There are few better ways to start your week after a tiring weekend when, upon arriving at school, your teacher tells you, with all the unadulterated joy of a five-year-old opening their first present on Christmas morning: it’s time to go surfing!
But in this case my weekend had been spent zip lining 40ft-high above canyons, my teacher was the ever-enthusiastic surf instructor, Luca, and school was the Costa Rica Surf Institute (CRSI) in the beach town of Tamarindo, on the country’s Northern Pacific Coast. And, in any case, this was not your typical week.
As Luca and my surf companion, Thomas, set out for our first foray into the water, we got a crash course in how to catch our first wave. In his inimitable Italian accent, Luca told us: “Ok, ok. Lie on your board, point your toes to the edge of the board and, when you see a wave coming, paddle, paddle, paddle, then jump up!” With more than 20 years’ experience surfing, he lived and breathed waves. And just a few minutes later, we were doing the real thing ourselves.
As I lay on my board, sneaking a peek over my shoulder to prepare for the next wave, it was a breathtaking vista to behold: the sun bouncing off the Pacific Ocean, the unpopulated waters enriching the experience. “That’s your wave,” Luca screamed, upping my adrenaline levels. Surfing is definitely not for the faint hearted and as I got beat up by the unforgiving ocean time and time again, it would have been easy to call it a day. But, buoyed by my German surf buddy, Thomas, who took to it like a pro, I clambered aboard again and again, eager to catch my first wave.
Tamarindo hugs Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast and is a surfer’s dream. The central beach suits mainly beginners to intermediate borders. On a more adventurous day, we ventured on a forty-five minute walk down the beach, struggling with my surf board, towards Playa Grande, just north of Tamarindo, where the surf and a strong wind made conditions difficult for my amateur enthusiasm. Ryan, an intern and surfing aficionado at CRSI, beamed with gusto as we strolled along the beach. Taking a shortcut across the estuary mouth was a heart-in-mouth moment, as crocodiles have been sighted here. “They don’t like the waves, don’t worry, man!” Ryan assured me, as I paddled nervously. It’s highly unusual for crocodiles to be aggressive towards humans in Costa Rica and coming across a croc in the ocean is a rarity - and we didn't have any problems that day.
After wrestling with my surf board for two hours every morning, I feasted on some traditional local food: arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) and black beans was delicious, which you can pick up for 2,000 colóns from a local food stall a few hundred metres from CRSI.
Tamarindo’s small commercial district also offers an array of options to eat and refuel ahead of the afternoon’s Spanish classes. A smoothie from Pura Vida Smoothies & Fresh Fruits, packed with oats, banana and honey, energised me for afternoon lessons while homemade pasta dishes, tasty toasted sandwiches and tropical salads are also available at the various eateries.
With my energiser drink gulped down, I was raring to go for my first class. Tired of listening to my Spanish-speaking friends chat amongst themselves whilst I smiled and nodded amiably, it was high time I got my act together and immersed myself in the language.
One of the great aspects of CRSI is that your teachers will always try and tease out your Spanish, however elementary. The ever-smiling Henry, one of my teachers, will get you started, probing about your weekend or what you have been doing in Tamarindo, to kick-start a discussion. Germans Isa and Thomas were my course buddies and, with the sound of the waves and rhythmic, funky salsa music mingling together outside, it was easy to get motivated as we tussled with irregular verbs, challenging pronunciation and the dreaded Spanish ‘r’ sound for English speakers. You can also opt to do a one-on-one class with a teacher to hone your burgeoning language skills, but given it was off-season, maximum class sizes were limited to three people.
CRSI will also throw in three sessions of yoga if you sign up to any of their surf programs. It was the perfect way to eradicate those strains and aches from a week’s surfing and, despite the odd amusing glance from passers-by, watching the stunning sunset whilst meditating on Tamarindo Beach was serene bliss.
I lived in a homestay with a local Costa Rican family in the rustic village of Santa Rosa, just 20 minutes outside Tamarindo, which gave me an insight into how the peaceful village’s residents live. CRSI organised a pick-up every day from my house for the week, and drop-off, via one of the local teachers, so it was easy to get into and out of town.
My host mother, Jeanette, happily cooked me breakfast - typically bread, eggs, bacon and rice with juice - and hearty evening meals. I was treated as one of the family and she beamed from ear to ear every time I broke into basic Spanish.
Waking up to the sound of exotic birds and sunshine was a nice variant to Tamarindo, or to use its colloquial name, beloved of some of the locals, ‘Tamagringo’, for the large numbers of tourists that populate the town.
In between the surfing and Spanish, there was still time to enjoy a one-day adventure tour at Rincón de la Vieja. The day started with horseback riding up hilly mountainous terrain through the 494-acre ranch trails, taking in some jaw-dropping views of the surrounding area, before a drive through the forest to the waterfalls, where we jumped into individual water tubes and descended down the Rio Azul rapids on a 45-minute, thrill-seeking ride. This was followed by a buffet lunch at the lodge - a medley of salad, rice, beans and chicken and fish - and a marathon zip lining tour through the Rio Blanco Canyon, above water falls, huge acres of tropical forest and steep canyons.
Finally, we had earned a mud bath and a dip in Rio Negro’s thermal hot springs, deep within the forest. Cover your body in volcanic mud clay and then wash it off in one of the six hot pools, bubbling with natural, crystal clear water. The adventure activities, combined with the beautiful landscape, helped the nation to attract 2.34 million tourists last year - an historical record - and will be some of the activities the developing nation will promote across 26 international tourism fairs in the next four months.
My ten day-course was nowhere near enough to master Spanish, of course, but in surroundings as amazing and fun as these, it’s easy to see why Costa Rica is billed as ‘one of the happiest places on earth’. I’ll definitely be coming back; not least to conquer that Spanish ‘r’ sound.