go full force and finish the project. Also this meant, smartening up, no more house parties, no more letting people in our house we did not know, etc… It was a great experience to learn from and we felt stronger than ever.
After this first sale, and construction of the first villa, it was a snowball effect, within the next year, we sold 26 units (villas, standard rooms and deluxe condos). It happened so fast and all of the money raised, we built the units and invested it all into the resort, finishing the skateboard park, the pool area, bar, restaurant, and even bought a giant airbag online from China, where people could jump and flip into.
We finally had our dream come to life, and thought there was an end goal where we would finish it, sit back, and be happy at what we accomplished. However that never did come, nor it never will, as humans, we always want more and to be better. One thing, we never thought about was now that it is done, we have to get people staying here, hire staff, and work 18 hours a day running the resort. Building it was a feat in it’s own, but running a resort is a different story, especially at this time when we had no experience.
Fast forward, 5 years later, the resort is successful with a high occupancy rate, over 20 staff members, and it has created a name for itself. Over time, we got smart, and instead of doing everything, we have hired people to do the things we need done to give us more time to oversee everything and bring the brand to the next level. With growth, you need to adapt, and what made us adapt was that we decided to go even bigger, and decided to build the 2nd Surf Ranch Resort. This meant the majority of the first resort needed to be run by us online and through a great management team.
Now that we have experience with the first resort, we have decided to challenge ourselves again and build one of the largest all inclusive resorts in Nicaragua. A few years ago, before the first resort was finished, we teamed up with one of our investors and bought 25 acres of ocean view land, close to Popoyo, Nicaragua. This is around an hour and a half drive north of San Juan Del Sur, where our original resort is located.
2nd Resort in Popoyo
We are doing everything we did with the first resort, same business concept, where owners can buy units, and get to use them and make 50% of the rentals while the resort maintains everything. It is a business model that works, the investors get to purchase a unit at a low rate, they make money every month and no money comes out of their pocket, and the resort uses the funds to build the resort. It’s a win win for everyone involved.
At the Surf Ranch Resort in Popoyo, there are 14 houses, 18 apartment units and 40 condos planned. We have taken it to the next step, and with the growth of the Surf Ranch brand, half of the units have already been sold and progress is ahead of schedule.
It is a surreal experience looking back and going from having $1000 combined, using buckets as seats and having a fire pit built out of blocks and the grill from a shopping basket, to dealing with a lot of money and a lot of responsibilities. Our dream has only got bigger, as the next 5 year goal is to build resorts in Panama and Costa Rica, as well as a main central office headquarters to run the resorts, before we start building overseas.
We moved to Nicaragua at the beginning of our 20’s and now that I have turned 30, Nicaragua has taught us a lot as we spent all of our 20’s here. It is an amazing country, and I am stoked to have made the choice to move here, however, this is just the beginning of the Surf Ranch brand.
My advice for anyone looking to do build a resort or hostel from scratch or anything related to this, would be. Do not make excuses or think about the option of failure, just go and make it happen, no matter what.
For more information you can contact:
Surf Ranch in San Juan Del Sur
Surf Ranch in Popoyo
Instagram @surfranch @lukesurfranch