It had been three weeks of taking the most illogical route around Costa Rica; travelling up from the country’s dire capital San Jose to the Arenal volcano, onward to Monteverde rainforest, back to Arenal, up to Cano Negro on the Nicaraguan border, down to Manuel Antonio National Park on the pacific coast, back to San Jose, across to the tiny village of Tortuguero on the Caribean side, down to Puerto Viejo near the Panama border. The next step of the journey would be to get to the pacific coast, again, cross country (and end up going back to Puerto Viejo a month later, as well as Nicaragua and Panama!). Okay, it wasn’t the most standard of itineraries, but the company was great, and though they were responsible for these long missions around the country, I wouldn’t have done it any other way (except maybe not missing so many buses/boats…). It had been jam-packed – there had been white water rafting, hiking through rainforests and around volcanoes, kayaking near large Caimans, spying monkeys from a boat, hot springs, playing guitar on the streets, paint parties, racoons stealing food, releasing baby turtles into the sea…and an earthquake in the middle of a night tour of the rainforest, where our guide proceeded to shout both ‘earthquake!’ and ‘run!’. What we thought were monkeys moving the trees we soon realised were not as the ground started to shake beneath us. After rushing to an open area and hearing the noises of many animals being disturbed from their slumbers, all was safe and we moved on to find fire ants and a very inquisitive tarantula. It had certainly been an adventure so far.
Rather reluctantly, I left my two main travel buddies to get to the surf school in Montezuma on the Nicoya Peninsula. I hadn’t heard good things of this super small town for this time of year, stories from other travellers claimed it was a ghost town which poured with rained every day. However, I had booked two weeks at the school ‘La Escuela del Sol’, coupled with Spanish and poi lessons, and had already paid the deposit. Going against other’s advice, something inside edged me to go ahead with my initial plan, and I cautiously stepped on the bus back to San Jose. Word of advice: don’t trust the taxi drivers here. Three of us were ripped off big time by a driver who claimed the buses were full (a Lady Gaga concert last night meant everyone was leaving town today…supposedly) and the only way we could catch the ferry in time was by taxi. Lies. Massive annoying lies made to rip off naïve tourists. I kicked myself for believing him. We waited hours for the ferry in the harbour town, and I sat watching the sun go down reminiscing about the wonderful friends and places of the last few weeks, worrying about how the forthcoming weeks would pan out.
I was unknowingly embarking on an adventure in which I would have one of the most inspirational and best times of my life so far.
*Cue cheesy, stirring music, panning over a beautiful beach scene…*
Well Montezuma is an adorable, hippy beach town full of character, with beautiful beaches and the most chilled –out vibe you could ask for. Whilst I was there, it barely rained at all, the lack of tourist hoards, in my books, was a good thing (it was still low season in October), and what was supposed to be two weeks turned into a month there, and even after that I was hesitant to leave! What made this stay so memorable was La Escuela del Sol (an aptly named ‘Sun School’); a hotel-based school offering classes in fire poi, surfing, Spanish, scuba diving and yoga. After perusing the website and pining for such an experience for several months, the decision to book a stay here was most certainly not something I’ll ever regret, despite it being slightly out of my initial budget. The low season meant that classes were personal; our poi class only had two to four people at any time, and the tailored Spanish lessons only three. Surfing was more popular, but at one stage whilst one instructor took the beginners in the white water, the other took me for a personal lesson to tackle the waves out back. A personal surf lesson! In that respect, it was well worth the money, considering how much a private lesson, equipment and transport would cost over a long period of time. It was also perfect for meeting like-minded travelers, and I made some absolutely amazing friends.
Like many others, it was the surfing that drew me here. Countless surfers are enticed by Costa Rica’s first class waves which range to suit all levels, coupled with the tropical climate and stunning scenery, not to mention some of the friendliest and happiest locals you could meet. Most head on down to nearby Santa Teresa for the consistent swells, or further north on the peninsula to Tamarindo, but Montezuma’s atmosphere was delightfully uncrowded, though only for those willing to endure the half hour trek to the main surfing beach – Playa Grande. Bordered by lush tropical forest and vocal howler monkeys, the school’s surf shed (thankfully we didn’t have to carry the boards that far!) was placed conveniently next to the best surf, and was full of a variety of boards. The beach itself was magically deserted; you really felt one with nature. We’d always find a dog or several along the way, free roaming around admiring the surf and frolicking on the beach. It was great to see so many well-cared for dogs in a Latin American country, walking around jovially to the sound of reggaeton.
One problem we encountered each day heading towards our destination was litter. Lying in-between Montezuma and Playa Grande were piles of plastic and general washed-up trash, scattering over the beaches, rocks and logs to leave a disappointing mark in a country renowned for its eco-tourism and green credentials. We picked up a few shoes and containers, and luckily an organised beach clean-up made the place look less like the remnants of a natural disaster, but tides and numerous small earthquakes are likely to bring more to this area in time. Thankfully, dedicated people have noticed the problem and are working to keep the beaches as beautiful as they can be, whilst in turn protecting the unique wildlife of the area. Though unfortunately we did see a few washed up sea turtles, the volunteer team at the Project Pretoma turtle hatchery were doing a grand job looking after turtle nests, releasing the baby turtles and recording data.
The area itself teemed with wildlife. Almost every day we surfed with stingrays alongside us, and though seeing them hurdle out the water through the air was a majestic sight, when one is coming at you through a wave and you have to swim under it, you can’t help but think of Steve Irwin and feel a little nervous. One also hit me in the leg coming out of the surf, with the feeling of being hit with a pile of rubber. It U-turned and messily scrambled back to deeper waters. This was nothing, however, when faced with the prospect of a potential shark. Out in the back line up, we spotted something in the water one day moving closer towards us, resembling a fin.
‘Something weird’s in the water…’ My instructor murmured. Yes I know! What is it?! ‘I don’t know maybe a shark…’ You’re kidding right? ‘No it might be’ What do we do?! ‘If we die we die, that’s life!’
Very reassuring. With my legs full of cuts and grazes from fins and suchlike, and a racing heartbeat, I truly felt like shark fodder. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an advocate for sharks and believe they are universally misunderstood, but when you think one is that close to you in the surf you get out of there! I waited on the shore and realised the threat had passed, the threat of which most likely a floating piece of wood or manta ray. Still, I kept a close eye from then on, and practiced yoga breaths every time an odd shape appeared in the water. More welcomed surf buddies one day were a pod of dolphins frolicking in the distance. Less welcomed were the bits of jellyfish which cause a few minor painful moments, including a bit of stinger in the eye whilst swimming through a wave, resulting in a very sore eye infection and glasses for the weekend. There were a few residents of Montezuma on land of whom you couldn’t really miss – capuchins (or white faced monkeys). Every day two would appear at the bakery café in the hope of a cheeky banana, and elsewhere around town they would be swinging from the trees to the power lines, appearing out of nowhere to pose for some photos. These ‘monos’ were absolutely adorable.
The 7,10 board became my best friend for this month, though I found out that what we call Mini-mals a lot of others call fun-boards, making it sound like a mickey mouse themed board designed for three year olds. Still, it was so much fun. We started off in Playa Grande, progressing from the white water to the proper waves out backs. There were some amazing waves, and then there were the ones which made you feel for a split second that you were going to die. The ones you nosedive and are swept under, the ones that decide to break right on you. To get through these waves we’d spin so that the board was on top of us and the space between us and the board would let the water rush through; it usually worked like a charm. It was called ‘turtle’ and my British accent pronouncing it was the source of a lot of amusement for my Costa Rican/Canadian/American/Australian friends who pronounced it ‘turdle’! The times turtling didn’t work, however, were not so fun. A few times the board gets ripped out of your hands, and one of these times my leash snapped and dragged the board away; it was like that scene in Castaway were Tom Hanks loses Wilson the ball. It just kept getting further and further away as I stuck my hand out after it. Waves were crashing and the current was strong as I attempted the swim back to shore where my board had managed to park itself. It was exhausting but I was finally reunited with my Wilson!
At the end of the week we’d travel in the rickety surf bus down to Santa Teresa or Mal Plais for some larger swell. Though daunting from the beach, once you got in there (and managed to paddle past the white water crashing down on you), it was like a challenging playground. My first paddle out to the line up, far from the comfort of the shore, my heart found itself racing again. It was just me and the instructor, along with a bunch of male surfers who were brilliant at the sport. My little arms could barely paddle fast enough to catch a wave, and coupled with the fact that I kept bailing on waves which looked ‘too scary’, it felt so futile. I’d be stuck out here forever.
No. I told myself. You came here for a reason, you ARE getting one of these waves. I saw one, started paddling with my instructors voice in the background ‘paddle, paddle, paddle!!’. I cleared my head. The waves swept up the board I made the drop… it was magical. I took a right turn and just went with the wave, brushing my hand along the water and just being one with it. I’ll never forget that feeling of complete freedom.
Unfortunately I didn’t really manage to get any good surfing pictures of any decent waves, it was too far out and there was a severe lack of photographers as everyone was in the water themselves. But it doesn’t matter, it’s the feeling that was most important. And we did get some shots of the small waves closer to shore.
What also coupled the chilled out, free-spirited surfing lifestyle was something Montezuma is particularly renowned for. I see surfing as a kind of dancing with waves, and there is a literal dancing with another element – fire. My first encounter with fire dancing and poi here was on the streets, where my soon to be instructor, Eli, and his sister performed an enchanting display of spinning fire, being one with the rhythm of the singular drum beat and with the fire itself. He was full of energy, she was full of graceful movements; it was really something very special.
What starts off as spinning a pair of long socks with tennis balls in the end of them can turn into something extraordinary. Born out of New Zealand’s Maori tribes, poi has made it to numerous destinations across the world. I was supposed to have lessons for a week, but this certainty wasn’t enough given that it takes three weeks of lessons to light up, and I swiftly changed it to three. It’s addictive; you can take your practice poi to the beach, stick on some music, and be lost for hours. My room mate, Kaly, had come to the school specifically to learn poi, and her first time lighting up was for the fire show in the street. She was justifiably nervous, but she didn’t need to be, it seemed so natural and you could tell she was having so much fun ‘playing’ with fire. A week later and it was my go. Nerves struck. Our instructor and his small bouncy dog took us to the beach and built a small bonfire. We gathered a few friends from the school to sit around the still beach. He handed me the poi and I started spinning, with the sound of fire whizzing past me ringing in my ears. It wasn’t scary to be holding fire pretty much in your hands, it was wonderful. Twenty minutes later the fire show was on in town, I was handed the poi and was due to go on just after Eli and his, as always, fantastic and awe-inspiring performance. Despite the big crowd, everything goes silent except the sound of drumming and fire. I span all the moves I had arm-achingly been practicing for the last few weeks, with a massive grin on my face. It wasn’t the most graceful or amazing of performances, but it was a brilliant rush, and I can’t wait to do it again. The feeling of euphoria you get from spinning fire for the first time is so similar to catching that great wave; you feel such complete freedom, all your troubles are forgotten and you are just living in the moment… and living for those moments.
A couple of other Surf Locations in Central America:
San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua
Playa Hermosa, board rental: $10 for a day inc. rash vest.
We hopped into the back of the hostel’s truck and headed on down to this stunning beach, only to find a very flat shoreline. But hey, a bad day in the water’s better than a good day in the office! We gave it a wing and, despite an uneventful start, the waves picked up. Friendly local surfers whistled to us when a good set was coming, and warned us of the rocks nearby.
Bocas Del Toro, Panama
After a morning full of scuba diving, I decided to make my last day of travelling as action packed as possible and went with the same company (La Buga Diving and Surf school) for one last surf in the tropical heat. We gathered a couple of boards into a boat and went to search for some reef breaks, which were unfortunately severely lacking in waves. We sped to the nearest beach break with more success. It was intimidating, throwing the boards into the deep water and paddling over to some pretty big waves. The woman I was with, a beginner, decided to keep paddling until her feet were securely on land, and there she sat the whole time with her surfboard, too scared to get back into the water. It was such a shame, but she wouldn’t be convinced otherwise. The waves weren’t amazing, but good fun. They brought you so close to land you were practically on the beach when you finished a wave. I gave my first whirl at walking up and down the board – I first felt like an idiot but it was fun! After we managed to get back to the boat the lady who had surrendered to the shoreline told me she would keep trying, and that I was her inspiration. That comment made my day, and was the perfect end to a glorious adventure.
For more information on La Escuela del Sol, have a gander at their website here.
I also highly recommend La Buga Panama for diving and surfing in Bocas.