Costa Rica | Surfing Tamarindo, Avellanas and a week in the land of pura vida

Friday night

Friday night’s alright for bull fights on the Nicoya Peninsula. Just one of the amazing, random good times we stumbled into on our week of living pura vida.

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).

One of the countless drive-by scenes we wished we

One of the countless drive-by scenes we wished we’d stopped to savour. Alas, we had people to see and waves to surf.

Horses are just one of the numerous species of animal one passes when the pavement ends. Much of the three-and-a-half hour drive from San Jose westward is done on dubiously paved roads with the last legs done on dirt tracks.

Horses are just one of the numerous species of animal one passes when the pavement ends. Much of the three-and-a-half hour drive from San Jose westward is done on dubiously paved roads with the last legs done on dirt tracks.

Shades of New Zealand-esque pasture on the road to the Nicoya.

Shades of New Zealand-esque pasture on the road to the Nicoya.

Where the pavement ends, there is no telling what challenges your rental car will face. Guidebooks targeting those looking to get beyond the wire recommend a 4x4 just in case. Our little Daihatsu, equipped with a fuel-saving rev limiter that kept the RPMs below 3500, left plenty to be desired on the highway, but made up for its lack of guts with plenty of river-fording tenacity.

Where the pavement ends, there is no telling what challenges your rental car will face. Guidebooks targeting those looking to get beyond the wire recommend a 4×4 just in case. Our little Daihatsu, equipped with a fuel-saving rev limiter that kept the RPMs below 3500, left plenty to be desired on the highway, but made up for its lack of guts with plenty of river-fording tenacity.

Stas and Nastia, reunited siblings with boards in hand outside our villa near Playa Avellanas.

Stas and Nastia, reunited siblings with boards in hand outside our villa near Playa Avellanas.

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.

Sunset at Playa Avellanas.

Sunset at Playa Avellanas.

Anastasia snaps an iPhone photo in the fading light of another Avellanas sunset.

Anastasia snaps an iPhone photo in the fading light of another Avellanas sunset.

If sun beams shining down towards Earth are called Jacob

If sun beams shining down towards Earth are called Jacob’s ladders, what are the reverse called?

This manky boardwalk spanned the smelly estuary between Playa Avellanas and the Cabinas Las Olas property, through which we walked to get to the beach from our place just up the road. Reminds me the swamp from the film The Princess Bride.

This manky boardwalk spanned the smelly estuary between Playa Avellanas and the Cabinas Las Olas property, through which we walked to get to the beach from our place just up the road. Reminds me the swamp from the film The Princess Bride.

This night, those ominous clouds creeping in behind Nastia opened up and dumped one of the heaviest downpours I can recall.

This night, those ominous clouds creeping in behind Nastia opened up and dumped one of the heaviest downpours I can recall.

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).

Twin hammocks hang on the covered patio of each of the four rentable villas at Las Villas Avellanas.

Twin hammocks hang on the covered patio of each of the four rentable villas at Las Villas Avellanas.

The pool in the gated courtyard of Stas

The pool in the gated courtyard of Stas’ Tamarindo hotel.

I want one.

I want one.

Tuesday was salsa night at a local dance spot in Tamarindo and it was incredible to witness the natural talent of the Ticos and Ticas who came out. Taking pictures was a welcome respite from trying not to embarrass Nastia with my lack of rhythm. Hips don

Tuesday was salsa night at a local dance spot in Tamarindo and it was incredible to witness the natural talent of the Ticos and Ticas who came out. Taking pictures was a welcome respite from trying not to embarrass Nastia with my lack of rhythm. Hips don’t lie, and mine tell an ugly truth.

I think this one was a merengue.

I think this one was a merengue.

Sundown in Tamarindo.

Sundown in Tamarindo.

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.

An olive ridley mother hauls out on the black sand of Playa Ostional to lay eggs.

An olive ridley mother hauls out on the black sand of Playa Ostional to lay eggs.

The sea turtles nest at Ostional year round but the largest migrations take place in the rainy season, between August and December.

The sea turtles nest at Ostional year round but the largest migrations take place in the rainy season, between August and December.

Called arribadas, the olive ridley

Called arribadas, the olive ridley’s mass nestings can see hundreds of thousands of turtles hit the beach in a single night.

Tours to Ostional are arranged through pretty well every hotel front desk in Tamarindo but, since we had a car, we figured we could make our own way down to the beach. Its about an hours drive south of Avellanas and involves some pretty rugged dirt roading, complete with a tires-wet river crossing, but once on site, getting to the turtles is fairly easy. We just stumbled into a friend we knew would be there and paid our way into their group. It was $10 to join their guide as opposed to $60 had we left in their tour van so, we felt pretty good about that.

Tours to Ostional are arranged through pretty well every hotel front desk in Tamarindo but, since we had a car, we figured we could make our own way down to the beach. Its about an hours drive south of Avellanas and involves some pretty rugged dirt roading, complete with a tires-wet river crossing, but once on site, getting to the turtles is fairly easy. We just stumbled into a friend we knew would be there and paid our way into their group. It was $10 to join their guide as opposed to $60 had we left in their tour van so, we felt pretty good about that.

White light bothers the turtles and can damage their eyes so, according to our guide - and confirmed through some Googling after the fact - red light is less disturbing to the tranced out mothers gripped by exhaustion and the strain of laying eggs.

White light bothers the turtles and can damage their eyes so, according to our guide – and confirmed through some Googling after the fact – red light is less disturbing to the tranced out mothers gripped by exhaustion and the strain of laying eggs.

In the process of digging pits into which a mother olive ridley lays her clutch, previously laid eggs are unearthed. These golfball-sized, soft-shelled orbs litter the beach at night and make for high protein snacks for the hundreds of vultures waiting in the trees for first light.

In the process of digging pits into which a mother olive ridley lays her clutch, previously laid eggs are unearthed. These golfball-sized, soft-shelled orbs litter the beach at night and make for high protein snacks for the hundreds of vultures waiting in the trees for first light.

Picking up some road snacks for the drive back from Ostional.

Picking up some road snacks for the drive back from Ostional.

High beam etiquette is pretty hit or miss on the roads at night. Putting your brights down in site of oncoming cars usually triggers a similar response, but not always.

High beam etiquette is pretty hit or miss on the roads at night. Putting your brights down in site of oncoming cars usually triggers a similar response, but not always.

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.

A pair of mounted cowboys lasso the bull after he

A pair of mounted cowboys lasso the bull after he’s bucked his rider and, with practiced hands and some nifty rope work, coax the partially asphyxiated animal back to his pen.

Bulls eye

A rider, wearing a hockey-like helmet and what looked like a back catcher

A rider, wearing a hockey-like helmet and what looked like a back catcher’s breast plate made it all the way across the enclosure before being hurled off.

Some of the local youths hopped into the ring to test their courage. Most, sensibly, scattered when the bull entered but a few, like this fella, hung around for a few rounds before seeking the congratulations of his peers waiting on the fences.

Some of the local youths hopped into the ring to test their courage. Most, sensibly, scattered when the bull entered but a few, like this fella, hung around for a few rounds before seeking the congratulations of his peers waiting on the fences.

Coming at

Coming at’cha.

Our group, perched atop the fences of the bull ring. The locals sitting near us advised us to keep one leg on either side of the boards should a bull, many of which with horns long enough to hit the upper planks, come too near.

Our group, perched atop the fences of the bull ring. The locals sitting near us advised us to keep one leg on either side of the boards should a bull, many of which with horns long enough to hit the upper planks, come too near.

Stas hopped in for a different perspective before the bull riding began.

Stas hopped in for a different perspective before the bull riding began.

The disco set up just behind the bull ring made for some interesting light.

The disco set up just behind the bull ring made for some interesting light.

The stadium lighting illuminating the bull ring attracted swarms of white moths. Their charred bodies rained down in a kind of steady singed snow.

The stadium lighting illuminating the bull ring attracted swarms of white moths. Their charred bodies rained down in a kind of steady singed snow.

Best seats in the house.

Best seats in the house.

 

Friday night lights.

Friday night lights.

Pretty sure this is beef, totally sure it was delicious.

Pretty sure this is beef, totally sure it was delicious.

Thanksgiving dinner with the crew.

Thanksgiving dinner with the crew.

Darren, Greg and Chris break composure after a classic Duke-style board shot on Tamarindo beach. The boys were a classic bunch and it was a good time hanging in and out of the water.

Darren, Greg and Chris break composure after a classic Duke-style board shot on Tamarindo beach. The boys were a classic bunch and it was a good time hanging in and out of the water.

Group shot! This is Tamarindo beach.

Group shot! This is Tamarindo beach.

The girls.

The girls.

Stretching the day on our last night in Tama.

Stretching the day on our last night in Tama.

A pair of boys play soccer on the sand.

A pair of boys play soccer on the sand.

Oh, after the rodeo, we headed back to Tama for Friday night at the Crazy Monkey - the bar off the Best Western in Tama. Its a big night in town, complete with Laser lights and fire dancers.

Oh, after the rodeo, we headed back to Tama for Friday night at the Crazy Monkey – the bar off the Best Western in Tama. Its a big night in town, complete with Laser lights and fire dancers.

Night trees.

Night trees.

Firesplits.

Firesplits.

 

An odd, yet oddly appealing angle.

An odd, yet oddly appealing angle.

Endless Summer pink adorns a sandwitch board advertising Witches Rock surf camp on Playa Tamarindo. The bar, Eat at Joe

Endless Summer pink adorns a sandwitch board advertising Witches Rock surf camp on Playa Tamarindo. The bar, Eat at Joe’s, and my favourite local beer, Gato Malo, await just behind.

Nastia, casting a long shadow as the sun goes down on Playa Tamarindo.

Nastia, casting a long shadow as the sun goes down on Playa Tamarindo.

Small surf and a crowded lineup on Playa Tamarindo kept me out of the water this evening. It was nice to just take it all in and enjoy a beach walk, like these two.

Small surf and a crowded lineup on Playa Tamarindo kept me out of the water this evening. It was nice to just take it all in and enjoy a beach walk, like these two.

Nastia, black and white on the beach.

Nastia, black and white on the beach.

Stas, posing with the man himself. I

Stas, posing with the man himself. I’m hoping to have August shape a board for me for sometime next spring so we can make another trip to pick it up!

The board in question, or one just like it... but with my name on the stringer.

The board in question, or one just like it… but with my name on the stringer.

The August board I used for the week. It

The August board I used for the week. It’s a 6’4″ swallowtail, nice and thick through the waist. Perfect for the mellow peaks that dominated our surf week, although a bit sluggish on the bigger set waves. Had a nice longboard-ish feel though and held a rail like champ. Made me surf better than I am so, a big win all around.

Friends, you can download your photos from this Dropbox location.

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Sayulita surf reunion | Tequila, broken bones and small wave fun » blog | evan mitsui dot com - […] Christmas, the boys and I got together to hash out our biannual surf adventure. Fresh off a trip to Tamarindo, Costa Rica, I was keen to keep the ball rolling on warm water destinations so, after kicking around a few […]

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