I stayed in Tamarindo, a beginner surfer's mecca filled with aspiring surfers, backpackers, and tourists, surrounded by dusty roads, lush nature, and a variety of wildlife. It was a place where I had time to rethink my foolish mindset and fulfill my dream of learning to surf. While I enjoyed my time there, I would be very cautious about recommending this place if you're not looking to surf.
It's no secret that one of my four goals for the last quarter of the year (wow, I'm so corporate) was to give surfing a proper go. For someone who loves the ocean, sun, mesmerizing beaches, and magnificent yet worthy-of-respect waves, surfing has always seemed like something I'd want to try. After about 25 years of my life, I indeed gave it a shot in Tenerife. It was such an amazing experience that I told myself surfing is probably not for me, and I should stick to land sports. Nevertheless, the dream of surfing one day remained.
Fast forward a bit. Life happened, and I was presented with the opportunity to travel wherever my heart led me. Naturally, I started thinking and prioritizing (wow, I am indeed a corporate person) the things I wanted to do in my life. Giving surfing another go was one of those things. However, this time, instead of going randomly to a random place for a short session, I decided to do it properly by signing up for a surfing school and dedicating myself to it completely.
Since I knew I wanted to visit Costa Rica, and from what I'd read it's a great country for beginners to surf, the remaining task was to find a beach and a surfing camp. After the usual overly obsessed searching, categorizing, and ranking using information from Reddit and Google reviews, I settled on a place called Witch's Rock Surf Camp.
The only thing left was to plan a trip from Mexico to Tamarindo (for those landing at Juan Santamaría Airport, I highly recommend trying a flight from SJO to Tamarindo via a small Sansa airplane - yes, it's more expensive, but it will be an experience in itself), pack the backpack, go AFK for 2 weeks, and say hello to Pura Vida.
I still remember how excited I was when I arrived at the surf camp. One of the first things I did after unpacking my backpack was take a walk along Tamarindo beach. However, as I walked, I felt a really odd sensation. Seeing everyone, from the tiniest child to the eldest folk, surfing with such proficiency made me feel out of place. I thought of how, in my younger days in Tenerife, I had struggled where these surfers were thriving. This realization, combined with the less-than-postcard-perfect beach, overcast skies, and fatigue from the long travel, slightly dampened my initial excitement. However, after making it to the far side of the beach and heading to the store, I reminded myself that I was here to learn and to enjoy the experience, whatever the outcome might be.
The next morning at 6 AM, my two-week surfing journey began. What I felt during that first training session can be summarized with something like:
The right environment can make the difference between blooming and slowly dying.
I think that within the first half-hour here in Tamarindo, I caught more waves and had more fun than during the entire session in Tenerife. I'm not exactly sure what made the difference. More beginner-friendly waves? A better instructor? A better board? Was it me, secretly training in my consciousness? While I would like to take all the credit I believe the first two factors, waves and instructor, made the biggest difference.
One reason I'm writing this is to encourage others who've tried something once and struggled, to give it a proper shot in a different environment that might be more suitable for them.
However, I don't want to leave you with the impression that those were the only necessities and I magically started surfing. Far from it. Those two weeks were filled with highs and lows and periods of stagnation. I was waking up with the sun every morning, training two times a day, attending seminars, watching lessons on YouTube, observing other surfers, and immersing myself as much as possible into the surfing world. There were days when I made significant progress, days when it seemed I hadn't progressed at all, and special moments when something just clicked in my body, allowing me to do something I hadn't been able to do before.
Even though I continued to surf nearly every day for another month after the surf camp, I would still consider myself a beginner (maybe a low intermediate) surfer. And you know what? I'm happy with that. I'm pleased with my progress and where I am now. Before Tamarindo, I thought that surfing was definitely not for me, but now I see it as a sport that I will continue to pursue and improve in.
Now comes the important part. Looking back, I understand how foolish I was in Tenerife. For some absurd reason, I thought that after just one random session with five other people and one coach, I should be able to catch waves left and right, make turns, and do all the cool things I saw on YouTube. Why did I think that? Because I hadn't given it much thought and considered it merely as an entertaining pastime. I did Judo for over 10 years, and I would never expect that a person who came to their first session would be able to perform throws. Heck, even after a week, a person would still be learning the basics of how to stand, move, and fall.
Surfing is a sport, and like any other sport, it requires time and dedication. Additionally, the right environment is crucial. This is especially true since you can't just go out and train without waves that are suitable for you. I feel like the waves on my first day in Tamarindo were just perfect for me at that time. The coach also seemed like a perfect match. And most importantly, I had the right mentality, as I was approaching it as a sport.
Why do I think that a surf camp is beneficial for someone who wants to start? I'll list just a few reasons below (no I'm not interested in selling you anything).
There's a multitude of skills to acquire in surfing, and it's not something you can rush. For example, in Tenerife, determining my stance was a really quick process. The coach had me pull on a rope and promptly declared my stance, with no real exploration or fine-tuning. In contrast, in Tamarindo, discussions with my coach about what felt right for me led to days of trying one position and then another until we found the best fit for me. Ultimately, the standing position that worked best for me turned out to be the opposite of what I had been using in Tenerife (shout-out to my fellow goofies).
Additionally, knowing that there's plenty of time makes you more relaxed. There are days when you'll absolutely rock the waves, and then there are days when you'll... well, let's just say you won't rock quite as hard. Given enough time, you'll come to realize that a single day's failures don't define your overall ability.
Lastly, you can't control the waves or the weather, so having more time means you're more likely to experience the environment not only at its worst but also at its best.
Having a coach is one of the top benefits of a surf camp. Ideally, this is a skilled expert who not only observes you but also actively helps you progress. They've seen countless mistakes, understand the common struggles, and, most importantly, can identify your specific weak points. On top of that hopefully this person is interested in seeing you succeed. Having access to this person is incredibly valuable. While it may be challenging to find the perfect coach, I believe that to some extent, any surf coach is at least partially committed to some things that I mentioned.
Moreover, being in a surf camp where you're filmed daily and have those performances analyzed can be a game-changer for rapid improvement.
And no, having a coach in the water is not only useful to fill waiting moments with fun chit-chat, but it also ensures that you are waiting in the right spot. I'll admit that in the first week, the sessions without my coach ranged from simply bad to downright miserable. Nonetheless, as with many other pursuits, aiming for independence from your coach by learning to identify the right position and deciding when to catch a wave on your own should be a goal you aim for as early as possible.
Surfing etiquette is a thing. I think it's very likely that you won't understand all the intricacies of surfing just by taking a single lesson. That makes sense, these sessions are designed to maximize your time in the water, ensuring you're happy with what you paid for. However, this can mean you might get into the water and, without any bad intentions, end up creating dangerous situations for others or unintentionally catching waves that really should be someone else's.
It all ties back to the time factor mentioned earlier, more time means you can spend it not just riding waves but also chilling on the sand, soaking up knowledge, and then putting those lessons into action when you're surfing.
P.S. You can find most of the theory online, so attending a surf school isn't mandatory if you want to become a better human being in the water. So please don't skip on this part.
Usually, I don't care much about being around lots of people. In fact, I'd rather find a quiet spot to relax by myself. However, I have to say, having others around who are also learning to surf is actually pretty great. It's comforting, for one, and seeing everyone else get better day by day? It's motivating and just downright cool. Together, you get to cheer for each other's successes and laugh off the wipeouts.
The first week at surf camp was lucky for me because there were quite a few solo travelers. This meant people were more inclined to socialize and have fun together. It was like being part of a big, friendly family. Even better, I met someone who was just as excited about practicing as I was. This meant that a) waiting for waves to come in during our afternoon sessions was more enjoyable and b) having someone else who shared the same enthusiasm made me even more motivated.
The second week brought a different vibe with less solo travelers. While I still met some awesome people and had a good time getting to know them and seeing their quick progress. This week I felt more distanced, and it goes to show how a change of scene can mix things up. I wasn't as close to this group, probably because I was the weirdo staying for a second week while everyone else was just starting. This meant I missed some group theory classes and surfed at slightly different times. But since it was my second week and I was already settled in, this setup worked pretty well for me.
There are so many other things and nuances that I didn't go into. If there is one takeaway message from me, it would be: surfing is a sport, and like any other sport, it will require time and dedication. Being in a place like a surf camp (assuming it's not just a cash grab) can allow you to become highly focused and set you up for the path of success.
I feel like for me, the real journey began after the surf camp was over as I started taking the first baby steps without my parents holding my hands. While it's a bit daunting, it is very freeing and exciting!
From the very first night here, I was reminded that I'm merely a guest here. The experience of hearing scratches, weird noises, and the sound of someone running on the roof at night was a bit scary, yet these were the very sounds that highlighted the astonishing wildlife around me.
From a hummingbird observing me gracefully on the balcony to a howler monkey passing by the surf lesson, these animals ensured I received my random doses of dopamine. Back home, living in a city meant that seeing a squirrel was very exciting, whereas here, seeing a squirrel was as commonplace as seeing a fellow human. Frankly, I haven't felt so close to nature in a long time (if ever).
While in Tamarindo, I met a lot of interesting people: ranging from someone who spent time in a money-laundering cult in Paraguay to someone who was building the next big startup in property management in NY. Yet, even with so many different people, one trend stood out: everyone seemed to be just passing through.
It seems that the majority of people stay for a relatively short time, which makes sense. Compared to other places I've visited, there's not much to do if you're not into surfing. This can be problematic if you're looking to make deeper connections or if you're staying longer.
After chatting with an Australian who was staying at a hostel, it quickly became clear that if you're not planning to surf, you might start feeling a bit isolated and out of place.
I quite enjoyed my time in Tamarindo. Actually, it perfectly served my purpose, which was to learn how to surf. I'm very happy that I picked this place at this exact time in my life.
Would I recommend Tamarindo to others? I think it depends. If the people interested in coming aren't planning to surf, I would be very cautious about recommending this place.
While the place offers pretty mellow vibes, it's mostly a one-street town. As soon as you wander a bit off the beaten path, prepare to be greeted by dust and mud. I vividly remember that even when walking on days after some rain, I would still get a bunch of dust blown into my face by passing cars (though I was living a bit further away). Since I was mostly dressed in a way that showed little concern for the surrounding environment, it was fine, although it was a bit annoying to try so hard not to lose a flip-flop in the mud.
Additionally, most of the cars on the road are very old which means the air is often unpleasantly filled with both dust and car exhaust, making walking a less pleasant experience.
The main beach isn't a spot where I'd enjoy spending time with a book or podcast. It's fine for sitting down and chatting with a friend or a stranger. However, it doesn't suit me when I feel the urge to fall deeply into my thoughts and relax. I can't pinpoint exactly why, but I think the main contributing factors are: 1) the high tide, 2) the level of chatter and movement around, and 3) the color and texture of the sand (yes, I'm that weird). You can somewhat mitigate the first two issues by walking north towards the river. Still, even then, it wouldn't be my ideal relaxation spot. But hey, that's just me. I saw people chilling with books, so it obviously works for some.
Grocery stores in town are quite limited, and if you're looking for something more, you'll need to take an Uber or rent a car to get to the supermarkets that are a bit outside of town. Again, it's not a huge dealbreaker since taking an Uber is pretty straightforward and not too expensive, but it's just another minor paper cut.
I was there during what would be called the off-season, and from what I've heard, it gets crazy busy during peak season. This means that surfing becomes much less pleasant, although I guess the social aspect of life improves. Nevertheless, after talking with locals, I got the impression that I definitely wouldn't want to come to surf during peak season, even if the waves are supposed to be better.
Another thing that struck me is the previously mentioned fact that people come and go. I felt the rotation quite strongly. I think this has to do with the fact that tourists, backpackers, travelers, and nomads make up a significant percentage of the population. For example, in Playa del Carmen, most of the connections I established were with people who live there, whereas here, the majority were backpackers or surfers who came for a 1-2 week surf.
I think if you're keen to learn to surf, this is a great spot. If you're in search of a relaxing holiday destination, this may not be the best fit for most people. On the other hand, if you're on a quest to explore the world, you could pass through this town briefly as part of a longer journey, perhaps as a convenient stop before heading to Nicaragua.
As for safety and people, I felt very safe, and the locals were super friendly. In Playa del Carmen, you constantly hear, "Taxi, taxi, amigo, taxi," and interest drops as soon as you say "No, gracias." Here, though, I often got a smile and the magical phrase "Pura Vida!" after declining. In fact, I met a lot of nice and simple (in the best way possible) people. The lady at the restaurant where I ate for two weeks during surf camp was so warm that sometimes I felt like I was going to blush like a little kid. The final touch of kindness came from the person sharing the Tamarindo to Liberia bus with me, who actually came over to tell me my backpack was open as they were getting off. That was like the final friendliness stamp on my Costa Rican envelope.
Would I come here again if I weren't a beginner surfer? I don't think so. If my goal was surfing and I had to choose a spot around Tamarindo, I'd go for Playa Grande. The few times I went there, it offered consistently good waves that suited me, without the big crowds (though I didn't hang out near the main peak). While it might be trickier to get groceries, find accommodation, and so on, I believe it would offer those slightly more remote and peaceful vibes where I could enjoy my podcast under a coconut tree (hopefully without getting hit by one). And the upside is, Tamarindo is just a short boat ride away, 5-10 minutes tops, for when I want to relive beautiful memories and soak in the nostalgia.
— Costa Rica is so green! Even while traveling by bus, you can enjoy unlimited green scenery.
— Animals, animals, animals. I was very happy with every single interaction with them (except for that one squirrel that completely dominated me with an alpha look). Although at the beginning, it was a bit creepy hearing something scratch at your wall while trying to sleep, after some time I realized that I'm just a guest and there's no problem my earplugs can't solve.
— Tamarindo is great for beginner surfers (well, from my perspective anyway).
— Prices during the off-season are significantly lower. I paid half of what I would have paid for my surfing school.
— Surfing in the rain with clouds is something different. Seeing waves covered in small rain droplet patterns slowly coming towards you is a bit magical. Although, depending on how strong the rain is and how far away the thunder is, the environment can be a bit apocalyptic, it is still very mellow and unique.
— There's a really fun calisthenics "gym" almost right on the beach. It was the first time in my life where I was looking at the ocean while performing an overhead press with a barbell made from a steel tube and attached concrete slabs. Although some equipment was missing during my later sessions, I would definitely recommend going there at least once.
— Honestly, the rainy season during the time I was there wasn't that bad. Initially, I was a bit scared that it would make things harder for me, but in reality, there were zero days when rain ruined my plans (albeit most of my plans involved surfing). From what I learned, Tamarindo and the northern side, in general, is drier than the south.
— Surfing is a sport. Treat it like one, and you will be amazed by the results.
— If you land at SJO, give the small Sansa airplane a chance. While it's more expensive, it's convenient and offers an experience of its own.
— If you are not planning on surfing, take some time to consider what you will do in Tamarindo.
— If you are catching a bus in Costa Rica, make sure to check the Facebook page or official website of the bus company for the latest updates. I discovered that 2 out of the 3 buses I planned to take had updated schedules posted on their Facebook group.
— People come and go. If you are an expat or nomad who enjoys making stronger connections, this might become tiring.
— If you are coming during the peak season, be cautious of the surfing crowds. From what I've heard, it can get a bit hectic.
— For the most part, Tamarindo is a one-street town, so manage your expectations accordingly.
— Walking through the town can sometimes become quite unpleasant as you encounter old cars farting exhaust, dust from the road, and mud from rainy days, especially if you wander off the main street.
— Tamarindo beach didn't really wow me on the looks department, but I've got to say, it looked a whole lot better when I was catching waves. But hey, that's just me – you might see it differently.
— If you're planning your time for a surfing holiday and you're pretty flexible, before choosing the date, look at how many high tides per day there will be. Having one in the morning and another in the afternoon will allow you to surf more.
— For a really nice overview of surf spots in Tamarindo, I recommend this.
— I found daily small groceries to be cheapest at Super Compro.
— For a bigger variety and larger purchases, I recommend ordering an Uber and driving to one of the supermarkets outside of town.
— If during the night or morning you hear some monsters howling, don't be afraid. Most likely, it's just howler monkeys asking if you're enjoying Costa Rica.
— There is a night market that is supposed to be open on Thursdays. I say "supposed" because I think that during the off-season it's not always open. A few times I tried going there, it was closed, although I heard music and sounds during my last night in Tamarindo, so maybe I was just out of luck.
— Very random, but for some reason, I quite enjoyed Lizano sauce. I wouldn't like it on everything, but for the Gringo Burritos I was eating daily at the surf camp, it was a magical combination.
— If you're looking for a chill place with decent internet to work during the day, Pico Bistro could be the spot for you.
— Next to Tamarindo is Playa Grande. It's only a 5-10 minute boat ride away and, from my brief experience, offers great waves with nicer scenery and more remote vibes.
My next stop after Tamarindo was Jacó. Even though I initially booked a shared shuttle hoping to save on travel time, it was canceled at the last minute because there weren't enough people (typical solo travel struggles). With no other reasonably priced options available, I decided to take the bus route. This meant I needed to catch three different buses (Tamarindo -> Liberia -> Puntarenas -> Jacó) and, depending on my luck, travel for about 8 hours. Since I wasn't in a hurry and was excited to see more of the countryside, this was perfectly fine by me.
The real fun started when I began gathering information: which buses operate on the route I'm interested in, where these buses leave from, and most importantly, what times they depart. After figuring out which bus companies were relevant to me, my next task was to find out where I needed to wait for my bus in Tamarindo. Reflecting on my daily life in town, I remembered seeing a bunch of folks at one particular bus stop, so I thought that this might be the one. But, not wanting to yolo it and then miss my bus, I figured it'd be smart to double-check.
Easy, let's go to Google Maps and type in the name I see on the route. Typing. Searching. No results. Okay, let's Google where La Pampa bus company stops in Tamarindo. Searching. No results. Alright, let's check Reddit. Surely people take this bus to Liberia. Searching. No results. Okay, let's start searching in Spanish (duh). Searching. Some results! No, it just mentions the Liberia bus station but nothing about Tamarindo. Fine, let's visit the official Facebook page for the company. Searching. Scrolling through a Facebook feed full of pictures. Reading comments. Nada. Messaging the company just in case they reply in the morning (I still haven't received a response to this day). Going back to the most recent post with a schedule update. Reading comments. Ah, something! Another non-native is asking where they should wait for the bus in Tamarindo. Sadly, there were no responses. Contacting that person. Within 5 minutes, I get a response. It is indeed that bus stop that I walked past every day while living here.
For anyone who got redirected here by a Google search: the Tamarindo bus stop for the bus going from Tamarindo to Liberia is here.
The next step was to find the bus timetable. I found this gem. However, because I have trust issues, I felt the need to cross-reference the times with other sources. After checking five different websites, I ended up with about five different times. I quickly learned that bus companies in Costa Rica are privately owned, and the best way to find the source of truth is to check their official websites. What are their official websites, you ask? For the most part, they are Facebook pages. After scrolling through these pages, I discovered that the times for two out of the three buses were different. Judging from the posts with frequent timetable updates, it appears that the times often change, so it's always a good idea to check for any recent updates if you're traveling in Costa Rica.
After about four hours of searching (at that point, I was an amateur in navigating the Costa Rican bus world), I had a somewhat decent plan detailing where and when to catch the bus, along with potential re-routes and plan changes.
The next morning, I went to the mysterious Tamarindo bus stop, where I met a fellow solo traveler from Australia. This meant we could share our struggles with finding the bus stop (they had found it on TikTok), joke about the uncertainty of the bus's arrival time, and laugh at the absurdity of the situation. If I recall correctly, the bus was about ten minutes late, but as we chatted about travel and life, there wasn't a hint of stress or concern in the air.