I’ve always heard incredible stories from family, friends, and neighbors about how epic the surfing was in Costa Rica. As a kid, I grew up only surfing the New Jersey shores during summer. Ironically, it wasn’t until I moved up to New England, where the water is always cold, did I begin to take surfing seriously. And that’s when a buddy of mine, named Jake, started throwing around the idea for a surf trip to Costa Rica. Nothing was set in stone, but he had spent a summer there before and wanted to go back. The next thing I knew, a group of seven of us were flying down to Costa Rica for one epic trip in the beginning of April. Not to mention, we booked a house a block from Junquillal Beach in the Guanacaste Region. So things were bound to get interesting.
After spending our first couple of days inland, in the town of La Fortuna, we drove back across the country to the coast. Getting there was an adventure in itself with all the dirt “highways”, pot holes, and winding roads. We pulled in through the gates to our house, and holy sh!t, it was insane. Needless to say, we were all shocked by how nice it was compared to the hostels rooms and rundown motels we were used to staying in when traveling. We tossed our bags into any room we found and immediately headed to the beach at the bottom of the hill. And even though we were staying in Junquillal, we surfed every day at Playa Negra which was a 15 minute drive north on a bumpy, dirt road. This was by far the best surf I’d ever seen, and we got to ride it for 4 days straight.
Playa Negra is a world-class reef break, which makes for consistent waves all year round. There are no road signs but you turn left down a dirt road when you pass by Pargos Adventures Surf Shop. It’s a great surf shop where we rented our boards for the week. A quarter-mile down that road you’ll see a parking area. Park here and don’t forget to tip the “attendants” when you leave for watching your car. Head down the beach path and you’ll reach the obvious break, it’s hard to miss. It’s big and breaks right, all the time. A fun little fact, had I known beforehand, probably would have picked a different beach. I didn’t mind the height of the waves as much as always having to surf backside all week. Being goofy footed, my natural tendencies are to turn left so that I can surf frontside.
While we were there, the wind changed direction from off-shore to on-shore, every day at 2PM. Which meant the waves would go flat at 2PM every day. With that in mind, we would show up every day around 10AM, when the waves were pumping and some were even barreling overhead. High tide was somewhere around noon, which is a prime time to surf the break because the wave breaks on a reef that is, at most, only 4 feet below you. All of which I also didn’t realize until I was out in the water and sitting in the lineup. I guess that’s what I get for letting a really good surfer plan the whole trip. But it definitely didn’t stop us from having an epic time.
After giving a quick (1 minute) lesson to our friends that had never surfed before, Jake and I jumped into the warm, 82 degree water, and paddled out and into the lineup. Rather than paddling straight through the rocks and reef, we went around the jetty the left of the break. There were only 10 others out in the lineup by the time we got there, and it didn’t look like anyone was taking off on waves in a specific order. That was definitely a relief. I thought I’d have to be waiting in order for a chance to paddle for a wave, just like the ones I always saw in the videos from Hawaii or other famous breaks. While Jake and I were just floating around, he mentioned to me the fun fact about how shallow the reef was below us. That titbit of info did not make me feel at ease. And before I could freak out about it, Jake was already taking off on a wave, carving hard, and riding out to the right.
“SH!T” I remember screaming in my head over and over again. I grew up surfing beach breaks and sand bottom. And as of late, surfing the rocky coastline of Rhode Island was already outside my comfort zone. Now I was sitting in the middle of the lineup with a sharp reef only few feet below my dangling feet. Not to mention, I had only just finished ski season and only surfed once that entire winter. So you can imagine how in-surf-shape I was going into this trip. Yet, somehow I would need to surf better ever to catch a wave here, on my first try. “This was ludicrous,” I remember saying to myself, “I’m always so rusty when I get back on the board. If I don’t make this bottom turn, I’m going to slam the reef and get drug across it.”
Something must have come over me, suppressing all the fear and nerves, because I saw an opportunity and paddled into an empty wave. I took a guess at where I’d need to take off from, not too close to the break, but close enough to guarantee I could successfully catch it. I started to paddle hard, looking over my shoulder at the wave. Paddled and paddled. I turned my head back forward and could see it right at the bottom of the wave. The reef. It became crystal clear as the waved pulled the water off the top of it, exposing all its edges only a couple of feet below the water. But it was way too late to bail, so committed 100 % and I gave it one last hard stroke. Then I felt it. I was moving one with the wave, and snapped up.
Going against all my natural tendencies to turn left, I grabbed my left rail, pulled hard, and snapped a right-handed bottom turn. I made it! I dug my right hand into the wave to stabilize myself and took it for a short, but incredible ride. Bailing off the end of the wave proved to be an adventure in itself. Even though the wave died, there still was a tremendous amount of white water still moving. When I jumped off the board and into the white wash, I got held down for a few second before I could make it back up. Luckily, its deeper so I didn’t smack off the reef on my first time. But after all that, I made it! The rush from the glide and danger on that wave was incredible, and honestly addicting. Guess that’s why I kept paddling back out for another wave each time.
So what did I learn? Over the next few days I learned a lot, and most was trial by fire. I noticed the waves would come in sets of 3 with a monster wave rolling in every ~10 sets. While we were there, we had just missed a major storm, so the waves were only around 5-6 ft. This was consistent all week, even though I felt like the first day they were 7-10 feet. But after the winds switch, the waves get toppled over and turn into choppy 3 footers. I was able to gain some respect by the end of the trip and didn’t have to compete for every single wave, but there were still locals that would snake every wave from if you if they could. But you gotta give it to’em. And not because they’re local, but because they’d take off super deep and from sketchy spots. But the harder you paddle into the waves, the more respect you’d get. My buddy Jake learned that quick, since he was in good enough shape to paddle for every single wave all week-long. Me on the other hand, could have used a little more conditioning. I also learned that the reef wasn’t too scary after all… as long as you don’t take a nose dive off on your takeoff. One time, I snapped up too late on one wave, sending me flipping me directly to the bottom of the wave where I was met hard by the reef. Luckily, I only slammed my back onto it and didn’t get drug across. No serious damage done. Jake, on the other hand, landed face down on the reef after a wipeout and his leg got cut across reef. He left Costa Rica with a 6 inch long gash in his leg which definitely got infected by the end of the trip.
Surfing down in Costa Rica was incredible, and this break was by far the best surfing I’d ever done or seen. The combination of warm water, perfect waves, and unbelievable crew of friends made for an epic surf trip. Almost every night ended in the exact same way for us. We’d stop by this tiny restaurant near our place to order a different variety of casados, which is the traditional Costa Rican meal of meat, beans, and rice. And then head down to the beach for an unforgettable sunset.
Check out my full video from the trip here for some more of our Costa Rican adventures!
My name is Zachary Kenney and I’m an adventure filmmaker & photographer. My passion is to tell stories that will hopefully motivate you to go live a more adventurous life. Whether that is to experience the view from the summit of a mountain, or wandering through a new town on a road trip. Currently based out of Park City, UT.