Surfing, Horse Riding and Food Adventures in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is exactly the place you imagine it to be and more. Of all countries I’ve been to, Costa Rica is up there with the most beautiful. It’s a tropical paradise of verdant, sweaty green jungle that’s stuffed full of wildlife. From mushrooms growing at lightening speed and scorpions invading your sofa to fruit hanging out of bushes and monkeys throwing poo at you from trees, you can’t escape nature here.
Think butterflies the size of your hand, coconuts bulging from every palm, birds of more colours than you knew existed, huge iguanas falling out of trees. I mean, forget sharks when you can find crocodiles hanging out AT THE BEACH…
I ended up being in the fortunate position of being able to visit this incredible country because some friends needed someone to take care of their dogs whilst they went to New Zealand. Andrea and Chris kindly asked me if I’d be up for the “job” of dog sitting Poppy and Oso and I duly said, “yes, omg, yes of course, totally, yep, done!” And booked a plane ticket for me and my friend, Kazmira who’d agreed to come with.
We flew in to San Jose airport, collected our hire car and drove a couple of hours through green hills languidly rolling and rising in lush shades of green, eventually arriving at Playa Hermosa. Playa Hermosa is a quiet, volcanic beach that lives up to its name. There are quite a few Playa Hermosas in Costa Rica but this one is around 10 minutes drive away from Jaco. Luckily the highway connecting San Jose and Jaco was pretty smooth and quiet and we found our way there with no problems.
Unless you count driving in the wrong lane on a roundabout as a problem.
As soon as we landed in Costa Rica we were on “sloth-time”. Like Cornwall, you can’t really get away with being busy here. Everyone walks around in flip flops, vests and board shorts chirping “pura vida” to each other. It’s not really conducive to being in a rush, so we fully embraced sloth-time during our visit. Whether it was locking our hire car keys in the boot, forgetting where we parked, losing our phones or getting the fan strength settings backwards & sweltering for days.
The Costa Rican people – who like to be called “Ticos” as it’s an understandable badge of honour to be from this place – are really friendly, smiley, polite and helpful. Jaco isn’t a big town but it’s got plenty of small markets, supermarkets, restaurants, surf and tourist shops. We had heard mixed reports of how safe Jaco felt but were pleasantly surprised at how chilled the vibe was. We were happy exploring on our own with no worries if one of us was still in the surf.
Jaco and San Jose felt pretty safe, especially compared to some of the other places I’ve travelled where you’d occasionally feel extremely uncomfortable walking around alone. There is still crime though and although we luckily didn’t see any, we did take all the standard precautions.
Rainy season started a little early this year (at the start of May we had thunderstorms that lasted all day) and night falls at around 7 pm. We used this opportunity to fit in some early nights. This was just as well because Andrea had warned us not to walk around too much outside after dark due to the occasional snake slithering around! ARGH! Even if we hadn’t had a car, we would have taken a taxi as it’s much safer than walking home alone in the dark or along the busy roads.
And so we embraced the natural rhythm of going to bed as the sun went down and rising with the howler monkeys at 5.30 am for some banana pancakes and a few hours of work on our laptops. At 6.30 am we’d walk the dogs, Poppy and Oso on the beach before the sand got too hot, or into the jungle bordered roads near the house.
Poppy and Oso had us laughing daily with their incredibly hilarious expressions and well-defined personalities. They were the highlight of the trip, especially watching them bound around chasing the iguanas when they got out at the beach. We actually cried when we left them as we worried they’d think we’d abandoned them. They were both rescues and it’s hard to imagine how such intelligent and affectionate creatures could have been left to die on the streets. Luckily, they now lead a comfortable life chowing on sardines and relaxing on giant dog pouffe’s in the shade – nothing more than what they deserve!
There are a lot of American tourists and ex-pats in Costa-Rica who come for the weather and the surf. It’s a really popular destination meaning prices are very high and in line with the rest of North America. Tourist activities like surfing lessons, zip lining, quad biking and horse riding are anything from $50-$100 depending on the season and how long the activity lasts. Hotels are around $30 a night on average if you’re looking for something simple but more if you want a pool or beach accommodation.
We met a lovely lady on our horse treck called Lili who was kind enough to invite us to the hotel she owned with her husband by Hermosa beach. If we had needed a hotel then this place would have been perfect (link coming soon). It was gorgeous with a super chilled vibe, beachside pool and clean, modern apartments and rooms. Lili, I am still sorry for protesting I wasn’t hungry then proceeding to devour your entire pizza. One day I’ll be back to repay my pizza debt!
Kazmira and I are pretty much always hungry. Food is something we both enjoy so it was great to sample a few of the different cuisines. In Jaco, there are three sides to the food story.
If you want to eat out, a three-course meal for two with drinks at a nice restaurant in one of the new outdoor food malls will cost around $50 for two. If you want to eat cheap there are also lots of options. We found some amazing sushi restaurants (many that had regular daily deals on food) which became our favorite after surf spots. There’s plenty of varied food choices from Italian and Mexican to traditional Costa Rican fare like the popular cerviche… a delicious citrus dish (usually made with fish but sometimes with other combinations) you can find on almost every menu.
The traditional Costa Rican restaurants are called Sodas and are one of the cheapest options if you’re on a budget. Food is usually served with salad, rice, plantains or beans (or a mix of everything) and you can guarantee good cerviche! Juice bars are popular and you’ll also find some really yummy, healthy juice and smoothy combos on most menus, especially at breakfast. The Costa Rican’s are also famous for their amazing coffee so make sure you sample it to find your favourite. Then you can buy a $20 dollar bag of it to take home at the airport…. ouch.
There are quite a few ice cream parlors here but unless you love saccharine sweet ice cream you may want to give them a miss.
Beaches and surfing
One of the main reasons we’d been so excited to come to Costa Rica was the surf. I’d never been before but Kazmira had experienced Costa Rican waves on the other side of the country in Nosara and was keen to get back. We were both looking for small, green waves that were great for learning. Kazmira had recently got over her fear of getting out back and was confidently catching and bailing on much bigger waves than I dared to, but on Jaco beach, there was something for both of us.
Jaco is a long beach that can get really busy in peak season. As you travel to the end of the beach the waves become gradually smaller, so you can usually find a place that you’re comfortable getting in for a surf. There are loads of instructors, local and foreign, who charge up to $50 an hour for a private lesson. We shopped around and haggled a bit (you can usually get a discount if you book a package of lessons), deciding to go with local Tico surf schools as it was cheaper and seemed a bit more authentic than getting American instructors.
I ended up signing up with the local Ohana surf school run by an awesome lady called Steffi and her partner who were brilliant if you’re a beginner. They thoroughly run through everything you need to know before you get out in the water which makes a big difference on if you have a great time or not. You learn all-important safety practices, super helpful popping up techniques and lots more about how to handle a board when you’re out in the water.
Like many heavily visited areas, the beach isn’t pristine unless it’s been cleaned and storms can bring all manner of rubbish to the shore. The water is clean though and the beach is groomed regularly so your chance of experiencing it when it’s not at its best is pretty low. A highlight of surfing Jaco was definitely the playful manta rays flying out of the water as they frolicked in the waves. Apparently, it was mating season and they were showing off to win the females.
Playa Hermosa is a quiet, clean volcanic beach that gets some mega swell but it’s very powerful and the closeouts can be painful. Plenty of experienced surfers get pounded there so if you’re not a confident swimmer and surfer you probably aren’t going to have a good time paddling out there in anything bigger than 3ft if that. Even if you do get brave enough (amazingly, Kazmira braved it on a few smaller days), you might find you don’t catch much but take a good few on the head instead.
Horse tours and riding
Andrea and Chris run Discovery Horse Tours in Costa Rica. With help of their friend Liana they run horse tours in a 1500 acre private reserve. The horses on the range are mostly rescues who have been re-trained and given lots of love, care and attention and they clearly love being taken out for a ride. We helped to brush and clean our horses as they snacked on some fresh hay, giving us a chance to bond with our new friends and letting them take our measure. Then, Lianna from Discovery Horse Tours kindly took Kaz and I on an amazing hack through through fields, streams, monkey infested forest and waterfalls.
It had been so long since I’d ridden a horse and was a bit nervous if I would remember how to do it! The horses were so intuitive though that it didn’t take long till we were enjoying ourselves as much as they were as they galloped through the grass, the dogs following as to not miss out on the mini adventure. The ranch occasionally houses rescued dogs and cats (Andrea and Chris have rescued and rehomed 90 dogs since they moved to Costa Rica) and it’s amazing to see the strays starting to rehabilitate alongside their new horse friends!
It was a great way to experience Costa Rica at its best. The peaceful atmosphere at the nature reserve and the fact we were ambling around serenely on horses made it the perfect place to check out the toucans, monkeys, coatis, deer and macaws! We stopped at the top of one track at the “jungle spa” to strip off, cover ourselves in mineral rich mud and bathe in the pool before grabbing a snack.
The difference between the way the horses are kept and treated here really stood out for us after we (unfortunately) witnessed how other companies operate horse tours in Costa Rica. Earlier on in the trip, we’d booked a horse tour (rated number two on Trip Advisor, just below Andrea and Chris’s Discovery Horse Tours) as we weren’t sure we’d get the chance to ride with Discovery Tours. However, we REALLY wished we hadn’t!
Firstly, our riding instructor didn’t seem to be able to ride his horse properly. As his horse trotted, our instructor’s elbows were furiously flapping around as if he were a demented chicken trying to take off in flight. He spent a lot of time either shouting into his phone, enthusiastically greeting everyone we passed (especially if it was a woman) and constantly telling us we were attractive. Gross.
What was worse was that the horses didn’t seem well cared for. We didn’t see them get a drink for the entire hour we were riding (it was really hot) and they had the remnants of a parasitic infection on their mains. They weren’t too skinny, but they didn’t look anything like Andrea and Chris’s horses. He also kept whipping his perfectly well-behaved pony which we had to keep telling him off about.
Costa Rica Travel Tips
- We’d hired a small car but on reflection, it would have been way better to get a sturdier vehicle. Some of the roads are just dirt, the ones that are paved can be full of enormous potholes and your surf instructors might attempt to transport 5 boards on your car roof at any one time… If you can afford a 4×4, get one, otherwise, get the full insurance including excess insurance which you can find for £3 a day here.
- You can always haggle a little bit when it comes to the price of hostels, yoga or surf lessons if it’s low season. You can try in high season but there’s plenty of customers around then so you may not get as lucky.
- If you’re on a remote beach with no lifeguards, don’t go swimming if the surf is strong and take care with rips. Pre-plan what you’d do if you get stuck in a rip so you don’t panic if it happens.
- Look out for offers at restaurants. You can get a hefty discount on food if you just show up on the right day.
- Learn some basic Spanish before you go. I love Michel Tomas’s tapes who is an absolute master of languages (even if they make you sound like an old Spanish Jewish guy).