Surfing in Costa Rica

by Nancy Bestor

There I was, a 38-year-old mother of two, listening to my 24-year-old, extremely buffed Costa Rican surfing instructor tell me to lie on my surfboard, and when he said go, I was to “glide” to my knees, “pop up” onto my feet and catch a small wave. I know I should have been focusing on form and balance, but the only thing running through my mind, as my 24-year-old, extremely tanned and buffed, Costa Rican surfing instructor stood six-pack deep in the water right behind me, holding my surfboard, was “Does my butt look big in this swimsuit?”

Recently our family traveled the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, stopping in every sleepy beach town that caught our fancy, soaking up the sun and its rays. Playa Samara was the spot for our surfing lessons, and Jesse’s Surf School ( was just the ticket. Jesse and his daughter Sunrise, who are originally from Southern California, along with their patient instructors, work very well with beginners and children (as well as advanced surfers), so they were an excellent fit for our family. A one-hour private surfing lesson was $40 each, and Emily and Sarah (ages 11 and 9) each had a private half hour lesson for $40 total. The price included one hour of board rental after the lesson.

Surfing might sound easy, but it is harder than it looks, especially if you’re trying to keep your swimsuit in place because you have a 24-year-old, extremely tanned and buffed surfing instructor close by. I would get as far as gliding to my knees, but the “popping up” onto my feet and balancing on the board while riding a wave was just a shade more than my body could handle. As quickly as I would “pop up” I would pop right back down, into the tumultuous white water, which would toss me around, tangle my hair, sting my eyes, and send rivers of snot cascading down my face. It doesn’t take many wipeouts to come to the conclusion that the ocean is a powerful force. Then you realize you’re only knee-deep in water.

My patient instructor James (a Costa Rican surfing champion) would tell me where I had gone wrong—sometimes my feet were too far forward, other times I wasn’t crouching down enough on the board, and other times I was just too darn old and uncoordinated (my sentiments, not James’). Finally, however, James got me to focus on the task at hand, and become one with my surfboard. He was genuinely pleased when after about 40 minutes of instruction I started shredding on some righteous and gnarly waves. I was stoked. Jesse’s Surf School claims that almost all of their students are able to get up onto a surfboard and surf in whitewater after just one lesson, and Bob, Emily, Sarah, and I did just that. Dudes, we rocked.

Travel Notes

  • We stayed in a delightful hotel in Playa Samara, the Hotel Belvedere (, which our Lonely Planet and Rough Guides both recommended highly. Our apartment had a bedroom, a living room with a pull out bed, and a full kitchen for $75 a night. This also included a full breakfast served on a balcony overlooking the ocean. Owned by a German family, the rooms at the Hotel Belvedere were spotlessly clean, and the two lovely swimming pools kept our girls happy.
  • We stopped for a few days at Manuel Antonio National Park in Quepos. Our hotel of choice here was the Mono Azul for $75 per night ( This hotel is the home of “Kids Saving the Rainforest,” started by local kids worried about the endangered squirrel monkey. Ten percent of hotel receipts are donated to the organization. Although not crowded, Manuel Antonio National Park had more people on the beach than we had yet experienced in Costa Rica, and anytime there were “wild” animals around, such as sloths and monkeys, there was a large group of tourists with cameras at the ready. The park was beautiful, but we didn’t want to share, so we decided to head for more remote locales along the coast.

  • A pristine and deserted coastal stop on our trip was Matapalo, on the southern end of the Pacific Coast, just north of Dominical. The gravel road to Matapalo was rough, with mile after mile of bone-jarring potholes. It took us past endless oil-palm plantations and villages consisting of small workers’ homes surrounding well kept soccer fields. We even had to ford a shallow river at one point. The secluded stretch of beach in Matapalo, and the oasis-like hotel, Bahari Beach Bungalows (, made the drive well worth it. The Bungalows are actually “safari-style” tents right on the beach with full electricity and plumbing, beautifully tiled private bathrooms, and views of the ocean from the front porch and strategically placed hammocks ($100 a night for our family of four). The pool was fantastic, and we had the beach and facilities virtually to ourselves.