Adventure 101: Surfing Costa Rica

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Surfers and wannabes have been flocking to Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Province since the film The Endless Summer 2—documentarian Bruce Brown’s follow-up to his 1966 surf classic—popularized it two decades ago.

The region, on the country’s northwestern coast, is a meteorological sweet spot between the northern and southern swells generated in the Pacific.

“Nowhere on Earth has as many surf-able days each year as Guanacaste, and the waves rarely get over a few feet,” says Ru Hill, founder of Surf Simply, an instructional resort outside of Nosara. “So while you won’t find many big-wave surfers visiting the area, it’s the perfect destination for the rest of us.”

> Getting Started:

Guanacaste has a spot for every type of wave rider, from Tamarindo—the most accessible and developed town, with a range of lodging options and nonsurfing diversions—to isolated Mal Pais, a laid-back strip of beach favored by celebrities (Mel Gibson and Gisele Bündchen both have houses here).

In recent years, however, the village of Nosara has emerged as a surfing hot spot with a handful of schools setting up shop along Playa Guiones, a four-mile stretch known for its unspoiled beauty. “It’s a national refuge, so you can’t build on the beach. When you’re in the water and looking back toward the shoreline, you just see jungle,” says Keith Coleman, an instructor whose family runs Corky Carroll’s Surf School in Nosara.

For novices, the conditions at Guiones are the big selling point. “Waves are gentle, and there are no rocks, riptides, or algae so people like getting in the water,” says Adrian Suarez, co-founder of Agua Tibia Surf School. And thanks to the gently sloping ocean floor that keeps waves from breaking quickly, surfers have a greater window of opportunity to catch waves.

> Reading Waves:

Choose from à la carte instruction, like Agua Tibia, which offers 90-minute group lessons and week-long packages, to all-inclusive camps such as Corky Carroll’s, where one rate covers accommodations, meals, lessons, board rental, and airport transfers from Liberia or San José.

Each school has its own technique, but typically students are coached in and out of the water, including videotaping and feedback. Learn how to read waves, choose a board, get in and out of the surf safely, and ultimately stand up on a board (though instructors will insist that’s not the point).

> Surf Ready:

While knowing how to swim isn’t a prerequisite, those who can do the front crawl—150 feet or more at a clip—won’t be limited to surfing in waist-high water.

Log some laps at your local pool to build stamina for paddling. Hill prescribes push-ups for women to strengthen their upper body and stretches for men over 30, who are often limited by Achilles tendons.

> The Sweetest Season:

Surf in Nosara is fairly consistent year-round, but most schools take a break during the rainy season from August to November. Book at least six months in advance, especially if you’re hoping for a space over the summer months.

Your best bet is right after the rains, says Kelsey Coleman, who handles bookings at Corky Carroll’s. “November is a secret little season, when the jungle is really green and lush.”

This piece, written by Margaret Loftus, first appeared in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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