It never occurred to me earlier in the morning when I basically walked across the river to Playa Grande that the tide would come in by the time I returned. Such was the state of mind in my early surf trip days, this being my first surf trip to Costa Rica and to Tamarindo.
The inevitability of me being stuck was as sure as the inevitability of the tides, so here I was, paddling like mad to get back to Tamarindo. Only now my arms were completely useless after a few hours of getting crushed by waves at Playa Grande. The only thing fueling my paddling against the rush of incoming tide pushing me further up the Tamarindo River was the knowledge that this river was full of crocodiles, caiman to be precise.
Of course, the knowledge that caiman were in the river didn’t really compare to the knowledge that caiman are more than willing to swim out into the salt water estuaries where their river meets the ocean to hunt for food.
I had nothing left. But there are times when nothing left doesn’t matter. You keep going anyway. Paddling for survival, the same way you paddle when an ocean current is taking you further from an island, with no one the wiser if you just disappeared into the great blue beyond. At this point it simply doesn’t matter that you are all used up, that you have already been paddling for hours without food or a sip of fresh water. You simple keep slogging, one arm in front of the other, inch by inch against forces of nature that you are now gaining hard-earned appreciation for.
‘This is going to be a hilarious story’ I say aloud to myself. It is perfectly reasonable to begin talking to yourself at this point.
Perhaps followed by ‘come on mother fucker.’
A smile and laugh and just putting your head down and going.
The morning had started simply enough. It was time to adventure beyond the wave right in front of my cabina, but without a car there were limited options. You could hitch a ride, maybe find your way to Langosta or Avellanas. But the storied a-frames of Playa Grande were so close you could see them. Deceptively close, as it would turn out, requiring a quick river forge and a longer-than-expected walk down the soft sand to the break.
Already hot and thirsty, there was nothing to do but paddle out and take my beating like a man as the head high peaks, the kind that I would dream of once I took my surfing level from horrible to just ok, conspired to keep me locked in the impact zone, neither on the beach or out in safe water.
This sort of battle, however, only had the cost of pride attached to it. Relentless duck diving, paddling, all to get away from the shore, but knowing the whole time that the worst that could happen would be that I turn around and allow the white water to push me back to the sand.
I didn’t realize at the time that all of this paddling was ensuring the river crossing on the way back home would be a nightmare.
Looking back on that moment when I gave up on the surf and headed back to shore, I can remember the satisfaction of giving it my all, doing what I had come to Costa Rica to do, to travel solo so that I could do whatever I wanted, so that I could commit to just pushing my surfing out of the basement and up that first rung on the ladder of experience. I had ventured across a river and down an empty beach to surf a wave I had only heard about from people in the bars at night. I had paddled out with just a few other people and had my ass handed to me. I had earned this respite as I sat on the beach, staring at the waves that sure looked smaller and easier to manage from the sand than they did when I was just out there. I even attempted a second paddle out after a bit of a rest, but when you’re done, you’re done.
There was nothing left but to take my time meandering back down the beach, across the river, and into bed.
Mission accomplished. Time to go home.
I laughed at this thought as I paddled. Stuck in the middle of the river, the far shore going from beach to tree lined estuary as I was pushed further into the jungle. And by laugh, I mean laugh so you don’t cry.
I never saw any eyeballs or nostrils, the kind you know to watch for from a lifetime of nature movies where the crocodile floats just below the surface, silently, like a log, awaiting its chance to grab some poor prey by the face. But I felt the presence.
I could see them in my mind, not because I had heard stories, but because I had seen them with my own eyes. In the back of the bar that is along the bank of this same river, crocodiles just beyond a fence that you can step over, something for drunk surfers to dare each other to go touch in between shots of Guaro.
I had seen these crocs just a few nights before, just a few dozen meters from where I was now, as I finally pulled beyond the grip of the main current and drifted towards the shore.
These last few feet offered no comfort. I went into full red alert as I closed down on the shoreline, looking for the camouflaged beasts among the tangle of roots and vines and driftwood, sure that this was my most vulnerable moment.
Paddling with fingertips until I touched the shoreline, I bounded up the river bank to safety, fully exhausted. Shot. Nerves fried. Arms rubber. Cooked.
‘You know there are caiman in that river?’ This question is often asked when I mention my little mission to Playa Grande.
‘Yeah. I know.’ The only thing you can say. ‘But I wanted to go surf over there.’
Planning a surf trip to Costa Rica?
If you are planning a surf trip to Costa Rica, you’ve come to the right place. Playa Grande is an amazing beach to check out if you are in the Tamarindo area. You can read about other Costa Rica surf adventures or our Guide to Surfing in Costa Rica.