Surf Days On Costa Rica's Pacific Coast

Surf Days On Costa Rica's Pacific Coast

Tamarindo isn't just a legendary surf spot. It's also got gorgeous beaches, a slow, typically Tico pace of life, and plenty of enticing bars and cafes. Just a couple of days here can make it feel like home. There's usually a crowd of super-friendly travelers/locals to meet over cold beers. The beach is downright gorgeous. And the waves? Did we mention that they're simply awesome…?

It's morning in Tamarindo. The outlines of horses galloping can be made out in the sunlight that's beginning to drench the beach. The rattle of racks heralds the opening of the surf shacks. The Pacific is roaring. It's been roaring all night.

Fresh and breezy, this town on the central bend of the much-vaunted Nicoya Peninsula has been my home for the last couple of days. It feels like it's been much, much longer. Even for laid-back Costa Rica, the pace of life is slow in these parts. The coming and going of the sunset is as close many of the locals get to a clock. The wash of the ocean is the sluggish, steady metronome to which life flows.

The palm-studded shore beckons me as the sun rises. I always jog or walk here in the early hours. I love watching the way Tamarindo comes to life. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I know the clockwork of the town: Surf boards are waxed; dogs are walked along the bay; coffees – Costa Rican beans, of course – are brewed in the seaside taverns.

I dodge the clasps of lanky palms that shoot up like earthy tendrils above the beach. I hop between the waffle joints and beach beer shacks, the Tiki bars and cafes. I see yogis pulling their downward dogs and back-cracking stretches with eyes closed, drawing spiritual energy from the same waves the surfers lick their lips at. I wave hello to the people I always wave hello to, and settle in for a coffee in my favorite place. (Yep, I've only been here a couple of days, but like I said, it already feels like home.)

Papayas and mangos are stacked on the salt-washed bar. I'm sipping a concoction that was made from a fusion of the two. The morning's in full swing now, and the occasional wave rider makes the short walk from the surf shops to the shore. Others are prepping for lessons: A tight rash vest there; a tutorial in the pop here. It's all got the feeling of a gnarly West Coast town about to burst into life.

The same low rollers that always seem to crash in from the Pacific are frothing with whitecaps along the sand on the north end of Tamarindo's main beach. I can see them from my seat. They've not been too high since I arrived. Sculpted right-to-lefters peel across the beach. It's tantalizing watching so many go to waste before the surfers have paddled out. Then they're there, carving their waves through the half barrels and feeling the fresh spray of the ocean in their face.

I think of Casitas, another surf spot around the bay, just north of where the Estero (estuary) breaks the main beach in two. I think of the early birds who always coalesce there to be the first riding the more challenging breaks. I bet they're loving this swell as they paddle around the river waters and drop in on the powerful waves. Eyes there will be peeled for crocodiles drifting down the currents from the Guanacaste jungles, though – snappers do appear sometimes between the banks, so says one local surfer legend.

Closer by, the smoothie maker rattles into action, jolts me from my daydream. Another papaya bites the dust and I'm glowering out at the beautiful, roaring waves of the Pacific Ocean through the palm trees again. There are worse ways to wake up, I think.


Hitting the ocean

Later, I'm pulling on my own rash vest and board shorts. I'm scrawling wax in the dry pockets on my own board. I'm checking for dings and knocks in the nose. I'm wobbling the fins to see that their straight. I'm tugging on the leash.

We're all set. The ocean calls.

I head to the north end of the beach to join the now-swollen crowd of people I was watching on the waves earlier in the day. As I leave my trail of footprints in the soft, yellow sand and make for the shoreline, I pass clusters of new surfers. Lessons in paddling and popping, surf etiquette and duck diving are in full flow. Everyone's smiling, chilled, having a great time.

I'm glad that Tamarindo is a surf town without the pretense. A place so primed for the beginner rider, packed with surf schools, surf outfitters, and excellent accommodations, it seems to have fully embraced its place as the Costa Rican learning academy of the waves. There's none of the territorial, "locals only" rubbish you'll find in some of the other legendary surf towns of the planet.

It’s mid-tide and I'm after a chilled ride. The waves are sculpting perfectly and the line-up isn't too busy as I paddle out. No ducking needed, just a few humps and we're there, rising up and down as the fat swells come in from the great Pacific blue.

Even waiting for the ride is pleasant here. I cast my eyes back across the beach. Sunbathers pepper the sands, reclining in the shade of the palm blooms which can eclipse the sun if you catch the perfect angle. Others sip pina coladas and mojitos, even though it's only midday (hey, what are the tropics for?). Others stroll between the salt-washed surf shacks, or sit watching the surfers on the waves from beneath a bamboo umbrella.

In the other direction, the Pacific is spotted with countless fishing boats. Too many count, all waiting for the next charter group to head out and see what catches they can summon from the depths of the ocean. (Tamarindo is actually fabled as one of the most prodigious deep-sea fishing destinations on the planet – think giant tunas and marlins and more.)

A quick breeze brings me back to reality. A blue-green swell is rushing towards me. I'm paddling. I'm kicking. I'm popped. I'm there, dropping down the surface of a frothing wave and leaving the deep water behind. The salt breeze billows through my hair and I get that familiar feeling of flying, just like I did the very first time I hit the waves. The yellow-white hues of the beachfront hurtle towards me. The swell closes out. I hit the cushioned whitewash and wallow in the water, smiling and spitting a cappuccino of Pacific water and spindrift from my nostrils and my mouth. Woop – I'm reminded why Tamarindo is the place to be for this.


Hitting the beach and the beach bars

I've forged something of a routine during these beach days in Tamarindo. My morning coffee and papaya-mango mashup moves to the surf session. The surf session fizzles into long, lazy, meditative stints on the sand. It's not a schedule to complain about. No sir, not a chance.

Part two comes quick, as the sun peaks in its orbit and the powdery stretch of Tamarindo's main beach heats up. It might be one o'clock, or two. I don't know which. I don't care. The upshot is that the weather's scorching in the middle of the day and I need to find one of the palm trees or palm-leaf-shaded Tiki bars to cool off in.

There's never a shortage of those here. I order a cold beer, crack it, and stare out at the ocean again. It's still rolling; rolling against the shore. Bodies still peak and trough on its swells in the distance, creating a colorful montage of boardshort patterns and flailing legs with the wipeout. There's really nothing better to keep you entertained during an afternoon. That, a good book, the soft sway of the palm trees overhead, and the endless stream of chilled beers and conversation with the bar owners and fellow post-surf patrons.

A couple of chapters, plenty of chin wagging, and a clutch of cold ones later and the sunset dutifully comes around. Another episode in the cosmic timekeeping of this uber-relaxed Tico town, it acts like a signal for the surfers to all retire. They need some time to shower and change before the real light show of reds, pinks, ethereal purples and evanescent white light bathes the whole of Tamarindo's bay. No one misses the sunset here. It's just not the done thing.

I take a break for an hour to chow down on some hearty local fare. I know a great little spot that hides between the palm trees and the rocks on the far side of the bay. As I walk there, I see clusters of folk clinking beers on the boulders that overlook the ocean. The fishing boats are returning from a day on the high seas now. There are people stowing their surf boards, re-waxing, washing them with water, filing them like papers in a cabinet ready for the next summons.

Then I'm munching on a crunchy veg burger; fried veggies on the side for chips and a dollop of homemade garlic mayo for good measure. It's all organic, of course – Tamarindo's laced with a penchant for the hippy and the eco-friendly. It's tasty as can be, and the perfect bout of food to get me ready for a return to the beer drinking.  

Back in the bars, the chatter ensues as evening turns to dark. The bright stars pepper the jet-black dome of night over Tamarindo town. Dashes of cosmic dust slash the skies and the milky way mingles with the waxy canopy of the coastal jungles.

This is when the surf bars along Tamarindo's main street jolt to life. It's nothing wildly hedonistic. Nothing Ibiza-esque. It's chilled, cool, controlled partying. Like riding a wave, we carve into the late hours with a steady stream of frothy Tico brews and colorful cocktails. Samba and rumba and jazz and chart-tune Europop are the backing track. Talk of the day's waves emanates from the rickety tables.


Tamarindo is just one of the awesome places in Costa Rica we visit on our adventures. You can come to ride the waves of the Pacific or learn how to surf with pro guides on our Coasting Costa trip. Or, you can trade in the seas for the wild, misty jungles of Central America on our Rockin' Rica itinerary. Both are tickets to the majestic, volcano-topped, wave-washed land of the Ticos!

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