Learning to Surf in Costa Rica
It’s been a long day learning to surf in Costa Rica. I can barely lift my arms above my shoulders. My knees are red raw. As are my ribs. My back feels like I’ve been bent over breaking rocks with a chain gang.
I can taste salt and I still have sand in my hair. I’m a little sunburnt (despite high factor sunblock) and a tad dehydrated, but this beer I’m having in the hot tub at The Beach House is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.
Costa Rica is often touted as an idyllic surfing safari destination, with its warm water, consistent waves and laidback vibe. It’s true. I’ve experienced all three here at Manuel Antonio.
But I have a confession. I’m not new to surfing. I took up surfing in my early teens and my sister married a guy who ran surfing contests. When I lived on the Sunshine Coast in Australia I surfed three times a day when possible, even sneaking off in my lunch hour if the waves were good.
That all changed with a move to Sydney where surfing was so territorial that it was no longer a fun pastime, and another move to the United Arab Emirates. Enough said.
Over recent years I’ve made halfhearted attempts to become a surfer again, but here in Costa Rica I’m determined to really get back in the water, and start from scratch this time. I do some research, ask around, and seek the advice of our villa’s concierge as to who I should get a lesson from and one name keeps coming up ‘Ivan’. Ivan? What kind of name is that for a Costa Rican surfer? I was told he was hard to miss with a million watt smile, offset by a deep tan and a curly mane of blond hair.
There are proper surf schools in Manuel Antonio, but I’ve seen too many surf schools where a big bunch of tourists have been bobbing around on huge foam boards with just one instructor. For them, perhaps, it’s just another experience to tick off, like white-water rafting or bungee jumping. But for me, surfing is a personal experience and I wanted someone who would give me personal attention, the right board, and the right advice.
True to reputation, Ivan wasn’t hard to spot. Laconic and laid-back he reminded me of what surfers used to be like in Australia, before they all decided that they wanted to turn pro. In Australia and California talent scouts from the major surf companies go to local contests virtually every weekend with a cheque book, whereas here in Manuel Antonio they struggle to raise money to even hold a local contest.
Ivan and I select a board. He keeps around 25 at the beach and has even more tucked away for a busy summer’s day. I don’t want to ride a longboard (what used to be called a ‘mal’ or Malibu board) and trying a short board would be like learning to drive in a Formula 1 car.
Far too many people try to learn to surf on a board that’s too long (and is prone to nosediving and is difficult to manoeuvre) or a board that’s too short to start with as they are more difficult to paddle and stand up on. We settle on a board that’s 7’6”. It’s still a big and very thick board, but it’s one that will make it easy for me to get back into the routine of catching waves and getting to my feet.
Ivan runs through the basics of where to lie on the board (in this board’s case with my toes just dangling over the rear of the board) and where to place my hands when getting to my feet (next to your ribs not next to your head or you’ll nosedive). He then runs through the usual board safety rules, like never have the board in front of you while getting out in the surf and when you fall or jump off the board, try never to go over the front of the board.
We head out into the small, slightly crumbling surf and Ivan pushes me into a couple of waves. I manage to get to my feet after a couple of attempts and ride the white-water straight towards the beach. The board is a tank and it’s quite easy to stand on. However, turning is another matter altogether!
Ivan says it’s time for me to go right or left on a wave. Waves generally break in a direction, either left or right, but sometimes both. If it’s breaking from right to left as you face the surf it’s called a ‘right-hander’ and left to right is a ‘left-hander’. Depending on which foot forward you ride with, you can either be facing the wave or with your back to the wave. Both Ivan and myself are ‘goofy foots’ which means that we face the wave when going left, our left leg at the back of the board and our right leg positioned around the middle of the board. Most people, however, surf what is called ‘natural foot’ with their right leg (usually more powerful when your right-handed) at the back of the board, as the back leg does most of the work when turning.
Some say that you can tell whether you’ll be ‘goofy’ or ‘natural’ by getting someone to push you from behind without you knowing it. The leg that you automatically put forward to stabilize yourself is your strongest and will be at the back of the surfboard, because the stronger leg is the one that you’ll use to ‘steer’ the surfboard. A more fun way to check before you learn to surf, snowboard or skateboard, is to don a pair of socks and run and then slide on polished floorboards. Doing this, you’ll naturally see the stronger leg go to the rear as you slide.
I catch a couple of waves with a good open face on them and fall. I’m too keen to start to do any manoeuvres and I’m not concentrating on getting to my feet properly. Experienced surfers push up with their arms and ‘swing’ their legs under their body in one swift movement. With me it’s more like a drunk trying to stand after a fall into a gutter. But a few waves later I’m actually riding the open face of the wave and even managing a couple of turns.
Ivan sees that I know how to paddle, sit on the board (very hard for beginners), and get back out easily after riding a wave. He bodysurfs in and grabs a board and joins me for a surf for about an hour.
The warm water feels wonderful. I can see monkeys in the palm trees that curve over the black sand beach like a mirror image of the waves coming in. Massive pelicans cruise by as we wait between sets of waves. It’s great to be back surfing again.
Later in the week I swap my huge board for a smaller 6’8”. Once I get the hang of it I actually start to surf much better. One afternoon when there is great surf I ride a wave all the way to the beach and step off the board onto the sand. Ivan’s just up the beach watching and flashes his huge smile and gives me two thumbs up. I’m hoping that means it was a good ride rather than a score of two points out of ten…
For the last few days I surf as much as possible, watching conditions from The Beach House and taking off down the path when the tide is right. On the last morning I get up at dawn and the surf is a perfect, offshore two to three feet. There are only four surfers on the whole beach. I surf until my arms feel like strands of spaghetti. I pass an elderly American man who I’ve seen on the beach every morning. He yells out in English to me “Surf’s up!” It sure is.
Surf instructor, Manuel Antonio
My tips on learning to surf in Costa Rica:
- If you want to do some prep work to get fit before doing surf lessons, do laps of a pool swimming freestyle and do push-ups and stretches.
- If you’re a gym junkie, keep in mind that surfing is an aerobic activity with short bursts of anaerobic activity. Train accordingly.
- Find a good instructor, such as Ivan for one-on-one lessons; don’t do a group lesson if you want to progress fast.
- Go to a beach with ‘gentle’ surf, a sand bottom, no rocks, and an easy entry and exit from the surf.
- Wear a rash vest (you and your nipples will thank me later) and rub on loads of water-resistant blockout on your ‘exposed skin’ and use a decent brand like Nivea (most of the brands on sale in Costa Rica are not so well known). If your hands are greasy after this, wash this off with sand and water as you enter the surf.
- Learn to sit and paddle properly. Ask your instructor exactly where to sit on the board and learn exactly where your feet should be when you paddle. Too many beginners just float around next to their board. That’s no way to catch waves.
- If you get too tired to paddle, you’re way too tired to get to your feet on a wave. Have a break on the beach, grab some good carbohydrates, and head back out when you’ve recovered.
- Always study the surf before you go out. Look at where the most consistent waves are breaking. Note where the rips are. Manuel Antonio beaches have lots of small rips when the surf is good.
- Once you’re out in the water, always have ‘markers’ for your position. Line yourself up with points on the beach and note your distance from the beach. Rips can take you out of the surf zone quickly. If you’re caught in one it’s best to paddle parallel to the beach rather than directly back to the beach.
- Don’t surf alone – there is safety in numbers more than one.