While Covid has put the brakes on our wanderlust, we’re keeping our passion for adventure ignited by looking back at memories of recent travels and dreaming up the next big surf trip. Mum of three groms and co-founder of Family Surf Co, Hayley Lawrence relives a trip along the Pacific coast of Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Flying into Nicaragua on a 12-seater Cessna was an epic introduction to the jagged, wave-lashed coast of this surfing paradise. It’s part of my job to road test the best destinations for family surfing holidays, so with my 5, 8 and 10 year-old boys in tow, I embarked on a 5-week odyssey through Nicaragua and Costa Rica with my fledgling surf family.
We were introduced to Nica-life at Malibu Popoyo in South West Nicaragua, where a dusty track links a series of breaks where pelicans outnumber surfers. Each day we’d wake up to the beat of the waves and the sun filtering through the palm trees, then check the surf with a strong Nicaraguan coffee in hand. The playful beach break of Playa Santana was the perfect spot for hollow, A-frame peaks at sunrise, or we could pad along the beach to Magnific Rock and Popoyo Reef.
Local knowledge is the fast track to finding the best surf in new destinations, and our surf guide ensured we found the best waves for the whole family. My five year-old caught the longest waves of his life at Beginner’s Bay, while my ten year-old preferred playful Santana and I plumped for Popoyo reef. Between peelers we blissed out with yoga sessions, lip-smacking food made from ingredients just-picked from the quinta, and a heady dose of Nicaraguan culture including a local fiesta a visit to a family farm to ride horses and cook tortillas.
Crossing the border into Costa Rica was sweaty and chaotic, with a coffin-sized board bag and three children in tow. The midday sun beat down on us like a heavy wave, but it wasn’t long until we were cruising south in an air-conditioned taxi.
Costa Rica immediately felt different to Nicaragua, with its smooth, wide roads, American-style diners and buzzing beach resorts. While Tamarindo is known as the surfing hub of the north, we veered to neighbouring Playa Grande, which boasts bountiful peaks along miles of shoreline that’s one of the most important nesting sites for the leatherback turtle.
Footsteps along a jungle track from the scorching sands, we made ourselves at home in a poolside apartment at RipJack Inn. With two swimming pools, expert surfing tuition with Frijoles Locos, a daily yoga timetable and delicious Costa Rican food served in the tree-top restaurant, this stylish little hotel makes an amazing location for a family surfing holiday. Here we could surf from dawn to dusk, sip smoothies in our salty beachwear, stretch out with yoga, play ping-pong, or simply stretch out in a hammock and lap up the pura vida.
Sitting out back in perfect two-foot waves, all three of my boys hooting each other and riding towards a palm-fringed shore, I was in family surfing utopia. During our week-long stay (in early December), the waves provided the perfect conditions for a mum with three keen little groms in tow. Never more than a couple of feet, it was easy enough for my five year-old to paddle out, while the set waves still packed enough punch for a fun ride and enough wall for a couple of manoeuvres. Mid-tide provided the best conditions, but we surfed for hours each side of this, retreating back to RipJack Inn only to eat, rest and seek shade in the midday sun.
It’s a couple of hours down the coast from Playa Grande to Nosara – a dusty beach town that’s turned into a boutique little surf resort with a very family-friendly vibe. From sunrise surfs to blazing sunsets, here we maxed out on beach life, fuelling up on fresh coconuts, smoothies, breakfast burritos and Central American-inspired feasts from fish tacos to chocolate churros. We dived into the surroundings from a chic family room at The Sunset Shack, where we could cool off in the pool, play table football, and head off on all sorts of adventures from quad-bike tours to horse riding and waterfall hikes. If you want you can even send your kids off to day camp so they can get their fill of adventures in safe hands while you cram in some surf time and me-time.
Healthy living is at the heart of Nosara life, so when you’re not in the surf you’ll find a smorgasbord of organic and local foods, as well as an array of activities including a climbing wall, mountain biking trails, yoga sessions and a skate park. It's a good idea to have your own wheels, so we hired cruiser bikes to explore, pausing to spot howler monkeys in the trees and eat artisan local food, and ending day under starry skies on the beach.
Costa Rica effortlessly flaunts the barefoot luxury lifestyle, and our next stop, Santa Teresa, was no exception, with its stunning stretch of coastline rich with waves and wildlife. From our family casita on Playa Carmen we’d stroll past iguanas lazing around the saltwater swimming pool, and surf check from the sun loungers. A decent summer swell kicked in as we arrived and the overhead waves were a bit too challenging my younger boys, so we played in the white water and watched the experts getting barrelled.
With our surfboards strapped on the front of a quad bike, we blew dusty trails along the coast road from Malpais to Manzanillo, hitting the waves at Playa Hermosa, jumping into turquoise lagoons and snorkelling on a ‘secret’ beach. Hemming the beach were laid-back beach bars and eateries, where we’d sink into beanbags, fuel up on tacos with our toes in the sand, and sometimes stay for sundowners accompanied by fire dancers and music.
Crossing the Gulf of Nicoya on a speedboat ride was a bumpy and exhilarating experience, with the surfboards bouncing around on the bow of the boat and saltwater spray blasting us until the boat docked at Jaco, another of Costa Rica’s famous surf towns. Instead of stopping to explore, we carried on along the length of country to the remote Osa Peninsula – one of the most bio diverse places on the planet, where we were greeted by howler monkeys at the stylish, off grid hotel that’s Osa Clandestina.
Our room was a private cabin, with a balcony and hammock overlooking the jungle surroundings, where we’d wake up to the chorus of monkeys and macaws. Just two minutes’ walk to the paradise beach of Pan Dulce, home to a reeling right-hand point break, here the rhythm of our days was dictated by the waves, wildlife and tides. We’d spot spider monkeys and white-faced capuchins swinging in the canopies on the dawn patrol surf check, and hermit crabs would scatter as we made the first footprints on the beach. When Pan Dulce was flat and un-surfable, we’d nudge along a short jungle track to the more punchy surf break at Backwash Bay.
A place reigned by nature, the Osa is one of the wildest places we’ve ever been and a place that mesmerised the kids at every turn. We followed leaf-cutter ants on jungle walks, encountered snakes and scorpions, and swung like Tarzan from a 70-ft fig strangler tree. Wildlife enthusiasts flock from all over the world to the nearby Corcovado National Park, but we were content with coming face-to-face with wildlife between our accommodation and deserted beaches. From our open-air dining room we’d see blue morpho butterflies, spider monkeys, toucans, scarlet macaws and howler monkeys; all while we were chomping down the best local ingredients (many of them plucked from the owner’s farms), including organic rice, coconut-fed pork and freshly caught tuna.
After walk on the Osa’s wild side, our final destination of Manuel Antonio National Park seemed much tamer, despite the sloths in the trees and the surf hemmed by jungle. Although busier and more accessible than the rest of our destinations, being less than three hours from San Jose international airport, Manuel Antonio is a good introduction to Costa Rica’s waves and wildlife, all of which you can experience from eco-friendly, luxury lodgings at Arenas del Mar.
If you’re heading off on a surfing holiday with a young family and want a safe, but exciting destination with tropical beaches, an abundance of wildlife, warm waves and buckets of adventure, look no further than Costa Rica.
Using our first-hand experience of bucket-list destinations we’ve visited with our own families, Family Surf Co. creates bespoke surfing holidays, including everything families need from stylish accommodation and travel arrangements, to surfing lessons, babysitters and in-depth travel guides.
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