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Lifeguard Update

Surf CR logoDid you know that Costa Rica has no national lifeguard program? The country averages about 60 drownings each year, many taking place on unguarded beaches. Luckily the beaches of Manuel Antonio are protected by at least one guard from the Cruz Roja (Costa Rica Red Cross), but they do not protect Quepos or any of the beaches at 30 kilometers to the north or south. Once you get to Dominical however, the Guardavidas de Costa Ballena are protecting those beachgoers.
That lifeguard program was created solely from private donations all the way back in 2001. In the past it had trouble with finances many times, and when the lifeguards could not be paid, people drowned in the heavy rip currents that at times are found there. Then in 2018 the community created a non-profit association to manage the program and received financial aid from the Municipality of Osa. This was the first time in the country where the local government helped fund a lifeguard program.
The non-profit association uses the funds received not only to pay the lifeguards, but to cover their insurance, legal fees, purchasing new equipment, repairing the towers, and help for the administration and accounting of the funding. The board of directors are all volunteers (including myself) and we ensure that there are lifeguards in the towers seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Dominical and Playa Hermosa de Uvita.
This year has been difficult to raise funds since public gatherings were not allowed and so a plea was made in September for help. Many private residents, local citizens, and businesses stepped up to donate what they could, and we were able to pay the lifeguards their holiday bonuses and give them a small raise. Over 30 businesses signed up for the $1/day club, contributing $365 a year to support the program. You can see who these generous donors are on our website, lifeguardscostaballena.com, and stay informed of our latest news and events.
A special thanks goes out to Benn Gilmour of Jackpot Sportsfishing who auctioned off a full day fishing trip on one of his boats. That one action raised $2000, and we hope other community members step up to help us continue to save lives. If you wish to donate to the program, you can by any of these methods:
Banco Nacional deposit
Asoc. Guardavidas de la Zona Sur de Costa Rica
Cedula Juridica 3-002-738759

Cuenta en colones: 200-01-195-003885-0
Iban: CR39015119520010038851

Cuenta en dólares: 200-02-195-002023-9
Iban: CR45015119520020020237

Banco Nacional swift code: BNCRCRSJGCI
Paypal (single or monthly donation),  Click Here! It’s easy!
U.S. tax deductible donation to the extent allowed by law through our U.S. non-profit partner Amigos of Costa Rica. This can also be a monthly donation, CLICK HERE! It’s easy!

What Makes the Perfect Surf Instructor?

Surf CR logoYou see them on the beach, sitting between rows of surfboards on the beach, dark tan, with a small sign offering surf lessons. You have always wanted to learn to surf, but not sure which instructor is going to be the best for you. Well, there are some important things to consider for your safety and ability to learn.
The first thing you should ask is what are their qualifications to teach. Just because they have surfed their whole life (if they are 20 years old that may be only 6 or 7 years) does not make them an instructor. In Costa Rica there is a specific certification an instructor must hold in order to give lessons, offered through the ISA (International Surfing Association). If they do not have it, they are working illegally.
Part of this course is knowing how to save someone in open waters. That can make the difference between life and death, and the rip currents in Costa Rica can be dangerous. The instructor should also know how to speak English or your native language, so he or she give clear instructions. They should give the first part of the lesson on the beach, showing you the parts of the surfboards, how to hold it when walking out to the water, how to paddle and stand up. 

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Three Surfers from Costa Rica Qualify for the Olympics in Tokyo

Surf CR logoLet’s do the math. There are 7.6 billion people on the planet and 35 million of them are surfers. Out of everyone who surfs, out of thousands that surf at the competitive level, only 40 surfers will be invited for the first time to the 2021 Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo, Japan. And three of those surfers are from Costa Rica! That’s 7.5% of the field from a country that only has 0.07% of the world’s population. It’s amazing!

Brisa Hennessy

BRISA HENNESSY photo: Pablo Jimenez

So, who are these three soon-to-be superstars? The first is the most ‘famous’—Brisa Hennessy. Brisa is currently ranked #16 on Women’s World Championship Tour (WCT), the most elite group of surfers on the planet. Due to her ranking, she had qualified for the Olympics first. Her surfing skills came from growing up near the tropical right hand point breaks of Matapalo, on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. When she was 9 her family moved to Hawaii and later travelled to Fiji often to surf some of the most beautiful and dangerous waves on the planet.

Leilani McGonagle


The second athlete is Leilani McGonagle. Her path to the Olympics was different. In order to qualify, she had to earn a 7th place or better in the ISA World Surfing Games, held this June in El Salvador. 121 women were competing in this event, some of them already qualified through their WCT status. With her powerful frontside attack, honed sharp by years of growing up surfing Pavones, she passed through the first heats easily. But each round had tougher competitors, and with little sleep each night and running only on desire and determination, she battled through to the final rounds of the event—earning her ticket to Tokyo.

Leon Glatzer

LEON GLATZER photo: Pablo Jimenez

Our third surfer from Costa Rica is Leon Glatzer. He also grew up in Pavones, surfing the long, left hand point break to perfection. And his path would be the same—he would have to qualify through the ISA World Surfing Games by placing in one of the top five positions. Five spots for 136 surfers, some of them already competing on the elite level, but not guaranteed a spot unless they had a good result here. Since Leon’s family is from Germany he was accepted on to their national team and received the best preparation possible for an Olympic athlete. He trained relentlessly for three years and it showed as he wowed the judges with huge airs and powerful carves in El Salvador. He barely lost an early heat, but then powered through the repechage heats all the way to the semifinals. With his 5th place finish, he earned one of the final coveted spots and will represent Team Germany (and ‘Pavones, Costa Rica’) in the Olympics.   
This will be the first time ever that surfing is in the Olympics. It was a dream started by an Olympic swimmer from Hawaii, the Godfather of surfing, Duke Kahanamoku. And now three surfers from Costa Rica will be able to live out that dream. Vamos Ticos!

Where to Surf Around Manuel Antonio and Quepos

Surf CR logoIf you are reading this, I hope you are already at your hotel in Quepos or Manuel Antonio and wondering where to find the best waves for your level of surfing. For April, May, and June, these months are some of the best of the year for swells and quality wave conditions. The reason is the Southern Hemisphere is going towards their winter, when powerful South and Southwest swells plow across the Pacific and send big long period swells to the Costa Rica coastline. Meanwhile it is still ‘summer’ here, when the winds are offshore for a longer part of the day and the rains are limited to the afternoons or evenings.

Ocean surfAbout two thirds of the time the waves will be big, so where do you go? If you are a beginner or intermediate surfer, you should check out the Quepos river mouth, a long left breaking wave that works best at lower tides. Also, you could drive about 80 minutes north to Boca Barranca, another long left that works at low tide. Or you can drive an hour south past Dominical to Dominicalito, which has a protected bay and the waves are smaller. This break works at lower tide.

If you want the bigger waves, then the closest spot is Playitas, at the north end of the beach in Manuel Antonio. This wave breaks best at high tide and has rights and lefts. Or, another great high tide break is Dominical, which has some great sand bars near its river mouth. And Isla Damas ten minutes north of Quepos is known to have an amazing barreling left, but takes a boat or jetski to get there. One of my favorite spots is Esterillos Oeste 40 minutes north, which has big, more slopey waves that can break up to a half mile from shore. This spot is amazing for SUPs and longboarders who want big surf, and works at both high and low tide. And it does offer a more hollow inside break for shortboarders at high tide when there is some size.

There are a few secret spots, too, and of course other perfect peaks that take longer than an hour to reach. But to find quality waves when it is either big or small, you don’t have to travel that far. Check CRsurf.com for the latest forecasts and tide charts for the whole year.

Native Moments

Surf CR logoThere’s a formula for this type of book. A coming-of-age story about a young man leaving a sordid past and discovering himself while in an exotic place. He falls in love, finds himself, and decides to stay where his heart lies in a paradisiacal bliss. Well, this book breaks that mold and tells a story of wrong decisions, harsh realities, and fragile relationships in a setting that I am very familiar with, Tamarindo, Costa Rica, in the early 1990’s.

That is what kept me enraptured with the book. Thirty years ago, Tamarindo was a dirt-road town along a small pristine bay with waves at both ends of it (Grande and Langosta), plus multiple surf breaks in the middle. To get to other breaks like Avellanas and Playa Negra you had to cross streams which was a terror if it was your credit card paying for the car rental.

Native Moments book coverOne of the characters in the story is Pablo—an older longboarder—who did sell ‘Burgers as big as your head’, and at his cabinas I had played a lot of pool myself back in the 1990’s. Nic writes about the surf shops in the area, the local pros, the beautiful beaches, the wildlife, the lodging options, and all that brings back the nostalgia of many readers’ first surf trip.

The main characters, Sanch and Jake are the tragic heroes. I rooted for them to make the right calls, and sometimes they did, but at other times they were a train wreck. They heard some good wisdom throughout the book, philosophies that could easily apply to today’s social issues. I could relate to what they witnessed on their surf trip because the author brought up the dark side of Tamarindo, too—cocaine, prostitution, theft, localism, crowded shore breaks with beginners learning to surf – the worst.

The author did a great job writing like someone in their twenties going on their first surf trip. There’s a lot of cussing, there’s a lot of drinking, there’s fights and hookups, getting stuck, and getting sick. Do not expect to deepen your vocabulary or get an expansive history lesson of the area. But you will be transported to an earlier time of Costa Rica surf exploration, and Sanch and Jake’s adventures will keep you turning the pages until the surprising conclusion.

You can purchase this book at Bookstore of the Waves in Tamarindo or online through Amazon—Native Moments.

The Best Waves in Costa Rica for Advanced Surfers

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The Labyrinth

On the way to Ollies Point, you pass this break on the boat. It only starts working when the swell gets to be two feet overhead or bigger. It is predominately a right that has a steep takeoff, followed by a quick barrel if the swell is the right direction, or a racy section where you can maybe fit in a turn or two, and then either clamps shut on the inside or flattens out if you make the shoulder. The rocks on the inside are menacing and knowing that if something goes wrong you are miles from the nearest port can make this spot fearful.

Playa Negra

Roca LocaA popular right rock-reef break, it is fun when it’s chest to a foot overhead. It’s easy to find the takeoff spot, just look for the dozen guys sitting right on it. But when it gets to be three feet overhead and bigger, the lineup thins out. There is usually a crazy riptide from the swell direction and from the water rushing back out through the shallow inside reef. A second take off spot appears another 30 yards farther outside, so if you are trying for a smaller set you will can easily get caught and walloped by a set wave. But if your timing is right, it is a roll in drop-in with a steep section to carve and then a right round barrel to plow through with a quick exit before you end up on the rock shelf.

Roca Loca

This spot is found half way between Jaco and Playa Hermosa. It is best when it’s double to triple overhead and usually there is not anyone out, or maybe just a few charging locals. The hardest part is paddling out, as there is a steep climb down from a parking spot known for breakins. Then you have to find the keyhole through the rock ledge, which is made more difficult at higher tides or when the closeout sets wash out the entire coast. Once you are out, the takeoff spot is clear—just find the ‘crazy rock’ boil and sit on it until the sets come. This wave can break 150 yards with a steep takeoff followed by a long wall—great for big gouges and top turns. Just don’t get behind it or it will swallow you up and getting back out is not easy.

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Take a Surf Trip to Esterillos Oeste

Surf CR logoIf you are a surfer and either are living in Quepos or Manuel Antonio, or just traveling through, sometimes you may want a different wave to ride. You could go south to Dominical if you want bigger waves at a beach break, or check out any one of the beaches from Isla Damas north to Bejuco. But Esterillos Oeste, the last major exit before Playa Hermosa, has two things the rest don’t—a rocky point break and a giant mermaid statue.
Esterillos OesteThis rocky point is at the far north end of the beach. It is actually a patch of rocky ‘fingers’ that stretch out into the ocean. The rocks make the wave break more evenly and also increase the power of the wave in some spots. The best part is when the waves are double overhead or bigger, they can break REALLY far out—like 300-400 meters out—and although they are huge and lumpy, with a bigger board a surfer can ride the wave almost all the way in. The point set up also offers a way for the surfer to dodge the bigger waves that come in while they are trying to paddle out. 

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Support a Local Surfer!

Surf CR logoDominical hosted the first contest on the Costa Rica national surf tour on January 25th-26th. There are seven events in 2020—Playa Cocles on the Caribbean coast, Playa Guiones, Santa Teresa, Playa Avellanas, Playa Hermosa, and Jaco. The champions in the Mens, Womens, and Juniors’ divisions may go on to represent Costa Rica in the ISA World Surfing Games to be held this year in El Salvador. And based on their performance they may even get to go to the Olympics in Japan.
The winner of the Open Division in the first contest was Oscar Urbina. He does not have a major sponsor, but with the support of the local businesses and the Caribe Surf Team, he was able to travel over all the way from Puerto Viejo and enter the event. Each event costs $45 US, and there is an annual membership of $45 to be a part of the Federation of Surf. This does not include the costs for lodging and food for the weekend, either. Coral Wiggins took first place for the women. Her main sponsor is the surf brand Hurley, but she also gets funding from J&J Fitness, a gym located in Tamarindo.

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Surf CR – February 2020

Surf CR logoIt’s that time of year, when the South swells are micro but the weather is perfect. It’s sunny all day, there is a nice offshore breeze, and I am aching to be out on the water. Here are my favorite four options.
The first option would be to do some rafting. Towards the end of the dry season the Rio Naranjo and Rio Savegre get a little shallow, but the rest of the year if I want some adrenaline that I cannot find in the waves then I take it inland. The rapids are challenging and fun to ride. The views from the raft are spectacular, from far away cloud shrouded pinnacles, to up close and personal observations of monkeys, iguanas, and uncountable birds. I often end the day as exhausted as if I was surfing the whole time. 
Man paddleboardingA second idea would be to Stand up Paddleboard or kayak in the mangroves of Isla Damas or south towards Dominical. The silence of motor-less movement in the still high tide brackish water is meditative, and the leafy branches provide shade from the heat. This isn’t a workout for me since there are no waves to catch or current to battle. Instead it is a chance to be on the water and discover the monkeys, birds, crocs, fish, and flora of the mangroves.

If it’s just too hot and I need to be underwater, then I would go snorkeling. Small waves mean less sand disturbance on the bottom of the ocean, which equates to better visibility. Combine that with days when there are zero clouds in the sky and it appears like the reef 30 feet below is at arm’s reach. I love snorkeling the islands called Tres Hermanas to the south or taking a boat trip to Isla del Caño where we spotted a lot of turtles, fish, and healthy reef. 
And sometimes I just want to be afloat on the water. Surfers often dream of having a cold beverage in their hand while out in the lineup, so why not enjoy that dream by joining a sunset sailing expedition on one of the catamarans and sailboats leaving from Quepos. Find a few friends to celebrate the times between the swells, and nurse those injuries back to health with some rest and relaxation. 
If you have an interest in planning any of these ‘flat days’ activities, just send a note to [email protected].

Surfing in Quepos and Manuel Antonio

Surf CR logoHere are my favorite two spots to surf around Quepos. There are other beach breaks and river mouth breaks, but they generally close out when it is big or if it is low tide. I will share the best tide and time of year to surf them, plus which swell angle works best.

Quepos River mouth

Quepos River mouth

In the center is the Quepos River mouth. At one time I feared paddling out there due to the runoff from the town, but now it seems to be better. That being said I like to paddle out at low tide when the outflow is minimal, and during the dry season months of March and April. I didn’t mention December to February since during those months it’s usually too small to surf. When it is on, there is a left that breaks close to the rocks and goes for about 150 meters, and another left on the north side of the river mouth that breaks 200-300 meters depending on the size and angle of the swell. It is best with a South-Southwest angle—too much West and the wave closes out, too much South and it passes by the end of the jetty from the marina. It needs to be 2 to 3 feet overhead at the beach breaks to make chest high waves at the river mouth. Luckily most of the time this wave is uncrowded, but if you see some locals out be sure to give them respect and they will return the favor. 
To the south in Manuel Antonio is Playitas. This is the section of beach that starts about a half kilometer north of the national park, and is located in front of the Hotel Karahe. The winding drive down to the break is hard to find (look for the Barba Roja Restaurant), but if you do then you can park right on the sand or if crowded on the side of the road. If you can’t find it, then park at the south end of the beach and walk north until you pass a small island just off the beach, and then another two meter rock sticking out from the surf about 50 meters out into the lineup. You can paddle out there or all the way to the point, and the waves break both left and right.
It takes a South to Southwest swell, but the shape can be imperfect due to the refractions of swell off the bigger islands off the coast. As a beach break, it works better right around high tide, and this is good since that also covers up some of the boulder sized rocks that sit right offshore in the middle of the break. This wave is very crowded at times since it generally is 1-2 feet bigger than other parts of Manuel Antonio, and the rocks provide a more hollow takeoff and some barreling sections. The best months are April to June when consistent Southern Hemisphere swells push up from Peru and across from Australia. I would not surf there as a beginner since collisions can happen with an aggressive lineup and broken boards are expensive.
There are fun spots to surf around the country, no matter your level of experience on a board. Please visit our website CRsurf.com and send us a note to help you find the best waves for your adventure. 

Surf CR – December 2019

Surf CR logoCosta Rica offers so much for surfers coming to visit. Miles of jungle fringed coastline, tropical water temperatures, and waves for all levels of surfers—from first timers to world championship competitors. It also has all types of lodging close to the coastline, from campsites to all-inclusive palaces. The government enforces a 50 meter public zone so everyone can access and enjoy the coastline. That may be one reason why the locals are some of the friendliest on the planet and why the term ‘pura vida’ is so popular. 
Group gettingre ady to surfIt is estimated that over 300,000 tourists come to Costa Rica to surf. In a country the size of the state of West Virginia, one would imagine that the waves get crowded but in reality there are long stretches of empty coastline. Two of the most popular waves in the country, Witch’s Rock and Ollies Point, and in Santa Rosa National Park, so the only surfers there mostly arrive on boats. There is one 4×4 track for the adventurous that leads to camping at Witch’s Rock, but otherwise that whole corner of the country is still empty.

The beaches are amazing. There are dozens of wide, soft sandy beaches with gently rolling waves that are ideal for beginners. You can find one with family friendly boutique hotels lining the beach, or one lined with just coconut palms and almond trees. For the experienced surfers, Costa Rica offers one of the longest left breaking waves on the planet at Pavones. It has another super long left at Boca Barranca, which is only an hour from the airport in San Jose, plus many other point breaks within a day’s drive on the Pacific. The country also has some of the heaviest reef breaks as well, like Salsa Brava on the Caribbean coast.  

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My Theory on Waves and the Moon when it Comes to Surfing Beach Breaks

Surf CR logoMany people would think that surfers worship the sun, but in fact it is the moon that makes all the difference in surfing. The phrase “you should have been here an hour ago” is common in surfing because it is the tide that can determine how the swell interacts with the shoreline. If it is too low tide or too high tide then the waves just are not the same. 

The moon controls the tides daily, and high tide gets about 50 minutes later each day. In general, beach breaks are better during high tide because the slope of the beach is at a better angle for waves to break evenly. Sometimes though, at dead high tide there is a lull or the ocean is so deep at the takeoff spot that it becomes mushy or just doesn’t break at all. This is why it is important to check the tide charts daily and when planning a trip, try to get high tide in the morning when the chance is better for offshore winds. 

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Watch Out For Other Surfers!

Surf CR logoI’ve seen it happen too many times. Beginner surfers out in the lineup where the waves are too big or fast for them. Intermediate surfers who think they know what they are doing, but do not have good control of their board. Even the advanced surfers who think they are invincible can get injured. I’ll explain each group, the hazards, and how to limit them. 

Beginner surfers are those surfing for the first few times. They can be picked out since they are most often on longboards, and those are often soft tops. They have trouble sitting upright on the board, and take extra time popping up. The hazards are when they lose control their boards after a big wave hits them, when they try to catch a wave but shoot the board out, when they fall, and when they do catch the wave but head right for you. To avoid them, be aware of where they are sitting and stay at least 20 feet away (the length of the board and the leash plus a few extra for safety).

surfing too close to other surfers

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Hazards to Watch Out for when Surfing in Costa Rica

Surf CR logoIt’s called the Domi-shuffle for a reason. You shuffle your feet when walking out to the waves because at certain times of year there are sting rays that lay in the shallow waters and if you step on one, they can use barbed tail to stab you in the foot, which causes extreme pain for a few hours. The way to heal it is to sink your foot in really hot water, which allows the barb to loosen up the stingers. Then pull them out with tweezers, clean with soap and water, and then do not cover the wound.
Sharks should always be respected in the water as they are called top predators for a reason. However, in 20+ years of surfing in Costa Rica, I have yet to see a shark while I was surfing. I did see a few at the Sierpe Rivermouth and imagine there will be one or two chasing fish migrations or larger rivermouths. Most of them are looking for fish, not humans, to chomp on so don’t get alarmed if you see one. Keep eye contact with it, and slowly back away. If it does try to bite you, hit it in the eye or the gills.  

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What I Love About Surfing

Surf CR logoToday I drove to the beach around noon. There was a storm on the horizon and the winds had already turned onshore, whipping the waves into a silvery soup. It didn’t look that appealing, but I paddled out anyways. I felt a need to wash away the dirt and sweat from a morning of hard work. My worries washed away as soon as my head ducked under the first wave.

The author surfingSurfing is my place to meditate. Sensing the wind, scanning where the next wave is going to break, watching the pelicans skimming over the swells—my vision expands to encompass all the beauty around me. There are no phones ringing, no sounds of traffic or construction. My breath slows down when I sit and stare out at the horizon, emptying my mind of all thoughts except the movements of the ocean around me.

The ocean is my gym. Often I am up at dawn, driving to my favorite break to catch while the tide is right and the winds are still offshore. I keep my body flexible through yoga and stretching, with the goal to make each ride longer with more powerful turns and the ability to contort into barrel sections. I run on the beach to expand my lung capacity for long hold-downs or three-hour surf sessions when the waves just keep getting better. And I paddle for miles, month after month, which has kept me in the best shape of my life.

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