Spanish teacher Pilar Badillo Novas describes the pitch black morning sky that cloaks her and her family as they prepare to leave for Carmel Beach. They are on their way to the Carmel Beach Great Sandcastle Competition hosted by the City of Carmel and the Monterey Bay Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Despite the early hour, the Badillo Novas family eagerly pack their car to the brim with shovels, buckets, strings and other sandcastle-building equipment, ready to begin their journey to the competition. 

Since 2000, Badillo Novas has competed alongside 30 other teams to build elaborate sand sculptures in hopes of taking home the competition’s first place prize — the coveted golden shovel, an award Badillo Novas and her family have won several times.   

Badillo Novas’s sandcastle-building hobby began over 20 years ago as a cure for boredom at the beach. 

“We were at the beach, we didn’t know what to do,” Badillo Novas said. “So my husband came up with the idea of making sandcastles.”

What started as a way to kill extra time has transformed into an annual family tradition. Each year, Badillo Novas and her family head out to a beach in Carmel with an elaborate design in mind, ready to start sculpting. However, once at the beach, the building process is never exclusive to Badillo Novas and her family, and she welcomes all who are interested in joining and helping. 

 “If there’s people that are walking by … we ask them to join us,” Badillo Novas said. “So anybody’s welcome. In the end it works out very well, somehow.” 

Rather than the traditional beachside sandcastle, Badillo Novas’ sand sculptures resemble  massive three-dimensional sand carvings sculpted into the moist, dense underlayer of sand. 


“You build something that you know is going to disappear within a few hours with it when the tide comes in. But it gives you the pleasure of working with other people in a group with your family and your friends. So it was nice to see how something so beautiful could come out of something so organic.”

—Pilar Badillo Novas, Spanish teacher


Badillo Novas and her family start by marking where they want the sculpture to go, then digging a few inches down to create a foundation for the structure. Afterward, they pack in the sand to create the basic shape of the sculpture. 

While her husband finds the inspiration image and scales it accordingly to build its replica on the beach, Badillo Novas has her own responsibility for each sculpture. 

“My main goal for when we go to the beach is the shape and the volume [of compacted sand blocks],” Badillo Novas said. “I do the big one [compacted sand block] and then everyone does the little ones [sand blocks] around the shape.”

Once the sculpture is complete, Badillo Novas and her family have mere moments to admire their work before the waves rush ashore, washing away hours of tireless work. Photos will be all that remain.

“We are very proud, but of course, sandcastles are very ephemeral,” Badillo Novas said. 

While the sculptures themselves have short lives, their creation fosters community, leaving Badillo Novas with unforgettable memories of her family on the shores.

“You build something that you know is going to disappear within a few hours with it when the tide comes in,” Badillo Novas said. “But it gives you the pleasure of working with other people in a group with your family and your friends. So it was nice to see how something so beautiful could come out of something so organic.”