I just got back from a short trip to Pavones as a guest at Surf Expedition, a surf coaching retreat located right on the tropical beach a few kilometers from the famous long breaking left. My reason for going was to research what makes a good surf camp, to set a bar so when I suggest a place to stay for my travel clients it has solid reasoning behind it.
Surf retreats are popular around the world, and cost from under $1000 to over $5000. The rule ‘you get what you pay for’ most often applies, but occasionally you find a hidden gem that has qualities that go beyond a panoramic Instagram feed, a slick website, and a smiling well tanned instructor. My time at Surf Expedition showed it was one of those extraordinary examples. Here is why ~
A great location
When I go to a surf retreat, I want to be close to the waves. I like checking the surf at low tide, high tide, even mid-tide, and see what the winds are doing all day. In tropical climates during the rainy season, the pattern is offshore in the morning, onshore by 9 or 10, and then possibly a glass off in the afternoon right before dark. At Surf Expedition I could sit up from my bed and see what the waves were doing. The main break is a 10 minute walk to the peak on a beautiful empty stretch of beach, with palm trees and jungle providing some morning shade. There are a few other less crowded waves close to the camp for beginner and intermediate surfers, and at times it is empty.
I also like it quiet, at least without the sounds of civilization. Where I stayed, the loudest noises were the scarlet macaws screeching as they flew by and the howler monkeys early in the morning. No planes, tractor trailers, or sirens to be heard, but instead the soothing rhythm of breaking waves on the shoreline. I also had the option of exploring more of the jungle on horseback or hike to a nearby waterfall.
Healthy, delicious food
There was one man-made sound I enjoyed hearing while there – the dinner bell! What a surprise! A former professional chef is also the co-founder of the camp and prepared all the meals for the guests. She created mouth-watering meals – oven-baked bread and pastries, curries and soups, pastas and salads, and there were always fresh fruits with breakfast and hot coffee and tea first thing in the morning. The vegan options were just as tasty and it was difficult not to go back for seconds. As every surf retreat should, they had clean filtered water on hand that guests could refill their bottles, plus it was simple there to grab a coconut and cut it open for some refueling electrolytes.
A surf camp should have quality food if they are going to offer meals. Surfing burns a lot of calories and it’s important to stay healthy and hydrated. Some partner with local restaurants and then bring their guests there, which works well if they have a diverse menu and have vegetarian options for surfers.
Friendly welcoming hosts and staff
Joining a group of strangers to learn to surf can be a bit overwhelming. Some guests may not even speak the same language and so it can be hard to feel comfortable in the group, and that’s a crucial part of the experience – the camaraderie. The host needs to be friendly and make their guests feel welcome. They have to be helpful in answering even the silliest questions, as some travelers have never left their home country before and the culture shock can be intense. And they have to be encouraging, since surfing is not the easiest sport to learn and there are sunburns, bumps and bruises along the way.
At Surf Expedition, the host Sebastien was that guy. He was always smiling and conversing with his guests about the waves they caught that day, in English, Spanish, and French. He prepared a daily schedule so everyone knew when to surf, eat, do yoga, and siesta. Before meals, everyone held hands and one person gave thanks – which sounds a little cheesy – but really it made the group seem more like a family and I appreciated that, living so far away from mine. The yoga instructor came out to surf with us and take photos. And the instructors sat with the guests in the evening to share a beer and some surf stories.
Experienced surf instructors and staff
Surf Instructors are the most important part of any surf retreat. They should be certified by an International organization like the ISA, and have first aid and CPR training. They also should have patience with their students and make them feel safe in the water. Many surf retreats have yoga classes and photography sessions as part of their program. Yoga helps guests become more flexible for paddling and riding waves, and the video and photo analysis help students see their flaws and fix them.
At the retreat where I stayed the instructors were experienced and the students were riding waves by the second day. They had three surf sessions daily and a theory class where the students were taught about types of waves and how to read them. There was an hour yoga class a little after lunch. Jessica teaches a mix of Vinyasa, Anusara and Ashtanga yoga and students left her class feeling limber and ready for the afternoon surf. She also took plenty of photos which the students could view in the evening to review their style (and share a good laugh).
Beginner friendly waves
What is a beginner friendly wave? First it should be easy to paddle out to and have a sandy bottom or at least no sharp rocks in case a beginner falls. Second it should not be bigger than knee to waist high, but have enough push where learners can ride more than a few meters. And third it should not be crowded. Although Pavones is a well known spot, there are plenty of other beaches close by that break smaller and have fewer surfers.
One place in particular has a section that breaks in deeper water, but is far from the peak and the pack, allowing learners to catch waves on the ‘outside’ rather than just riding whitewater. The Surf Expedition crew also took the guests on a boat trip over to the other side of the Golfo Dulce to catch some uncrowded rights. The instructors checked a few spots daily, determining the safety of the break at that tide and the number of other surfers in the water. If it was crowded, there was always another break a kilometer up the road. When I was there we were surfing by ourselves.
Overall, a beginners surf retreat should have these five features if they want to be successful. Travelers looking for this type of experience should do their research to find that ‘hidden gem’ like I did in Costa Rica with Surf Expedition. And if you need some help, just drop me a line.