Two weeks. 1,500 kms. 5 different breaks. 200 trees planted. 2 noodles for arms. 1 library visit. 1 coffee plantation tour. Lunch with 3 Nicaraguan student refugees. Countless cups of Costa Rican coffee.
Liberia – Nosara – Dominical – Pavones – Dominical – Tarrazu – Orosi – San Jose – Santa Teresa – Tamarindo – Avellanas – Liberia
Getting two weeks to myself is a pretty rare event these days, and spending it in surfing in Costa Rica on a surfing and coffee exploration mission is pretty much as good as it gets. I’ve been to Costa Rica many times over the years, beginning over 20 years ago, so I’ve seen a lot of changes. However, I’ve had the tendency to go back to old favorite spots, generally up in the Guanacaste peninsula and I intended to cover a lot of new ground.
I’ve also never built my trip around meetings with local groups and people tackling issues from the environment, to education, to helping refugees.
So this surf trip to Costa Rica was going to be different.
Before I left town, I was invited by a neighbor to attend a presentation by a tour operator they know. This group guides guests through remote areas of India on fly fishing expeditions. One of the things they discussed was starting off a trip within people’s comfort zone then steadily pushing those boundaries throughout the trip.
Now, Costa Rica at this point is pretty much all within my comfort zone, but showing up to a new town and surf break always comes with its own learning curve. So getting off the plane and heading to a familiar spot for a few days can be a great way to quickly settle into your groove.
For me this meant three days in Playa Guiones, although it’s more frequently referred to as Nosara which is the little town right up the road but not right on the beach (so be careful what you plug into your Google maps).
I’ll refer to it as Nosara since that’s what most people do.
Liberia to Nosara
The red-eye arrived into the Liberia airport at 6:30 in the morning, leaving plenty of time to get to Nosara and get in the water on that first day. It’s about a three hour drive and includes in hindsight some of the worst roads in Costa Rica.
Just for reference for you folks that get car sick, the last time we traveled there with another family the dad of the group just got out and jogged the last 5 km or so into town despite the heat and not being familiar with the area at all or knowing where his house was. He just couldn’t take it any more, although I thought jogging into town was a pretty bad-ass way to arrive.
The Guanacaste region is already known for this so it’s no surprise, but on my most recent trip the roads in Guiones in particular were really bad.
But speaking of starting off somewhere easy and familiar, for me Nosara is it. I’ve been there a few times and one of those visits was for a month, so I’ve got it pretty dialed as far as surf, food, and coffee – all of which Nosara has in abundance.
Nosara is also becoming the hip spot among the jetsetter crowd as well as the expat community, so be warned. There is a lot of really high-end development going on and every time I go there it becomes a little more of a construction zone.
But you also have a few really great school options (for those looking to stay a while), day camps, organic foods and juices, and really amazing coffee which I missed in some of the other places I would visit.
But the surf is great and for three days I settled into a nice routine of early mornings, simple meals of mostly bananas, avocados, and fresh fish, and perhaps an espresso at Olo Alaia.
Olo Alaia is the dream surf shop / cafe in one of the hippest towns in Costa Rica. Opened by a guy named Robbie who relocated from Montauk, NY, Olo Alaia is the closest thing you’ll find to a Mollusk-esque surf shop vibe in Costa Rica (that I’ve found anyway). It’s just the kind of place you can hang out all day in.
Stacked with beautiful boards of all shapes and sizes and housed within a really nicely designed building (with guest rooms on top if you’re looking for somewhere to stay), Olo Alaia is a true third-wave coffee house on top of everything else. Their barista, Santiago, is one of the best around and we had a chance to talk coffee while he sorted quakers from their beans.
They source single origin local Costa Rican coffee and have it roasted to their own specifications. You can pick up some of their own branded beans while you’re there. Santiago ground some up for me and I had them for the rest of my trip, which came in handy when I was in some spots without quality coffee options.
I tended to chase down my morning surf with a smoothie, but found myself grabbing an espresso after my siesta and before the afternoon surf session.
Not a bad way to spend the day.
Costas Verdes – Time to plant some trees
One of the reasons I went to Nosara first, aside from the idea of easing in with a familiar spot, was that I had been in touch with a group called Costas Verdes about their reforestation activities in Costa Rica. Turns out their last tree planting of the season, before the rainy season went full-force, was just a few days after I arrived, so I was able to plan around that.
It seems that every day there are more and more stories in the news about the benefits and effectiveness of reforestation on combating climate change. Dollar-for-dollar it’s just one of the best things we can do.
Drawdown.org lists protecting and revitalizing tropical forests as the #5 biggest contributor to a potential decrease in CO2 by 2050.
On the day that I was to begin heading south, I hit the beach early, packed up my stuff, and headed over to Playa Pelada where they were working to replenish a section of the beach that had been illegally cleared by a developer years before (offering ocean view apparently was an important part of the sales pitch).
I had been in touch with Gerardo to get this all set up, and he offered a lot of information about what Costas Verdes had accomplished over the years and their vision for the future.
However, on this particular morning, he more than had his hands full with the class of 7th graders that were there to plant the saplings they had taken home to care for months before.
The goal was ambitious. They (the full time team, not the kids) were planting over 200 trees that day – a mix of species that would do well in that environment and avoid the issues related to mono-culture. Gerardo shared with me that getting these trees to grow is not as easy as you would think given that competition among the plants is fierce.
Take a look at CostasVerdes.org and you can learn more about their projects up and down the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Next time you are down there get involved and go plant a few trees along your favorite stretch of beach.
It doesn’t hurt that you can cool off at one of the world’s most beautiful beaches throughout the day!
Heading to Pavones – With a stop in Dominical
I left Nosara with the ultimate goal of getting to Pavones, the fabled break at the end of the road and generally known as the second longest left in the world. However, I knew I wasn’t going to get there in one shot. What I didn’t know was exactly where I would stay along the way.
There are a few options as you pass through Jaco, Quepos, Dominical, and Uvita, each with its own attraction. Jaco is a well established destination, but with its convenience to San Jose (only an hour and half drive) it is known for getting the city crowds. Quepos is famous as the access point for Manual Antonio Park (one of the biggest tourist destinations in Costa Rica), and Uvita is known for the famous whale-tail of Maria Ballena National Park.
Dominical, on the other hand, is a tiny town known mostly just among surfers.
I skipped Jaco and stopped for dinner in Quepos while I thought about where to stay, but it became clear that these towns that draw a large non-surfer crowd were not fitting with the vibe of my trip.
I pushed on a little further and rolled into Dominical at about 9pm. It was about a 6 hour drive at that point from Nosara. I knew it was a small town, but I couldn’t even see it. It was pitch black. There was nothing there!
Turns out I had pulled in during a brief power outage.
When the lights came on, I knew I was where I needed to be. A small, one-street town with quality surf right out front and a couple of interesting looking coffee options for after the pre-dawn sessions.
I didn’t have anything booked, so I needed to find a place to stay. There are some really great options in Dominical – everything from surfer-filled hostels and locally run casitas to upper-scale hotels.
I had parked right in front of a yoga-inspired compound called Danyassa, and the lights in the office were still on so I poked my head inside. Turns out they had a single room available so I grabbed it.
Danyasa was a really awesome find. Really interesting architecture – a compound built out of containers, a great pool, and beautiful common areas for meals, working, and yoga. The included breakfast was amazing so after an early surf all I had to do was grab a seat, chat with some of the other guests, and enjoy.
I had some amazing surf sessions in Dominical, and would stop there on the way back through for a couple of nights before heading into the mountains. If you find yourself in Dominical be sure to swing by Danyasa to say hi, join a yoga session, and just enjoy the good vibes. Oh ya, one of the rooms has (un)officially been renamed ‘The Doug’, so just ask for it by name ;).
Ok. Now it’s really on to Pavones.
Let’s be clear. Pavones is a true bucket-list destination. It’s hard to get to and mythic in reputation.
It would be about a 3 hour drive from Dominical, so the thought of surfing the unimaginably long lefts later that afternoon filled my head as I hit the road.
The drive was pretty uneventful, although I’m not exactly sure how people found this place before Google Maps. As you approach the coast there are some spectacular views of Playa Zancudo and the bay that let you know you’re in a really special place.
Pulling into Pavones was a dream come true. There’s not much town to distract you from the fact that you just drove up to one of the most famous point breaks in the world. As I stood there at the point, even with less than epic conditions, you can see the waves peeling perfectly as they wrap around the point and out of view.
I couldn’t wait to get out there, but first, I had to find a place to stay. It wasn’t really that hard. There’s a cafe looking at the break with a couple of rooms with patios and hammocks on top. One was available.
I mean. Seriously? For three days I would surf, look at the surf, and fall asleep in the hammock while looking at the surf as the sound of the surf swirled in my dreams.
The place is called Cafe de la Suerte and it’s owned and operated by an Israeli expat named Ron who has been there for almost 20 years. As much as surfing in Costa Rica has blown up since I first started my pilgrimages, he told me Pavones hasn’t really changed that much in that time – a few basic places to eat, a few places to stay, and amazing surf.
If a swell hits, it books up fast, so be on it or join the crowds sleeping in their cars or in tents on the point.
I wouldn’t say I saw Pavones at its best, but it was still enough for me to get some of the longest rides of my life. I also happen to be sitting on a log after paddling in when a local pro took a double overhead wave from all the way out on the main point, across the river mouth, and was still going when he disappeared around the second point. The gallery on the wall were giving subtle ‘woots’ and claps of appreciation as they just shook their heads in disbelief of what we just saw.
Even in pretty average conditions I was able to link together the sections from the middle of the river all the way around the cobble-stone point and into the bay – hundreds of yards of surfing.
How do you even describe that.
Into Legendary Coffee Country
It was hard to leave Pavones.
If I could have changed one thing (for this particular surf and coffee crowd) it would have been bringing an Aeropress or something. I could have used good espresso in between surfing my brains out.
But I was heading to true coffee country, and that had me excited for the next stage of the trip in a different way. My route would take me back to Dominical where I would surf and yoga it up for a few days before heading up into the mountains. My next destination was the Orosi Valley, but to get there you pass through the Tarrazu region where some of Costa Rica’s finest coffee is grown.
As the roads climb into the clouds and the temperature drops, you start to notice that the coffee industry is everywhere – the trucks on the road and the signs on the bus stops are from the local co-ops, you spot the local branch of iCafe (Coffee Institute of Costa Rica). There are even coffee shops for the local co-ops right on the road and they are staffed with knowledgeable baristas ready to talk about the flavor profiles of the available coffee varietals.
After Pavones where the waves were amazing but the coffee options were suboptimal, grabbing amazing espressos of Tarrazu coffee along the drive was heavenly. Talk about going to the source!
I pushed on to Orosi and was able to set up a guided tour of the valley’s coffee plantations the same afternoon that I arrived. After observing from the road, it was really great to get some local knowledge of the area, including a tour of the local processing facility. It wasn’t harvest season, so there was no action there, but it was really amazing to see how much work goes into the washing process (and that’s after the manual effort to get the cherries there!).
In Orosi, you can see the Irazu volcano which is quite active and constantly smoking from the top. It blew in the 60’s and filled the valley with ash. While it killed much of the vegetation at the time, the fertility in the long run has helped Orosi become what it is today. My guide also gave me some great local advice. Word is if the Irazu volcano blows, you should run. Of course, when I asked him where I should run he didn’t have much of an answer.
On to San Jose – Barrio Escalante
For most traveling surfers, San Jose is just a layover stop on the way to or from the airport that ideally is minimized.
I pulled into town the day before I had a meeting scheduled with the HUG scholars from Ticos y Nicas Sommos Hermanos.
I hadn’t been to San Jose in years and was looking forward to a chance to check it out. Honestly, at this point in my trip I was feeling the effects of long surf sessions multiple times a day, so a break wasn’t the worst thing. The idea of a night in a regular hotel was also oddly enticing (although I would find one night was more than enough).
I checked into the Hotel Balmoral in the center of town and went out to wander the streets. The hotel is central to some of the more published sight-seeing staples in San Jose including the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art. While, admittedly, I wouldn’t go too far out of my way, it was good to soak in the local history.
On the other hand, I would absolutely recommend (and go out of my way to do it) spending some time in the eclectic Barrio Escalante neighborhood – in fact, next time I’m passing through I will just go ahead and stay here. Great restaurants and some serious third wave coffee options serving up the best Costa Rican coffees in a non-touristy local neighborhood that might remind you of parts of Brooklyn.
I was early for dinner, so the restaurants were empty. However, there was a full crowd at Franco, a full cafe with a slant towards catering to the co-working crowd, so I popped in for a salad and an early cocktail. Great people watching as the diverse crowd ranged from remote workers immersed in their laptops to people meeting for cocktails, to a dad with his daughter grabbing an early meal.
If you’re ahead of the dinner crowd and you’re looking for a place with life, this is it. I could certainly spend a day catching up on emails and getting some writing done here.
After my cocktail I was ready for a coffee. I could have had one right were I was, but I wanted to spread things out and check out some other places.
Right around the corner I stumbled into Cafeoteca where the barista was working amongst a wide range of coffee making paraphernalia and had just poured a sample of some new coffee for his friends at the end of the bar to try. They all took their tastes quite seriously and intentionally, like wine connoisseurs, being sure to savor the aromas and identify the unique characteristics what they were just served.
After my espresso, it was dinner at Apotecario. Sitting at a bar top facing the sidewalk and utterly surrounded by the lush tropical vines growing around me, this was one of the best people watching seats I have enjoyed anywhere in the world. The plants were so thick I didn’t even realize when it was raining that I was basically sitting outside, not under a roof.
I could have stayed out all night, but I had an important lunch meeting the next day.
Ticos y Nicas – Students From Nicaragua
I had been working to set up this meeting for weeks, and there was a moment that it looked like it might not happen, so I can’t tell you how excited I was that it worked out.
Ticos y Nicas Sommos Hermanos is a group that is supporting students from Nicaragua who have been forced to flee to Costa Rica. In some cases these students had actively been a part of the protests against the Nicaraguan government and feared for their safety at home.
It was amazing to meet this group people, both the students themselves and those who are working to support them. If there was a common thread to their stories, it was that none of them wanted to leave Nicaragua and all intend to go back as soon as they can. Also, none of them could believe their good fortune to be awarded the scholarships necessary for them to continue their education while in Costa Rica and gain access to a network of people who are there to support them along the way.
Once again I was truly inspired by the people I was meeting and the stories I heard.
Visit ticoynicas.org to learn more.
Ferry to Santa Teresa
From lunch I shot out in a torrential tropical downpour to try to make the last ferry of the day from Puntarenas to Paquera on the southern end of the Guanacaste peninsula.
It was one of those things that was going to determine where I ended up for the last few days of my trip. Make the ferry and it’s a couple nights in Santa Teresa then push on up towards Liberia for my flight out. Miss it and, well, stay somewhere else.
Luckily I had been in the country for a while and had some cash floating around because I had no idea there would be tolls on the highway the whole way out.
Travel tip: So, if you’re flying into San Jose and heading west towards the coast, get some cash before you hit the road!
After a couple of hours of white knuckling it through the storm and running over to the ticket office to pay my fare, I made the ferry and settled in for the ride. The rain slowed to a drizzle and I was able to enjoy the scenery from the outside on the upper deck.
Without any incident I rolled into Santa Teresa later that evening, although all told it was a 6 hour trip, so I was pretty worn out. I grabbed a cabina at the Nautilus Boutique Hotel and went to find some dinner.
I had been really wanting to make sure I made it to Santa Teresa on this trip for a few reasons. First, I hadn’t been there in 20 years. Next, from a real estate perspective it’s cheaper than Nosara, so I wanted to see if I liked the town equally.
I had a good couple of days there, although I found that the town didn’t really suit my vibe. It was great to see and I highly recommend taking a drive north of town along the beach if you’re there – it’s just spectacular.
With just one night left before I flew out, it was time to head up north.
Tamarindo – Avellanas – Liberia