FROM DREAMING OF BEING A CASTAWAY AS A YOUNG BOY, TO SHIPWRECKING CLIENTS FOR A LIVING – ALVARO CEREZO EXPLAINS WHY TODAY’S HYPER-CONNECTIVITY IS MAKING TIME ALONE THE NEW LUXURY
Some kids dream of becoming pro football players or rock stars… Alvaro Cerezo fantasised about being a castaway. As a boy growing up in Málaga, an ancient trading port on the southern coast of Spain, Cerezo would holiday with his family along the horseshoe-shaped bay of La Herradura. When he was eight, he discovered his first ‘desert island’, Calaiza. “It was a secret cove quite far from the beach,” he recalls. “I built a raft and would play pirate for hours. I still remember the thrill I felt being alone and exploring.” Those early adventures, coupled with an obsessive appetite for stories of real life castaways like sailor Pedro Serrano and Marguerite de la Roque, fuelled Cerezo’s quest to discover real desert islands years later.
Every few months during his studies at the University of Granada, Cerezo would take a leave of absence, find an island, strand himself, and see if he could survive off the land and sea. “I spent an entire month on an island off the coast of India. That’s when I realised maybe other people are as crazy as I am. Maybe other people would enjoy the simplicity of island life.”
“Finding a new desert island feels like uncovering buried treasure”
For three years, Cerezo, 36, travelled to remote reaches of the globe – the Nicobar Islands, Melanesia, Siroktabe – building a portfolio of truly isolated islands. In a world of Google Earth and GPS it’s rare to recapture the sense of discovery early explorers like Magellan and Columbus felt when they stumbled upon new destinations. In a way, Cerezo turned out to be more like a modern-day explorer than a castaway. “Finding a new desert island feels like uncovering buried treasure,” he says.
In 2010, he launched Docastaway (which stands for “do a castaway experience”) and began sending paying clients to his off-the-grid hideaways. What makes the perfect desert island? Coconut palms and white sand beaches are alluring, but isolation was what Cerezo believed people craved – and would be willing to pay for. Rather than buy the islands, he works with local or nearby communities to use the land for periods of time and strikes deals that prevent any encounters with civilization – a passing ship, fishermen. “It’s hard to explain the idea of self-exile to people,” he says. “When I would strand myself on an island, I’d be thrilled when fishermen passed by because they would bring me fish. But my clients stay for one week, not one month. They are paying to be completely alone. Even a fire on a distant shore ruins the feeling of isolation.”
Most private islands are priced well beyond the average person’s annual salary, but Cerezo wanted Docastaway to help people of all ages and incomes escape civilisation. “I wanted to stay true to the past, when castaways weren’t castaways by choice. Whether you are rich or poor, you could still end up shipwrecked.” Docastaway offers varying levels of castaway life, which appeal to clients ranging from adventurous honeymooners to retired executives looking to test their survival skills.
“We give you a walkie-talkie, a machete, and wish you luck”
‘Comfort mode’ features minimalist bungalows, often nestled in the far reaches of bare bones eco-resorts that provide meals and bug spray. ‘Adventure mode’ is aimed at anyone who has ever dreamed of being on Survivor. “We give you a walkie-talkie, a machete, and wish you luck,” says Cerezo. Guests must build their own shelters, forage and hunt for food, and crack open coconuts for water.
“Most people don’t want to suffer on holiday, they want the comforts of modern life,” he says. “But then there are a few special people who want to test themselves. Yes, they can survive and be hugely successful in a big city; but can they survive in nature with nothing?” Cerezo says 80 per cent of his ‘adventure mode’ clients get nervous as their departure approaches; but he assures them that their biggest threat is having a coconut fall on their head. “It’s really hard to starve,” reassures Cerezo. “The islands are full of coconuts and crabs.”
Many adventure castaways go into their trips hoping simply to return with bragging rights, but he says the majority come home truly transformed. His most successful transformation was Reikko Hori, a 22-year-old from Japan who spent 19 days stranded on the Indonesian island of Amparo, 4,200 miles northwest of Australia, with nothing more than a few items of clothing, a spear gun, a torch, a magnifying glass, and a snorkel and goggles.
“She was the only client I have ever had reservations about stranding,” he says. “I wasn’t sure she could be self-sufficient, but this trip changed her life. She went from being an introvert to returning home and being very social and even meeting her first boyfriend. I think being alone in nature allows people to be more comfortable in civilisation. You appreciate the small things – a nice bed, food, friends.”
“We’re so connected that people crave a real escape; they forget how to be alone. I think in the future, time alone, truly alone, will be the new luxury”
Social media posts and TripAdvisor reviews have ruined the “secret” of nearly 30 per cent of Cerezo’s portfolio; but he says his favorite part of his job is the constant search for the next deserted paradise. “When people think of paradise they think of Thailand and then they get there and it feels like California or Spain. I think people are tired of mass tourism. They want something fresh, something that challenges them. We’re so connected that people crave a real escape; they forget how to be alone. I think in the future, time alone, truly alone, will be the new luxury.”
Jen Murphy is a Colorado-based writer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Outside, Men’s Journal and Departures.