While Chris has been ripping up the overhead waves on Playa Negra lately, I have been struggling in vain to understand this crazy sport we call surfing. I may not be the most coordinated person in the world, but never have I encountered a sport where the initial learning curve is so steep – almost vertical I think. I tried surfing a couple of times in Mexico and El Salvador, but never really put my mind to it, so I figured while we’re living on the beach in Costa Rica for several weeks, I’ll really give it a go. I borrowed an epoxy longboard from Bob, our friendly landlord, and vigilantly got in the water a couple of times a day for two weeks. During this time I only managed to thoroughly cleanse my sinuses with salt water, get frustrated and/or freaked out when I banged my feet on rocks, and feel close to tears when another wave heading towards me filled me with an overwhelming sense of dread. After a particularly frustrating morning with a huge foam board (the easiest to learn on) and baby waves still left me near tears, I was ready to give up forever. Chris convinced me to give it one more try, this last time with a teacher (besides him). And it was like a miracle. Friendly Walter of the Avellanas Surf School had me standing up on waves on about the third try, and after a couple of hours with Walter, I am now able to catch waves on my own. Granted, this is all on an 8-foot foam board, but surfing is now officially fun.
Somewhere on the drive between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, we hit a milestone for our trip. Since leaving our apartment in California, we have now driven 10,000 miles. As the crow flies, only 2,973 miles separates us from our former home in Mill Valley, USA to our temporary home on Playa Negra, Costa Rica, but we’re definitely living a very different life. 7 months and 7 countries later, we’ve camped in apocalyptic downpours, blistering heat, and numbing cold, slept on beaches, mountains, and lakes, and driven across small rivers, over rocky mountainous passes, and through some car-swallowing potholes. Our faithful car has handled washboard roads at ridiculous grades and we’ve been grateful on a number of occasions for the 4WD. So, here it is, our greatest hits video of wacky road conditions:
As I said before, Mexican roads are like a box of chocolates. The same seems to hold true for Central America in general.
Drive thirty minutes south of tourist trappy Tamarindo on dirt roads, past the ‘pot farm’ and a few small wooden houses, and you will come to the Lord of the Rats. Fifteen years ago, Pablo was a pioneer of Costa Rican surfers, offering cheap accommodations and ‘burgers the size of your head’ to house and fuel the budget surf rats drawn to the legendary waves of Playa Negra. Today the dank dorm rooms and overpriced food don’t draw the same crowds. He seems like a friendly guy, but every once in a while Pablo randomly shoots off his guns, so we walk quietly past his compound on our way to the beach. His pioneering spirit lives on in the surf rats who flock to Costa Rican beaches year round.
Surf rats form packs in cheap accommodations on beaches throughout Central America. They vary in age from the youngsters out of high school and college, who turn their back on ‘real life’ and enjoy themselves for a couple of years before buying a suit and getting a job in a cube-farm. There also the grizzled middle-agers who work on the west coast of the US growing pot or cutting timber during the summer to make just enough money for a flight down South, making this long distance commute every year and returning to their same favorite surf spot like monarchs migrating from Mexico to Canada. Rats either camp on the beach in ancient tents held together with duct-tape or cram like sardines into dingy dorm rooms, cooking ramen noodles for dinner in a crusty hot pot while exchanging stories of epic waves or monster barrels. Younger surf rats tend to travel in packs, descending like locusts on fooz-ball tables and lugging their dusty backpacks onto dilapidated schools buses. Older rats are loners, waiting quietly like Buddhas on dusty roads while they try to hitch rides with their board and meager belongings.
The surf rats who apparently live solely off bananas, rice, and waves have started to influence our travel lifestyle. Waking up early in the morning to beat the crowds on the waves, eating bananas for breakfast and napping in a hammock to restore our strength, our hair is scruffy from too much salt water and our skin brown despite going through a tube of sunblock a day. While we aren’t sleeping on the beach in our board bags to keep costs down, we have resorted to the occasional ramen noodle meal. We can’t claim true rat-dom however, as we own cars and laptops, and are rarely averaging under $15/day for living expenses. But, as we’re traveling for a year (or more if we can stretch our budgets) and the prospect of finding employment when returning home is looking increasingly grim, the rat lifestyle has definitely increased its appeal.
We left our sweet lux condo in Nicaragua a day later than we had planned, since we just weren’t quite ready to say goodbye. Costa Rica promised better waves but we were a little wary about our budgets, as Costa Rica is arguably the most expensive of all Central American countries. After a lengthy, disorganized, and bureaucratic border crossing, we headed for the beaches on the Nicoya peninsula of Costa Rica. Our friends Kelsey and Tom were also headed that way so we decided to look for a place to stay together, in the hopes of keeping costs down. We first stayed 2 nights in the booming resort town of Tamarindo, but the speed of development there has far outpaced the town’s ability to deal with the crowds. What was a small surfing and beach village 6 years ago has become a somewhat sprawling town, with a Pizza Hut, the jangling of jackhammers and cement mixers for the new high rises under construction, and bland mini-malls stocked with an oversupply of trinket shops. This rampant and apparently unplanned development seems to be strangling out the smaller thatched roof restaurants and pura vida lifestyle that originally put Tamarindo on the tourist map. It also appears to be straining the town’s resources, as rotting bags of garbage lined the unpaved streets, and the constant vehicle traffic kicked up a thick haze of ever-hovering dust.
We toured the winding rutted dirt roads that snake around the coast outside of Tamarindo looking for waves, cheap accommodations, and a more laid-back vibe. About 30 minutes south down rough gravel roads, we reached Playa Negra, a long white sand beach boasting consistent surf, a smattering of restaurants, and stumbled upon Cabinas Marvel. Friendly Californian Bob and his tica wife Margarita rent a couple of small hexagonal cabinas and also make custom bikinis and rash guards for a very reasonable $20 US. While 4 people in a 15 by 15 foot room is a tight fit in the cabina, we couldn’t beat the price and the friendly neighbors. There are a lot of animals around here: 3 dogs and a parrot make up the pets, and last night we had a toad bigger than your fist hop onto our patio while howler monkeys growled in the trees down the road. We think we have found a little bit of paradise here, so we are going to stick around for a while. There is a choice of 5 different breaks within a 30 minute drive and we keep expenses down by cooking most of our meals. Our standard day is a morning surf session, a lazy afternoon napping outside in our hammocks lulled by warm breezes, then back out of for another afternoon surf session followed by a few litros of the local beers. Not really much is happening here and that’s why we are loving it.