The West Road surfing the Pan American Highway: Costa Rica

If you’ve been following our blog you’ll know all about Tom and Sally’s year long surfing road trip, riding 150cc dirt bikes North on the Pan American highway along the coastal length of the Americas. The last time we updated our blog on their adventure they had gone Feral in Panama camping and surfing off grid to save money in one of Central Americas most costly countries. They since moved onto the surf paradise of Costa Rica in the next Central America stage of their 15,000 mile journey. Here’s the story and a great travelogue piece for anyone thinking of visiting and surfing in Costa Rica, told in their own words:

We have just moved on from a memorable couple of weeks in Costa Rica. Our time there got us thinking a lot, perhaps due to the fact that it marks about half way through our journey; both in time and in distance. In many ways we knew that we were going to have a strange relationship with Costa Rica before we even got there, it is the safest and most well documented surf destination in Central America and on paper it is amazing. Its only a tiny country but it contains more that 5% of the worlds biodiversity, it has no military, no animals in captivity, is ranked top in the world for ‘happiness’ and produces a huge percentage of renewable energy. Pretty much as soon as we crossed the border from the Panama it struck us as being incredibly clean, the roads were lined thick with perfect jungle and any buildings seemed to be encased in nature, set back from the beach and roads so to preserve the wild life. It really is incredible.

Costa Rican Jungle

Before starting the trip we had always maintained a sense of excitement when thinking about arriving in Costa Rica but now seven months in, the excitement was wavering somewhat and the thought of Costa Rica was actually becoming more of a worry. Costa Rica is as beautiful as it is is expensive and jam packed with ex-pat and holidaying surfers. Costa Rica blew up as a surf destination years ago and just doesn’t feel like Central America. From our months on the road in Latin America our favourite places are the ones with the bustling street markets and a strong sense of cultural identity. For the most part one of the easiest ways to get a feel for a country is the food. Costa Rica had the clean supermarkets, the eco hostels, the vegetarian cafes but these things had stopped appealing to us a long time ago. The first thing we do in any country is look for the street food or the red plastic chair joint selling rice and beans, In Costa Rica we struggled to find this, on the coast anyway. Buying food in the supermarkets out here costs a lot more than home in the UK. We struggled to find local markets, street food and really felt like we didn’t have enough money to experience the country properly.

Hammock Camping

We rode into the country and stayed in hammocks under a cover in the gardens of a hostel, the tropical downpours of the Central American wet season is making free camping more of a challenge as it kicks in with real force. Pretty much every afternoon or evening the sky clouds over and the thunder and lightning starts, paths turn to rivers and nice camping spots turn to wet swamps within the space of half an hour. Sometimes the rain doesn’t stop until the next morning. It’s pretty much necessary for us to pay a little bit of money to camp or sleep in hammocks under cover. Usually its no more than $5 and we get that back in drinkable water, electricity to charge batteries and wifi when it is available. The hostel we chose in Costa Rica was $20 for the night for two of us to sleep in hammocks; more expensive than a private room with a bathroom anywhere else we had been prior to Panama. We planned on spending two nights in Costa Rica and then forsaking the ‘perfect warm water waves’ and heading straight to Nicaragua. In our minds we knew this might be a little foolish, we probably would never find ourselves back in Costa Rica but we knew we had to spend our time in the places we really wanted to be and could afford to be. At this point, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico were calling.

We did want to check out a couple of waves back in the South of the country and there was a swell on the charts for a few days time that we thought would be good for it so we started to think about hanging around just for a few more days and working out a way to camp there. We got talking to an English guy and his Norwegian girlfriend who were also at the hostel and it turns out they were living on an old fruit farm in the jungle near to the spots we wanted to go to. Tom was an old fisherman from Dorset and owned a boat and was also planning on surfing the same spots by boat so he invited us to go with him. The next day we followed the basic directions that they gave us and arrived at a restaurant on the road and parked up. The entrance to their house was supposed to be just opposite but we couldn’t find a way down with the bikes, just a small track of red dirt disappearing into the jungle. We checked with the restaurant owner who told us we would have to leave the bikes at the top and walk down. We made our way through last night’s puddles and down the hill into the the thick jungle, with monkeys swinging in the trees above us and waded through the stream as directed, following barefoot prints from both human and horses. After about 25 minutes of trekking we made it to the clearing where the house was.

The horse was loose in the meadow and there was smoke rising from the stove in the little outdoor kitchen. Two American Staffies came running up to us barking (with tails wagging) and welcomed us to Tom and Milena’s little slice of paradise. Hammocks and washing were strung up around the terrace of the single story square farm house. We put our bags down and were greeted with a cup of coffee. Tom and Milena had moved out here permanently to try to live off grid as much as possible, Tom still catches fish to eat but they are trying to live off the fruit and veg that they can grow. They had no electricity, no phones, no wifi, no TV, no toilet; it is a super simple existence for them and for us it was a real breath of fresh air to live simply too. Washing in the river, walking the jungle, eating and drinking coconuts, reading, talking, cooking over coals; we’re happy to live simply and it can be hard to find the opportunity in this world sometimes. We strung our hammocks and when the night came, drifted off to the wall of sound coming from the surrounding jungle. Each animal was trying desperately to be heard amongst the crowd; birds, parrots, frogs and millions of insects. We would tune into one sound until it faded out and another stood out more and then we would tune into that one. We were slightly wary that we knew there were deadly snakes, spiders and big cats in the area and sleeping in a hammock you feel vulnerable but we slept well anyway.

Outdoor cooking

After a couple of days on the farm we packed our camping gear and boards into the boat and drove to a series of three right hand point breaks. We swam our gear to shore through the surf in a dry bag after a pretty good surf before the crowds turned up and set up camp in on the edge of the jungle. We strung hammocks between trees and tied string above them to hang mosquito nets and tarps to protect us from the rain. That night we slept amongst another chorus of jungle animals and woke up to another good day of surf. It was pretty incredible to be in Costa Rica at that point; good waves, not too many people, 29C water, 30C air, scarlet macaws flying in the jungle trees above our hammocks. The draw of tropical surf and life was nearly temping for a while there, of course the crowds turned up eventually though.

Tom and some new friends

When the swell got small, we went back to the farm for a couple of days and started to plan our trip to Pavones, the long left hand point on the opposite side of the Gulf to the last waves we went to. We packed up less stuff this time, Tom knew a cheap home stay we could stay and cook at. We trekked through the thick jungle to the part of the river the boat is stored and packed boards and fishing gear. This time the dogs and Milena came with us; alongside two goats. The goats we’re eating everything at the farm and there was a family that lived on the Gulf that would want them so Tom and Milena decided to give them away. We make our way out of the river where we saw a crocodile and out into the miles of mangroves before we reached the gulf and drove to see the family. This was the first and only time Sally and I experienced traditional Tico lifestyle in our admittedly short and limited time in Costa Rica but it was amazing to see that it was out there. What that family had, all the acres of fertile land, rich with fruit trees and land to raise animals for their family to live off was incredible and it makes us sad to think of all the families who have sold off that kind of property and lifestyle to rich foreign investors.

After we ditched the goats we made our way out through the increasing swell to the edge of the bay and swam in to the small village of Pavones. The South swell season has been pretty slow to start this year so with a decent chart, it seemed like most of Costa Rica and half of California (and Brazil and Israel) had travelled down for the swell. We were under the impression that Pavones was a fat, bumbling point break but when we woke up the next morning and paddled out to head and a half tubes reeling off fast corners of the point, spitting and reforming we felt both under gunned on our 5’10’s and pretty intimidated. The wave was incredible, glassy, big and perfect but a lot of sections were extremely hard to make. The waves we managed to snag from the crowd of at least a hundred surfers were challenging; paddle, take off and race as fast as you could until the inevitable shut down. There were a few broken boards in the village that day but we must have surfed for 6 hours; fuelled by coffee, raw cold porridge with water and sugar and some rice and beans. We stayed a couple of days and then when the swell dropped off, headed back to the farm. Our expectations of our time in Costa Rica were pretty low from the outset but as it turned out we had a really great time there and we are really stoked that we made the decision to stay with our new friends, hang out and surf.

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