Surfing Costa Rica: How My Best Right Nearly Went Very Wrong
It should never have happened.
Those are the words I repeat over and over when reminiscing about the best wave I’ve ever ridden. As a perpetual optimist, even I find it hard to believe the sequence of events, that led to that fateful right-hand wave in Jaco. To catch that wave, at that time of day and in the condition I was in, are what stories are made of. So, here it is:
Surfing Costa Rica
My two friends and I had been planning this surf trip for eons. Well, really we had just waited for a cheap enough airfare to get us from San Diego, California to Costa Rica. In the end, it was a jaunt across the border into Mexico that ultimately got us there. A $225 roundtrip airfare from Tijuana to a surfing mecca would motivate most any surfer to jump through a few hoops.
Upon arrival, we did the obligatory outdoor activities in a country that is world renown for its lush natural landscape. Now don’t get me wrong, I felt a deep peace as I traipsed through that Costa Rican cloud forest – but we were here to surf.
An unexpected setback: Zika?
After navigating the infamously bumpy Costa Rican roads to arrive in Tamarindo on the northern Pacific coast, something felt off. Sure, we were all fully limber after receiving the equivalent of a two-hour massage courtesy of the jerky car ride, but this was different. My left foot was in excruciating pain. Confused, I limped to the front desk of the hostel and couldn’t believe my misfortune. On what I hoped would be the best surf trip of my life, I suddenly had a mysteriously swollen left foot. How did this happen?
And to make matters worse, a few hours later I learned of a rumor circulating our hostel. My two friends, Jeff and Derek, jokingly began telling other guests that I had contracted Zika – a global concern at that time. No wonder that group of cute girls had avoided me earlier! I laughed nervously as my glance dropped to my newly mismatched feet. For the rest of our Tamarindo stay, everyone kept a safe distance from this hobbling American. This was not how I envisioned the adventure going. Yet, I held out hope to at least get a few waves.
Swollen Foot, Day 1 – it only got worse from here.
Somehow, I managed to fight through my increasing pain (and foot size) as our next few days flew by like a long surf session. We eased into a routine of waking up early for a morning paddle out, afternoon breaks, which included a few siestas, then back into the ocean to surf the last few rays of daylight. We hopped around to several nearby surf spots: Playa Langosta, Playa Grande and Playa Avellanas.
Somewhere, in between thinking I was in heaven with swaying palm trees and 80-degree water, I had an epiphany: I was surfing better with one cartoon-looking foot, then I normally would with two good feet! Maybe I had better balance from the extra large foot, or it was something in the Central American water. Whatever the case, I wasn’t going to question it, even though the foot throbbed and grew more sensitive by the day.
As we neared the end of our short six-day trip, I was perfectly content to continue our routine of surfing 3-4 foot waves under cloudless blue skies and eating enough rice, beans, and plantains during breaks to fuel up for the next session. I even bought a pair of new board shorts to commemorate our time there.
Pura Vida & extending the adventure
On our second to last day, everything changed. For some reason, it was decided we would shake things up and spend our last night in Jaco, a town famous for nightlife, but little else as far as I knew. I saw no reason to leave Tamarindo! I wasn’t ready to trade in my last few chances to surf in the relaxed conditions of Tamarindo for the cheap drinks and loud music of Jaco. But reluctantly, I accepted my fate once I discovered a pretty French girl would accompany us to our destination.
Pura vida (pure life) – the unofficial phrase of Costa Rica – applies to nearly everything in this tropical paradise, but it could not have been further from capturing my demeanor on the drive to Jaco.
We were leaving behind predictably good waves, with the only swell we could count on now coming from the swollen blob that was formerly my foot. At this point, it hurt just to look at it. Exacerbating the situation, a fierce rainstorm battered our SUV as we pushed for Jaco before nightfall. Rain is a different animal in Costa Rica. We pleaded with Jeff to slow down due to the weather, but he smiled his carefree grin and pushed down on the accelerator. An anxious silence enveloped the car.
When we finally rolled into Jaco with 40 minutes or so before dark, cumbia pulsed from every direction as the nightlife seemed to be getting an early start. Perhaps it was the energy from the music, but instantly I had a surge of adrenaline. We had yet to find a hostel for the night, but it took little convincing for Jeff to agree to seek out accommodations, while Derek and I ran (or limped with style, in my case) to find the nearest board rental. We spotted a kid on the beach with a dozen or so boards, but time was too precious to go through the customary negotiations. We both handed him $10 and had our leashes on before the money made it to his pocket. An early flight the next day meant this truly was our last chance for surf.
Once we made it out to the lineup to join a handful of locals, we grinned at the opportunity to take in our new surroundings. Mountains formed a semi-circle above the beach behind us. A feeling of freedom swept over me. I admire surf warriors in thick wetsuits and booties, but for me, surfing is best in its simplest form. Just surfer, board shorts, and a board. My mood quickly changed, however, when I realized the growing darkness made it quite difficult to read the waves. But one thing was clear, this was a much heavier wave than those up north – and more than twice the size – quite daunting for me as a gradually improving surfer.
As I sat anxiously trying not to think about my foot and waiting for my shot, every other surfer caught multiple waves around me. Only 5 to 10 minutes remained before it would be completely dark at the unfamiliar break. Still, I floated in a focused silence, while Derek chatted with another surfer in Spanish.
There! I spotted my chance.
As the wave rumbled closer, I turned and strained for the shore. A sure sign a wave is above your skill level is when your stomach grows tighter with each stroke you take.
Finally, it happened: everything I had ever learned about surfing fell perfectly into place.
I calmly popped up, leaned forward in my stance and on to my toes slightly as I dropped into the wave to the right. I’d never gone this fast before! When I reached the bottom of the wave I dug the tail in and turned back up the glassy face, only to drop in again. My balance was just right, and I had found the perfect line to guide me. When the wave slowed, I pumped my front foot to gain momentum, and just like that, my ride continued.
I had never felt such momentary bliss, and I didn’t want it to end. When it eventually did, I emerged from the water with a primal scream! What an incredible rush. I stood for a moment in the knee-deep water to contemplate what just happened.
It had all been worth it: the bulging foot, leaving Tamarindo, the monsoon rains, and the fleeting minutes of daylight had all led me to that exact moment. Things could have easily gone all wrong, but instead, it was the best right of my life.