Learning To Surf in Costa Rica: You're Never Too Old

After a few shaky rides, Molly gets the hang of surfing. Photos by Ben Barnhart.
After a few shaky rides, Molly gets the hang of surfing. Photos by Ben Barnhart.By Ben Barnhart

Climbing down from the bus in the center of Playa Samara on Costa Rica's west coast, Molly and I are tired and sweaty after the meandering four-hour ride from San Jose and all we want is a cerveza and a palm tree to lie under. Surfing isn't part of our plan.

Beer and shade are easy enough to find in this quintessential beach-lovers village. The main drag, all of about four blocks long, is lined with Tico sodas and more upscale restaurants and bars–all serving ice-cold Imperials –- mingled with local artisans selling hand-made jewelry and at street's end is a wide beach lined with tall coconut palms blocking the hot mid-day sun. The beach is mostly empty now in the heat of siesta except for a dozen surfers wrestling with their boards in the rolling waves.

Maybe it is the beer and the heat, or the exhaustion of travel, but surfing actually begins to look fun. Even the ungainly novices who dismount their rides with feet-up-in-the-air gracelessness seem to be enjoying themselves.

Thirty Cold, Miserable Minutes

My only experience on a surfboard was thirty cold, miserable minutes at Cape Cod where I was drubbed by the waves before limping out of the water a broken man. Molly has never been on a board so her memories of the sport are fonder than mine.

Turns out a lot of people come to Samara to learn surfing. The horseshoe-shaped beach, a couple of miles from tip to tip, is sheltered by a large reef producing consistently gentle three-foot swells that roll softly in to shore and treat even the most inexperienced wave riders with some dignity. Think of it as a bunny slope for surfers.

Like many beaches on Costa Rica's west coast, Playa Samara attracts both experienced and novice surfers.
Like many beaches on Costa Rica's west coast, Playa Samara attracts both experienced and novice surfers.

As a result, you can't walk down Playa Samara without tripping over a surf school and that's just what we do. Attracted by the breezy beach hangout scene and the bustle of ongoing lessons, as well as the lady next door selling delicious fruit smoothies, we stumble into the C&C Surf School and our fate now seems determined.

California Dreamin'

If we're ever going to fulfill any of those California Dreaming fantasies, this is the time and place. Fortified and newly determined, we pony up our twenty-five bucks and are introduced to Samurio.

Samurio is wiry, agile and beautifully tanned. He looks like a surfer and we do not but he says, he can teach anyone to surf.

"Even pale, middle-aged, land-lubbing Gringoes like us?"

Beach scene at the C&C Surf School, in Playa Samara, Costa Rica. photos by Ben Barnhart.
Beach scene at the C&C Surf School, in Playa Samara, Costa Rica. photos by Ben Barnhart.

"¡Si, no problema!"

C&C is one of five surf schools at Playa Samara and is owned by American ex-patriot Charlie Foerster who came to Costa Rica twenty years ago on a Peace Corps assignment and stayed. His brother started the business seven years ago and Charlie took over in 2008.

Perfect Place to Surf

"Samara is the perfect place for teaching and learning," Charlie explains. "There are very few beaches on the west coast with a protective reef like that," he adds, pointing to a row of volcanic rocks rising out of the ocean a quarter-mile offshore.

"And this is a great, quiet little town," Foerster continues. "Lots of Costa Ricans come here for holidays and it still has a very local feel."

Showing the techniques on the beach.
Showing the techniques on the beach.

Indeed, as dusk falls on Samara the beach becomes the town square. Kids ride bikes along the sandy flats and a fierce local soccer game plays in the fading light while tourists and town-folk gather to watch the day end in a brilliant display of color. The Samaran sunsets are as consistent and gentle as the waves.

"Paddle, paddle, paddle!" Samurio is lying on a surfboard in the sand and demonstrating how to get out to the breakers to catch a wave. "When the wave comes, you need speed!"

Quickly and deftly, Samurio leaps to his feet on the center of the board and strikes a surfing pose. "Now you try," he says.

On my belly with the board beneath me on the sandy beach, I definitely feel like a fish out of water. A few half-hearted breaststrokes and I awkwardly jump into the air and plant my feet trying to remember the technique Samurio has just showed us.

Sunset on the beach.
Playa Samara is famous for its sunsets, as well as its waves.

Like a drill sergeant, Samurio walks in front of each board and studies our position. He picks up my board by its nose and, off-center and off-balance, I wobble for a moment then plop into the sand. My first wipeout and we're not even in the water yet.

A few more practice runs and we're suddenly heading into the surf with our boards in tow. Fighting our way through the incoming waves –- even the mellow rollers of Playa Samara -– proves to be just as hard as riding them.

Finally in position and waiting my turn with Samurio standing behind me and steadying my board, I wait for his instructions.

"Okay, wave coming! Get ready." Samurio gives me a gentle push. "Paddle, paddle, paddle!" I'm moving along now on the crest of the wave. "Stand up! Stand up!"

Soft Landings

Timidly, I get one knee onto the board then scramble to my feet, quickly forgetting everything I'd been told a few minutes earlier.

Oops, my weight is too far forward and the board nosedives into the surf sending me headlong into the salty Pacific. Luckily the landings are soft at Samara because over the next hour I make a lot of unplanned dismounts.

By the end of our lesson, Molly morphs into surfer girl and vows to return tomorrow (take a lesson at C&C and you get free use of a board during your stay in Samara).

I manage to ride a couple of waves without falling and even get a taste of the surfers high: crouched on the board at the crest of a wave and zooming toward shore with the tropical breeze on my face. The sensation is a little like walking on water.

Molly returns the next day and spends an hour trying to find her mojo again but she says it's harder without Samurio's help and guidance. I decide to watch from the shade of a palm with a cerveza in hand.

Ben Barnhart.

Ben Barnhart is a freelance photographer and writer living in Conway, Massachusetts. His photographs have appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Yankee magazine, Boston magazine, Caribbean Travel & Life, and many other publications, books, websites and annual reports.

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