Sunday, 21 April 2013

Pura Vida!

"Pure Life" on the Nicoya Peninsula

I was very reluctant to get out of bed. And it wasn´t so much because it was 5am and I was exhausted from 7 days of cycle touring. But rather because it was the beginning of the end of our overseas adventure, and that for the next 5 weeks I would be without my trusted travelling companion and wife (same person). But I still had things to look forward to on my journey home, and it was the thought of this that overcame my sleepiness and got me on the bus to the airport.

Lily shares the Stewart family appetite
My first stop was Sydney, where I was to spend the weekend with my brother Mark, his partner Jude, and my neice Lily. I had last seen them all 18 months ago, when Lily was just a baby. Now she was a walking, talking little girl, with bags of personality. Lily was shy and silent at first, but soon found her voice, and I felt very much part of the family. Although I only spent 2 days with them, it was a typical family weekend, spending time both at home and down the beach, and I will remember my visit fondly.

No time for dawdling, I then flew NE over the Pacific, to spend the next two days of my journey home at my Uncle Fred´s and Aunty Joyce´s home in Orange County, California. We had visited them last summer whilst we were in the states, and it was funny how much it felt that I had come home - everything was familar. But these two days were a little more hectic, as I had already lost half a day having had to fly unexpectedly via San Francisco, and the remaining time was mostly spent shopping for essentials for my next destination. But it was never-the-less nice to see them both again.

Thus began a rather extended journey that took me from Los Angeles to the surf town of Tamarindo, on the Nicoya Penisula of Costa Rica. In an effort to get the cheapest possible air fare (are you really surprised), my flight to Costa Rica took me first to Las Vegas, then to Dallas, then to Fort Lauderdale before finally landing in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. My first few hours were spent in the airport, catching up on sleep and wasting time, until my tourist shuttle was due to depart. I arrived in Tamarindo in the late afternoon, somewhat dazed and confused after a 36 hour journey.

Sunset in Tamarindo
Tamarindo is considered the surf capital of Costa Rica, and a snesible base from which to start my surf adventure. My first sight of the waves of Costa Rica was a bit of a disappointment, as a sea breeze was blowing on shore with full force, obliterating the normally reliable surf. So I spent my fist afternoon shopping for a surf board. Tamerindo is chock-a-block with surf shops, so I didn´t have trouble picking up a half decent short board for a reasonable price of $220.

Although considered the surf capital of Coast Rica, this is perhaps from a beginners point of view. The water just out from the town is blessed by a mellow learners wave, but consequently the water is packed with kooks (trainee surf dude), and the waves lack the spunk that more advanced surfer such as myself are seeking. However, 20 minutes walk south of town, or 40 minutes walk north, there are more advanced surf breaks, and it is here that I spent most of my time in the water. The walk north along the beach to Playa Grande is a bit of a hike, but the waves there are much bigger than those close to town, and they look like they have been made by a machine. Perfect A-frames peel onto the beach, time after time after time. I had been warned about the localism at this popular spot, but was still taken aback when on my first visit there I saw a full on first fight, first in the water, then in the shallows, as some local goon tried to drown a fellow surfer. Once the poor victim had stopped fighting back, the goon then set about smashing the guys board to pieces on the beach. It was such a shameful thing to witness.
Helps me get traction!

My routine whilst in Tamarindo was to rise with the sun at around 5am, and wolf down a quick breakfast. If I could be in the water by 6am, then that gave me a good 3 hours before any sign of a sea breeze would be likely. I would return to the hostel for a second breakfast, and then probably chill by the pool until around lunchtime. If I had any jobs to do then I would pop out after lunch, before a bit more pool time. I would plan to be back in the water around 4pm, which gave me 2 hours of surfing before the sun went down, which i witnessed whilst out on the water on many a memorable occasion.
I ended up spending 10 days in Tamarindo, which was much longer than I had anticipated. This was in the most part due to the unfortunate timing of Samana Santa (Easter), during which the entire country heads to the beach before the public transport system shuts down for the long weekend.

Typical dry scrub landscape of the Nicoya Peninsula

Once the weekend was over however, I left Tamarindo for a surf spot enthusiastically reccommended by the hostel owner, who himself had just returned from there. He raved abut the surf at Playa Maderas in southern Nicaragua, where the wind blows offshore all day, due to the close proximity of the massive Lake Nicaragua. The consequence of this offshore wind however, is that the sun warmed surface water is blown out to sea, and replaced by chilled water from the deep. I had experienced the dramatic temperature change when the wind blew offshore for a couple of days whilst I was in Tamarindo. Overnight, the sea temperature went from bath water to pond water, and I struggled to spend more than 30 minutes in the water at any time. I had prepared for this Nicaraguan temperature change by picking up a cheap (and badly fitting) wetsuit, which made the surf bearable if a little less enjoyable.

Hostel Clandestino

Playa Maderas is wonderfully undeveloped, and most people who surf there prefer to stay 12km away in  tourist friendly San Juan del Sur, and catch the surf shuttle out to the waves each day. But I was keen to surf the waves at dawn and dusk, and was not put of by the lack of facilities. There are two basic hostel-restaurants on the beach, but I opted to stay slightly up the hill, in beautiful tree house Hostel Clasdestino. The waves at Maderas were very different from those in Tamarindo. Here, the beach is quite narrow (making the water feel more crowded) and the waves aren´t so clean. It took me a couple of days to get a feel for the place, but once I had, the waves proved to be a bit more meaty than those in Tamarindo. After 4 days here my body had got used to the water temperature sufficiently to allow me to go out without a wetsuit, but I still craved the bath time of further south, so set off to find some waves down there.

Hollow waves at Playa Maderas

My destination from Playa Maderas was back into Costa Rica, and further down the Nicoya peninsula, to the area known as Nosara. The further down the Nicoya Peninsula you travel, the worse the roads become, and the last two hours of the journey to Nosara was on bumpy unsealed roads that filled the bus with chocking dust. I arrived in the dark in a battered state, having missed my stop and requiring me to hitch a ride with a rucksack and board bag of a guy on a motorbike with no headlights. Oh what fun!

Wild beach of Playa Giones

I was staying at a hostel next to Playa Giones, the beach with the most consistant surf in the area. There are always waves here. But that is not to say they are any good. My first impressions of the surf at Giones was not great. A massive beach with peaks breaking all the way along, apparently at random. The bigger cleaner sets would break maybe 100m out back, and this made for a punishing 5 minute paddle marathon to get out there. And  a constant set of rip tides would either pull you along the beach or further out back. However, after a few days I started to figure where the waves were better (follow the crowds!), and one particular morning session where I caught 5 long rights back to back, I was in love with the place. It was here that I caught perhaps my biggest wave ever, a short left at possibly double overhead (i.e. a twelve foot face), and all captured on my GoPro adventure camera.

Another highlight of my time in Nosara was the rodeo. The Nicoya peninsula is traditionally an area of cattle ranches, so the rodeo offers a chance to see the real Costa Rica, undiluted with tourist trash. And what a great experience it was. Health and safety dpeartments in the UK would have a heart attack, but by far the best seats in the house are those actually on the fence of the main enclosure, up close and personal to the action. The main activity at the rodeo is the riding of the bulls as they are released into the enclosure, bucking and kicking as they go. The riders risk snapped necks from the voilent bucking they encounter, but perhaps of greater danger comes at the moment of dismount, which must be done cleanly and quickly. But it´s at this point the real fun begins as those spectators brave (read drunk) enough run into the enclosure and attempt a game of tig with the bull. With so many spectators in the ring, the bull struggles to lock onto a particular target, but occasionally he picks his man out and charges. The spectators scatter, so heading for strategically placed narrow doors in the enclosure, others taking running jumps up the wooden slats. The bull will often run round the edge of the enclosure, requiring everyone to lift their legs clear of his horns. But one time as a bull approached us on is tour of the ring, he decided to start bucking again, with his hinbd legs reaching 10 foot in the air. At this point lifting our legs wasn´t enough, as we quickly struggle to stand on the top woodne slat of the fence, a difficult manouver with a beer in one hand and a camera in the other. So close was this encounter that the girl next to me got swatted in the face by the bulls tail as he went. On hand in the enclosure are two cowboys, who expertly ride their horses around ready to come to the rescue. The skill with which they throw their lassoos has to be witnesses to be believed, with backhand throwns behing their heads whilst galloping at full pace past the bull.
Myself and friends quite literally sitting on the fence!

I moved on from Giones with one week of my adventure left, heading further down the peninsula still, to the surf village of Santa Teresa. Originally just a simple fishing village, surfers discovered this place over 20 years ago, and surfing is now the be all and end all of the town. Spread out along a dusty road parallel to the beach, Santa Teresa is blessed with atleast 4km of quality beach breaks. This place is as close to surfers paradise as I think you could find. The dry brown landscape encountered in all of my previous stops finally gives way to lush green palm trees lining wonderfully clean sand. Morning surf sessions here are amazing. With no widn the water takes on an oily texture, and its the most beautiful sight to look up and down the beach and see peak after peak of waves barrelling in.

On our first day here the waves were too big to be surfed, closing out in 10 foot dumpers. I watched a guy paddle for a full 20 minutes trying to cover the mear 50 meters to get out back. He never made it, but did end up half a mile further north along the beach for his troubles. With the surf too big for most mortals, I opted to rent a quad bike, and along with 3 friends from the hostel, we explored the rough dirt roads along the coast. The quads allowed us to reach a popular attraction in the area, a series of three swimming holes, each connected by a waterfall. A ten meter jump from the top to the middle pool provides the adrelaline rush missing from the day.

Me in freefall!

I´m writing this blog on the afternoon of my last full day in Costa Rica. I will be getting up at 5am tomrrow to have my last surf (the forecast suggests it should be a good one), before I have to sell my board and catch a shuttle back to the airport in San Jose. I´ve got a full day in the States on the way home, where I hope to make it to the Kennedy Space Centre, but all being well (or not, depending how you view things), I´ll be back in the UK on the morning of Wednesday 24th April. I hope you´ve enjoyed reading about our adventures as much as we´ve enjoyed having them, although perhaps that´s a bit much to ask.

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