There’s More than Surf on Costa Rican Beaches

Hunter Braithwaite finds more that great surf along the Costa Rican coastline.

Costa Rican roads are a cruel joke played on Americans, I thought, teary-eyed, as I clutched my forehead, which had just bounced off the windshield of our rented SUV. Why did this happen? What did we swerve to miss? Oh, the usual – a parade of stray dogs, barefoot children on dirt bikes, a rooster lazily strutting like a Caribbean dictator. I suppose parade implies motion, and dead pigs don’t move, but the parade also featured a dead pig. Considering the pain, it’s not remarkable that this is my chief memory from a week in Costa Rica.

A few days prior, I met a group of high school friends in Nosara for one last week of surfing before the anchors of career confined each to our own harbor of adulthood. The days that followed consisted of little more than fish tacos and sunburns. After almost a week of this, I convinced the group that there is a beautiful and varied country beyond Playa Guiones, and it would be regrettable to spend the rest of the vacation surfing. (Full disclosure: I hate surfing, it’s boring and too hard.) So we did.  

Around noon we bought some sandwiches and rented a Toyota Prado for the day ($96 and a valid passport). With little more than a rough approximation of where we wanted to go (south) we took the 116 to Samara. Samara is the type of place where the locals only talk to you if attempting to sell you pot. They’ll saunter up, chat about the waves or about Obama, and just when you think you’ve made a new friend, whisper into your ear: “You want the weed?” Here we ate empanadas and smoothies at a rancid-smelling soda shop. Despite the maddening heat, it was one of the best meals of the trip. In Costa Rican tourist towns, there is a negative correlation between cleanliness and food quality.    

The road south from Samara turns quickly from bad to worse. Drivers are required to ford several rivers. Luckily, this was the peak of the dry season, so a river is nothing more than a bone-dry ditch. If we had come three months later, the Prado would never have made it. It barely did as is. In front of an audience of old Costa Rican women and cows, we spent 10 minutes trying to get out of a sandpit. You could hear it rustling from the palm trees, “muy estúpido.”  

Camaronal is a black beach. As we drove up to it, the sun was setting and the wind was kicking up a lot of sand. It looked like smoke as it hung in the air. Very intense. Down by the water a single person stood watching baby turtles walking into the sea.

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After beauty impresses, it quickly numbs.  It only takes a few howls for the ubiquitous howler monkeys to go from symbols of some exotic paradise to just another loudmouthed neighbor. After almost a week in beautiful Costa Rica, we were practically indifferent. “Oh, neato, look how tiny those turtles are.” It took a couple seconds for our rum-addled brains to put two and two together. These turtles are tiny because they are babies. They are walking towards the ocean because they are sea turtles. This is important. Get out your digital camera.

The turtles were palm-sized and, until they get wet, white with dust.  One by one they approached the breakers. Just as the foam began to ebb they pushed forward with their rear fins into retreating tide. One was flipped on his back by the incoming wave. In cruel adherence to Darwin, we didn’t interfere as the baby turtle struggled to right himself.

Finally he did. It’s touching how the turtles instinctively search for another world. Born on land, their first desire is to leave for the ocean.

As it turns out, Camaronal has been a wildlife refuge since 1994. Four species of marine turtles (olive ridley, black, hawksbill and leatherback) nest at the beach. The reserve is funded by the government and staffed mostly by volunteers. The man on the beach was Ricardo Fallas. For the past two years, he has been director of volunteers at Tropical Adventures, a company that allows international volunteers to come to Costa Rica and work for a set amount of time. It costs a bit of money, but the experience is worth it.


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Fallas says that Camaronal is an especially good place to come, as it is the only beach in the area where turtles nest in the dry season. He outlined the Reserve’s mission for us: Around 11 o’clock at night, a turtle might beach herself and lay eggs. The Reserve’s staff waits for her to finish, and then they dig up the eggs and rebury them under a protective tent. There are several reasons for this. Not only are there many poachers in the area, the dry season is simply too hot for the eggs. If they aren’t shaded by the tent, the fetuses will actually cook in their shells. After they hatch, they’re released into the ocean.

And the numbers are impressive. In the last batch, 103 were born. Only one died. In the rainy season, there are sometimes 60 turtles laying their eggs on the beach. Although it costs at least $1,000 to volunteer at Camaronal, it is only about $5 to get on the beach as a visitor, as we did.  


For now, Camaronal is peaceful and undeveloped. But, like other beaches in western Costa Rica, this is changing. The land is being parceled and sold, and construction will begin soon. But Ricardo Fallas is optimistic.  He says that there are many tough regulations that developers must follow.  For example, all of the buildings in the area must have red instead of white lights. This is because the turtles are attracted to the white lights. Something tells me that this will not be enough.

For more information on volunteering at Camaronal through Tropical Adventures, go here.