The Juan Caraballo Story
After seeing the waves at Paunch in January of 2005, I returned in July to determine if Bocas might be a place to relocate. I stayed in a bungalow in the jungle close to Puss Head Point. I was insecure about getting in the water to surf the pitching barrels at Paunch, not seeing anyone on a long board in the water. In my forty-five years of surfing I had not made the transition to the short board. I was Longboard Rob.
At that time the trip to town was not fun. The pot holes were huge swimming pools of muddy water. Few taxis would venture past the Y (the roads that lead to Boca del Drago or Paunch). It was a long muddy walk to town. The only establishment that catered to surfers was Tropix Surf shop, so I went there to see if they had a longboard. It was there that I met, what I think of as, the First Family of Surf in Bocas: the Caraballos.
The family was scattered around the shop. Maifi, the mom, was behind the counter. The youngest son Josh, who was about five, was with Maifi. His adolescent brother Juampi was with his friends Chicho and Piler. The father Juan emerged from the back of the shop with his brother Daniel. They both were wearing aprons that protected them from fiberglass dust. Juan had long curly hair, Daniel had eight inch dreadlocks. They had many tattoos on their suntanned skin.
I looked at the surf rack. Among the five and six foot boards a monster of a long board stuck out like a sore thumb. It was a nine foot Hosanna made by a Christian surfboard company in Texas. I negotiated a price with Juan. I was stoked to have something I could surf.
I practiced on the Hosanna at Tigers Tail for a couple of weeks before I had the courage to paddle out at Paunch. It was there that I again saw Juan, Daniel, Juampi, Chicho and Piler. They arrived in a distinctive boat with shark teeth painting in the front. They moved as a group to the takeoff point for the left. They were serious about what they were doing. They dominated that peak. They let me have a few. I made the drop and stayed ahead of the whitewater. I was thrilled. I was hooked. I was going to relocate.
Over the years I maintained a relationship with the Calaballos. I witnessed their moves from Tropix to the Pukalani in Big Creek and their move back to town to their restaurant and surf shop. It was cool watching Juampi develop into one of the best surfers in all of Panama. I was impressed by how they and a few others like Juan David at Mono Loco Surf, Scott from Red Frog bungalows and Captain Sully were able to make a living surfing here in beautiful Bocas del Toro.
I sat down with Juan at his shop for an interview about how he and his family migrated from Venezuela to Bocas del Toro.
In 1980 Juan moved from Caracas to a surf side town in Venezuela when he was nine years old. There he saw surfing for the first time. He immediately knew that surfing was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He started surfing on a styrofoam board for a year. He found an old surf board that he tried to repair. It had so many holes in it, that it rained when he took it out of the water. His father had a negative image of surfers, so he did not encourage him in the sport. Juan didn’t care. He knew what he wanted to do.
When he was fifteen he met a guy who laughed at his board. He asked Juan if he wanted a better board. He took him several blocks to a huge old house with eleven bedrooms. On the top floor was a surf shop. The two owners asked Juan if he wanted to apprentice in the shop. He said yes. They put him to work cleaning the entire place. For a year he barely saw the surf shop. They didn’t pay him a dime. Eventually he was allowed to help make fins for the boards. They liked his work. By eighteen Juan was helping with the shaping and glassing. Soon he would be manager.
Near that time Juan met a cute thirteen year old that had the same impact on him as the surf. He knew who he wanted to be with for the rest of his life. It was pure Romeo and Juliet; she from a large family from the right side of the tracks, he a surf bum from the wrong side. Their love was not to be denied. They married and eventually brought Juampi into the world.
At the turn of the century two events caused them to contemplate leaving their homeland. There was a catastrophic mudslide near where they lived in Venezuela. Between 20,000 to 30,000 people were killed. The entire region of the Vargas State stopped functioning. At the same time Juan was not supportive of the movement that brought into power Hugo Chavez. When Chavez was reelected, Juan and Maifi felt like Venezuela was going down a path they did not want to take. So Juan, Maifi, Juampi, and Joshua gathered their things and took them to Panama.
Juan is also a tattoo artist, which is how he made his living in Panama City. He read about a job in Bocas del Toro, a place he had heard good things about in Ecuador. The job he moved there for wasn’t as advertised, but he still found work. Over the next few years Juan did many things to support the family and the surf lifestyle ending in the job at Tropix when I met him.
Today Juan makes his own boards, which you can see at the family restaurant Pukalani Cafe, located on main street, on the corner under the Hotel Laguna. You will see many JCS boards in the lineup. I have three JCS longboards. The surf champion of Panama rides his boards exclusively. That, of course, is his son Juampi. Juan is responsible for establishing Bocas del Toro as a stop on the Panama Surfing Tour. There were no contests here before his arrival.
Juan feels blessed that he has found Bocas del Toro to raise his family. In most western societies parents spend their day at work while their children go to school. They get little time to be with each other as a family. The Caraballos do everything together as a family. They work together, party together, travel together and they surf together. Surfing is in their blood. They are a force in the water and in the Bocas del toro surfing community.