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Costa Rica By Ben Matson

Costa Rica by Ben Matson (c) 1999


Note: Photos by Ben Matson and Scott Gilbert

Costa Rica is not quick and easy to get to from Australia. After around 72 continuous hours of planes and departure lounges I finally landed in Juan Santamariná airport, struggling with the humidity. After all, I had just left cold and windy Adelaide. Another six hours of buses and Scott and I landed at our first destination - Puerto Viejo. Here we met with my cousin Nick, who had spent the better part of the year scoring filthy waves. Once every few weeks the reverse-charge call would ring at my house and after 6 months I decided to do something about it. Scott, conveniently, was finishing a season in the Canadian snow and was looking for a new destination too.


Puerto Viejo is a fickle place. Located on the Caribbean, it reputably has the best wave in Costa Rica, 'Salsa Brava', a thick barrelling right over sharp coral. There were plenty of photos around to prove it, even some footage in the local video "Lost in Costa Rica". However after a week of small beachbreaks at best, Scott and I departed for the Pacific Coast, which was guaranteed waves in the wet season.


Buses are cheap and generally reliable, and it only took a day and a half to reach Dominical, located midway along the coast between Panama and Nicaragua. This stretch of coast receives swell from thousands of miles away, and even though the waves weren't that big they packed a punch. Especially at low tide. Without consistent banks, Dominical is really just a scattering of peaks; it's just a case of waiting for one to come your way. And as the tide moves in the rides become longer and more beltable. In Dominical we hooked up with some other travellers, Rick and Keith from Florida, and Gerard from New York whom we rented a house with. The Floridians had a 4WD which we used to great advantage, gaining access to nearby 'Punta Dominical', a long left reef. This was our first real taste of Central American surf. Nothing huge, but quality nonetheless. However after a week here it was time to move south, and with talk of a new south swell (as there always was) we didn't want to miss any action.


'Pavones' is the longest wave in the world, we were told. About 3/4 mile from go to whoa. Longer than 'Chicamas' in Peru. Well whatever they said, we decided to base ourselves here for a month and see what happened. Meeting a friendly guy in the street in Golfito, 'Uyllesses' (who knew no English) asked Scott and I (who knew no Spanish) to stay in his Cabinas. Fine, we said. I should have asked how long the bus ride was though; there is nothing more uncomfortable than a bumpy four-hour trip in torrential rain when you are desperate for a piss. We arrived to find some crew already bedding down for the night, Gustavo from Venezuela, and Guy from Israel. They said the surf had been pumping.


The next morning we woke to find the swell had dropped but was still rideable; full tide but a clean two foot. Not knowing where to paddle out (and just wanting to get into the water) I jumped in by the 'Cantina', only to see some a couple of specks way up the point. A lengthy paddle showed the setup - in essence just a reef break in front of a river mouth which (under the right conditions) links up to a really long point. The surf dropped considerably during the day, but picked up again the next morning for one of the most memorable surfs I've had. Maybe a foot or two over head, and a dropping tide with really fast walls from the first peak to the end of the rivermouth section; in fact most waves were some of the fastest of my life. More often than not they were impossible to turn on; line up a snap and the section will race right past you. On my backhand it was a great challenge.


During that surf a guy with a freshly shaven head paddled by; none other than Wayne, a friend from the next suburb back home. He had been travelling for a few years and to see him paddle past on the other side of the planet was quite an extraordinary feeling. We all hooked up that night at the Cantina for a few beers, something that grew more popular when the surf wasn't happening.


Over the next week the swell both came up and then disappeared sporadically; and we all found low tide to be the best option. Partly because the waves were faster, and partly because the crowd diminished too. Into our second week the swell vanished completely. According to data for the last five years, this very week had produced the biggest swells of the season. But we endured 11 days with little above waist high. In a town with maybe twenty permanent surfers and one bar, the focus switched to see who could beat the Aussies at tabletennis. Only Guy came close (although his patience wore thin at times) and some quiet guy from Switzerland who would show up, win, and then leave. A few more guys moved into the adjoining rooms, Des from Ireland and a Northern Californian called Brent who had a penchant for big waves. Most notable was Equadorian traveller Frances, huge in both character and frame. With help from brother Leo (who didn't surf), any girls who wandered into the village from time to time were at their mercy. Frances in particular earned the nickname of 'Captain Equador'; to see his big body racing down the line on a mal was a sign to clear the immediate area. His experience came in handy later though.


This flat period was also a good time to renew the visas too. Australians are only allowed 30 days at a time; you have the option of either extending it (an arduous task, as we found out), or crossing the border. Pavones is located quite close to Panama so most people found it easiest to get stamps and spend the night there. Or return to Pavones, and get the other stamp at your convenience. Whatever you thought was best.


Then they started rocking up. It was easy to see when a new southerly swell was on the way; truckloads of Floridians would appear on every bus with their trusty WaveFax's in hand. On the forecast was a triple overhead swell to hit in two days' time.

I have to hand it to those forecasters, they were usually spot on. To the hour. And fortunately at Pavones the associated crowd isn't that bad because half of the guys are usually running back up the beach, keen to get back in the water. At it's peak, the swell was the largest surf I've ever been in; I don't know how to gauge anything above 8ft (it's all big to me), but there were waves that had everybody scratching for the horizon. Not all waves made it through from end to end, but even getting halfway was worthy of a medal. Sometimes you'd just fall off in exhaustion. Long pointbreaks are perfect for ironing out those pathetic little turns we're so used to doing at home, and we all couldn't get enough of it. Just dig a rail and carve. And if you fall off, there's no need to paddle back out. Just wait for the next one.


On one of the large days Wayne and I sauntered off to a lesser-known wave around the corner which was a great decision. We had another fantastic pointbreak all to ourselves, smaller and protected (but still well overhead) and shorter (only 600m or so) but alone. It was impossible not to run back up the beach after every wave, it felt criminal to watch waves go unridden. Occasionally one of us would sit on the beach on the walk back and take photos or refuel with bananas and water, and then jump back in as the following set appeared around the headland. Five hours just flew by as we had one of the most incredible surfs of my life. We were exhausted to walk back to the village, but when we finally made it and saw the surf at Pavones, Wayne couldn't let the opportunity go and paddled out in the fading sunlight.


The swell hung around for about six days and as it abated so did the crowds. One morning, I was walking back up the point with some other surfers when Scott appeared covered in blood. He had sliced his head open on a fin after a wipeout. With no medical experience in the village we took advice from our first aid kits (yes, they really do come in handy!), applying some hydrogen peroxide and bandages. We mustered the only car in the village and its occupier - Captain Equador - to drive Scott to the regional hospital in Conté, about 2 hours away. Fortunately Captain Equador's native tongue is Spanish, so we jumped to the start of the queue. Fifteen minutes later and all stitched up, we asked "How much?" and they replied "Donation please". It's incredible to think that a country, which struggles against the economies of the world, offers free medical (including painkillers) to travellers.


After that Scott couldn't surf for 10 days so he became the new town photographer. It's also strange how girls are suddenly interested in something as unattractive as 9 stitches in your head. During the next week the swell subsided and I took a quick 2-day jaunt to check out the infamous Matapalo (just across the bay) which proved fruitless in the small, overcast conditions. Maybe next time. Then we packed up and moved on to the Guanacaste area.

Tamarindo is a bit of a tourist town. The surf isn't that bad but if you're on foot with a triple board bag each it ain't the best. The swell had dropped again so we decided to make friends with some other guys with transport and check out somewhere nearby. Jim and Steve from Colorado were classic characters and offered to take us to Playa Negra, about 20km away. The surf was poor when we first arrived but we decided to make a deal with Pablo, the local insight. He had some cabinas, and we stayed in the one called the 'Flintstone Lodge'. If you ever stay there you'll know why.


Eventually the surf came up and Playa Negra showed it's true form; a thick barrelling right-hander which gets quite shallow at low tide. We loved it though; having gone left for over a month it was great to surf frontside. I got some of the most insane barrels of my life; coming out without getting your head wet is a new phenomenon for most South Australians. The place was really a morning wave as most afternoons a seabreeze would bump things up. Playa Negra was very popular with travellers; we were never without company and there was always something to surf. Our first surfboard casualty occurred here too - a nice crease through my 6'4 after a ridiculously late take off. Nearby Avellanas never showed it's true form, but from photos we were shown, I'd like to give it another try. We spent two weeks in Playa Negra, meeting up with some other travellers, notably two Canadian girls Andrea and Teresa who drove from Playa del Coco to rescue us when Hurricane Mitch beared down on Central America. Torrential rain for 8 days straight doesn't usually go unnoticed, and amongst other things the airport closed, almost every road to San Jose was washed away and tens of thousands of people were killed in nearby Honduras and Belieze. It was a bizarre place to be.

The Canadians eventually gave us a lift to Jáco, which was suffering the ill effects of the hurricane. We were landlocked for four days; unable to drive anywhere due to flooded bridges and collapsing mountain roads. And we couldn't occupy our time surfing; the ocean went strangely calm and the debris floating in the water seemed eerily apt. When the rumour spread town that the roads were open, there was a mad panic to leave, only to be thwarted when another collapse in the mountains 30km from San Jose meant a four hour wait roadside. We retreated back to Jáco and were successful the next day.


Leaving San Jose for a final stab back at Puerto Viejo, the surf never appeared again. And with a change in the seasons, the town was full of backpackers and tourists. It was nothing like the first impressions given all those months ago. Maybe that's why I didn't like it as much, because now it wasn't a new place with new sounds and people to meet. So Scott and I advanced our flights and headed out. Either way it felt fitting that we left as we arrived; hot, humid and flat. The Caribbean was not going to show us anything.