It hadn’t taken long, but I had grown tired of Tamarindo, especially the parts about it that made it impossible for me to gain distance from the parts of myself I was trying to escape. This was mainly the partying and propensity to be the last man standing at the bars. People I knew in New York actually called me this, last man standing. It had become a well honed skill, and even a professional aptitude that others might put on their resume like modeling complex formulas in Excel or being able to deliver a well thought out slide show presentation. I could be trusted not to get drunk and bail out before the client did, and this was handy in a business driven by getting drunk with clients. The next day, or rather a few hours later, it was always better for the boss to hear ‘That shit was crazy, but your guy made sure I got back to my hotel last night.’ than ‘What the fuck happened I woke up on the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel.’ But this skill was hard to turn off, and as much as I was in Costa Rica to surf, places like Tamarindo have many distractions and lures for us last man standing type of people.
I decided to relocate to Playa Avellanas, a beach just half an hour South, but a a world away, from Tamarindo. I didn’t have a car, my luck with cars in Costa Rica had been a bit iffy in the past, so this trip I thought I would just fly out to Tamarindo from San Jose, a flight that would take less than an hour as opposed to a five or six hour drive that could just as easily turn into many more with flat tires and random stops by the Fuerza Pública, if you made it at all. When I boarded the small six-person low-wing, propeller plane I couldn’t help but think that the ‘if you made it at all’ part certainly applied to to this as well.
I had never flown on a plane this small, which unfortunately meant that there was no room for things like surfboards. The attendants at the airport assured me that the flight the next day would be the larger plane and they would send my surfboard on that one. To say I was skeptical would be an understatement, but I decided to trust the travel gods, leave my board, and pray that it would find me somehow. I knew that I could track down another surfboard in Tamarindo, renting one while I waited for mine to arrive, and even buying another if it never showed up. This isn’t ideal as the rental boards tend to be something that some gringo left there because it was broken in half and the local ding repair guy glued back together to rent out for ten bucks a day. The boards available to buy were on the same rack. I wasn’t happy to leave my board, but I strongly believe in moving forward. It was either jump on this plane and be on the beach in an hour or so or go to the bus station probably to find out that I would need to leave the next morning. After what happened last time, I didn’t even consider renting a car. Plus, taking a vertiginous flight on a tiny, questionably-maintained airplane over mountains that you couldn’t actually see but knew where there in Central America was as far up on the list of stories I wanted to be able to tell as catching any wave.
Climbing into the plane, couldn’t help but notice how short the wings were, unlike large commercial flights where they stretch on forever. It seemed impossible that these little stubs could generate enough lift to get us off the ground, much less up and over the cloud-shrowded mountains that surround San Jose in every direction. Every tale of small aircraft crashing into the jungle raced through my mind as we rose into the zero-visibility mist. It felt unnatural, like we were really in a toy that rode along string that connected starting point to the destination. I thought of those toy planes that you tape to the ceiling and fly in circles. In the end, the flight would lack any moments of sheer terror or questionable maneuvers, but there is still relief when the low-level this can go sideways at any moment anticipation comes to an end.
Safely and on schedule, free of any detours or collisions with unseen peaks, we would descend into Tamarindo. To call it an airport would be a bit of a misnomer, an airstrip would describe it more accurately as there were no other buildings around. But as you find just about everywhere in the world, there is an efficient system of taxi drivers who know that a plane arriving may be an opportunity for a fare, traveling lighter now with no surfboard to strap on roof, I threw my backpack in one and headed to find a place to stay in Tamarindo while I waited for my surfboard to catch up to me, hopefully the next day but in fact four days later.
I was anxious to get out of Tamarindo but was convinced that my lost surfboard had a better chance of finding me here than if I disappeared into the jungle further down the road. After all, that was the place to run away from things so you had better have all the things you wished to take with you actually in your possession first. I was realistic about all this ‘be there tomorrow’ talk so I rented a surfboard and settled into a little cabina for an unknown future, each morning calling the airline desk in San Jose from the front desk and each night repeating my woeful ‘I’ll be out of here as soon as my board arrives’ story to everyone at the bar each night. Pretty soon, after the daily flight would come and go the whole place would seem to be holding its breath for me. When I walked in empty handed, hands raised in a resigned by not totally dejected way, the place would collectively sigh, commiserate, and beers were bought. Until the day I walked in with my board and the place erupted in cheers and beers were bought.
On a regular week or so trip this delay would have been a bigger deal, but this trip I had about three weeks so it was easy to look on the bright side of all this – the small airplane adventure, easing into the pace of life in Tamarindo, building the ability to just wing it and take things as they came. All of these things take some doing when you go from New York to a place like Costa Rica. You need time to unwind, to reset. I was pretty much there, plus I had a few nights to party pretty hard and be social before I took the next step in my seclusion. But the time had come to load up and set off for Avellana, and I was ready and giddy with anticipation.
I had learned about surfing in Avellana on a prior trip to the area. I was staying in Tamarindo and had been surfing with this guy named Scrappy who gave me a ride from San Jose when the shuttle bus in front of the hotel wouldn’t let me on with my surfboard. Scrappy was from North Carolina and was traveling with his family – wife, young son, and sister in law. He was loading up his surfboards and bags on their rental car when he saw me trying to get on the bus. Taking pity on a solo surfer traveler, he offered to give me a ride. I’ll never forget him taking a moment to ponder the situation and how to explain to his wife that some twenty-something year old surfer was now going to be riding with them. He told me to get my stuff in the car and board on the roof and just get in. He would ‘handle it’.
There was visible skepticism at first, but it all went well in the end. When we got a flat tire on the way I was first to jump out and make myself useful. In the end, we would spend a good amount of time surfing together and grabbing cocktails in the evening. Scrappy and I were taking early runs down to Avellana to surf Little Hawaii at dawn. With someone else to motivate me, we often had the place to ourselves since we were beating the Tamarindo party crowd to the water. Plus, Avellana is just far enough away to keep the backpacker crowd away. You need a car to get there, and there aren’t that many places to stay that are close.
I had such great surf sessions at Avellana I had told myself that sometime I would just go right there and surf that break all day. It was away from the crowds and more exposed than the protected bay at Tamarindo. So I grabbed a cab and had the driver drop me at Cabinas Las Olas. I spoke to the owner and negotiated a great rate since I intended to stay for over two weeks. There was nothing there, no town, no stores, just a cabina with a hammock, a small bar and restaurant, lots of monkeys and iguanas, and the surf right out front. I needed to remove myself from the party scene and frenzy and now I was in a place where there would be nothing to do but surf, eat, sleep, repeat.
There’s something to be said for roaming around, seeing new places, and hitting a bunch of different towns, surf breaks, and even just road tripping in general. But there’s also something to be said for sitting still, becoming a fixture, dialing a place in, letting that special amount of boredom settle in that lets you know that you are removing all the unnecessary distractions and need to move from the system. I was settling in here. Getting up before dawn to run down through the mangrove, across the beach, down to the break, surfing for a few hours before the intense equatorial sun scorches the place. Head back for breakfast and coffee and maybe a nap. Repeat mid-day session. Repeat sunset session. Simple casado plate dinner and a beer while you sit with one elbow on the table, your head propped up on one hand while you shovel food in with the other, barely able to stay awake, content in the buzz of a day spent outside, totally and completely drained.
Other guest and groups would come and go, maybe staying for a night or two, or just stopping for the day to surf before moving on to somewhere else, trying to see everything in one trip. Once the locals who worked the bar and restaurant know that you’re not one of these frenzied foreigners who can’t sit still for a moment, you get treated differently, you become a name not just a face. You become a table where they can sit for a moment and chat and maybe throw a beer your way, on the house, once in a while.
Of course, the idea that there is ‘nothing there’ isn’t exactly accurate. There are other places to stay and places to eat in Avellana, just not many. And the Cabinas Las Olas was considered pretty high end for that area, even though it was costing me about twenty bucks a night for my own place. Of course, there were places down the road that were half of that, and when shared between three or four people, it was possible to get by on just a few dollars a day. I didn’t have that kind of time so I wasn’t worried about stretching my funds that far. Plus, having your own place with a patio and a hammock has not just it’s comforts, but its advantages.
Staying down the road at the hostel are these three girls from Brazil. I had seen them out in the surf and nodded as we passed on the beach a few times. I never offered more than a smile or just a simple ‘hola’ or tried to force myself into their circle, but having three bronze bodies in the water was impossible to ignore. Being solo and just there, not in constant motion, here one day and gone the next, all came to work for me in time.
As far as I can tell, there are just two places to eat in Avellana, and one of them isn’t open for dinner. Of course, some of the other local hostels and house-stays may provide meals, but its not like you’re going to go walking through the jungle to find them, or at least I’m not going to. Because of this, the restaurant and bar where I am staying attracts people from all around the area and has a funny little life of its own. Plus, since the owner’s wife is Brazilian and Brazil happens to be playing in the World Cup, and the bar happens to have the only TV for miles, there is a small crowd gathering to watch the games. And this includes the three Brazilian girls staying down the road.
Among the restaurant’s guests are me – solo, exhausted, detached, pseudo-mysterious as i journal and have a beer, chatting with the staff – a group of super loud Texans, two couples who are roasted red, not surfers, and just a few others. So a solo traveler with his own place who isn’t a typical obnoxious American and you know from the surf is looking pretty approachable. At least, one of the Brazilans thought so. So now we were chatting, I was in the group. Natural, not forced, in fact instigated by them. As the night wore on, I would come to realize that the amazingly beautiful girl who came to speak to me was running point for her less amazingly beautiful friend, but who was I to complain. Did I mention the alone in the jungle for three weeks part? We would spend some lovely time together before they would leave, surfing all day and having a meal all together as a group before the two of us would retire to my cabina.
As we surfed together swapping waves in the aggressive Brazilian way, I was truly in paradise. Surfing in the warm blue tropical waters of Playa Avellana with three Brazilian girls, laughing and hooting each other on, as my new friend offered me shoulder rubs in between sets to ease the struggle of my paddle out. Incredible.
The other place to eat is the one with the 500 pound pig out front.
Some time into my trip, my younger brother Max flew down from Houston to join me. He would have his own adventure with airports and shuttle busses to get to Tamarindo where I would meet him at the Best Western. The Best Western in Tamarindo is large, right on the main road, Calle Central, and can’t be missed. Plus it has a great pool and swim up bar which come in handy when you don’t really know if you’re going to be waiting for an hour or a day when you’re trying to pick up someone.
Max isn’t a surfer and hadn’t really traveled much on his own, so this was another nice first to be able to share with him, like the time I took him to his first concert where Soundgarden opened up for Guns and Roses at the Summit in Houston where the Rockets played before it became a 17,000 seat ‘church’ for that con-artist Joel Osteen. By share with him, I wouldn’t of course be able to pick him up at the airport or anything, but I could at least be where I said I would be when he got to town. Actually, after being out in Avellana on my own for ten days or so, it was fun to head back into Tamarindo and reaffirm the genius of my decision. Unlike my previous trips where I was the guy only in town for a week and staying in town to strike an uneasy balance between my surfing and partying, I was the guy who had stepped out of the main current, staying on my own down the road for weeks. Surfing empty waves until I couldn’t move. Sleeping with Brazilians. I was that guy, and I wasn’t sticking around. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
I can only imagine what Max was thinking when he stepped off the bus and I didn’t even give him a chance to look around. ‘Hey bro, this is awesome!’
‘This place sucks, get in the cab. We’re fucking out of here.’
So an extra half hour of a cab ride, after his flight and seven hour bus ride. Back in the jungle, back where I knew the staff, and they had all been told about the impending arrival of my brother for days. He was greeted like family. ‘Hermano!’
‘This place is awesome.’
As I mentioned, Max isn’t a surfer. But he is a super strong swimmer who swam competitively and played water polo at the collegiate level. He brought fins and goggles and together we spent the next week exploring the beach and all the different breaks, finding spots that were good for both surfing and body surfing, and staring turtles in the eye watching fish jump. We would eat casado plates and take long naps in the cabina and play a thousand games of chess on my travel chess board. Best of 10? Make it best of 100. We explore the beach at night and swim with phosphorescents and watch shooting stars and get stuck in the pitch black mangrove when the lights went out. It was like being kids again when you had nothing to do but explore all day and your only obligation was to be home when the sun went down, except without the last rule.
We had timed it so that we traveled back at the same time. So when it was time to say goodbye to our friends at Cabinas las Olas, we packed it up and had them call us a cab to get back to Tamarindo. From there we grabbed a bus back to San Jose and headed to the airport the next morning. It seems like the time where I was waiting for my surfboard to arrive was forever ago. This trip has had such distinct phases that the others seem like different trips altogether.