Surfing Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast.
Published in Sunday Star Times Magazine.
We live in a world dominated by ever increasing competition for scarce resources is a given, and out on the water things are no different. As surfing numbers boom uncrowded waves are increasingly rare and competition for the right to ride them is intense almost anywhere in the world. It’s the Law of the Jungle out there. Paddle out to some of the famous breaks in Hawaii, the spiritual home of surfing, and you risk getting beaten up just for being there. It sometimes seems there’s hardly an unridden wave left in the world.
Enter Costa Rica. Sandwiched between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south, Costa Rica is a surfer’s dream. Warm water, plentiful waves on two coasts – Pacific to the west and the Caribbean to the east – and while it’s hardly undiscovered, in global surfing terms it’s remains relatively unpopulated with waves to be had by any level of surfer.
It was Columbus who, when he saw the local Indians wearing gold jewellery, dubbed the region ‘Costa Rica’ (rich coast) imagining a vast empire existed further inland. And in a sense it did. Blessed with beautiful beaches, tropical rainforests, volcanic mountains and a population of 4 million in a country about three quarters the size of Tasmania, Costa Rica is the jewel in Latin America’s crown. It’s also the most stable and safest nation in the region, having held democratic elections for over a century. And with 26% of the land in some form of protection it’s been a leader in eco tourism.
But for visiting surfers the attraction remains the waves that pound those sun-kissed beaches. First surfed by travelling American surfers in the 60s. Costa Rica is saved from overcrowding by the sheer number of breaks it offers.
On the Caribbean coast where the weather tends to be wetter winter is the best time to surf, with the months between December and February catching the biggest swells. The Pacific side gets more consistent surf and just north of the Panama border is the country’s most famous wave, Pavones. Between April and October the deep swells that roll up from the South Pacific (often called “New Zealand swells”) create a perfect left hand point break that can be over a kilometre long.
Further north on the Peninsula de Nicoya, which makes up the northern third of the country’s Pacific coast, is the laid back village of Nosara. With 3 beaches or playas offering a variety of breaks it was the perfect place for former top international pro-surfer and Californian big wave legend Richard Schmidt to set up camp. “I’ve surfed all over the world but this is as close to perfect as anywhere I’ve found. It’s still undeveloped, there’s beautiful forest filled with birds, great locals and the ideal setup for teaching surfing.” And Schmidt should know – he’s been teaching for over 18 years.
Basing out of the Harbour Reef Hotel, a collection of thatched cabanas around a central pool and restaurant area, Schmidt offers surf camps during January and February. Its dry season with temperatures in the mid to high 30s and consistent swells every day. Our group of 9 ranges from people who have never surfed before through to ‘advanced intermediates’ who are competent in overhead surf. And the waves accommodate everyone. Playa Guiones, a 2 minute walk through luxuriant jungle from the Harbour Reef, is a broad 3 kilometre sweep of pink-white sand. At the north end of the playa, which faces more directly towards the ocean, the waves are double to triple the size of those at the south end.
The beginners start at the south end. Using soft longboards Schmidt’s instructors push them onto a wave then catch the wave themselves, riding alongside and literally lifting their students to their feet. It’s an incredible display of surfing ability that has the beginners riding unbroken waves on the first day.
The rest of us head as far along the beach as we feel comfortable. Walk a kilometre north and the soft waist high waves at the south end turn to peeling head high walls. Another kilometre up the beach and those walls are nearing double overhead and heavy enough to get the adrenaline pumping. Silicon Valley chief executive Steve Luczo, a mid-40s convert to surfing, is on his second visit to Schmidt’s camp. “It’s a great place to push yourself. Last year I hung about at the southern end. This year I’m in the middle of the beach and next year I’m aiming for the north peak.”
Early morning is the best time to surf. At 6am the water is glassy and the tropical sunrise paints the sky in every permutation of pink and purple. Surf for several hours then Richard’s wife Marissa leads the crew in a much-needed post-surf yoga session. A late morning feast of fresh fruit, eggs, beans and coffee and its time to retire to the hammock to read or doze through the heat of the day. It’s also the time the light onshore sea breeze picks up meaning the surf gets choppy and blown out. By 4pm the breeze is dying off and it’s time for the second session of the day. Four or five hours in the water each day means nightlife isn’t high on the agenda but for those with the energy there are a couple of bars with some pumping Latin dance beats.
Today Costa Rica is definitely on the ‘gringo trail’ with half its annual million tourists coming from North America. You don’t get to be safe, tropical country just 4 hours flight from the southern US without becoming reasonably popular. That said the costs are still reasonable. Accommodation ranges from US$10 a night for a backpacker to US$35-60 a night for an air-conditioned cabana, with a few options in the US$100-plus range for those wanting real luxury. You can eat for US$5 but for US$10 – 15 you’ll get an excellent meal with fresh seafood being a specialty. Camps such as Schmidt’s cost around US$1500 for 8 full days, including food, accommodation, equipment, instruction and transfers from the capital, San Jose, a short 45-minute flight away.
And if you’re looking for other activities you won’t be disappointed. There’s great rafting, hiking, wildlife tours, deep seas fishing, and snorkelling. You can even learn Spanish, yoga or the guitar. Or you could just kick back on the beach. No wonder then that the local greeting, usually accompanied by a flashing white smile, is the common Costa Rican expression “Pura Vida” – pure life!