I’ve just returned from a week in Costa Rica and wanted to get my thoughts down while the pura vida vibes were still fresh (rather than wait weeks or months, which is my usual modus operandi). First off, the trip was incredible and I can see why so many of the people we met down there return again and again. A week was clearly not long enough and I’m already looking down the line for an opportunity to return.
The trip, and my fond memories of it, are especially sweet because it almost didn’t happen.
Anastasia (my lovely girlfriend) and I were looking for a place to meet up at the end of one of her multi-week work stints – the catalyst for many of our adventures – and the proximity of El Salvador to where she was working, deep in the jungles of a neighbouring country, put it atop of the list of convenient rendezvous locales. However, after some guidebook reading, the promise of easily accessible surf, off-season crowds (or lack thereof) and regular, reasonably priced flights tipped the scales towards Costa Rica. The choice turned out to be a happy accident that didn’t become apparent until we’d set off for the Nicoya Peninsula the night after landing in the San Jose.
The journey to the coast took about three-and-a-half hours, mostly as a result of poor signage, narrow motorways, crazy intersections, seemingly random tolls and the general road chaos typical of developing countries. In retrospect, it all adds to rural Costa Rica’s charm, although Anastasia might disagree. (This also happened to be my first crack at driving stick so she, sensibly, shouldered most of the critical driving).
The trip was also a reunion with Stas, Anastasia’s older brother. He and I share an obsession with surfing (we’d shared waves once before on a trip to Hawaii) and this time, unlike the trip to the islands that involved diving of the sky and SCUBA varieties, surfing was the primary objective. Stas, had landed in Tamarindo, where he attended the famed Witches Rock surf camp, a week prior and was already well acquainted with the local breaks by the time we showed up.
Tamarindo and beyond
The town and district of Tamarindo is surf-central on the Nicoya Peninsula and home to some 3500 permanent residents, according to several ex-pats I befriended over beers and confirmed with some hasty Googling. The Nicoya, extending out from Costa Rica’s Pacific coast like the head of a giant seahorse – go ahead, Google Map it right now – is divided into two provinces: Guanacaste to the north and Puntarenas to the south. Both provinces boast hundreds of kilometres of surf potential with some standout spots – like Tamarindo – representing major blips on the travelling surfer’s radar. Ever since Bruce Brown’s iconic 1966 surf film The Endless Summer highlighted the region’s world class breaks, gringos have flocked there, spawning what looks to be a really healthy local surf scene.
Tama, as its often called in local lingo, is also home to one of the film’s stars, legendary surfboard shaper and goofy foot (like me) Robert August, who can be found most days shaping boards and strolling through Eat at Joe’s bar adjacent to his shaping bay. Along with Witches Rock surf camp, the three businesses (soon to be joined by Volcano Brewing, which makes the delicious Gato Malo ale on tap at Joe’s) are basically indistinguishable and form a sprawling, block-long beacon for the surf universe complete with hostel rooms, a view onto the beach and some of the nicest board rentals I’ve ever seen… thanks to the abundance of Robert August cast-offs.
The abundance of relatively mellow surf, friendly locals and the Witches Rock camp could possibly make Tamarindo the best place for beginner surfers anywhere, beating out Waikiki which previously dominated to top of my ‘easy places to surf’ list.
Although Anastasia and I didn’t sign up for the camp, I can see the value in doing so even for intermediate or advanced wave riders simply because they take care of everything, from transport, to boards to accommodation.
On the latter point, however, I was glad we decided to stay outside of town, in a rented villa near Playa Avellanas — my favourite (so far) Costa Rican surf beach, with multiple breaks, about a half-hour dirt road drive south of Tama. Staying at Las Avellanas Villas afforded us some peace and quiet, along with the freedom to walk down to the beach for a morning session followed by coffee or a smoothie at either Lola’s or Ola’s on the walk home. It was uncrowded in the water, especially at 6:30 a.m., and picked up more south swell than Tama and is, in my opinion, much prettier than Playa Grande, another good surf beach about equidistant north of Tama.
The lay of the land
Costa Rica is a Spanish-speaking Central American republic bordered by Nicaragua to the north, Panama to the south, the Pacific to its west and the Caribbean on its east. It has had no army since 1949 and has been a relatively stable democracy since 1950 — a track record of peace and political transparency longer than any of its regional neighbours. (Politics in Panama, El Sal and the rest of Central America, including the Dominican Republic, are variously influenced by the CAFTA trade deal with the U.S., while Costa Rican coffee and bananas – the country’s largest export industries – remain largely in the hands of foreign ownership and play significantly into the socio-political scene in the country.)
Costa Rica’s prime import, however, is tourism and with some 2.2 million visits recorded in 2011 — significantly more than any other Central American country – travel accounts for a big chunk of its GDP. Visitors, like us, are attracted by CR’s commitment to eco-tourism and the vast natural beauty of the country’s varied landscape, not to mention its clean beaches and clear water. The government has demonstrated a commitment to preserving those natural assets with heavy fines for water pollution and big chunks of the country protected in national parks. Costa Rica has even committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2021. All good things for a country banking on tourist dollars (which, by the way, are accepted widely at a seemingly perpetual exchange rate of 500 Colones to the greenback).
Too busy surfing to shoot…
This was a surf trip, so naturally there are no photos of surfing. I had brought my GoPro and even rigged up a nice pole mount to get those cool water angle shots I’ve been wanting to take for ages but, the allure of the waves got the better of me and I just couldn’t bring myself to sacrifice a session. When it comes to surfing, perhaps more so than any other activity, I am greedy and needful. Alas, the joy of sliding down perfectly groomed wave faces trumped my impulse to shoot.
In the absence of images, however, I will do my best to paint a picture of the surf with words.
We arrived in Tamarindo on the evening of Sunday November 24 and were greeted with an ebbing tide and dropping swell. Eager for a surf despite the less than ideal conditions, we picked up Stas and bee-lined for Avellanas where the slightly more south-facing aspect of the beach picked up more of the southerly pulse. The session was punctuated by some fairly steep closeout waves but for our first dip in the 22-24 degree (Celsius) water, we were giddy just to get wet.
The following morning, we woke up early for a sunrise session and enjoyed perfect offshore winds that sculpted the mid-tide waves into very fun, rippable A-frames. Naturally, I took off on as many lefts as I could and left the water feeling good. Nastia had signed up for a pair of lessons with a local recommended by our Villa hosts and he proved to be an excellent teacher and a great surfer, which we learned on day two, when we showed up with our own, shorter boards.
The swell dropped mid-week but the waves remained surfable. We took advantage of the lull to pull our surfing back to one session a day, opting to spend Wednesday evening at Ostional, a wildlife refuge that hosts one of the world’s largest olive ridley sea turtle nesting beaches in the world.
On Friday, we jumped into a van organized through Witches Rock headed for a local rodeo. Despite the relative crudeness of the sport (it was my first rodeo ever so, perhaps I wasn’t accustomed to the degree of cruelty it necessitates in order to agitate the bull and then coax him back into a holding pen) it was a memorable night filled with great local fair food and friendly Ticos.
Friends, you can download your photos from this Dropbox location.