So You Want to Learn How to Surf? Here’s Where to Go

Surf boards in racks near a beach
Surfboards on the walk from Olas Verdes, through the jungle to the beach.

Melissa Breyer 

I went to Costa Rica for surf camp at the world's most sustainable surf school – it was amazing.

I grew up in Southern California and despite countless hours at the beach, I somehow, regrettably, never learned how to surf. Fast forward a few decades and an invitation arrives in my inbox, the subject line reading: Learn To Break Waves in 5-7 Days At The World's Most Sustainable Surf School.

As a nature-deprived sustainability writer who sits in her Brooklyn office all day and dreams of the sea, who was I to say no?

And that’s how I found myself on a plane heading to Safari Surf School in Nosara, Costa Rica – just me and a small bag packed with a swimsuit, flip-flops, and the belated epiphany that I was diving headfirst into one of my discomfort zones. The longer I’ve been away from the waves, the bigger, stronger, and more shark-filled they have become in my imagination. And while I love challenges: Surfing? What was I thinking? I had clearly succumbed to the song of the sirens. But soon, fortunately, I would be proven wonderfully wrong.

Nosara is located on the Nicoya Peninsula, an 80-mile long finger of land on the Pacific side of the country, just south of Nicaragua. The peninsula is one of the nine so-called Blue Zones, places on the globe in which the inhabitants have the distinction of being exceptionally long-lived.

Given that the country abolished the military and spends the money instead of things like healthcare, educations, and protecting the environment, is it any wonder? The happiness of the country’s inhabitants has given rise to “pura vida” – the Costa Rican philosophy that I can only explain as the love child of “carpe diem” and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

There are many dirt roads from the airport to Playa Guiones, our destination in Nosara – which means a bumpy ride, but which also means a glorious lack of people who resist bumpy rides. Like, people who might want cocktail service at a fancy private beach cabana; Nosara is more surfers and yogis, and less socialites and hedge-fund managers.

The headquarters of Safari Surf School is located in the Olas Verdes Hotel. Olas Verdes is the country’s first LEED Platinum hotel, and the attention to sustainability can be seen in everything from the expansive water collection/storage/conservation systems and solar panels to the recycled bottles used in the décor and the mason jars of freshly ground coffee – rather than the k-cup hotel standard – left in the rooms each day.

Surfing in Costa Rica
The saltwater pool at Olas Verdes; mosaic made from old bottles.  Melissa Breyer

And beyond what can be seen are the stringent requirements needed to gain Platinum status. I loved that the hotel was built by local workers using exclusively local materials. And that they built around the existing trees instead of removing them, plus added another 300 native trees to help shade the property. I also loved that the hotel does carbon offsets for the travel of each guest and that they also donate a substantial gift, per guest, to the local monkey rescue organization – among other things. They don’t broadcast all of their green actions, which makes sense since their dedication to sustainability is so intrinsic – when you’re walking the walk, you don’t always need to shout the talk. (You can read all about the hotel’s admirable sustainability achievements here.)

And as promised in my invitation, the Safari Surf School itself is also intensely dedicated to their commitment to sustainability. They were certified along with the hotel, and are recipients of STOKE certification, the world’s first sustainability certification body with standards built specifically for surf tourism. STOKE certification depends on a set of 142 metrics that measure the “efficacy of sustainability management systems, surf resource conservation, quality and safety of surf experience delivery, as well as social, economic, cultural heritage, and environmental impacts.” Many of the requirements were things that the surf school was already doing, they came naturally – to then cinch the title as the world’s first sustainable surf school seems only natural.

Surfing in Costa Rica
Sunset surfing at Playa Guiones. Melissa Breyer

I learned a lot about the hotel and surf school while talking over fresh passionfruit margaritas during sunset (because, Costa Rica) with Safari’s CEO and founder, Tim Marsh. Tim started Safari Surf in 1999, the first surf school in an area that now has many. And there’s no question as to why the area has become a magnet for wave seekers – Playa Guiones is a renowned surf spot, offering consistent breaks and surfable waves more than 300 days a year. Now of course I wouldn’t have had a clue what any of that meant before my trip ... but then our classes started.

I was there for a women’s retreat (and as a guest of the school), which meant that my week came with a schedule to be enjoyed along with a group of eight other women. There would be pool drills and surfing yoga, water safety and etiquette lessons, wave reading, and video analysis. There would also be a lot of lovely local meals and drinks at the outside bar and hikes to waterfalls and more. And then ... there was also surfing. Or in my case, the “surfing.”

Surfing in Costa Rica
Breakfast at El Manglar at Olas Verdes. Melissa Breyer 

OK. So you know how it looks like you just paddle out into the pretty rolling waves and hop on the board and then just ride it for a while? It’s not like that. For me, it was more like you battle with the waves as they persist in their relentless assault and crash in your face. And then finally you kind of catch a wave and try the so-called pop-up, where you go from laying down to standing in one quick and fluid motion – but then remember that you forgot to stretch or exercise during the last year and the pop-up is actually a slow ungainly crawl to your hands and knees while hurtling through the ocean. And then finally, you get up! On two feet! For .5 seconds! And then fall right off the surfboard and start all over again. And again. And again.

Thankfully, we had our drill sergeants surf coaches to guide us along the way. The director of the women’s retreat program is the surfing champion and awesome human, Andrea Diaz – a force of nature who is strong and smart, hardcore and hilarious, grit, and grace. She is a great teacher; pushing us hard, but with no shortage of affection. Ok, and so maybe it was a little bit painful, but still. “Surfing is a contact sport,” Andrea would remind us, as we could all barely lift our arms from muscle fatigue after a surf session. “You didn’t come here for an embroidery class.”

Surfing in Costa Rica
Coaches (left to right) Andrea, Mari, Daniella. Melissa Breyer 

Our other two coaches, Daniela and Mari, were also engaging and amazing. While most of the other women in our group either had some surfing experience or were already super athletic, there were a few of us who were just completely green. And yet our three coaches managed to teach us how to read the waves, to get us comfortable navigating a surfboard through the water without crashing into anybody else or knocking ourselves unconscious – a miracle! They were so patient ... and after just a few lessons, all of us could at least say we got up. Everyone got better on subsequent days, many of the women were, like, really surfing!

What a thing, and fabulous how the coaches accommodated this array of skill levels, from those of us flopping around in the white water (the bunny slopes of surfing) to the women who were tackling the more masterful green waves.

In one of our first classroom sessions in the hotel’s clubhouse, we all talked about our goals. Mine was just to feel comfortable with a board in the water and to have at least an understanding of the basics. And not get eaten by sharks (not a problem where we were, phew). After seeing the final still and moving images of our endeavors, I was shocked to see that I had actually surfed-ish – my form wasn’t exactly pretty. And I didn’t really stay up. OK, and I was going the wrong way. But it was more than I expected!

Beyond that, I learned a good lesson about my body. I found out what happens when you don’t stretch or exercise on a regular basis – as a distance runner, of a certain age, who took a one-year hiatus from marathon training, I really, really felt it. And I left inspired to remember that even if I’m not training for a long race, stretching and exercise is not optional.

Surfing in Costa Rica
Surfas and the coaches at Playa Guiones. Melissa Breyer 

I also learned that going through boot camp with a group of other women is just wonderfully fun. We were all different; different ages, different backgrounds, from different parts of the world – but we created our own little community and really bonded. It’s maybe one of the most profound things about Safari’s women’s retreats – how amazing to find a somewhat remote place where a woman can travel to alone and have a group of built-in future friends to share the experience with. There was one pair of friends who came together in our group, and a set of sisters – but the rest of us came alone and that feels like a pretty special thing.

Costa rica
A day trip to Tamarindo. Melissa Breyer 

And then there’s the place. Would a women’s surf retreat in any other place feel so special? I don’t know. What I do know is that between the hotel and the beach is a long strip of tropical forest known as the Osteonal Nature Reserve. In Costa Rica, no new building is technically allowed for 200 meters inland from the shore, so on Playa Guiones, for example, there is the long stretch of beach, then a long stretch of jungly forest, and then buildings. Olas Verdes is on the edge of the nature reserve, and I COULD LITERALLY SEE MONKEYS FROM MY WINDOW. Seriously, if waking up to the sound of howler monkeys doesn’t change a person, I don’t know what would.

Each morning we would take our surfboards from the hotel and walk for five minutes through the jungle to the beach for surfing. And when not surfing, I would find myself walking that path back and forth – vibrant Halloween crabs would scurry about like creatures from a Miyazaki film, giant blue butterflies would flit and flutter, the monkeys did their howling pterodactyl impersonations. It was pure magic.

In the end, I was changed by it all. Was it surfing? The people and camaraderie? The eco allegiance? The sunsets? The monkeys? The passionfruit margaritas?! I can’t say for sure, but all of those things are part of me now and will be always. I left Brooklyn to visit “The World's Most Sustainable Surf School,” I returned a different person, infused with pura vida and a promise to return to my new favorite place on the planet. And maybe next time, I'll even manage to catch a wave riding in the right direction.

The Details

Accommodations: Because of the layout of Olas Verdes, the 17 rooms can be comprised of one to four suites in a module depending on your needs. Prices start at $145per night and include a delicious daily breakfast, beach cruisers, and complimentary Wi-Fi and laundry service.

Surf lessons: Groups lessons are available and packages can be custom built to include surfing plus all kinds of other activities. The women's retreat is a treasure, and the team can put together other retreats to suit all kinds of groups.

Dining: El Manglar is the women-owned and operated restaurant at Olas Verdes. It's outdoors (but covered) on the edge of the jungle and offers delicious farm to table, organic food from a team of women that have been with the surf school from early on. There are plenty of other options nearby; another special treat is a sunset dinner at La Luna, an outdoor beach-side restaurant also in Nosara. Also, the rooms in Olas Verdes have refrigerators and toaster ovens.

Getting there: Liberia Airport is the nearest international airport – it is a 2 1/2 hour drive to Nosara and a great way to see some of the beautiful countrysides. The drive from San Jose is 5 hours. The hotel will arrange the travel to and from the airport – my ride both ways was perfect.