Stoked! Surviving the drop on day one. Photo: Witch’s Rock Surf Camp
My trip to Witch’s Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo, Costa Rica was literally seven years in the making. I had my first surf lesson way back in 2007 (boy does time fly!) in Mission Beach, San Diego with my best friend Krista during our two week road trip up the coast. We both caught on pretty quickly and managed to stand up and ride a few waves. Yes, we were hooked. As we made our way up the winding coast in a red Mustang convertible, we’d peer down at the Pacific and pretend we were much more experienced surfers than we actually were, scoping out waves, and saying “those look totally rideable.” We had another lesson in Santa Cruz before making our way to our final destination of San Francisco.
Witch’s Rock Surf Camp facade. My room was right above the sign.
Shortly after that trip, I came across Witch’s Rock Surf Camp. I can’t remember if I read about it in an article or if I Googled it, but it stayed in my mind. Years went by, and I kept saying, I want to go to surf camp in Costa Rica. I figured if I could stand up and catch a wave after one lesson, how much better can I get if I had a full week of instruction?
Through the years, I managed to surf a few storm swells in Key West and I took a lesson in Boca Raton. Last year, I finally made my way to Costa Rica’s central Pacific Coast in Esterillos. I fell hard for the country’s natural beauty, the sunsets and the Pura Vida spirit. I also managed to take another surf lesson. That was it. I resolved then and there to return to Costa Rica for the surf camp I’d been dreaming about all these years. The time was now.
The view of the surf from my balcony
As fate would have it, shortly after I booked my Witch’s Rock trip, a group of friends invited me to join their surf trip in¬†Nicaragua¬†the week before, about an hour north of the Costa Rica border. I’ve spent the last two weeks splashing in the surf in Central America. Near Nicaragua’s Colorados and Panga Drops, I discovered ¬†a new break, the Peque√Īa Drops, more suited to my ability level, and took a lesson at Amarillo. I bid adieu to my Nicaragua crew and made my way across the border to Tamarindo on my own for a full week of instruction at the beginner level (intermediate and advanced tours are also offered). Here’s my account of the incredible week that was at Witch’s Rock Surf Camp.
Instructor: J. Luis, 23
Time: 11:00 a.m.
Board: 9’2″ NSP epoxy
Wave Height: 3′
Partner: Brian, 50, Episcopal Priest from Mississippi
Swimsuit: (because that’s a really important detail to note) Roxy black & white striped boy short bottoms with sports bra-style top & Roxy rashguard
Today our lesson started on the sand practicing popping up. My instructor J. Luis is a tiny little thing and moves like a snake, fluidly, slowly and with great precision. We started by stretching and then we showed him our pop ups. He helped explain to go slow and take your time getting into position. You get your body into a full upward facing dog and then drag your front foot to the middle of the board and plant your back foot parallel. He showed us the proper height to stand–to come up a little higher at first (still with knees bent) before bending into position with your arms out in front and your chest up over your legs. This was good to note because I was starting to get into the habit of staying bent down way too low during my last lesson in Nicaragua at Amarillo. He also explained that to speed up, you shift your weight forward and to slow down, backward.
In the water, it took a couple of waves to get the hang of it. We made our way out past the breakers and he told us when to start paddling, usually telling us to shift a little to our left as we paddled. Then, he told us when to stand up. The first time I got it was an amazing sensation and I literally howled as I rode the wave. J. Luis gave great corrections, reminding me not to put my back knee down in the process of popping up. “You don’t need to,” he told me, and that seemed to be exactly what I needed to hear to get it. I managed to do that on the last couple of waves that I caught, and I could definitely feel the difference in the speed, the lightness and the efficiency of just getting on your feet. We paddled into the waves, and J. Luis helped us on the timing and pushing us in a little bit to catch them.
Photo: Witch’s Rock Surf Camp
The epoxy board is far lighter than any of the other boards I’ve tried before (all soft tops) and it’s definitely easier to maneuver in the water and paddle on. I practiced my turtle roll plenty of times (rolling onto my back and putting the board over my body as the waves crash over me) and it works better than I thought it would. The waves look big, but when they crash they feel manageable and not too intimidating. I look forward to continuing to perfect my pop up, spotting my waves, learning to maneuver and just get more comfortable out there.
Brian and I stayed in the water for almost another hour after our lesson on our own. It took a little trial and error to figure out which wave to go for and to time it out, but I eventually felt pretty comfortable out there. I caught one really solid one (and howled again) and a few others. It felt awesome to catch a wave on my own from start to finish. I’m definitely understanding the expression of being totally stoked! There’s nothing like catching a great wave that makes you want to paddle right back out to get another. Eventually, I got tired and the wave got kind of crowded, so I came in.
I felt a little sore in my right hip in the water (probably from my leash pulling on my leg). I should probably do a little yoga every day to keep my muscles loose and limber. Otherwise, feel pretty strong.
Board:¬†9’2″ NSP epoxy
Swimsuit:¬†Seafoam green Roxy with halter top and braid detail, Roxy rash guard (again, super important info)
Went out this morning and felt good. My pop up feels more natural, fluid and second nature. It’s amazing the difference a little practice, trusting your instincts and just kind of flowing makes. I have to remember to move my back foot forward a little on the board, but going straight to my feet feels right. The sets were rolling in a little slower today, so it required more patience and waiting for the right one. Sometimes, we’d paddle forward to catch the shore break and then have to hurry and paddle back out as the set was rolling in. Definitely practiced more turtle rolling with the long board (works wonders) and also got a few smacks to the face by the crest of the wave, trying to go over them just before they break. I feel comfortable in these waves.
My last few rides felt good, and towards the end I felt comfortable standing up a little straighter and playing with pumping and steering the board. J. Luis was still helping with timing and pushing me into the wave a little, but I think I caught a few on my own.
I went back out after my lesson and tried to catch a few. It went okay. I’d catch them and then lose my balance and fall off pretty quickly. On the last one I caught, it felt good. I let out my first holler of the day, and then must have psyched myself out or something because I fell off the wave and the rail of the board smacked me right in the shin. Ouch! It swelled up with a nice purple welt and didn’t quite break the skin. I’m icing it now to keep from swelling and hope it doesn’t end up hurting too bad.
Icing my first surf injury
Time:¬† 2:15 p.m.
Board:¬†9’2″ NSP epoxy
Wave Height:¬†1′ – 2′ (“Maybe half,” said J. Luis.)
Swimsuit:¬†Seafoam green with braid detail top, black string bikini bottom, rash guard (all Roxy)
Today we focused on spotting our own waves, paddling into them and timing them out independently without the help of J. Luis pushing us in. He still gave us verbal cues, but reminded us to look at the wave as we were paddling and to use our own instincts. We also worked on the beginning of turning.
J. Luis is a great instructor. His demos on land are so fluid and precise and his corrections in the water make perfect sense and are extremely helpful. Last night, we had a video analysis of our session from yesterday. My main takeaway was not to stay crouched down so low, but to raise my torso and still keep my knees bent. J. Luis also reinforced taking it easy out there, trust your instincts, take your time, don’t be too intense, scared or “in the zone.” Watching the video was an eye opener because the waves really aren’t that big. I watched myself hesitate on one wave and not pop up when there was no reason not to. It’s just fear and doubt that takes over. The waves out here are manageable, so I went in today thinking, just go with it, be free, have fun.
Photo: Witch’s Rock Surf Camp
In the water, the waves were smaller and there was a lot of time between sets. It took a couple of tries before I caught a nice ride. There’s a frantic energy that comes with learning to surf. A lot has to happen in the right order, and I’m working on breaking it down into a more zen, fluid motion. (There really is so much correlation between yoga and surfing, it’s kind of amazing.) First, arch your trunk up into an upward facing dog (if you curl the other way, your nose is going to dive into the wave or you’re going to lose your balance). Next, get your feet into position, knees bent, trunk up and get ready for the drop.
Today, we added playing around with turning. I love J. Luis’ explanation, it’s a full body movement that starts with your eyes. You look at where you want to turn, your head follows and then lean your trunk in that direction. You either go for the front side turn or the back side, and the goal is to stay midway up on the wave so you can ride it for a longer distance. Once you turn, you put more weight into your forward foot. A lot of this is just theoretical for me at this point, but I look forward to practicing it more.
Time:¬† 12:00 p.m.
Board:¬†9’2″ NSP epoxy
Swimsuit:¬†Black Roxy string bikini, Roxy crop top rashguard
Such a fun session today! We’re learning to turn and I feel like I was ripping a little out there! The waves were a nice size and smooth and consistent. J. Luis is teaching us to spot our waves and time out our paddling. I’m starting to understand how important paddling is. It’s all about momentum and timing. It’s super helpful to have J. Luis out there telling us when to start paddling and when to “get speed” before popping up. I was out there on my own before our lesson and it was tricky, but I managed to catch a couple.
It’s also really cool to study the waves and see what they’re doing. Are they gonna break left or right? Where do you need to be to catch it just right, how hard and long do you need to paddle? How are you going to get out past the impact zone? I’m getting confident and comfortable with these waves.¬†It’s a beautiful thing interacting with the ocean like that.
In the lineup with J. Luis (left). Photo: Witch’s Rock Surf Camp
My body is definitely tired. I know what they mean when they say your arms feel like noodles. My hips are also sore, mostly from laying on the board and my bones digging in, but also straddling a big board.
Most of the times when I messed up today, J. Luis explained it was because I was paddling wrong, like too ¬†frantically and sloppy, as opposed to nice fluid strokes. He gave me a great pointer and nuance in my pop up. Right before I pop up, arch my head and torso up, like in cobra, and then go for the pop up. It seems to add momentum and gets me organized on the board just right. Turning also helps to get me up from my crouched position on the board, and I managed to catch a really good left, and a pretty good right. Brian said that I was really riding the face of the wave and I looked like I knew what I was doing out there. Yay! I’m definitely feeling more at ease on the board, and I’m playing around with shifting my weight from my back to my front foot for speed and turning and to pump the board to keep riding the face. It’s so cool and so much fun! I’m loving it. Can’t wait for tomorrow!
Time:¬† 1:00 p.m.
Board:¬†8’6″ NSP epoxy
Swimsuit:¬†Striped sports bra-style top, black string bottoms, crop top rash guard (all Roxy)
I went down to a smaller board today and it was a pretty good transition. You can definitely feel the difference. It has a lot more give and you can maneuver and adjust your weight on it better. It’s also easier to carry to the beach and sit on out on the waves. It took a minute to catch the wave properly. It takes even more power from your paddling, but I got the hang of it. Still working on turning. Once I got comfortable and confident with my paddling and catching the waves, I was able to take my time and get some nice lefts. The waves were smaller today, but it was nice. I felt comfortable and peaceful out there. There’s a lot of patience that comes with surfing. It’s nice when you get into a sort of zen moment out there watching the waves coming in, thinking about timing and where you should be and what the sets are doing.
Photo: Witch’s Rock Surf Camp
I stayed out after my lesson and caught a bunch of waves all on my own right off the bat. It felt really good. My transition from sitting on the board to getting on my tummy and paddling feels pretty seamless, and when I can catch the wave, my pop up feels like second nature. I had a nice drop on one of my waves during the lesson, and I had some nice rides today. It’s really just so much fun. I felt one with the water today.
Instructor:¬†J. Luis, Andres & Axel
Time:¬† 2:30 p.m.
Board:¬†8’6″ NSP epoxy
Partner:¬†Surf Camp Trip to Playa Grande
Swimsuit:¬†Orange Vix triangle top with gold chain accent, black Roxy string bottoms, Roxy crop top rashguard
J. Luis packing up the boards for our trip to Playa Grande
We went out to Playa Grande for our last day to see how our skills translated to different, more advanced waves. Conditions weren’t ideal as the waves were choppy and inconsistent. They also packed a little more power and height than the waves we’d been surfing at Tamarindo all week. It was a little scary at times and definitely required more hustle and awareness of the surf. It was more challenging to get out past the impact zone.
Andres ripping at Playa Grande. Photo: Witch’s Rock Surf Camp
I managed to catch a solid wave on my own before our instructors came out to help. When it’s right, it’s so right, and when it’s wrong, it’s just not going to happen. Andres helped me out on a few waves. It was fun and exciting, but I definitely didn’t feel as agile and in control out there. There were more wipeouts and a little more frantic energy. I was also feeling tired. Still, there were some moments where I felt like an animal charging out there into the surf, feeling strong. At the end of the session, I caught a decent wave. It wasn’t a very long ride, but I was tired and the whitewash coming in did not look inviting. I came in and laid on the sand like a starfish. It felt good to embrace the sand, listen to the waves and feel my heart beat. Surfing gives you such a rush. It was quite a finish to an amazing week.
J. Luis & me after our last session
I couldn’t help but think, what if I had one more week to keep practicing? I bet I could rip! At the same time, my body was exhausted, especially my shoulders. I can’t say enough good things about my week in Tamarindo at Witch’s Rock, and there will be more to come on the blog. It’s a cool little town with a lot of character.
For anyone who’s ever wanted to surf, I can’t encourage you enough to go for it. Witch’s Rock provides the perfect platform for all types of travelers (solo, like me, friends, families, couples) and all surf abilities (novices, beginners, intermediate and advanced) at a very reasonable price (roughly $1,000 for a full week depending on your choice of accommodations and the time of year). There are two restaurants on site (breakfast is included), a microbrewery, live music at sunset, a surf shop and surf legend¬†Robert August of the classic movie¬†Endless Summer is a constant presence as he shapes boards onsite. In addition to our daily lessons, we had daily seminars on safety, surf etiquette, surf science, board selection, the history of surfing and more.¬†If you decide to sign up for seven days or more at Witch’s Rock Surf Camp, mention my name for a $50 discount.
I definitely see more surf trips in my future. I’d return to Witch’s Rock in a heart beat, and I look forward to discovering more of Costa Rica and the world atop a surf board. I also plan to hit the waves in Miami and South Florida as much as I can. I finished my trip on an 8’6″ board and J. Luis advised me to keep renting boards and playing around with the size until I get comfortable on an 8’0″ or 7’10″ before I buy my own to stick with for awhile.
On the water, I’ve learned how to sail, I’ve learned how to be a deckhand on catamarans and parasail boats. I think my journey as a surfer will be the most rewarding.