Smart Surf Tips for Solo Travelers

The air is heavy and warm. It lays on you like a thick blanket of moisture.  The least amount of clothing is best. It’s my first morning in Playa Grande, Costa Rica. I brewed some Costa Rican coffee and headed out with my steaming cup to the beach to check out the waves and see the surfers on dawn-patrol.

I arrived yesterday late afternoon — the hotel owner, Pete, arranged my shuttle from the Liberia airport.  The airport is clean and airy. The usual cluster of taxi and shuttle drivers stand at the exit door. Juan David is holding a sign with my name on it.  The shuttle from Liberia to Playa Grande is about an hour and costs $65 + tip.  Juan David is friendly and suffers through my very rough Spanish skills on our drive.  A flurry of Spanglish is flowing freely. Lots of laughs and smiles. Juan David pulls over to a street-side vendor and buys me a refreshing coconut with the top cut off and a straw. Spanglish and fresh coconut milk start my adventure.

The beach is a short walk from BP Surf Hotel.  As I stroll down the half-dirt/half-paved street in my flip flops, I pass a few lazy pups who lift their heads to greet you (or maybe to see if I have any food), there are a few establishments on one side of the street and nothing but jungle on the other side. I find the clear path directly to the beach. There is a sign at the entrance to the path reminding users that this area is a natural reserve for sea turtles and to tread lightly in dunes and respect the space.  As I start down the path, I hear the roar of the ocean and wrestling on the jungle floor.  With each step, the deep green flora quakes a little more. I look down to see several small orange, black, and white Halloween moon crabs scurry into their holes. This is my new normal for the week.

It’s natural to be a little nervous about Solo Traveling, and things can go wrong, but don’t let this keep you from your travel dreams.  Knowledge is power and combats fear.

The water is a faded blue-green with white caps. It’s early, so the waves are clean and well spaced. The water is warm and the sky is a hazy blue.  There are easily 25 surfers on two different breaks.  I sit for a while and take it all in. The day is already heating up, I can feel the sweat trickle down my back and behind my knees.  After a long cold winter, I am totally digging the moment of moisture and warmth.

Solo Traveling is new to me. I have friends, two daughters and a boyfriend who all love to travel. This trip was my inaugural international solo adventure and, really, only for a couple of days before my friend arrives.

When mentioning Solo Travel to friends and family, you may find that you are bombarded with questions, anxieties, and doubts about traveling it alone.  Why would you go alone? I don’t think I could do that, what if I get lost or worse?  The major media outlets don’t help either with a singular focus on only the wrong side of traveling experiences. It’s natural to be a little nervous about Solo Traveling, and things can go wrong, but don’t let this keep you from your travel dreams.  Knowledge is power and combats fear.  Although this is new to me, I do have a few tips for all those ladies who want to break out on a solo adventure and do a surf trip on their own.

My first surfing experience was ten years ago (for my 40th birthday) with the Las Olas surf camp in Sayulita, Mexico, and it was terrific.  I learned so much about surfing essentials, and it was a fantastic group of ladies. It was an intense five days of socializing, surfing, crashing, and laughter. I highly recommend a camp to get started. 

I have surfed in other random places around the world and always take a refresher lesson, but let me tell you, not all lessons are created equal.  Surfing is a tough sport, and until you try to catch a wave on your own, you don’t quite get it.  My goals for this trip are to take a few refresher lessons, work on my popup, catch some waves on my own, relax, meet some new people and settle into and learn about Playa Grande.

Do your research and find a surf break for you

People love to plant self-doubt when you are planning a solo adventure.  They will express concern for your safety and well being, fears of not being able to communicate, theft, and bodily harm.  This bad-vibe is frustrating, but most of the time if you ask those same people if they have traveled to your planned destination, they will admit they have never been there.   So take anything they say with a grain of salt and instead, do your own research.  The internet, Instagram, and Pinterest are full of people who would love to share their advice and personal experiences.  Of course, like with anything, always use common sense, be smart, and pay attention to your surroundings. 

There are surf breaks all over the planet.  If you don’t know where to start, check out 10 Best Surf Spots USA or Internationally, 10 of the World’s Best Surf Destinations for Beginners.  Playa Grande is just north of Tamarindo but hands down a more authentic experience.  Talk to your friends and family for the inside scoop on their surf experiences. 

For me a small town/village with a hotel centrally located feels right.  BP Surf Hotel comes recommended and is located just a few minutes walk to the beach. The cabanas are simple with air conditioning, wifi, a small kitchen and bathroom with shower, plenty of built-ins to unpack your clothes and comfortable beds (a full and a twin). The little pool at the hotel is delightful and refreshing, and each cabana has an outdoor covered sitting area with a table and a couple of lounge chairs. It’s perfectly set up to work outside or relax and read a book.

I noticed that I didn’t need my electricity adapter. The electrical outlets work with my US chargers.

Generally, you will find information on surf lessons from the local surf shop. I set up surf lessons with local instructors for the first and last two days of my trip.  In PG, surfing revolves around mid-tide, so sessions times change.  My lessons were in the afternoon on the first two days, so I did some exploring. 

I enjoy wandering down to the beach and inland to check out the little town. It’s hot! I find myself ducking into a trendy little coffee shop and a mini-market for relief from the heat, but to also check out their goods. There is also an elementary school, a couple of surf shops and restaurants.  There are no sidewalks and little shade so walkers and bike riders share the road with vehicles, trucks, and motorcycles.  Most everyone is super polite and greet you with “Hola” or “Buenos Dias” or just “Bueno.” 

Around 4 – 5 pm on most days, the trees near the mini-market are invaded by a group of howler monkeys to munch on some leaves, swing around and make noise.

The mini-market has all your basic needs. However, I stocked up on breakfast and lunch items at the larger Wil-mart located down the street a couple of miles from the beach.  You can rent a bike with a basket and ride there to do a big-shop.   

Make good choices, learn from my mistakes and find your routine

Settle into how you feel being on a solo adventure. Enjoy the flexibility, time to think, and peace of being able to do what you want and not make decisions by committee.  Be open to new experiences. Find out where the favorite spot is to watch the sunset or the best Happy Hour.  For the first few nights, take it slow and make conservative choices such as eating dinner early, having only one drink, make polite conversation, and return to the safety of your cabana relatively early. If you’re surfing, it won’t just be for safety purposes, but because you are physically exhausted from all the exercise and ready to relax.

My surf lessons with Ian of Frijoles Locos were fantastic. On the first day, Ian met me at the shop (near the elementary school) and grabbed me an 8’6” foam board. He threw it into a sort-of-jeep/land rover mobile, and we drove about 2 miles down a dirt road and into a little subdivision called Palm Beach Estates.  There is public access to the beach in the area.  We parked and walked to the beach right at marker 29. 

The markers are used by the rangers when leatherback turtles are laying eggs. They will use the markers to notify the public where a turtle is nesting and to stay away. Sadly, Ian said that there aren’t very many turtles anymore.  At least, not as many as when he moved to PG 14 years ago.  He suspects that ocean pollution (plastic especially) is killing off the turtles and that the Chinese may also be hunting them.  This news was heartbreaking.  In 1990, locals took a stand and made Playa Grande home of Las Baulas National Marine Park for Leatherback Sea Turtles.  For years, local officials allowed very little construction and at one point put a moratorium on building altogether. Then around 2000, building permits started being approved again, but very selectively with many regulations and environmental studies required. 

I worked on my popup, and Ian critiqued every wave as to what I did right and what I did wrong.   We review surf etiquette, how to watch for waves, turn around and paddle to catch one.  The water is warm, and the waves non-stop.  Some waves would break further away, and I would ride the white water to shore. Others broke right in front of us or on our heads.  The strength of the impact was always different, and sometimes I was in the washing machine for a bit and pushed back nearly 10 ft.  Because of my inexperience and even with Ian’s help, I was kind of stuck in “The Impact Zone,” which was busy, exhausting, and very inefficient. 

What you wear matters. Consider wearing a well-fitted bikini with a bodysuit rash guard.  I made the mistake of wearing an older stretched-out bikini with my pullover rash guard during my first lessons and found that I was super distracted because my “sh*t” was falling out everywhere.  I had to adjust every time I caught a wave, and I am sure I flashed Ian a few times. Learn from my mistake.

Speaking of a rash guard, your rash guard will be proper sun protection for your upper body but also think about the rest of your body.  The surf-goddesses I met, wear organic sun paste on their faces, legs/butt, and feet.  Also, be sure to bring a hat for activities and a wide brim hat for relaxing.  Bug spray for trekking and evenings out is also a must.

Be prepared for inner-voice chatter, check your ego and have fun

Be wise of those pesky inner-voices as you try new adventures.   Make an effort to listen to what kind of messages are being fed to your psyche.  You will have moments of positive mojo such as “you did great! Keep it up, remember the water is warm and you are in Costa Rica … take advantage of every moment here” and a few minutes later, you may hear “you know… boogie boarding would be fun too.” Or “do you really want to eat dinner alone?” Be aware and prepared.

My friend arrived a few days later, and despite a red-eye flight, she was full of energy when I caught up with her.  We went to Frijoles Loco to rent some surfboards. I was expecting to rent the same foam board I used during my lessons, but it was not available.  I ended up renting an 8’ Walden longboard. A real longboard was a little outside my comfort zone, but I didn’t really have a choice, so I went with it.

The clouds turned a deep gray, and it was raining slightly, but we decided to go check out the waves anyway.  As we strolled through the jungle foliage, I said hello to Halloween moon crabs,  I was glad my friend motivated me to push past my fear and my ego to rent the longboard.

Now I was on my own, with no instructor to help me in the waves. It was me and this beast of a board.  I decided that “The Impact Zone” is where I needed to be like it or not. 

Check your ego at the beach and try to have fun. I caught the first couple of waves/whitewash, my popup was sloppy, but I was getting up and that’s exciting.  As we got closer to high tide, the waves seem to get stronger, and the impact zone was busy.  I was waiting for the right wave and in the meantime was pounded wave after wave. The longboard was a challenge to keep straight. My arms were achy, and I was not feeling the popup. I was tired, and it was time to take a break.

My advice to you if you really want to learn to surf, take a lesson and another and maybe do a ladies surf camp so that you are in the ocean and surfing days in a row.  Immerse yourself in the activity, the culture, the stoke, the bliss of physical exhaustion, and the humility of riding the immense power of the sea.  Be comfortable with getting pummeled by waves, sand in every crevasse of your body and being perched on your board waiting and studying the ripples of the oncoming waves in the quiet before the rush. It’s super intense.

I think I could get used to this

On my last day, as we trekked through, what now seemed like our jungle path back to the hotel, everything was dense and rich.  The crabs were quiet, but the mosquitos were super active.  I was hyper aware that time was ticking and this experience was about to end.  It was a good life lesson to spend some solo time in Costa Rica. As my first solo adventure, I think it went well, and I will do it again.  Solo travel has taught me to be in the moment and appreciate where I am, the people I’m with, and the incredible surroundings.  Traveling alone opens our mind, broadens our horizons, and instills the confidence to travel without having someone to lean on. 

We wrapped up our adventure sharing sunsets and dinner with a few of the surf instructors we met along the way. The young women were fit and healthy with no fuss laidback attitudes and long sun-kissed hair. They were friendly and interested.  I was under the impression they lived moment to moment, skipping around the globe, chasing waves and experiences — not a bad way to live. I think I could get used to this.

Enjoy the Climb