Getting to Tamarindo, Costa Rica
Solo Travel – Higher Highs, Lower Lows
When my friend told me that traveling solo would produce both higher highs and lower lows than I had every experienced, I didn’t know that I might experience both on my trip to Tamarindo, and find out he was right in the meantime, within a single hour.
But that’s how it played out.
His words were echoing in my head over and over as I stood in the middle of a road in the Costa Rican jungle next to my broken down Geo Tracker, surfboard strapped to the roof, now past dusk and into darkness.
Travelers are fond of saying that it’s not an adventure until something goes wrong. I’m sure I had mentioned something about seeking adventure to someone before I left The City.
Just an hour or so before I found myself in this situation, I was at the apex of the high I had been riding since I stepped on the bus at 34th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan.
Taking the bus to the airport wasn’t the cheapest or fastest way to get to Newark Airport from the west side, but for eight bucks it wasn’t bad and it could sometimes be quicker than the train.
What I really needed on this trip, my first true surf adventure, was the easiest way to get a surfboard there, and this was it.
I had been to Central America before, a trip to Panama in the year before with my old roommate from college, and it had opened my eyes to the wonders of Central America. He is Panamanian and we spent our days lounging around his uncle’s house in Bocas del Toro and visiting his 90 year old abuela up in the misty, cool mountains of Boquette.
I still have the hand-carved wooden caiman I bought from the school she founded to teach local kids craft skills on the windowsill by my bed – a souvenir of the the trip that would change my orientation of the world and the way I looked at travel for the rest of my life.
I grew up in a family that traveled. I was born in Singapore while my family was living the expat life on an island that had yet to fully outgrow its roots as a fishing village and we had lived in Sydney where everything both on land and in the water is apparently trying to kill you.
Stories around our dinner table were of all the tales of travel and adventure that you could still have in the Far East while toting three young boys along for the ride. Yet, when we resettled back in the States the orientation of my parents’ compass remained pointed East, to worlds visited but now too far away for weekend trips, too expensive to for even summer vacation.
The compass was never recalibrated to adventures to be had, cultures to be explored, right in our backyard.
We never looked South.
My trip to Panama had pulled my orientation to our neighbors to the south. The clips on Bruce Brown’s second Endless Summer epic of warm water and waves to be had just a few hours, and just a couple time-zones, away cemented that my first solo surf trip would be to Costa Rica.
Unlike what people, especially surfers, now assume, aside from my Panamanian roommate from college, I didn’t know anyone who had even been there. That I would go off to Central America alone with just a backpack and a surfboard carried the weight of the unknown.
Now here I stood, alone in the dark, with a surfboard, a backpack, and a rental car that didn’t work. Even though I was rapidly losing what little mechanical inclination I had acquired in a house full of grease monkeys due to city life, a focus on working hard but not having to manage many things normal people do like cooking meals or mowing lawns or driving cars, I knew it was the alternator that had failed.
I knew this because the headlights had slowly dimmed to the point of becoming two Bic lighters flickering orange just before they got too hot and burned your thumbs.
Cars going the other way, hardly models of pride and maintenance, were flashing their high beams at me as they passed. ‘Lo sé’ I said to aloud to myself. I know. I pushed on, wishing I had stopped at that last petrol station and wondering if I should turn around and head back.
The Geo had been doing fine when I pulled onto the small ferry that crosses Tempisque River and parked among locals and trucks transporting cattle over to the Guanacaste peninsula. It wasn’t necessary to take the ferry, you could drive around the Gulf of Nicoya and through Liberia.
Today people fly into Liberia to avoid having to waste a night in San Jose but at that time the airport wasn’t used by commercial flights. I thought the ferry would be more fun, an adventure, off the main roads and deeper into the Guanacaste, a region even today notorious for its hideously pitted roads.
Today that ferry has been replaced by a bridge, Puente de Armistad de Taiwán, the Taiwan Friendship Bridge, but referred to by locals as the Puente de Apuñalada or the Back Stab Bridge after Costa Rica unceremoniously cut off relations with Taiwan in favor of China shortly after the bridge was gifted.
In those days things were simpler and you just took the ferry with the locals and the cows and didn’t worry about whether being friends with Taiwan meant that you couldn’t also be friends with China.
But you still had to worry about alternators on Geo Trackers from no-name rental car agencies run by guys with no real offices hanging out behind the parking lots of airports in Central America. I guess you have to worry about guys like that in any country.
I don’t know why I didn’t think a reputable rental car agency would deal with me at that time, after all I was a grigo with a job and a credit card. Maybe it was because I was only 23 years old and had never done this before.
Maybe it was because I had lost my drivers license and, being on my way to becoming a true New Yorker by then, could not even imagine why on Earth I would need to replace it.
On the plane I had begun the only real research I would do for this trip aside from watching Endless Summer II a few more times. Fortunately, I had read in my trusty Lonely Planet Guide to Costa Rica that there were taxis that would take you just about anywhere for the right price, just be sure to negotiate it ahead of time.
This felt like good information despite my location. Now, I wasn’t sure what made me think any taxis were going to come along this road after dark, or how I would spot it even if it did actually happen, maybe it was just the New Yorker in me.
This was it. The lowest low…
Part of me would like to say that this was where the adventure really began, where I fought off pumas and spiders and trudged into the night carrying all that I had with me on my back. In reality, the biggest thing I worried about was having to sleep in my car.
It wasn’t a matter of if I would make it to Tamarindo, just a matter of how long it would take. In the US where the distances can stretch for days and everyone is fending for themselves. Here I was really only about 80 km or so from my destination and as you move through the country the informal system of human transport is all around you.
Buses and pickup trucks, motorcycles and bicycles. It’s just a matter of tapping into the flow.
In reality, I didn’t even have to wait that long.
I guess taxis are the same just about anywhere. As I stood there I saw two headlights and a little yellow lit-up sign on the roof approaching from the direction I came. It was even heading the same way as me.
However easy this had seemed to be going, there was enough nervousness and desperation in my situation that I wasn’t taking any chances with this potential stroke of good travel karma. There would be no meekly standing on the side of the road with my index finger out like when I lived in the Caribbean, acting like you didn’t really care whether the car pulled over or not.
I stood right in the middle of the road, arms raised, without a second thought about getting run over in the night.
And it worked.
Now, I realized, the adventure was actually beginning.
Not the part where you momentarily think you’re totally fucked, before you slip into problem-solving mode and adrenaline enters your thought process. This was the adventure of the unplanned. The adventure of being forced to engage with the locals and get in cars. I just got off a plane a few hours ago.
Now I’m off the tourist trail, stopped between stations. This isn’t the hotel clerk at the front desk or the waitress who can handle your ‘mas café por favor’ requests. These aren’t even the people who live in the tourist towns, you haven’t made it that far yet.
This may be a taxi driver, but he works the local towns, a part of the local transportation network, not the guy at the airport or the hotel lobby. In short, ‘no hablo inglés’.
Looking inside the taxi, I saw that the driver looked like he was about fifteen years old and had a friendly smile, enough to put me at ease a bit but my heart was still pounding.
Maybe that was just from the not getting run over part. I pointed at the car and said the only thing I could think of to describe a broken down car, probably the alternator gave out, and I need a ride. ‘Mierda.’ He laughed. ‘Tamarindo?’
He nodded and smiled and rattled off some Spanish. ‘Good thing I studied all that French’ I thought as I strapped my surfboard to the roof.
I don’t know if there’s been a study about how emergency situations enable a brain to understand foreign languages, but I felt that I was getting along pretty well. I at least understood the key elements of my new situation.
My driver was on his way home as it was getting late, plus my destination was a bit outside his normal range. So we would head over to his house, grab his dad, and head off.
I guess I had found a line on how far I was willing to go in this situation. I’m not sure if I was actually invited in, but when we got to his house, I decided that I was just going to sit in the car and wait.
I wasn’t ready to go in, and some part of me just wanted to hold onto that car, the means to the end. It had been a pretty long day already and I was feeling a little frayed at the edges, the saga of the trip now outlasting any adrenaline I had from those highest highs I had experienced on what now seemed like a different trip.
I was ready for the journey part to be over and to get on with the destination. But I wasn’t there yet.
With the dad driving, we headed off. I was relaxed, now confident that I would make it to my final destination tonight, late but but in the grand scheme of things not too bad. It had been a long day, but just one.
We pulled into Tamarindo, all the way to end of the road where it dead ends. During the day there would be vendors with tables selling tapestries, necklaces, and pipes for weed, buf at this time it was quiet.
Right in the middle of the dirt road col de sac was a payphone, and I asked the kid to call the number the rental car guy had given me.
‘Just tell him where the car is’ I said. ‘No, I don’t want him to bring me another one.’
That guy would go on to charge four thousand dollars to my credit card, which I promptly reported as fraudulent. Another lesson in travel.
I was done with cars. I was here, and here I would stay until it was time to leave. And I would figure out exactly how I would leave later. The dad stepped in and took the cash we had agreed on for the ride.
Always have cash.
I had a feeling that the kid was probably not going to end up seeing much of it, so I discreetly handed him some too. He smiled, ‘Esta bien. Tranquilo’ and gave me the sign that it was all good.
I guess I was wearing some of my stress on the outside and wasn’t as cool as I thought I was being.
The drove off, leaving me and my backpack and surfboard there at the end of the road. All I had to do now is find a place to sleep for the night, grab a cerveza and pass out. I thought I had experienced the highest highs earlier, on that ferry, on a smooth-running adventure, alone in a foreign country.
Sitting on my patio, backpack and surfboard stored in my room, cold beer in hand, that the other was a false summit. This was actually it. The highest high.
Touch the ocean….
Day Two – Time to Surf
I had checked into the ZullyMar Hotel mostly based on its proximity to where I was standing when the kid and his dad drove away, about twenty feet away from the payphone where we reported my now-abandoned Geo Tracker in the center of the cul de sac where Calle Central dead-ends at the ocean.
I did my due diligence and had the night clerk show me a room before I committed, but anything short of a crime scene was acceptable at that moment.
I awoke, eager to get my first glimpse of my destination in the daytime and hungry to explore the town, find my first meal, and check the surf. It was hard to determine the layout of the town at night after hours of disorienting, mountainous roads, swerving to miss potholes, where four left turns didn’t necessarily comprise a circle.
Essentially, as you pull into town, Calle Central drives parallel to the beach with just enough jungle interspersed with buildings and hotels to obscure your view of the ocean. With the benefit of daylight, you I was able to see that I was centrally located, practically feet in sand, in the middle of a glistening bay.
The boats moored just offshore told me that this protected area wasn’t where the surf would be but it was a spectacular view.
Firguring out the meals is always a crash course in cultural immersion. Not that I’m shy, but hunger always necessitates contact with locals, especially if you aren’t staying at some outpost of an American hotel chain with its well groomed and english-speaking help.
I had passed the Best Western Tamarindo on the way into town without any interest in retreating to its comforts and familiarities despite my uncertain situation the night before both on the basis of cost and pride. It wouldn’t take too long to get the lay of the land, limited on one end of the beach by the quiet of the moored boats and the end of the road, and on the other by a river that was deceptively inviting at low tide but moved swiftly at high tide.
As the week moved on I would see this river less as a boundary, but for day one this was enough. There were waves on my side of the river, and that was all I was after.
I think it is worth noting at this point that when I was standing at the edge of the water with my board, I considered myself a surfer, but not a good one. I really wanted to be a good surfer.
Not Pipeline or Indo good, but good enough to hop off the train in Long Island or a plane in Costa Rica, go to the ocean, and catch waves without killing myself or anyone else around me.
In Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan states that if you don’t learn to surf by the time you are fifteen you have no chance. I was learning that he may be right, but was determined to obtain just enough proficiency to go from struggle to fun, maybe some glimpse of enlightenment.
That’s why I was here alone. No friends. No distractions.
Just surf all day until you pass out.
There are waves in New York, and I could get to them. The problem is more the common one of timing – waves on the weekend when I can get to them. Then you add in the lack of regular surf for someone who is more likely to stay up til five in the morning at a bar in The City than get up at five to make the hour plus move to the beach, and you start to see the problem.
I Wasn’t Ready
I was already sold on traveling by myself, the highs and lows, the quiet meals, the reading and first attempts at diary keeping, the somewhat cocky answer to the ‘who are you traveling with?’ question.
I would soon learn what would truly be the best part of traveling solo – getting invited to join other adventures. I had met some guys out in the lineup who happened to be from Long Island, NY so we had a bit in common.
The difference was that these guys really could surf, but I was open and humble with my lack of experience and was doing my best to keep out of the way and they reciprocated in the unaggressive atmosphere with some helpful tips on timing and duck diving – things that instantly and forever changed my experience out in the water.
Although there was nothing but practice, repetition and time that could do anything about my lack of surf specific fitness and need for an exponentially higher lifetime wave count, I was in the right place to build a foundation.
I was putting in hours and taking many waves on the head, but I was also getting rides, making turns, recognizing when I needed to pull out to not drop in on someone.
I guess I was doing enough of a good job not making an ass of myself since they invited me to fill an empty spot on the boat they had reserved to do the popular run up to Witch’s Rock and Ollie’s Point – two famous surf breaks in the area, the ones they show on Endless Summer II, the true fulfillment of the dream that I had when I made this trip.
The timing was a little off from what I had hoped. I wanted to make this trip, and was hoping to find just this scenario – meet a group that had an open spot – it’s just that I was hoping to get as much surfing in around Tamarindo as possible before.
I wanted to be as fit as possible and at the top of what little game I had acquired.
One thing I did instinctively know, and something I carried everywhere for better or worse, was never say no. So on my third day in Tamarindo, I was meeting before dawn to make the drive up to meet our boat.
This boat trip is a bit of a right of passage for a surfer who makes it to this region, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who was here because of what they saw in Bruce Brown’s movie.
You can have it arranged by most of the hotels or tourist shops in Tamarindo, so it wasn’t like I was forging new, uncharted paths here. Still, not long before, being here in this particular place, actually living this adventure and making the journey a reality, seemed very far off.
But it was happening.
Taking a boat trip to hard to reach surf breaks holds a special place in the hearts and minds of surfers. Always trying to go one step further from the crowds, this bit of extra effort, and the promise of a whole day spent on the water – boating, fishing, surfing – is pretty much as good as it gets.
There’s something strange about surfing a break where you never actually touch the ground in front. The question of whether we would be skunked or I would be totally out of my league however, remained to be seen.
Either way, I was just happy to be on the boat, but you could tell that the others would be a bit more disappointed in the effort if the waves didn’t produce.
Of course, despite my feeling of personal trailblazing and adventure, many people had done this boat trip before. It’s a fairly well-beaten path. All you have to do to arrange it was walk into any hotel, resort, or tour operator in Tamarindo to set it up, and there are plenty.
After a bit of disappointment at Ollie’s and a good session at Witch’s Rock with no one else out, we started heading back. This is where things got interesting, and by interesting I mean terrifying.
There are always times when we’re pushing ourselves into unknown water, figuratively or literally, when pursuing growth in any activity. I had already had my fair share of uncomfortable hold-downs and general ass kickings courtesy of the beguiling waves of Costa Rica.
At any level of experience, it is inevitable that at some point you will be in the wrong place, or in the right place for most of the waves, just not that one that breaks thirty yards further out than all the rest.
Every surfer knows the feeling of scratching for the horizon, paddling as hard as his arms will paddle to get over some menacing wall of water that intends to show everyone in the lineup just who is in charge.
I felt that I had avoided this so far on this boat trip. I had caught some waves and stayed within my general comfort zone and ability. I had avoided doing the one thing I most wanted, being a liability to the other people on the boat.
If there’s one unspoken rule when you’re out on a boat, surfing hard to reach breaks, it’s that, to a certain degree, you are on your own. There are just not too many ways to help another surfer who is getting pounded by waves.
I was tired. Really tired. My arms already noodles. It had been a good day, and I was content to lay in the shade of the awning on the boat drinking a beer and watching the rest of the crew catch a few more waves before we started the slow cruise back to Playa Coco.
One by one, the others in the boat paddle back, smiling and buzzing about all the rides the scenery, and the accomplishment of pulling off this trip. We start heading back and there’s not much talk, just the drone of the outboard, and maybe the occasional point to a fish jumping, a wave breaking (is that another break, maybe).
A feeling of discovery in the air. That’s when the boat driver slows to take a look at a wave that seems to be breaking right into a rocky point. The other guys are standing, measuring the possibility of surfing this wave, the one that’s not on the brochure.
‘Does this wave have a name? What’s this place called?’ someone asked. ‘Labyrinth’, the boat driver replied with a mischievous smile. ‘Es peligroso.’
Now, I had no intention of dealing with Labyrinth. I was here to improve and push my limits, but I had a strong sense of what those limits were, and they generally were defined by waves that broke onto sandy beaches where I could just point my board straight to shore and ride the white water if things went wrong, I was caught inside, or I just got too tired.
Waves that imploded on rocks in an ever collapsing horseshoe of violence were clearly outside this comfort zone, and I think Labyrinth was on the edge, or even just a fingertip beyond, the comfort zones of some of these more experienced surfers I was sharing this adventure with.
The decided to check it out, I figured I would just paddle out from the boat to get a better look. I was there to just float around and watch the show.
Jumping off the boat I was elated, but tired, a foggy, completely spent sort of physical and mental drain. My arms and back ached even as I was just lazily paddling a little ways over toward the break.
I stopped well outside of where the other guys were sitting, judging a safe distance from where they were perceiving the proper place to line up was. Of course, while they were using their experience and what they saw to pick the right spot, in reality they had seen this particular wave break as many times as I had. How did they know what was the right spot?
And then the first set appeared on the horizon.
It turns out that we were in a good spot.
I was further inside than I wanted and the size of the waves definitely had my pulse racing, but I felt that I would be able to paddle over the shoulder of the incoming wave without much trouble.
Off to the side, I slowly circled my exhausted arms a few times and drifted over the top of the cresting wave. But I had misjudged it, just by the slightest amount. One or two more strokes would have put me out of harm’s way, but I didn’t do them, and I was going over the falls backwards.
I was terrified.
You never know if the world and time and motion in these moments just slows or if it is just that your brain can not fully comprehend a motion and time that it has never experienced before.
There’s no way that I can experience being in a wave, yet falling, yet in the air all at the same time, for so long. You don’t want to start holding your breath too soon because you’re still in the air.
But you don’t want to hold your breath too late, because then it’s too late. So you pause, fall, fall, then breathe in deep, and try to hold it while you’re taking the beating of a lifetime, being tossed uncontrollably and trying to cover up in case you make contact with the rocks below.
Popping up to the surface, I was in full race mode. Get out of there before the next wave comes. Despite my lack of experience, I know that the escape route was not the way I came. The shape of this wave as it closed in on itself was so dramatic, I knew the shortest way out was to the side.
Plus, all that water had to go somewhere, so i figured there was probably a running current going that way as well.
So I turned and paddled.
There’s nothing else you can do. No one is coming into the impact zone to help, there’s no beach to escape to. You’re only option is to paddle, so that’s what I did. Lungs burning, arms of lead.
The other guys stayed out and got some rides. I slowly, one arm paddle at a time, a long rest between each stroke, made my way back to the boat. If I wasn’t done before, I was done now.
When they all made their way back to the boat, there were expressions of genuine concern and gratitude for my safety, for my survival. They knew I was in trouble. And once the acknowledgement of trouble passed, the natural and good natured ribbing that is well deserved for being that guy, that guy that almost drowned at Labyrinth.
I found a nice comfortable place in the boat, put my hat over my eyes, and fell asleep.
I had the good fortune of having a group of girls move in the the ZullyMar Hotel with me. The three of them were traveling around together, but were not part of the backpacker circuit, traveling on the cheap on busses and staying in dank hostels and making it last as long as possible.
They were more like me, just there for a week or two, able to splurge the twenty dollars or so a night for a decent room with your own bathroom and had their own car. The main difference between us was that their car still worked.
This carefree group of friends was notable in two main ways. First because they liked to invite me to go skinnydipping with them every night in the warm and calm tropical waters of Tamarindo Bay.
I thought this was extremely nice of them. I’m not sure how much security they thought I could provide in the event of an incursion by some undesirable creep, but they seemed to like having me around.
Floating around naked in the bathtub warm phosphorescence while small waves lapped at the shore and palm trees rustled in the breeze and the three sirens of Greek mythology, enticing me to my destruction was a nice way to spend an evening. My mind would drift back to all those nights in smokey beer soaked bars in New York, battling with the indifference that people are showering upon each other.
Maybe I was in the wrong place. Can life really just be like this all the time? The sirens were calling.
The second notable display of kindness they bestowed upon me was a ride back to San Jose. As it turned out, we were leaving on the same day and heading in the same direction.
I had resigned myself to just taking the bus back to town, but was happy to trade off a long bus ride for a less-long, much more comfortable, and conversation friendly car ride.
They were heading off to some other place, but agreed to drop me at a hotel anywhere in town.
We hit the road in a typical wet-season tropical monsoon. We had all become somewhat accustomed to this after our time spent getting caught in these downpours throughout our trip. Whether you are out in the water, dipping in a pool, or walking around town, the rains come and go but you don’t really change what you are doing.
I got the distinct feeling that they were hoping that the rain would mostly stay outside the car, but as I went around strapping my surfboard to the roof I was a bit of a chink in the armour.
I did my best.
There wasn’t a roof rack on their car, so I just had to open the doors and run the straps through the car, then shut the doors on them. As we all jumped in the car to get out of the rain, I realized that everyone had a strap running right in front of their head. As these straps got soaked by the rain, they began to drip.
Right into everyone’s lap.
Thankfully it only lasted for the first couple of hours of the trip.
That was just the first way I repaid their unprecedented level of kindness. The next inadvertent surprise was yet to come.
With one last night in Costa Rica, I wanted to find a place where I could wander around and explore the capital city a bit instead of just killing time at some business traveler hotel near the airport.
Again I leaned on my trusty Lonely Planet guide and we managed to find a place to drop me off. To show my gratitude, I figured the least I could do was buy the crew a meal and celebrate our journey before we parted ways.
Now, I don’t really know if I just didn’t read the full description of the place in my trusty Lonely Planet guide or if this just shows my impeccable research skills, but as we sat in the hotel restaurant I began to feel that something was amiss.
Everywhere you looked in the place were grubby-looking older gringos with younger, very provocative looking ticas in their laps. Apparently, and I don’t know if the girls I was with knew I did this ahead of time, I had randomly chosen the most prolific and notorious den of prostitution in Costa Rica.
Prostitution is legal in the country, but still, this hotel was the epicenter. We awkwardly finished our lunch and said goodbye.
I’ve never felt so creepy. As they say, ‘King for a day at the Hotel DelRay!’
I should write the editors of my travel guide a note.
Still, the location was good, right in the middle of town and close to many of San Jose’s cultural sites – the Jade Museum, the National Museum of Costa Rica, and the Plaza de la Cultura.
I had arrived too late to actually go inside any of these places, but it was a bit of a shock to go from the beaches of Tamarindo to the capital city. I guess this was my way of easing back into the pace that I would be returning to the next day. Being solo in the city felt different from being solo in the jungle or at the beach.
Despite my familiarity with cities I was still traveling solo in Central America and was less nervous when the car broke down in the jungle in the Guanacaste than cruising around San Jose. Not wanting to linger in bars, I just went back to the hotel, which wasn’t much help.
I wasn’t sure if I should sleep in the sheets or above them, but I managed to get through the night.
At the airport I could see the place where I had rented that Geo Tracker the week before, where the trip all got set in motion.
I remembered the warm smile of the taxi driver that picked me up and sitting out front of his family’s home while waiting for his father. I remember him telling me it was ok when the trip was over. I remember floating for hours on my surfboard and catching waves that existed only in my imagination not long before. I remember almost dying at Labyrinth.
I remember the people.