Surf camp in Costa Rica


The humid heat of Costa Rica blanketed our faces as we walked out of the Liberia airport. We were here for a week long all inclusive surf camp called Corky Carroll’s Surf School. The all inclusive experience was new to us and as a result we had not done our typical detailed research and preparation. It’s not that we are OCD when it comes to preparing for a trip but with so many resources available today it’s too tempting to plot and plan your adventure.

Once we had signed up for the surf camp we didn’t think much about it until it was time to go. Now that we were here it felt strange relinquishing so much control. The first test would be meeting with our driver and I was surprised for such a small airport to find so many local drivers screaming to be selected. Scanning just the cards each person held looking for my name I was once again thankful for such an obscure name. “Derwyn Harris” certainly stood out.

The drive from Liberia to Nosara was paved for the first half and the driver pointed out sugar cane fields, mango trees, and Guancaste trees that the region was named after. The terrain was mostly flat and dirty. The dry season was just wrapping up and the rain had only just arrived…early…this would prove to be both good and bad for our trip. The later part of the drive was slow and tedious along a very rutted and ill maintained dirt road. The area was more mountainous, lush, with fields of cows and horses. The cows, we were told, were “Roman Cows”. The were pure white with large floppy ears. “The meat is very good” says our driver.

The dirt road seemed to go forever and the seats in the van did little to hold our butts in place. We bounced around like marbles on a glass table during an earthquake. I ultimately gave up and let my body slowly slump down into whatever awkward position the bumpy road determined.

Just as night descended we arrived at Corky’s surf school greeted by the friendly smile of Collin the owner. He gave us a few instructions about how the camp works but little mattered to us other than laying down flat. Sensing our malaise he showed us our room. It was spacious and the ceiling fans provided the perfect amount of coolness to break the stagnant heat. A rainstorm veraciously pounded the roof of our room throughout the night. As the lightning and thunder seemed to never end I lay awake wondering if this was going to be our week. I feel asleep at 4am when the rain stopped and all was quiet but at 6:15 the cicadas launched into their high pitch song praising the glory of rain. The rest of the week would follow a similar pattern but we would be too tired to care.

Surf Lessons

The camp wasted no time to get us out there. We met at 8am after a simple egg breakfast for a beach overview with Collin. Each of us had an instructor and, looking out, it was clear the waves were up…way up. Some sets were double overhead. It looked intimidating and, once out there, it was absolutely intimidating. My instructor decided we would head out past the sets and work on catching a wave. 45 minutes later we made it. I was gassed, arms of noodles, breathless from almost drowning when one particular wave decided it was going to hold me down longer than I was comfortable. I don’t recall exactly how I got back. I only remember the getting out. I must have tried to catch a wave…I know I didn’t ride it, but once back in the impact zone I was done and so I must have let the whitewash drag my limp body back towards the beach.

Sabine faired better staying in the whitewash and working on the basics. For her it was all about getting the right steps towards getting up…quickly. There are not many ways to stand up on a surf board but there are enough for it to get confusing. Sabine now had 3 different options for getting up. The one that worked the most for her regular foot stance (left leg forward) required bringing the right leg forward first, followed by the left leg. The end result was a slow-ish process. Ok for white wash but harder on faster waves…as she would learn later.

Each day we’d have a different instructor which meant sometimes we’d get varying degrees of instruction and personality. Seeing and hearing different ways of doing things really helped create a set of tools we could play around with to find our own way. For example being told 3 different ways to paddle enabled me to figure out that I was pausing with each stroke….a byproduct of pool swimming.

Our boards resting between sessions.

The beach was 4 minutes away and felt remote because no development exists directly on the beach.

Deceivingly small looking waves.

Shelter from the sun. When it rained it was also shelter but full of bugs…better to hang out in the rain.

The easiest part of getting out. Full of optimism and energy.


Double overhead for days

As each day passed the sets didn’t seem to diminish in the least. Set after set after set of pounding double overhead waves. The only people out beyond the sets were short boarders and as far as I could tell none of them were beginners. After the first day’s 45 minute paddle out I had tweaked my arms and decided to regroup and focus on basic skills in the whitewash. You can never get enough opportunity to stand up on the board. That skill alone is the most important of all skills in order to progress…the second most important is knowing how to get through the impact zone.

I did head out one more time later in the week. Oscar was going to get me out there. Oscar is a very zen instructor but I quickly learned that, when needed, he can be very commanding. He’d push my board every so often, which does wonders for one’s ego but today was not about ego, it was about getting out there to catch a wave. Once again, wave after wave came at me like a thunder of charging horses. Which each I’d have to decide to go over, under (turtle) or abandon. I’m still not efficient at either and my board would continually get away from me instantly becoming a sea anchor dragging me back into the cruel oxygen deprived whitewash I had just escaped. Each time sending me back 20 feet or more. Oscar would yell “Get back on your board, this is the moment you must be quick and push”. The trick to getting out on a beach break is more of a dance than a fight. You must watch the moves of the ocean and maneuver gracefully with it and not against it. Sometimes your pause and rest, and other times you strive forward with force and commitment.

The most dangerous and critical moment is the 90%. Like a video game with the epic monster at the end of a series of silly obstacles, I was now entering the zone where the big sets hang out. I was now at the moment when the wave is most powerful and most damaging. Oscar had instructed me how to ditch my board in the event I found myself eye to eye with a double overhead cresting wave. Surviving the final 10% of getting out is all about digging deep and staying true to the cause while watching the horizon. Inevitably a swell will rise up in the distance like a final horn of a charging army.  My sole goal is to reach the magical point where the biggest wave of the set (usually the second) approaches me like a mountain, rising me up and up till I crest over the top and seesaw to the other side…slap. The most wonderful sound is of my board slapping the backside of a passing monster wave. I always look sideways just before cresting to glimpse the enormity and power of the wave as it begins to break.  Relieved, I’m now on the outside ready to catch a wave…and do it all over again.

Now that I’m on the outside, Oscar begins seeking the horizon for a wave fit for me to ride. The first good one seems perfect, even I can tell. I setup, and start my paddle. The wave grabs me and I feel the forward motion sensation that tells me I’m in. It’s always this moment that my heart leaps, a critical moment that happens extremely fast. I start standing up and manage to get my left leg forward. I think I stood up but all I remember is hitting the wave face first. It’s one wave I would have really liked a video of. I’d learn so much from seeing that moment from the outside.  I personally never mind falling on a wave. It never seems to bother me, maybe because I’m still thinking about what went wrong. What sucks is coming up and seeing the following sets now bearing down on you.

The combination of getting out there and then falling on my perfect wave it was all I could do not to cry as the next wave came screaming towards me…I swear it was laughing menacingly. I dive, and of course it grabs me, and sends me back even further. I now realize I’m also out of breath. Coming up again, an even bigger wave follows. The periods (time between waves) are not bad, but I could have used more time to recover. Now I’m breathing very heavy and the thought of holding my breath seems like a Herculean task. I’m not panicked yet…but I can feel it coming on. Part of the problem is that I’m undecided, do I fight to get back out or head back in, as a result I’m just sitting there taking a beating. I see Oscar between sets waving for me to head in. No problem.


After several days of such big sets it’s clear we all need a break from the fight it takes to get out at Playa Gionnes. Gazra is a reef break 20 minutes from the surf camp. A reef break usually means it’s easier to paddle around the waves and it means a more consistent break, however, you have to pay attention to the tides to avoid the reef being too shallow. It’s not fun falling on a reef…nor is it good for the reef.

Once at Garza the overall vibe was much more amicable. We were suddenly surrounded by other long boarders and fellow beginner surf camps. Everyone in our group caught a true wave.

Sabine in particular caught her first green wave. I’ve been talking up the moment you catch your first green wave like it was a religion. Sabine was being a trooper and patient working with my obsession despite never experiencing it for herself. On this day she caught one, I saw her get up and then I saw her progress diagonally as the wave passed me by. She was calm and floating. As she paddled back the change in her face was clear. A face of confidence now approached me vs the face of question. It was as if the notion of surfing as a quirky now and again hobby that was fun to tell our friends suddenly became a mission. I looked at her and smiled and congratulated her she replied; “I want another one”.  

The video of the wave is epic. It’s not the most graceful wave but it captures the moment when she sees the green part of the wave and her face completely lights up. The excitement gets the best of her as she finishes with a wobble and a fall, but it captures one of those moments that only a few sports offer. Excitement, thrill, and peacefulness all wrapped up and served on a platter of natural wonder.


The Garza sign the night before brings delight to the masses.

Sunny, mild, approachable, Garza exceeds expectations.

The video of the moment when Sabine became a surfer.


Familia y Comida

One of the best parts of the surf camp is the rhythm you quickly get into. We had 6:30 breakfast, 8am lessons, 11:30 lunch, 4pm free surf, 6:30 bocas, and 7:00 dinner. Everything was on the dot and we fell into it instantly and with ease. The food was different everyday except for some staples such as beans, rice, and steamed vegetables. Everything was fresh, cooked to perfection and with love. Collin lives there with his family so his two young kids are around and make for an incredibly welcoming atmosphere. The fact that they went out of their way to celebrate my birthday was amazing. 

The official hang out area. Beer, fruit juices, music selections from Jasper (one of the instructors), and casual conversations about that day and life linger.

Some of the many meals.

Come and get it!!

Limes in Costa Rica are more often a hybrid between a traditional lime and a tangerine. Great for margaritas.

My birthday cake was the best Tres Leche I have ever had.

The town of Nosara. One street pretty much.

Our patio overlooking the surf camp garden and pool.

An interesting innovation used in Costa Rica to keep dust down on dirt roads is the molasses. Smells great, looks odd when the rain comes.