A turquoise swell peels around Giant Slipper, the rocky islet off Playa Cocles, capped with a scruffy toupée of palm trees. As the wave approaches, I shift forward on a rented surfboard as dinged as the asphalt road that got me through the rainforest to Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. I paddle furiously, but the wave passes by languidly. Meantime, experts are catching rides at will, and they manoeuvre around me as though I am no more than a drifting coconut, neither smiling nor copping any of the inhospitable localism that sometimes plagues busier surf breaks. I take further encouragement from the cheerful inscription on my board: “Todo Es Posible.” Maybe anything is possible around here.
In a lull between sets, I gaze inland. A stack of purplish-black clouds towers above Cordillera de Talamanca, threatening rain over the mountains behind the southern shoreline communities of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Manzanillo. Shoestring surfers were among the first tourists to venture here in the 1970s and ’80s, attracted by a wave known as Salsa Brava. It breaks on a coral reef and curves into an exquisite barrel a mere stone’s toss from the Lazy Mon bar in Puerto Viejo, the water shallow enough that surfers can see the sea urchins and skin-shredding coral before dropping in. Then came backpackers and expats drawn by the area’s bohemian spirit and cultural diversity, where indigenous Bribri and Cabécar blend with the ticos (Costa Rican nationals of Latino heritage) and the easy-flowing rhythm of Afro-Costa Ricans, many of them the descendants of Jamaicans who settled on this coast in the late 1800s. As I’m quickly learning, distance from the capital of San José coupled with the popularity of the Pacific coast has helped maintain a grassroots vibe in this region. If it’s a bit neglected, that’s a silver lining for locals wanting to protect this coastline from resorts and gated condos, which, as they tell me repeatedly, define much of the country’s opposite coast. More than one local I meet recounts how a recent proposal for a 400-slip marina near Puerto Viejo was stopped in its tracks.
Another set rolls in. This time, I’m positioned near the peak, more luck than skill. With a few quick paddle strokes, my board planes across the face of the wave and I sense the exhilarating force of the ocean behind me. For a few seconds, I feel like Laird Hamilton, even if I look like a gringo who hasn’t surfed in too long. Contentedly riding the whitewash ashore, I realize I’m famished from the morning’s effort.
Playa Cocles is alive. A gangly tourist, skin as pale as the beige sand, strolls past in a T-shirt depicting an absurdist Che Guevara with a Dalí moustache. I step around a tico family playing beach soccer, then lean my board against a precarious lifeguard tower that might topple from the slightest onshore gust.
“How goes it, mon?”
I turn to see Misael Avalos, the smiling surf instructor I met last night at Koki Restaurant, where he also works as a server. Born in Puerto Viejo 30 years ago, Avalos remembers a somnambulant village with one phone, one hotel and a few restaurants. “I learned to surf on boards broken in half and left behind by foreigners. Then when I was around eight, I tried a real surfboard,” Avalos tells me with a laugh. “That’s when I was, like, ‘Ah, this is what surfing is all about.’” On weekends, these 10 square blocks on a point of land between Playa Negra and Playa Cocles pulse with live music at bars like the Lazy Mon. Travellers nosh on organic lentil burgers at the Italian-owned, hippy-inspired Como en mi Casa Art Café, a cozy second-floor spot that seats maybe 20, or go for oven-baked pizza paired with BriBri Springs Brewery wheat beer, ales and cacao coco porter at Kaya’s Place Hotel.
Avalos ambles off to teach another surf lesson. I follow the rhythms of Peter Tosh’s “Stepping Razor” to its source; a beer-fridge-size speaker next to Take It Easy, a street-food stall with a smoking barbecue. The cook, Puerto Limón-born Cris Malcon, with dreadlocks shoehorned into a Rasta hat that would impress Dr. Seuss, serves me yucca juice and a mountainous plate of jerk chicken and rice. It’s spiced with nutmeg, cloves and “secret ingredients” he claims to have learned from a Canadian visitor. Could one of them be maple syrup? I sit at an outdoor table, sink a fork into the spicy chicken and listen to Malcon and his friends converse in patois.
That evening, hoping to steel myself for tomorrow morning’s incoming tide on those fickle Caribbean waves, I grab a bar stool at Outback Jack’s. Trumpets, trombones and clarinets painted in tropical pastels dangle from the ceiling, and an old cathode ray TV on a tripod stands next to an oversize checkers game with Imperial beers for pieces. Jack Williams, the Aussie proprietor (and prolific collector of paraphernalia) spins a formidable yarn. He travelled North America with the Lollapalooza music festival as a food vendor and years before was in Vietnam with the Australian army, and even once interviewed Quebec premier René Lévesque. I watch as he muddles a fistful of mint leaves into something that looks more like a tossed salad than a mojito. Either way, it’s the perfect antidote to 90-percent humidity. “People around here don’t care if you’re on a skateboard or driving a Mercedes,” he tells me with a satisfied grin. Or, for that matter, if you’re on a surfboard that’s broken in half.
On a morning when the sea is flat, I drive a hibiscus-lined route south from my rental house in Puerto Viejo, avoiding folks pedalling beach cruiser bikes. An old poster tacked to a wall at Luluberlu Art Gallery advertising a chocolate festival had grabbed my attention, and I want to track down a taste. The sky suddenly explodes, and my windshield wipers are slapping out a futile rhythm against a downpour that is already spent by the time I reach Caribeans Coffee and Chocolate, one of half a dozen local bean-to-bar chocolate makers. The café’s open walls welcome in the ocean breeze, and the few other patrons huddle over laptops. Americano in hand, I step into a walk-in cooler the size of a clothes closet, with four tantalizing shelves of free chocolate samples. I gravitate to a dark one called Heat Wave, 72-percent local cacao that delivers the slow burn of chili and cayenne. The caffeine buzz propels me up a steep jeep trail behind the café to a hilltop property where the sweet scent of drying cacao beans greets me, as do sweeping views of beach, blue waters and the wild slopes of the Talamanca range.
Joining me, Florida native Jeff Ghiotto says that a decade ago he thought more about surfing waves than cacao quality. Then Caribeans founder Paul Johnson convinced him to rehabilitate the plantation, like so many abandoned in the 1980s after a deadly fungus nearly wiped out the local cacao trade. Careful pruning of trees has helped control the epidemic, as has the expertise of long-timers I’m introduced to on his forest walking tour, like Efren Hernandez, an ethnic Cabécar who has four generations of cacao farming experience behind him. “We want to keep all the profit from chocolate-making in the local community,” Ghiotto says. He hands me a raw cacao bean – pale, slippery and somewhat unappetizing to the touch, but surprisingly delicious, rich and pure tasting.
Further south toward Manzanillo, bumping over potholes and crossing one-lane bridges spanning subtropical torrents, I find Tree House Lodge and 45-year-old Dutchman Edsart Besier, another enterprising expat with deep connections to this coast. When he bought this land half a lifetime ago, it was a shabby cow pasture next to an idyllic crescent beach. While living in a converted school bus, he set about restoring wetlands, planting native hardwoods and fostering a habitat that includes orchids, poison dart frogs and bromeliads. We walk next to an enclosure that’s home to 60 iguanas, perched stone-still in the branches of a fan palm. It’s part of Iguana Verde, a non-profit program Besier started to protect iguanas from poachers. Other efforts like grey water recycling and a local-hiring commitment earned this place the highest sustainable tourism certification in the country, but after viewing the bathroom in the Beach Suite, I realize it’s also about art and whimsy. If Besier said that Antoni Gaudí was the interior designer, I wouldn’t be surprised. A cement seahorse spouts water into a Jacuzzi, and a giant snake adorned with a mosaic of green and blue glass beads coils around the room to a shower stall, where warm water rains from the snake’s mouth. “It’s meant to be the inside of a sea urchin,” he explains as sunlight filters through circular skylights in the domed ceiling, which I presume represent urchin spines.
The roar of howler monkeys crashes the steamy afternoon silence of the rainforest as I step back into my car and aim for road’s end, several kilometres southeast at Manzanillo. Besides a few restaurants and a reggae bar where the music has only one volume – and that would be loud – it still remains a sleepy fishing village, steps away from the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Gandoca Manzanillo. A five-minute walk into the lush wildlife refuge brings me to a beach bookended by rocky headlands. Gentle waves lap silky sand. Other than some newlyweds posing for awkward portraits, it’s all mine for a late afternoon swim. As the sun prepares for its sudden subtropical exit, I head back to Puerto Viejo. It may barely resemble the hamlet it was when youthful Misael Avalos caught waves on broken surfboards, but it remains a place where the ocean swell dictates the pace of the day.