For the average tourist, Costa Rica triggers images of slithering iguanas, swaying hammocks, smoldering volcanoes and waves that curl like the peel of an apple.
Ever since the film “Endless Summer” put Costa Rica on the surfing map in 1966, surfers have flocked to travel-book destinations such as Tamarindo, Playa Hermosa and Jacó along the Pacific coast.
These once deserted spots have become the McDonald’s of surfing, leaving remnants of plastic boards, drive-thru sessions and processed tourism. The previously unclaimed waters have gained popularity through marketing geared toward those willing to pay for a chance to dance on water.
With so much exploitation, is it possible that secret surf spots still exist here?
That question can be answered on the NicoyaPeninsula, in the northwest part of the country, where unlimited surfing hideaways await. Surfers can easily access several world-class spots on the peninsula by using Sámara as a base. This laidback village halfway down the peninsula’s Pacific coastline offers a refreshing alternative to crowded beach towns.
Sámara can be reached via the paved road from Nicoya or by taking one of the daily buses from San José. There are also flights to and from Carrillo’s small airstrip, eight kilometers south of Sámara.
Travel books label this tiny dot on the map as “a sleepy fishing village.” Those who have surfed nearby consider it to be paradise in its rawest form. On the streets of Sámara, residents still outnumber tourists and English is seldom heard. Known as one of the safest and most appealing beaches in the country, Sámara Half Moon Bay is dotted with coconut palms and welcoming faces.
Protected by a coral reef, the wide beaches and shallow waters make it an ideal playground for children.
The village’s main drag leads directly down to the beach, where vendors offer fruit-filled platters and chilled milk poured from freshly cracked coconuts. Bars and restaurants feature sandy floors and authentic dishes such as locally caught seafood with rice and beans.
Guests are invited to lounge and dine while enjoying the view of tangerine sunsets and silhouetted surfers. For the after-hours crowd, Sámara’s Las Brisas dance club offers an assortment of cocktails and a local DJ who spins music until the early morning.
For the adventurous surfer, Sámara’s greatest appeal is the town’s proximity to secret spots accessible only by four-wheel drive or boat. The village itself offers several small beach breaks that are ideal for beginners.
Outside reefs, such as Isla Chora at the south end of the bay, provide some of the best waves in the area. This scenic island in the bay is also popular with swimmers and windsurfers and can be reached by boat.
Just south of Sámara is Playa Carrillo. In the mouth of the bay lies a reef that pitches seven to eight foot waves during a good swell. These fast and snappy rights line up decent barrels for the experienced surfer with the added bonus of a beach break for those who like to stay close to shore.
Farther south is the secluded Playa Camaronal, accessible by four-wheel drive. Here, epic waves can be reached only during the dry season by crossing the River Ora. Once past the river, one must follow the dirt road to a cow pasture overlooking the water.
Building up the biggest and most consistent waves in the area, Camaronal peels from both sides and can peak up to 20 feet during the season. Seldom crowded, these clean lines hold their shape and never close out, no matter how big the wave.
South of Camaronal is Punta Islita, where smaller waves break to the right just inside a cove. The best time to surf Punta Islita is during a south swell when the rights are peeling off the reef. During September and October, the waves are best at high tide, when they average six feet and break off to the left.
Nearly 30 kilometers from Sámara is the desolate Playa San Miguel. This long stretch of uncrowded beach break offers a punchy wave, peaking at eight feet during a swell.
Playa San Miguel can be located by looking for the endless rows of trees lining the shore.
North of Sámara is the left reef break, Izquierda. Accessible only by boat, the peaking wave can be spotted by heading 40 minutes along the coast from Sámara. This powerful reef break has a reputation for injury.
The few surfers who brave the left break claim the unpredictable, wild wave is worth the hit.
Twenty minutes north of Sámara are the secluded waves of Buena Vista. After driving along a dirt road, one must paddle across a river to reach the pink sandy shores. Ideal for beginners or advanced surfers, the wave breaks in three staggered levels, one right after the other.Here one must be alert for the crocodiles and monkeys that frequent the area.
Sámara’s C & CSurfSchool (656-0628, [email protected]) offers guided tours to these areas, as well as board rentals, daily tours, bilingual instructors and lessons for all levels. For those less inclined to surf, Sámara has a coral reef that is ideal for snorkeling.
Other sports possible in the area include windsurfing, sportfishing, kayaking and horseback riding to waterfalls.
Sámara offers a wide choice of accommodations, including hilltop hotels, rustic cabinas, luxury villas and beachfront bungalows. Located just 100 meters from the beach is the newly opened Tico Adventure Lodge (656-0628, www.ticoadventurelodge.com). Nestled in a lush garden, this tropical oasis offers a private grilling area, complimentary breakfast, a swimming pool and treetop bungalows starting at $15 a night.
For $75 a night, the Treehouse Inn (656-0733) has oceanfront apartments built on tree-trunk stilts overlooking a pool and garden.
A popular backpackers choice is Las Olas Resort (656-0187), where travelers are treated to spacious bungalows and a beach bar for $25 a night. For the budget traveler, apartments and communal kitchens are available at Apartamentos Karmen (656- 0490), and right on the beach is Camping Cocos (656-0496), where travelers can sleep under the stars for just $3 a night.
Newcomers are often surprised by the warm hospitality on Playa Sámara. Paddling out on the first day, they might be greeted with a friendly “hola” or “buenos días.” By sunset, they may find themselves invited for drinks and the promise of a tour to Sámara’s best-kept-secret spot… which remains a secret.