After finishing her law degree and passing the bar, Texan Ashley Blaylock ditched it all and wound up founding ChicaBrava, an all-female surf camp in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua. Located on the Pacific coast, just north of the Costa Rica border, the area gets the offshore winds surfer covet. Blaylock soon became Nicaragua’s female surf champion, a title she won six times. In a September, 2013 interview, Blaylock described the joys and challenges of being a female surf entrepreneur in Nicaragua.
It took Blaylock a few years to open ChicaBrava. When she first moved to Nicaragua, she worked in real estate, which she found unfulfilling. An idea to make surfing pay slowly took shape. “I always wanted to do something surf campy, but I didn’t think it was a possibility to make a living doing what I loved,” she said. By 2005, she saw a slow increase in surfer girls, maybe two or three in the water each month. “I felt like a bit of an ambassador for girls surfing here. I felt like if somebody’s going to do something to provide a forum for these women, then I want to be the one who does it. But I was scared to try a surf camp and fail.”
Then Blaylock’s grandmother died. The two had been close. It hit Blaylock that she had traded spending more time with her grandmother for real estate and hanging out at the beach. It wasn’t enough. She needed more meaning in her life.
At first, Blaylock did everything: planned the camps, picked up guests at the airport in Managua three hours away, taught them to surf. But her camp caught on and she was soon able to hire help. Now campers can choose between two locations: Surf House, an in-town location which costs $1,090 per week and has a clubhouse feel, or the Cloud Farm, a more upscale accommodation located about 15 minutes up the hill from San Juan Del Sur.
A new group of chicas arrives every Saturday for a week of daily surf instruction, camaraderie, meals and a little sightseeing. Activity options include ziplining, catamaran voyages and horseback riding. Camp packages come with post-surf yoga classes and a massage.
The normal instructor to student ratio is 1:2 or 3, depending on the size of the group and individual skill levels. If necessary, an instructor will work one-on-one with a student. Each day, campers rotate to work with a different instructor. “Each has a different manner of relating with their student,” Blaylock explained. “What may resonate with you may not with her, and vice versa.”
Elsi Marin, the first and only local girl in San Juan Del Sur to learn to surf well, is a ChicaBrava instructor. Blaylock hires local people to run her surf store, drive the airport shuttle, cook, clean and photograph the campers surfing. To be a ChicaBrava instructor, you have to speak English, be female and be a proficient surfer. Marin had to study English to get the job. “The day when there’s another Nicaraguan girl who can surf, you better bet she’ll have a job at ChicaBrava if she wants it,” Blaylock said.
Blaylock is all about empowering women through surfing. Nothing moves her quite like seeing abused women. Which is why last year she co-created Camp Bella. This annual five-day camp gives six girls rescued from sex trafficking the opportunity to bond over surfing. Last year the girls ranged in age from 13 to 16. “Spending time with the girls was amazing,” Blaylock said.
Most of the girls didn’t even know how to swim, let alone surf. Blaylock and her team exposed these six girls to a whole new perspective on life. But it was important to Blaylock to not treat them like charity cases. At one point she and the girls delivered reading materials to an impoverished community outside of San Juan Del Sur. The girls, who are literate, were able to work with the younger children on their reading. “When you present to somebody in need of charity that they’re a charity case, you’re not doing them much help,” Blaylock said. “We discussed with the girls, ‘hey, everybody needs help, we’ve got to go help some other people, too.’ Pay it forward. Let them help others.”
During one of her first camps, Blaylock realized how powerful the surf camp experience could be. One of the participants was teetering on the edge of divorce. “She was bawling her eyes out the first night,” Blaylock remembered. “But by the end of the week she was a transformed woman. She gained strength.” The woman did divorce. But she was fine, and still maintains a friendship with Blaylock.
ChicaBrava has hosted surfer chicks ranging in age from 8 to 70. Blaylock invites all interested women to come down and discover empowerment on the waves. “A lot of women want to travel and surf. They don’t want to do it with a bunch of dudes, but don’t really want to travel alone,” she said.
“It can help a lot, confronting all of these fears we have in life while we’re in the water,” she said. “Surfing parallels life.”