I just returned from another Costa Rica surf trip, this time solo, without the family. I have always enjoyed traveling alone, but it has taken on a different vibe and meaning since I had kids. I still enjoy the pace and quiet times, especially hunkering down in a restaurant with a book or a cafe with my journal.
A surf trip comes with it’s own pace, defined by such things as swell and tide and wind – tangible yet at the same time enigmatic.
My own real time constraints kept me from roaming all over Costa Rica like I did on my last trip. Even though it was just a week, I took the time to check out a few places instead of just settling down for the whole time in one spot. I always enjoy the drive and the forced uprooting and resettling.
I flew in to Liberia and headed right to Nosara from there. A three hour delay in my flight departure meant a late check in and missing my chance for a sunset session on that first day. Getting in the water on your travel day always feels good – washing away the trip and its stresses. Dirt, real and imagined. But it happens.
I never assume things are going to go perfectly as planned, it’s just a hope.
Having been to Nosara a few times at this point, rolling in at night wasn’t any issue despite the blinding rain. In fact, it just keeps getting easier as the road to town gets more paved. Hitting those first few potholes is always a bit of a wake up call to slow down though.
My trip was getting a bit late in the rainy season, mid-August, so I expected the rain and mud and quiet. It still took me back, however, just how empty the town was. Restaurants had closed for the season and bars were still required to shut down at 10pm due to the pandemic.
It gave a ghost-town feel which I embraced and looked forward to as far as crowds in the surf were concerned. As I would find out the next morning, I would basically have the place to myself.
For three days I locked into a routine of hitting the surf early, before 6, despite the low tide. It was worth putting up with the less-than-perfect waves to have the place to myself. Plus, by staying out for three hours or so, I generally surfed as the tide filled in and the conditions improved before the wind picked up.
Afterwords, I would go plow through a huge breakfast and a couple of steaming cups of coffee at Rosi’s before heading back home to crash out for a bit.
After that, the second and third surf sessions of the day were determined by a combination of energy and rain. The famous Nosara sunset was a draw as always, just less crowded, maybe a little cloudy.
Some Things Change
Things are changing fast in Nosara, especially on this north end of town. In just the two years since I was last there, new hotels had opened and more little local houses had disappeared.
Despite the town being almost empty and the line up deserted, at least on the north end of the beach where I was staying, were beginners taking lessons with Juan Surfo or through The Gilded Iguana.
With The Gilded Iguana Hotel and surf club being revamped and reopened, it is clear that they will be a source of crowds at this end of the beach in the future.
The restaurants had changed a bit too, old favorites – Rosi’s Soda, 10 Pies, Costa Azul – still there for the most part, but some new ones too – mostly pizza, it seemed.
I made the drive to see the favorite spots outside of Playa Guiones as well – Pilo’s Restaurant in Playa Garza (no one was home), and Tonito’s in Playa Pelada (I ate by myself).
I surfed a ton in those first few days, the 3-4 foot swells and empty lineup perfect to get back in the groove. The only thing I missed out on was a trip up to Ostional that I was really looking forward to. It rained all afternoon and through the night of the night before I decided to make head up there.
With the rivers swollen and cars needing help getting across, I decided not to risk owning this rental car and turned back around.
The Swell Arrives
Like any other outdoor adventure vacation, there is a certain amount of luck involved in getting the right conditions for both your sport and your ability.
Sure, some people get to just track storms and book last-minute tickets around the globe, but most of us have to work around the available time that we have, often set into the calendar weeks or months in advance.
Generally, on a surf trip you are worried about being completely skunked – no waves, not a ripple, nothing. These trips end up being boozefests as you while away the days by the pool bar.
On the other hand, it can go the other way. And that’s what happened on this trip.
The purple blob that drifted across the various swell forecasts and would end up grabbing headlines everywhere from California to Fiji also lit up Central America.
A sat in disbelief as the swell forecast for Nosara and the rest of the Guanacaste peninsula cranked up from 4-6, to 8-10, to 12-15. One day I caught a look at the forecast for Playa Cameronal at 15-20!
This was a problem in its own right. I knew I should just head down to Pavones, but really didn’t have the time. The only way to pull it off would have been to drive down in one shot, and 8-10 hour drive from where I was (if everything went right) and do the same on the return two days later.
I’ve done the drive to Pavones before taking the time to stop in Dominical to split up the drive. I found this to be quite agreeable as I learned to really love surfing in Dominical.
I have also learned over time that five or six hours behind the wheel in Central America makes for a pretty long day. Mock me if you will.
So I didn’t go to Pavones, the fabled point break that was put on this planet to soak up huge south swells just like the one that was sending close out sets crashing upon all of the beach breaks where I was.
I went down to Santa Teresa instead, grabbing a little AirBnB up in the quiet beach community of Hermosa, and took my chances.
Turns out, those beach breaks were seeing more of the same, pretty much as I expected. It was on me to find waves that were just sheltered enough from the swell to clean up and take the edge off.
I found it up at Manzanillo.
Manzanillo is the next community north of Santa Teresa, after Hermosa. You take a winding road that snakes along the beach until you come upon one of the most beautiful beaches you have ever seen.
The thing with Manzanillo is that it’s protected by rocks a few hundred yards out that the waves crash into and lose some power.
The other thing about Manzanillo is that the beach front is also full of rocks. As the son of the proprietor I was renting from says “We only surf there at high tide.”
The peak of high tide had already happened by the time I arrived, so I knew the clock was ticking as the tide dropped. I made a deal with myself that I would get out of the water at 3:00, hard stop. I was having so much fun I compromised with myself.
It was almost a fateful error, but I stuck with it and only had to scamper over minor rock to get out. But it was a lesson in respecting the area and giving yourself some buffer, a little room for error, in a place that you don’t know well and with no one else out.
I got some great rides in Manzanillo while Santa Teresa and Hermosa got pounded relentlessly with 10 foot closeouts. As I walked back to my car, a tico who I had spoke with earlier on his way to get some coconuts came walking down the beach. He had encouraged me to go out and enjoy the surf. And he stopped again to see how it went.
We chatted for a while, and I bought a coconut off of him to enjoy while I watched the sun begin to set. With nowhere to go and nowhere to be, I just hung out in this magical place as the sun went down, examining the rocky tide pools now exposed in the low tide.
Over the course of the three days I was in Hermosa, this would be my best session and one of the best moments of the trip.
It was time to head back north to grab my flight home out of Liberia. I decided to do the drive the day before my flight to avoid any unexpected trouble. Since my flight wasn’t until the afternoon, I figured that I could surf both the evening after driving and the morning before my flight if I just stayed close enough to the airport.
While Tamarindo definitely checks these boxes for convenience, I had no interest in staying there so it was a toss up between staying in Avellanas or Playa Grande.
I had surfed in Avellanas in a similar situation, heading towards Liberia, on my last trip. I decided to check out Playa Grande this time, having not been there for over 20 years, and having a bit of a score to settle with the wave there.
You see, the last time I was in Playa Grande I was on one of my first surf trips. Ever. I had no idea what I was doing and got completely worked. I wont go into it further, but you can read about a day surfing Playa Grande that has been seared into my memory here.
Let’s just say that I didn’t make it out that day.
Aside from the surfing, I also just wanted to scope out whether this is a good place to keep in mind for this situation in the future, when I’m planning my exit but want to be able to grab that last surf on the way out of the country.
It turns out that Playa Grande was a perfect call for this. It was pretty quite like most of the other places I had stayed, but like a cruise ship in the distance, I could hear the club music thumping from Tamarindo across the bay.
I was glad not to be there, but it felt good to see this place again after all the years.
Surfing Playa Grande
Playa Grande is another beach break that is known for having a-frame type waves that peak beautifully and can barrel in the right conditions. The swell was still reading in the 6-8 foot range when I arrived, but the tide was dead low at sunset and I wouldn’t be there long enough to wait it out.
I was going out either way and was prepared to battle with the steep, dumping, low-tide waves.
Again, like most of my surfing on this trip, I was out alone.
Unlike just a few days earlier, while the swell was still solid it was at least possible for me to be out in clear water waiting for the waves to arrive. I was savoring every drop of my last evening in Costa Rica and was able to grab a few waves and just float a bit far off shore.
Eventually the dark drove me in.
As it turns out, this would be my last surf of the trip, and it was well worth it.
More on surfing Playa Grande.
Planning a Trip to Nosara? Start Here!
Getting to Nosara – San Jose or Liberia Airport
Liberia vs San Jose Costa Rica
Surf Travel Insurance – Should I get it?