Fed up with waking up before sunrise and being able to see our breath in the cold, workday morning air, my buddy Monty and I decided to loosen our ties, toss our briefcases aside and book a weeklong winter getaway to sunny Costa Rica.
In addition to basking in the region’s warm, 80-degree weather, we took a friend up on his advice to check out a new beginners surf school in Nosara and gave ourselves another worthy goal: to learn how to surf.
Costa Rica is home to some of the best and most consistent surf in the world, and lessons are available at a fraction of the cost compared to a stay in Hawaii or the hassle of getting to Indonesia, two other renowned surfing destinations. There are plenty of surfing beaches along the Pacific Coast in this Central American country, but we decided on Playa Guiones, near Nosara in the Guanacaste province of northwestern Costa Rica. It’s a relaxed beach town that attracts surfing and yoga enthusiasts alike.
INNOCENT SURFING SCHOOL
Once you finally reach Playa Guiones (see the transportation section at the end of this article) and have adequately carbo-loaded, you’ll be ready to surf. Playa Guiones boasts a consistent break all day long that attracts surfers young and old from all corners of the globe. But what about the surfing newbies who think a rash guard is a colorful euphemism for “prophylactic”?
Luckily, Playa Guiones is home to one of the world’s level-four British Surfing Association (BSA)-certified surf instructors (there are 20) and the surf school that he owns with his fiancée. Founders Ru Hill and Gem Yates opened Innocent Surf School in May 2007 with a mission to provide professional surf coaching at an affordable price. At $45 per 1.5-hour lesson (first lesson is $48; subsequent lessons are $45; 5- and 10-lesson packages are available), Innocent Surf Schoolhas accomplished its goal to the critical acclaim of many (just read the testimonials on the Web site). Your $45 gets you a board for the lesson, 10 to 15 minutes of instruction on the sand and more than an hour of intensive coaching in the water.
Preparing to Surf
A word to the next wave of surfing virgins out there — it’s not all fun and games. Surfing takes hard work, dedication and focused preparation. That’s why Ru, Gem and fellow Innocent surf coach Jack Phillips preach proper rest and thorough stretching prior to each lesson. Keeping with the theme of discipline and concentration, it’s also important to temper expectations and to maintain a level of calm. As with anything else new, surfing can be very frustrating — especially in the face of unrelenting sets of five- and six-foot waves when you haven’t perfected your Eskimo-roll technique.
Paddling out beyond the breakers can seem like the challenge of a lifetime at first, and it’s that much harder if you’ve been avoiding the gym for months, like my travel mate Monty. One word of advice to beginners: The best preparation in the weeks leading up to your vacation is to get into swimming shape to help with paddling. Neither of us had been swimming in months, and the muscles used for paddling are very different from anything that would be stimulated through weightlifting exercises. Despite being a buff stud muffin, I, too, struggled with my paddling.
The Innocent team will not hesitate to remind you that sound technique and practice are prerequisites for that exhilarating 10-second green wave ride. If you approach each lesson seriously and focus on the fundamentals stressed by the coaching staff, you should catch your first wave by the fifth or sixth session, as we did. After that, as with any sport, it’s all about repetition and incremental improvements.
The main draw to Playa Guiones is its three-mile beach awaiting surfers of all experience. Among the best surfing destinations in Costa Rica, this beach is noted for being one of the cleanest and ecologically well-maintained in the world. While slightly more expensive than some other places in the greater Nosara area, the restaurants and hotels are located within a short walking distance in the rain forest directly adjacent to the beach area. With a relaxed and laid-back atmosphere, Playa Guiones is perfect for the more subdued individual looking for peace, quiet and good surfing.
The town of Nosara is an area largely unexplored by the tourists in Playa Guiones. However, it claims to have the world’s longest zip-line canopy tour (Miss Sky Canopy Tour) and some cheaper options for nourishment. Restaurants and groceries in Playa Guiones tend to be a bit more expensive than Playa Guiones because of the convenience, but a short ride into town may be well worth it if you want to stock up on food and beverages for an extended stay.
Nosara also provides the liveliest nightclub in the area, Tropicana Disco, where the locals and tourists come together to salsa into the morning hours every weekend. Along the road into town, be sure to listen for the howlers near the treetops — they’re the cute black monkeys that roar with the ferocity of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
After enduring the day’s lesson (or two) out in the hot sun, you’re more than likely to have worked up an appetite for food and fun. Playa Guiones and Nosara feature a variety of options for the famished.
The signature dish of Costa Rica is the casado, which is essentially a plate of rice, beans, salad, fried plantains and your choice of meat entrée. Monty ordered one at every meal regardless of the time of day. Nearly every restaurant in the area offers their take on this Costa Rican classic, with the most notable being The Gilded Iguana and Rosie’s Soda Tica.
While western Costa Rican cuisine generally appears quite basic, it still provides enough sustenance for the next morning’s surf lesson. The Gilded Iguana also serves a delicious ceviche, which is a fish salsa served with chips. For the ceviche enthusiast, the tastiest version that we found in the Nosara area was at La Luna at the Nosara Beach Hotel, where delicious fried plantains are substituted for tortilla chips.
For those who wish to wash down their casado with a frothy beverage within the friendly confines of an open-air cantina, most of Playa Guiones’ restaurants double as bars. And if you seek the advice of the locals you might even have the pleasure of drinking your cerveza among a large crowd of the town’s residents and patrons, as there is a particular hot spot for each day of the week. La Banana, The Gilded Iguana and Kaya Sol are the liveliest of the bunch.
Many dining establishments in Nosara that double as cantinas also feature lodging. The Gilded Iguana (rates from $45 per night), Kaya Sol (rates from $40per night) and Café de Paris (rates from $100 per night, however three-night specials are available for a total of $180) are a few examples of locations where you can eat out, go out drinking and hit the sack without ever leaving the premises. Most hotels are reasonably and comparably priced, so when choosing a place to stay, there are two important variables: proximity to the beach and distance from the bars.
Travel within town will be done on foot, so picking a hotel away from the beach will require that you also bring a comfortable pair of flip-flops to cruise the rocky roads. If a comfortable, quiet night’s sleep is what you desire, a location away from the noisy bars and restaurants is ideal. Our home base was the Nosara Beach House, a relatively secluded and very peaceful setting that also happens to be as close to the beach as possible. The extremely friendly and helpful staff there made our stay pleasant. Current rates start at $70 per night for double occupancy; check for updated rates. During the rainy season (Sept. to Oct.), rates start at $50 per night. Tel. +506-2682-0019. Thenosarabeachhouse.com
Depending on how quickly you want to get from the airport to begin your surf adventure, there is a variety of transportation options available. Liberia International is the closest airport at about 45 miles away from Playa Guiones. However, the rugged overland trek includes more than 20 miles of unpaved roads that boost the total travel time to a minimum of 2.5 hours by car. A taxi is the fastest form of ground transportation, but comes at a premium ($140 one way), and renting a car can be a risky proposition and also quite expensive. For the budget conscious, Costa Rica’s busing system is punctual, easily accessible and cheap ($4 total from Nosara to Liberia), but extremely slow (5 hours) and uncomfortable.
If you aren’t afraid of small propeller planes, Sansa and Nature Air are the best options for travel within Costa Rica’s borders. The flight from Liberia International to Nosara takes about half an hour and provides breathtaking views at a reasonable price (fares average $75 each way per person). Additionally, the extra flight also opens up the possibility of flying into San José, which is a much larger airport with cheaper international flight options. If I had it to do over again, I would definitely face my fear of small-aircraft travel and take the flight in order to maximize my time at the beach.
Fellow nascent surfer Monty Gray assisted in writing this article. Monty is a native Californian from the heart of wine country in Sonoma. Currently based in Silicon Valley, he works in corporate development at SAP. Monty’s passions for wine and discovering new regions have taken him around the world. His favorite places include Buenos Aires, Florence, Berlin, Sydney and San Sebastian, Spain, where he spent a semester studying in college. Monty looks forward to continuing to build upon surfing from this trip to Costa Rica.