here are moments in life you might regret. None of them happen on a surfboard bobbing in the Pacific as the sun dips below the horizon, lighting the sky on fire. As the flame fades, I see a cold Imperial beer and a circle of new friends on the beach. I look over my shoulder for a rise in the water, paddle hard and jump to my feet, riding the wave until it crumbles into whitewash not far from the shore. I hop off casually, like surfing is something I’ve done all my life. In reality, I just learned how to catch a wave. It’s the best thing I’ve ever felt—momentum, propulsion, exhilaration and elation. It’s an experience available to anyone willing to put in a week of practice with someone willing to teach. After a few days of unfruitful paddling, swallowing ocean water and toppling off before ever standing up, you’ll get it, and you’ll most likely be hooked.
Of all the places in the world where one may learn to surf, from Mexico to Australia, California, Indonesia and so on, many lists put Costa Rica at the top. In fact, the nation is widely regarded as the best surf destination on the planet, not just for beginners, but for surfers of every ability level. The equatorial country receives swell from both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere, creating year-round surf. Costa Rica’s coastline offers almost unmatched variety, from beach breaks with sand of every color to slow-peeling point breaks to powerful reefs and reliable river mouths. Warm water means you’ll never need a wet suit, and though it’s not as cheap to visit as other Central American countries, it remains a relatively affordable surf zone, especially during the rainy summer season, which still pumps out waves. Plus, four international airports and a decent public transportation system make Costa Rica accessible. Friendly locals, incredible biodiversity and fresh, healthy food round out the country’s awesomeness. But in a country with more than 100 surf breaks and dozens of reputable surf schools, where to go?
At Playa Grande, the waves are fast and hollow, but don’t hold bigger swell. Tamarindo’s mushy break beckons beginners, but leaves much to be desired for the more advanced surfer. Pavones’ famous left point break offers one of the longest rides in the world, but requires considerable skill. On the Caribbean coast, Salsa Brava’s large and powerful waves break over sharp coral reef. Playa Hermosa’s currents run strong and its swells can reach up to 13 feet.
But on the Nicoya Peninsula, near the town of Nosara, Playa Guiones offers one of the most versatile surfing beaches in Costa Rica. The beach can hold swell of any size, and the whitewash close to the beach always remains surf-able for beginners. Further out, intermediates can find manageable waves and expert surfers can paddle to the outside for the good stuff. Experienced surfers can walk north, paddle out at the big palm tree and surf knee-high to overhead sloping shoulders, while newbies can surf whitewash right out front that’s seemingly created for progression. While most breaks in Costa Rica require high tide, Playa Guiones breaks during low tide, too. Perhaps the most appealing aspect: the four-mile long beach remains development-free. The washboard dirt road is the only way to Nosara. The streets in town are just as dusty and the place is devoid of fast-food restaurants, beach bars or even a single large-scale resort.
Nosara is the ideal home for Olas Verdes, the world’s first LEED Certified surf resort hidden in the jungle a short walk from Playa Guiones. Its 17 suites and five buildings surround a salt water pool and come with everything you need (AC, wi-fi, mini-fridge) and nothing you don’t.
There, you’ll find Safari Surf School, a 17-year-old camp and “surf academy” founded by brothers Tim and Tyler Marsh in 1999. Safari Surf’s long history in the area and its deep understanding of surfing mechanics and local culture combine to create one of the best learn-to-surf environments in the world. That’s why I’ve come. After a few attempts at the sport gone awry, I’m here to learn from a professional. I don’t want to be scared; I want to learn correct technique and, most importantly, I want to have fun.
After a late arrival the night before, I wake up to the sound of howler monkeys and the scent of fresh Costa Rican coffee brewing. I sip my beverage and savor a plate of ripe mango, tangy pineapple and juicy melon while meeting the hotel’s manager and some fellow guests from California and New York City. My local instructor invites me to the well-stocked surfboard rack, and I choose a high-end, eco-friendly Firewire board that will quickly become the nicest one I’ve ever ridden.
Marlon shows me how to properly “wax my ride” and I follow him down a dirt patch under the Jobo trees toward the sound of crashing waves. Marlon is an ISA (International Surfing Association) accredited instructor and a Royal Life Saving Society certified lifeguard, so I know I’m in good hands. We do some stretching on the sand as he describes the beach and how the waves tend to break. Then, it’s time to practice “popping up” on the sand and paddle technique in hopes that my muscles remember the motion once I’m in the water. I attach my leash and carry my board to the sea, pushing it through the whitewater as I wade into the warm Pacific. Marlon is close by and helps position me and my board for our first attempt. When it’s time to paddle, I do my best but miss the wave. This time, Marlon pushes the tail of my board as I paddle and it’s just enough of a boost to get me into the sweet spot. I’m riding the wave and grinning from ear to ear, but it’s over before I can stand up. We continue for an hour, and by the end, I’m already standing on most waves I go for. Come mid-morning, my arms grow weak and my stomach rumbles.
Salty and satisfied, I head back to El Manglar, Olas Verdes’ on-property restaurant owned by two local women. The poolside eatery serves authentic and delicious Costa Rican dishes using herbs and vegetables from its on-site garden, seasonal organic produce from a farm three miles inland, local poultry and sustainably-harvested fish from right down the beach.
Nosara claims the oldest expat community in Costa Rica but it remained relatively unheard of until Playa Guiones was established as one of the best places in the world to learn to surf. Since then, Nosara’s tourist demographics have shifted; the intrepid surfer looking for a cheap bed and a cold beer has been replaced by young professionals and families with dispensable income. Once the highly-revered Nosara Yoga Institute opened 23 years ago, it lured yogis from all over the world and spawned dozens of yoga studios. Nosara has since grown into a wellness mecca. Greenwashed hotels and eateries abound in Nosara, but Olas Verdes remains a pioneer in sustainability, including water conservation, as the area is one of the most drought-stricken in the country.
Like so many surf destinations, morning and evening sessions here have the least wind, the smoothest water and the best rides. Safari Surf School offers two lessons per day, with plenty of time in between to eat, wander around town and siesta. I take one of Olas Verdes’ cruiser bikes to explore the town. Popping in and out of local boutiques, I grab a smoothie from Go Juice that lives up to its excellent reputation and enjoy the sights of this sleepy enclave.
Back at the resort, it’s time for my afternoon lesson. I learn more useful tips that carry over to the next morning’s session. After days of practicing in the whitewater, I’m ready to paddle further out for a wave with an actual smooth face, what most instructors refer to as a green wave. It’s a lot farther from the beach, but before I have time to get intimidated, Marlon is telling me to paddle. All of a sudden, I’m careening down the wave—it’s exhilarating—but I’m too late to stand up. On the next wave, I listen to his advice and pop up right away. I’m up, and because I’m on a smooth wave face and not churning whitewater, it’s actually easier to ride. I even attempt to turn my board. The great thing about surfing, is that there’s always another level to work towards, and the progression is addicting. Every day I find myself learning something new that entirely changes my experience in the water. And the day-to-day improvement on the board makes the entire trip novel and exciting.
You’re sure to find Costa Rica’s surf culture as fun and rewarding as the actual act of sliding on water. Once here, it’s easy to see pura vida—the Costa Rican philosophy of enjoying life slowly, focusing on community and appreciating nature—in action on the Nicoya Peninsula and at Olas Verdes. The sunset is revered with the utmost importance every single day. Happy hour takes place at the beach each evening, when the entire town—locals and visitors alike—migrates to Playa Guiones to eat, drink, play and surf until the last of the light fades into the water.
On the final day, instead of sitting on the beach as a spectator, like I would have a week prior, I’m on a surfboard far from the comforts of my beach towel. I paddle out alone and I’m starting to feel comfortable out here. I’m reading the waves; I know when to paddle and when to conserve my energy. As I catch the last wave of my trip, I smile with satisfaction having ridden it to shore. And while it’s true that I’m leaving just as I’m really starting to figure it all out, I’ll take this experience with me. I’ve learned useful lessons both on and off my board. And before I even leave, I’m planning my next trip back to Olas Verdes.
2.5 hour drive from Liberia International Airport. The last 15 miles are unpaved and can be impassable during the wettest months of rainy season (September - October).
Olas Verdes: Suites at Olas Verdes start at $135 per night in the Green Season (May to October) and $185 during the High Season (January to April and November to December).
Safari Surf School
El Manglar, Go Juice, Rosi’s Soda Tica, La Luna