Travel Guide: Surfing and Fishing Tamarindo, Costa Rica
I come to a point in the road where the buildings cease and the Tamarindo Wildlife Refuge takes over. There’s one last house, shaded by a mango tree rising above its roof.
I knock. A girl comes to the door.
- “Is anyone here that might want to buy a board?” I ask.
“No one here is looking for a board.”
No problem. There are plenty of other places to sell one back in town. I see a dry-erase board inside that has “volunteers wanted” written on it.
- “You need volunteers?”
“Yeah. I’m going back to England. We are still looking for a replacement. It’s a very easy job — you check in guests at the computer, help with cleaning in the mornings, rent surfboards, book eco-tours and boat charters.”
Travel sometimes presents you with serendipities. All one needs is an openness to allow them to happen. She scribbles a number and hands it to me.
- “Think about it. Jed is the one to talk to.”
“What’s the name of this place?”
“The Beach House.”
Work in exchange for room and board is common in Costa Rica — Workaway and Helpx are two websites for hosts and travelers to link up. It’s a unique way to extend your travels and meet new and interesting people on the road.
When to go
As a tropical location, day length and daily average temperature (22-28 C) are constant year-round. The only climatic variation is the amount of rainfall. Rains are regular May-October, though seldom lasting all day, and typically heaviest September-October. For this reason, most visitors choose to go during the dry season (November-April).
- For surfing — Rainy season is recommended, which corresponds with frequent swells generated by winter storms in the Southern Hemisphere.
- For fishing — Calm sea conditions conducive to open ocean fishing are more frequent during dry season, though anglers are advised to plan for the prime months of the species they’re after. The bites of snapper, robalo, roosterfish, tuna, and dorado are good year-round. May-August is best for sailfish, November-March for marlin.
THE FOLLOWING MORNING I wake and go surfing. I paddle across the Rio Matapalo to Playa Grande. The white sand stretches for miles towards a rocky headland. I hadn’t anticipated it to be so long. So grande. All these peaks, no one around. Is this the spot?
A light breeze wafts, weakly combating the heat. My skin itches from the salt. Resigned, I plunk my board onto the beach and sit. The sand is warm, not quite hot yet. I sift it through my fingers.
Two surfers approach.
- “Do you know where the best peak is?” I ask.
“There’s a few more further down.”
- “Mind if I join?”
We stop walking after 20 minutes once we see the surf near the headland.
“Breaking way outside.”
“What do you want to do?”
We walk back down the beach. The tide has turned and now there’s a wave where previously there was nothing. We paddle out. One of the surfers lands several airs. Soon a crowd forms.
“I think my hangover’s leaving me,” he says. “Do you want to check the river mouth and keep surfing all day? I’m down.”
“Ok,” I say. The option to surf all day is exactly what I’m after. I appreciate places with large windows of surfable conditions. Not everywhere has it. Tamarindo does.
Later, I cart my belongings through the village, passing the highrise condos and bikini shops and the Subway franchise. A rapidly growing tourist economy made Tamarindo grow up too fast. It’s a trait I’m willing to live with for a while.
I arrive at the Beach House and find Jed, the South African co-owner. I tell him I want the job.
Waves of Tamarindo
- Playa Grande — The best bet. Very shapely beach break that gets punchy at size.
- El Estero / Matapalo River Mouth — A really fun wave on its day. The sand shifts a lot, but it’s known for rights and lefts.
- Pico Pequeño — A reef wave with a takeoff right over a rock that walls up and can be fast and rippable.
- Playa Tamarindo — The beach right in town. It’s usually mellow and works better on smaller days. The best place to learn / longboard / teach lessons / hang out.
- Isla Capitan — An island about 300 meters off the beach that you have to paddle or boat to. It takes a half hour to paddle. A left reef wave refracts around the island. Advanced only.
The real draw for surfers are two waves outside Santa Rosa National Park, where the wind frequently blows offshore. You must boat to them. Ollie’s Point is a mechanical right rivermouth / point. Playa Naranja / Witch’s Rock is a fast barreling beachbreak. A handful of boat operators take you there from Tamarindo, and more from Playa del Coco. Check out Witch’s Rock Surf Camp and Boo’s Adventures.
IN MY WALKS to the waves, I usually see wildlife. This morning, as I warm my feet in the tidepools before the Rio Matapalo, I find mudminnows swimming the edges, and blue crabs prowling the deep end. I’d seen egrets frequenting these pools, stalking shrimp with their razor-sharp beaks.
When I return I come upon a brown log in the sand on top of the riverbank. As I pass, its snout rises, baring crocodilian teeth.
Each encounter with a crocodile brings awe, fear, and curiosity. In today’s encounter, it is mostly fear.
In and around the protected areas near Tamarindo, commonly seen wildlife includes large lizards, monkeys, peccaries (a pig-like animal), coati (similar to a raccoon), and about 250 species of birds.
Areas of Playa Grande, Carbón, and Ventanas are designated as Las Baulas Marine Park, named after “las baulas,” the loggerhead turtles that go there during nesting season from November to April. Guided bilingual tours are available from the ranger station (+50626530470). In addition, boat tours and kayak rentals are available through the Tamarindo Wildlife Refuge, a protected mangrove area in the Rio Matapalo. Local panga operators arrange tours at the river mouth.
Tamarindo Aventuras rent kayaks (US$19 single, $33 double, 2 hrs); a credit card is required.
WHEN ESTHER, Jed’s girlfriend and co-owner of the Beach House, comes back from San Jose in her VW van, we ride to the hardware store. I pick out a reel and a two-piece rod, which I can break down and put in my board bag once I move on, plus sinkers, a bucktail, and one bobber. It’s a good investment, I reason; for the rest of my trip I’ll be eating fresh fish.
When we get back, Kevin, the American expat, and his sons are cast-netting bait outside our doorstep on the Rio Matapalo. They have been here catching mangrove snapper the last couple days.
Jed nails holes into a 1.5L bottle. “A shrimp trap,” he says. I spool my reel with line. We have shrimp, crabs, and minnows, but nothing bites on the low tide. When it begins to rise, the bites start.
A thunderstorm rumbles out at sea. Clouds loom. I get a big hit but don’t hook it. We need more bait. I net more minnows in the tide pools. The storm is visibly moving in on us. Lightning strikes the ocean.
At the first dashes of rain we run inside. Imperials are cracked. The fishing stories resume. Rain splatters against the windows. It’s sometime in late August, though the exact date is not important.
Recreational fishing is popular in Tamarindo. You can bring your own gear and fish from the beach or kayak — or equip yourself at the local hardware store, where you can also get bait. Snapper, mackerel, and robalo (snook) are regularly caught in the estuaries and surf.
A number of fishing charters operate out of Tamarindo, both nearshore and offshore (typically a high-end activity, starting at $300 per 1/2 day, $800 per full day). You’ll catch sailfish, marlin, tuna, dorado (dolphin), wahoo, roosterfish, snapper, grouper, mackerel, and robalo. A selection of operators:
- Tamarindo Sportfishing
- Pedro’s Fishing Tours
- Osprey Sportfishing
- Kingpin Sportfishing
- Rhino Charger
- Warren Sellers
- Fish Tamarindo
Fishing licenses are required. They are issued online by INCOPESCA (8 days ($15), 30 days ($25), 1 year ($50)) or at one their regional offices. Charters typically handle licensing requirements.
* Author’s note: The Beach House was closed as of July 2012.