Surf Retreat in Southern Costa Rica
As you may have seen on my Instagram last week, I just came back from an incredible week in Costa Rica. I’ve wanted to travel there for basically my entire life and kept getting inquiries from clients about going, so I took it as a sign that it was time to go! I went through the inquiries and found that many people were interested specifically in surf or yoga retreats, so I began to formulate a plan for finding the best one. Whenever I plan travel for others, I always try to ensure the places I’m sending them to are involved in eco-tourism, are inclusive, and support their local communities. I asked friends who had gone on retreats in the past, read reviews and blogs, and did lots of Googling and one group kept coming up: Surf With Amigas.
Surf with Amigas is an "all-inclusive surf and yoga retreats for adventurous women (and sometimes men too!) to support and inspire each other in surfing and in life.” Started in 2010 by former pro surfer Holly Beck and later joined by her business partner Jackie George in 2012, Surf With Amigas has become one of the top surf retreat groups and after spending a week with them, it’s easy to see why. They have locations across Central America and promote an inclusive environment that encourages a love of surfing, wellness, the environment and more.
As instructed, I booked the smaller Sansa airlines flights first (around $150 each way) then booked my main flights around the arrival and departure times. You need to book an international flight from wherever you’re starting from to San Jose, Costa Rica (SJO), then a smaller domestic flight to Golfito. We recommend looking at the possible international options but then actually booking your Golfito flight first. Sometimes, it looks like those Sansa flights are available until you go to book them. So, book the smaller flight first just to be sure! For the way out, I chose the early flight to take advantage of Surf With Amigas shuttle. Sansa Airlines is a small airline with small 12 seater airplanes, so they fill up quickly. I knew I would not be able to check my luggage all the way through from the US, so I chose to carry on only to save time when switching terminals. They did make me check my bigger backpack for the small flight and made me get on the scale with my other one which seemed weird at the time but made sense when I saw the very small plane. When planning your international flight, make sure to leave time between connections to collect your baggage if you need, clear customs (this took me all of five minutes), and walk to the domestic terminal. Two hours is close but probably sufficient if you want a leisurely transfer.
Costa Rica was seemingly one of the few countries Americans can get into without a COVID test. One of the reasons I chose to work with Surf With Amigas was because even though the country didn’t require a test, they did. I liked that they were taking the proper precautions to keep guests, staff and the locals safe. My sister was supposed to come on the trip with me but when she told them she was exposed, they asked her not to come. I was sad she wouldn’t be there but respected them even more for putting the Amigas and staff’s safety before making a quick buck. You are required to purchase travel insurance that covers all accommodations in case of quarantine and medical expenses due to COVID. An explanation of one’s travel insurance coverage, addressing Costa Rica’s requirements, must be uploaded or entered into the Costa Rican Health Pass System 48 hours in advance of your trip in order to be reviewed and approved by the Costa Rican authorities. I also printed copies of everything just in case. If more information on international insurance is needed, the Costa Rican authorities will contact the passenger at the email address indicated in the forms. Once you’re done you show a QR code they send to you after completing the health pass before getting on the plane and when you arrive to immigration officials in San Jose.
I used Surf With Amigas’ recommended travel insurance company Trawick International. It was easy to navigate and very reasonably priced, coming in at about $35 per traveler for the week we were there. They also offer a cancel for any reason clause.
Ten days before we left we got an email from the owner Holly that the US had changed restrictions and now required a negative COVID test to get back into the country. She recommended we change our flight out to one day later, book an appointment at the drive through testing site at Hospital Clinica Biblica and stay in San Jose for one night. She provided all of the info and it was easy enough to switch things around. We did that before learning that Surf With Amigas was able to get a local doctor to come and do rapid testing at the retreat the Thursday before we left, so I ended up getting an extra night in San Jose, which I was stoked about. I booked a fancier AirBnb (balcony pool anyone?) and made reservations at one of San Jose's top restaurants to celebrate a week of hard work and fun. Trawick was great about changing my policy dates for a whopping $1.55 extra. It really put my mind at ease that Surf With Amigas took the time to find someone to come directly to the retreat and they also offered the services to community members who might be traveling home as well.
When we first heard about the Surf With Amigas retreat, I figured you needed a bikini, some shorts and sneakers and little else. Boy was I wrong! When I booked my retreat, Holly sent over a list of recommended items and I was shocked. Due to the remote nature of the retreat’s location, you need to bring in basically everything you could need for a week, including snacks, head lamps, surf wax, sunscreen, and more. I was most intrigued by the recommendation for surf leggings. As a very pale person with lots of tattoos, before we left I spent about $75 on reef safe and organic sunscreen and really didn’t want to spend money and precious backpack space on something I wouldn’t use, so I turned to a NY Surf Chicas, a local Facebook group. When I asked if they were really necessary for the area where I’d be surfing, every single person said yes. Apparently, lots of people who go on surf retreats near the equator fry their asses the first day and get so sunburned they can’t surf! I purchased 2 pairs and I am so glad I did. I ended up wearing them every session.
For my actual backpack itself, I knew I’d need something small enough to carry on our 12 seat puddle jumper plane but with enough room to carry my laptop, camera and all of the odds and ends I needed to bring that you usually wouldn’t need to pack for a “normal” vacation. Thankfully, I was gifted a Series 1: Large Backpack from Knack Bags, along with some of their packing cubes and compressible shoe bags. This bag is a gamechanger! It was small enough to be used as an everyday bag on our hikes, surf excursions and more but when expanded, fit literally everything I needed for my trip with room for souvenirs! If you haven’t hopped on the packing cube trend yet you need to purchase some immediately. I thought I was a pretty organized packer before them but now I can never go back. I also loved the compressible shoe bag not only for it’s space saving qualities (I stuffed some bikinis in there too), but for keeping my muddy hiking shoes separate from my clothes on the way home. I’m not a last minute packer but generally that means I keep adding stuff I forgot until the very last minute, stuffing my bag to the gills. The Knack bag had enough room for me to do this, for which I was very grateful. I usually travel with a backpacking backpack, so having a bag that zips up more like a traditional suitcase was also awesome and made unpacking and finding everything a lot easier.
This area of Costa Rica is often called “the land of lefts” or “the goofy footers’ paradise” for a reason. We surfed point breaks and beach breaks and always had relatively consistent sets. I felt that no matter how big the waves got (in this week's case, not very big) I was safe thanks to the awesome Surf With Amigas instructors. They could often be heard alternating saying “it's a cute one” (a smaller wave) or making sure we were paddling out if a larger set was headed towards us. The shouts of “paddle, paddle paddle” will surely haunt my dreams for months to come. But in all seriousness, I wouldn’t have had the courage to go for bigger waves or do a full moon night surf if it wasn't for their constant encouragement.
One of the best things about the Surf With Amigas retreat was our Surf 101 lessons. It’s easy to tell a beginner where to paddle and how to pop up, but the SWA took the time to teach us why we were “paddling towards the power,” why waves in certain areas break the way they do, how tides affect the swells and more. As a visual learner, seeing everything laid out on a white board and being able to ask questions out of the water instead of making sure a wave wasn't about to break on me helped immensely, as it did for the other women on the retreat. We all enjoyed it so much we asked for another class! We were also encouraged to drink cocktails during class so it felt like a fun hang with the girls instead of a strict school environment. We even had an in-water surf photographer named Lena that was awesome at getting great shots while not getting hit by us. She took all of the surf photos on this blog! You can find her work here.
The water was clear, blue and warm, averaging around 75-80 degrees the whole week I was there. The swells were powerful enough to get you going on a wave but each of us only took a hard nose dive or got washing-machined a handful of times. The worst injury was a jellyfish sting. We surfed with turtles, saw fish surfing in waves and I even saw a whale right in front of the eco-lodge where we surfed!
OK, I’ll admit it: I hate yoga. I’ve tried to love it, my mom is a yogi of 40+ years, my best friend is a yoga teacher, but I just can’t get into it. I’m antsy and not flexible and have huffed and puffed through many a class cursing myself for paying to do something I didn't actually like. So it’s safe to say I approached the yoga portion of the surf and yoga retreat warily. I figured I’d take one class so I could write about it and give an accurate description of what to expect for people who would go on a Surf With Amigas retreat then hide on the beach when it was time for yoga class the rest of the week. But man, was I wrong.
Our surf instructor and yoga teacher Coco started the week by explaining that the classes she taught were a mix between Yin and Restorative yoga. That meant no fast paced transitions, difficult poses or crazy inversions. There was one class after a particularly tiring surf session that we spent in different variations of just laying on the floor. This was the kind of yoga I could get behind! I came to look forward for our daily classes as a time to stretch my sore muscles and appreciate the hard work my body was doing. I might even continue practicing at home!
The Surf With Amigas Southern Costa Rica retreat location is at a locally owned eco-lodge located at the edge of a 500 acre private biological reserve, and directly across the street from a great break. It’s not super luxurious (no AC here folks) but has rustic charm and has everything you could want for a week of surfing, yoga and outdoor adventures.
The food was so amazing I kept forgetting to take pictures. One of the best things about the retreat is “first breakfast” (usually some coffee, yogurt and fruit) and "second breakfast” (a larger meal after surfing or yoga comprised of basically any breakfast food you could want- fluffy vegan pancakes, scrambled eggs, tortillas and more). For other meals we had things like fish stew, ceviche, tacos, and of course, rice and beans for every meal of the day. Everything was fresh, prepared with local ingredients and helped fuel us on all of our daily adventures.
This part of Costa Rica has always been hailed as as a surfers paradise. It is a very laid back town, mostly visited by surfers and adventure travelers. Pavones and the surrounding small towns are yet to be to be spoiled by modern development so it is a very authentic place to be, and is considered one of Costa Rica’s "last true paradises." There are no shopping centers, no ATMs, no big commercial restaurants and most places to stay don’t even have wifi. Just a few chilled out bars, cafés and restaurants. The one time I needed WiFi I went into the very small town and walked around asking “lady internet?” like the instructors told us to and found her in a hammock on the beach. She took us to her backyard/chicken coop and charged 1000 colones ($1.63) for one hour of internet. It was definitely one of the more rustic places I’ve checked my emails from, but I couldn’t help but enjoy myself while also cursing myself for having a life that required me to need to check emails in the middle of nowhere. There was spotty cell service in town at least. As the first person to admit I’m a workaholic, this both intrigued me and shook me to my core. Knowing I couldn’t answer emails in under an hour like I usually do seemed terrifying until we got to the eco-lodge, where I saw how no one needed to be that connected. It’s hard to be concerned about a minor work issue when you're surrounded by lush jungle and can hear the waves lapping at the shore at any time during the day. The point of this trip after all was to experience all Surf With Amigas had to offer and not be glued to my phone. To stay connected, I activated an international data plan and got service sometimes, which I mainly used to FaceTime my family and show them the sunsets on the beach.
One of the things that most drew me to this area of Costa Rica is the nature! This region in Costa Rica is regarded as one of the most biologically diverse places in the world. I saw monkeys, macaws, toucans, iguanas, surfed with and released turtles and saw a variety of other local creatures. We rode horses deep into the jungle to check out a waterfall, took a boat trip across the gulf to surf on the Osa peninsula, and had a ladies’ dinner in one of the most amazing open-air houses I’ve ever been in. We even learned how to weave baskets and supported the indigenous community by shopping their locally made products. If you’re looking for a place to reconnect with nature, disconnect from devices and have an amazing week, this Surf With Amigas’ location is the place to be.
I booked an early flight from LGA and had to leave my house at 3am. When I got there I made it through security in under 10 minutes, walked like what felt for forever to get to my gate and realized nothing was open for me to get coffee or a snack. I hunkered down with some emails and got on my first flight right on time. American Airlines isn’t blocking middle seats and even though the aisle seat was empty my row mate chose to sit in the middle seat like a weirdo. I dozed off and hoped she didn’t have COVID. When I landed at Charlotte for my layover, I got off the plane and my next flight was already boarding a few gates down! On this flight they handed out cleaning wipes, a water bottle and a small pack of pretzels in a bag as you boarded. Flying into San Jose was so beautiful that I teared up a bit wishing I could share in the moment with my sister or husband. I was smiling so hard under my mask that I guess my seat mate could tell because she asked if it was my first time in Costa Rica and we chatted about Costa Rica and New York for the rest of the flight. It was a bit of a bumpy landing but we lived and she told me “they’re usually not that bad.”
Once I showed the SJO customs officials my passport and QR code from filling out the Costa Rican Health Pass (more on that later), I changed into shorts and sandals and made it out of the airport in record time. I Made it through customs in 5 minutes, changed into my shorts and sandals and walked another 3 minutes to the domestic terminal. The domestic terminal was small but clean. They had someone taking temperatures and directing everyone to wash their hands at an outdoor sink by the door before entering, which made me feel a lot better. Once I was cleared for entry I went to the Sansa counter to have print my ticket, walked through a very small security line, grabbed some coffee (finally) and sat in one of the few seats available. I had allocated way too much time to connect but they had fast WiFi and charging stations, so I caught up on some work and tried not to look at the very tiny planes taking off out the window.
Getting on to the Sansa 12 seater plane to Golfito was super easy but once I was on I have to admit I was terrified. I texted my husband “Goodbye forever, we had a good run. I love you!” Because it felt like a tin can held together by a few nuts and bolts. I sat in the very back because I though it would be safe then realized once we were in the air that I was next to a door that had seen better days. Takeoff was smooth and once we got up to our cruising altitude and I got used to feeling every gust of wind and convinced myself I probably wouldn’t die it was actually very beautiful and calming getting to look down on the stunning scenery. That was until we were flying through a cloud and the pilot kept taking his hands off the wheel! This was worth the slight terror though because coming out of the cloud I saw the crystal blue ocean in front of me and I remembered I was on an adventure and I’m a bad bitch who isn’t afraid of anything (or so I tell myself). We flew down the coast for most of the trip which also definitely helped with my small plane anxiety. I caught my first glimpse of the famous waves of Southern Costa Rica from above and couldn’t help but get excited! The landing was surprisingly smooth.
After a 2 hour drive down a curvy and bumpy dirt road we arrived at our Eco-lodge near Pavones and met our instructors Coco, Shelly, and Jackie. We arrived just in time for dinner. We had a delicious meal of rice and bread, fish, plantain pancakes, and veggies and got the whole spiel about daily activities.We got to know each other, settled in and went to bed to prepare for our first day of surfing, yoga and more! I knocked out soon after.
We woke up at 5am up to “first breakfast” consisting of coffee, juice, fruit, granola and yogurt. Then we piled into an old van and headed out for our first day of surfing! We surfed near Pavones, one of the most famous breaks in the world. We surfed a point break with a great left and the waves were small and perfect for beginners. I caught the first one I went for and almost every one after. The instructors were amazing and really took the time with every single person, no matter what their level was. I grew up surfing as a kid then stopped for quite some time after various neck surgeries and shoulder injuries so I really had no idea how I would do. Before going, SWA asked us to let them know about any injuries they should be aware of so the instructors were already prepared with modifications for me, making it way easier to get back into surfing and giving me the confidence that I’d be able to surf all week without hurting myself.
As someone who grew up being the only girl in the lineup when I surfed, it was crazy empowering to see so many women out there. Some were charging big waves or shredding down the line and others could barely get up but I couldn’t stop smiling thinking about what 12 year old Gina would have thought seeing all of these badass ladies surfing. The vibe was certainly different, with whoops and cheers and claps almost every wave as people caught them. I was told that it’s the same on co-ed retreats as well! Feeling supported helped me push myself even more! We had lunch on the beach, packed up and headed backed to the eco-lodge. We arrived to a lunch of fresh ceviche and did our video reviews with Shelly. By the end of the week we all agreed how awesome it was to be able to look back on your session and be told what you were doing right and what needed improvement. Shelly spent so much time with each of us every day and her pointers and advice were invaluable!
After lunch we had our yoga class, set our goals for the week and had some free time before a very helpful surf theory lesson. We had some cocktails and did some shopping from Jackie’s Seea collection then went down to the beach for sunset. We had a delicious dinner of rice and beans, chicken and salad and hung out and talked about gross boys, as to be expected on a women’s retreat. I think we were in bed by 7:00pm, a trend that would continue all week.
We got to sleep in til 6am (so late) but I woke up early to see the sunrise. We had a nice breakfast and practiced yoga then split off into groups of girls who wanted to go back to yesterday’s spot or right out front. I went back to the same spot as the day before and worked on the pointers I got from my video review and surf class. They really did help (but I still don’t bend my knees enough to this day). We came back for lunch, hung around and did video reviews again then headed out for basket weaving class in Pavones. The open air studio space was owned by a lovely woman from Israel and taught by one of the most talented weavers I've ever seen. We made three tier baskets and drank starfruit sangria prepared by Coco with starfruit from the eco lodge property. We all went down to see the sunset across from the art studio then headed home. We had an amazing fish stew for dinner, traded travel stories and were in bed by 7:30.
Another late wake up call, we woke up at 6am and talked about it poisonous snakes over breakfast then headed across the street to ride horses on the beach! We rode for a bit then hiked up to a beautiful waterfall and had a dip. Only one Amiga fell off and she was a trooper and came out of the ordeal with just a bruised butt. We rode back, had breakfast and headed across the street to surf. The waves were bigger and kind of scary but the instructors did a great job of pushing us just enough and making us feel better. We were all really wiped out after and did a yoga class where we basically laid down the whole time.
The coolest part of the day was in the evening when we walked down near where we had surfed earlier and got to release baby Olive Ridley sea turtles back to the ocean. The horse owner also worked at Tortugas Punta Banco and was leading the release. The turtles will return to that exact spot to lay eggs when they’re older. We all bought T-shirts to support the cause and then had dinner and learned that SWA also donated to them, so part of our trip helps the turtles! We were all happy but beat and went to bed soon after dinner.
After a quick breakfast we split into groups again, with some Amigas staying out front and my group heading to another point break near Pavones. The waves were small but we had a blast!It was awesome seeing the Amigas who had barely surfed before doing so well! We headed back after a few hours, had lunch and learned that the waves out front were BIG, and did some shopping from local clothing and bag makers. We had some time to kill so we went to someones house/a chicken farm for WiFi, swam in a nice creek on the way home, showered and got ready for our “ladies night out”.
We drove for a few minutes up a mountain to get to dinner at Lao’s house an amazing open air home she built almost all by herself. Lao is a badass Argentinian surfer and part time SWA instructor who had the most amazing energy. We had curry and salad from all local ingredients and did a thankfulness circle for the full moon. I was grateful for being able to surf again, being able to travel and travel solo, and for meeting all of the amazing women on this trip. It truly takes a special kind of woman to go on a trip like this and I was and still am extremely grateful to these strong, independent women who became my friends. We piled back into the van and came home and headed to bed.
We woke up at 5:30am for yoga. Had some coffee, did another surf class, then hung out until we left for our boat trip to the Peninsula around 8am. We went across Golfo Dulce (sweet gulf in Spanish) for about 40 min then hopped off with our boards right into the outside of a nice right break. All of the girls were crushing it even though conditions were small and we had an awesome session.
After surfing, we went to a hotel deeper into the jungle and had lunch and cocktails by the pool. We hung out for a bit then got back on the boat and trawled for fish on the way home. We had all been on the lookout for dolphins and Coco claimed she saw one but no one believed her. A few minutes later a giant dolphin jumped up no more than 2 feet away from the boat on the way back, making our day. We came home and had a delicious dinner then hit the hay early to prepare for our moonlight surf.
We woke up at 4am and had some coffee while mentally preparing for an experience that doesn't happen too often. We paddled out together in the dark with just the light of the full moon. It was terrifying, exhilarating and one of the coolest things I've ever done. Even with the moonlight, it was hard to tell what was a wave and you basically just had to go for it. I didn't catch anything but didn’t care because it was such a beautiful experience. The sun rose in the east while the moon still shone brightly in the west and I felt like I was in a dream.
We came home and had breakfast. There was a mini earthquake during it but apparently that's pretty common in the area! After breakfast we headed out on our nature hike on the 500 acres the eco lodge is on with Clyde the guide, the owner of the eco-lodge and son of the owner of the preserve. We saw howler monkeys, iguanas, and the orchard where the cacao trees grow for their chocolate business. We ate the seeds of the cacao pods and they were delicious! We went over rope bridges and learned all about the different plants, trees and animals that called this preserve home. We came back to the lodge for lunch and I got a deep tissue massage then went right into yoga class. After yoga we hung around for a bit and everyone went out for the sunset session. I sat it out due to an old shoulder injury flaring up but took photos. After the Amigas finished we had a bonfire on the beach, went for one last swim and had cocktails and beer as we watched the sunset. No one wanted the day to end and we stayed on the beach til it was dark. We came home, ate dinner and begrudgingly went to our rooms to pack for our journey back to San Jose.
As a travel planner, I have to admit I was hesitant to go on a retreat before I got there. When I travel for fun, I rarely plan my days out and worried that the Surf With Amigas retreat would run on a regimented schedule. Luckily, I was wrong! The days were filled with enough activities to stay busy but we always had down time to read in the hammocks, walk the beach, take a little siesta and run free. It was great not having to worry about booking daily excursions last minute or needing to do hours of research on where the best spot to surf that day was or where to eat. Most importantly, the surf instructors and employees of Surf With Amigas were incredibly warm and friendly to the point that you would think you’d known them for years.
I came back from the trip sunburnt and bruised but confident in my ability to travel solo and most importantly, with a new group of incredible female friends and a renewed love of surfing. If you’re interested in booking a spot on a Surf With Amigas retreat, you can check out their schedule.