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October 24, 2014
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A Skier’s Sense of Surf

There could be worse things to be obsessive-compulsive about

When he’s feeling generous, my husband Mike calls me determined—but I know that’s just his code word for obsessive-compulsive disorder. So, it’s a good thing he shares my latest obsession, surfing.

Even though I grew up spending summers at the beach, I never once considered surfing. I thought only hip teenagers with sun-bleached hair and underdeveloped fear factors took up that sport. The desire to surf didn’t hit me until I had passed into my forties, when our friends Dave and Mandy enticed us to join them for a week at Corky Carroll’s Surf School in Nosara, Costa Rica.

“You don’t have to surf,” Dave told me. That settled it. I was definitely going out on a board.

During that first week in Nosara, I practiced my pop-up on the beach, revealing a strong right-foot-forward goofy tendency. I ignored my flaming face and repeated the moves until I could jump up and position myself correctly on the board without thinking. Still, I never made it out of the rollers, remnants of already-broken waves.

Surfing, I found, is as hard as it looks. The surf camp videos reminded me of the après-ski movie at the Trap Bar, the one showing novice skiers falling all over the place as they unload from the lift. Only this time it was me in the picture, tumbling headfirst off my board in frame after frame. But I got hooked. Determined, my husband might say. We immediately started planning our return.

Taking up surfing doesn’t seem like such a good idea when you consider our hometown in the mountains is roughly a thousand miles from the nearest saltwater beach. But there’s a synergy between surfing and skiing/boarding, and a surprising number of enthusiasts pursue both sports. Since visiting Nosara, we’ve come to realize that many other Teton Valley residents escape the mountain mud season to spend time surfing on Costa Rica’s western coast.

Skiing/boarding primarily works the lower body, while surfing challenges the upper body, but both require a seriously toned core. They’re like opposites on the color wheel, the perfect balance for cross training. Back in Driggs after that first trip, I joined the core strength training classes at Dreamchasers and sent Dave and Mandy a bottle of absinthe as a thank you gift, with a note reading, “We don’t know whether to thank you or curse you, so hopefully this will do both.”

Then I set about arranging a five-week stay for the following spring.


The “Drive-Thru” surf video series became standard entertainment during morning coffee at our house. The more we watched, the more our confidence grew. “I could totally surf that wave,” one of us would brag, constantly trying to outdo each other. We tossed names of pro surfers around as if they were personal friends. I Google-stalked Rob Machado, another goofy-footed surfer, while Donavon Frankenreiter’s music played in the background. I read and reread a dog-eared copy of Surfer magazine that Dave left at our house, hoping that by absorbing the surf lingo I would miraculously become a surfer.

The second time in Nosara, we rented a house within walking distance of the main surf beach, Playa Guiones. I hired a young Tico surf instructor, Ricardo, and seriously challenged his teaching skills, not to mention his patience. We spent day after day in the rollers, hoping for a breakthrough. To his credit, he never once treated me like a girl—especially not a middle-aged one packing a few extra pounds. My waterlogged pride, his admirably concealed exasperation, and my mounting bill finally bullied me beyond the break, despite feeling that I couldn’t possibly lift my arm for one more paddle or endure one more turtle roll. With Ricardo’s perfect timing to set me up, I actually rode a green wave. It wasn’t graceful, but I was up and moving.

Though they can’t guarantee surfing success, Costa Ricans do make it easy to travel in their country, issuing visas to Americans upon arrival. They even whisked us past the special entry desk at the airport in Liberia so we wouldn’t have to wait in line with our three-year-old son. People speak ample English and easy-to-understand Spanish. It’s not inexpensive, but it’s a comfortable place to travel with kids.

Located on the central coast of the Nicoya Peninsula in Guanacaste—Costa Rica’s “Wild West”—Nosara refers to an area also known as “The American Project” because an American initially platted the land as one giant resort. The planned golf course never materialized, fortunately in my opinion, and the original acreage has since been divided into many pieces of private property. Today the Nosara Civic Association maintains control over the quality and scale of development, retaining a small-town aura in keeping with the country’s overarching environmental ethic.
One of the oldest expat communities in Costa Rica, Nosara encompasses the beaches of Playa Pelada, Playa Guiones, and Playa Garza, with the small pueblo of Nosara located six kilometers inland. A two-hundred-meter strip of jungle that’s officially part of the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge protects the beaches from seaside development. The view from the sand or sea at Playa Guiones remains remarkably devoid of buildings, with the exception of a few scattered thatched-roof shelters maintained by the various surf camps.

Playa Guiones is like Grand Targhee Resort’s coastal counterpart—a comfortable place to learn to surf with enough challenge to keep it interesting. The forgiving beach break at Guiones produces some of the world’s most consistent waves, typically in the three-to-eight-foot range. Nearby point breaks and a full coast of alternative surf options, including in neighboring Nicaragua, make it possible to launch a full-scale surf safari from Nosara.

Reaching Nosara, especially from Driggs—and especially with kids—takes some patience. Flights into Liberia typically arrive in either the early morning or late evening, necessitating a stateside overnight in Houston or Miami or a first night in a Liberia hotel. The four-wheel-drive trek to Nosara takes about three hours and shouldn’t be undertaken in the dark. Though rumors of an impending upgrade to the thirty-kilometer dirt road connecting Nosara to the highway have been circulating for several years, it remains in primitive condition, fortuitously deterring hordes of tourists.

Nosara isn’t just about surfing, though I can’t personally speak to the other attractions. The world-renowned Nosara Yoga Institute offers both extended courses and single classes, some focused for surfers. Beyond surfing and yoga, the area’s recreation possibilities include a zip-line tour through the jungle canopy, watching the olive ridley sea turtles come onto the beach en masse at nearby Ostional to nest during full moons, and deep-sea fishing excursions for sailfish, marlin, snook, snapper, and tuna. People horseback and bike ride on the beach, snorkel and kayak nearby, and hike to a nearby island during low tide.

And maybe, just maybe I’ll find time on my next trip to enjoy some of these activities. More likely, however, I’ll spend it obsessing about the next wave.

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