January 30, 2012

Discovering the Costa happiness

Tamarindo Beach

They say that Costa Ricans are the happiest people on Earth. Whether it’s the World Database of Happiness or the Happy Planet Index, Costa Rica regularly comes out on top in self-satisfaction about life. No surprise, given Costa Rica’s “pura vida” lifestyle.

Curious about this pure life, I ventured to the town of Tamarindo, to seek some higher learning at surf school.

After a refresher lesson with a gentle instructor on Day 1, I was paired the next day with instructor Percy Lawrence. He had an infectious smile and spirit; I knew my surf education was about to change.

As we walked out to the ocean, I was keen to jump on the board, but Percy kept me on the beach, lying on the board and paddling into the sand, a sure sign of a novice surfer.

“Paddle, paddle,” Percy instructed. “You have to practise, and build your muscle memory.”

I finally passed the “paddle the sand” test and stood up, but Percy continued to keep me from the water, telling me to watch the waves.

He asked, “How long did it take for those waves to get here?” Still in ultraanalytic city mode, I did some quick calculations in my head, desperately trying to recall late-night news explanations of how long it takes a tsunami to travel across the Pacific.

“Umm, three weeks?” I said, tentative in my response, but confident there was a right or wrong answer.

“Maybe,” Percy said slowly, “Maybe less, maybe more. But it doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is that the wave has travelled all the way here, and now, you have the privilege of riding it.”

After briefly rolling my eyes at his philosophical rhetoric, I had a reality check. Not everything had to be right or wrong here. In that moment, I left my city mentality behind in favour of a pura vida attitude.

Over the next several days, Percy alternately encouraged, yelled, praised and criticized.

I limped out of the water at the end of each day, but every morning returned for more. Beyond gaining confidence on the board, I couldn’t help but draw some parallels between surfing and life.

Look ahead, don’t look down

Too often, we find ourselves in a hunched position, looking down – at our desks, holding snow shovels or over a keyboard. In surfing, you have to keep your eyes up, and trust that your feet will land on the board where they need to be. On the water and in life, the waves will keep coming, whether you ride them or not. But life’s more fun if you raise your head and choose to ride the waves.

Keep things simple

Most mornings at surf camp, I headed to the beach certain that I was forgetting to bring something.

Accustomed to the abundance of gear associated with most Canadian winter sports, it didn’t seem right to head out the door barefoot, with just a board tucked awkwardly under my arm.

Keep life simple – look at everything around you, and understand the difference between what it is you want and what you really need.

Paddle, paddle

On the third day, I seemed to be doing everything right, but just as I stood up, the wave would get in front of me, and I would lose momentum and sink into the water.

“Paddle, paddle!” I could hear Percy cry. After a few missed attempts, he swam over to me, sensing I was frustrated. “Listen,” he said.

“Why do you stop paddling when the wave starts to push you? That’s when you need to give two really hard paddles. Why do all that work and then just stop?”

He was right. Never stop at 90 per cent. The last 10 per cent is the hardest work, but often provides the best rewards.

Change up your supporting cast Surfing is as much about the people around you as it is about the waves. In everyday life, we have lead actors in our lives, but we also have a huge set of supporting actors. Some enter our lives for a scene or two; some become part of our lifelong cast. This is particularly true when travelling. Let’s face it, camaraderie is inevitable when you’re paddling side by side, a wave is about to break on top of you and you have a split-second decision to go over, under or through. Getting to the other side of that wave together often turns a stranger into a friend.

Change up your supporting cast on a regular basis, and you’ll gain a broader perspective on life.

On my last day surfing, I was out practising on my own and caught a great wave. As I gazed to shore, I soon realized I was going to run down Percy, who was coaching his next disciple in the whitewash. As I approached, I almost jumped off my board to avoid him, but when he saw me, his signature grin reappeared. ‘Yeaaah!” he shouted, moving out of the way and enthusiastically waving me through. “Pura vida, man.”

Back at my landlocked desk, 41 degrees latitude north of Costa Rica, I find that I think about waves at some point every day. How they sound, and how they curl.

How, from the water, I saw the early morning sun peek over the hills and then watched that same golden globe sink into the sea at the end of the afternoon. I think about how next time, I’ll get on my feet faster and paddle harder. And during the ebb and flow of daily life, I hope my own tide takes me back to the surf soon.


Getting there: For a shorter trek to Tamarindo, try to fly to Liberia, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, about an hour’s drive from Tamarindo.

Where to stay: I stayed at Witch’s Rock Surf Camp, located on the beach. Packages include lessons, board rental, accommodations, daily seminars and break-fast.

Surf’s up: Surf schools are becoming widely available all over the world, ranging from one-day lessons to weeklong (or longer) surf expeditions.

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About the Author

Don Halbert
Don Halbert is owner operator of and is proud to have this site join his already expansive network of Costa Rica related web sites. Known mostly for his Internet Marketing ability, Don Halbert is the #1 most in-demand online marketer in Costa Rica.


  1. Horizon Pacific Vacations

    It is always great to see people wander down to this side of the country. It is so true though, you do have to practice, but once you get it…it is amazing. Glad you were able to get a couple days of learning in. And yes that last 10 percent paddle makes all the difference. When I can’t give the last 10 I know I am done for the day. Or I keep pushing it…and can barely move my arms the next morning. Thanks for sharing your surfing adventure. -Daniella

  2. The Wonders of Wandering

    I also learned to surf in Tamarindo. I am originally from San Jose, California. I am headed back in a few months and my sister is so excited for me to go surfing with her in San Cruz, California. Terrified of sharks, cold water, and reef breaks I know I have a lot of hurdles and fears to over come. I just have to remind myself that even in the beginning Tamarindo was scary. Thanks for sharing your lessons in learning. Sounds like you had a great coach. Check out some of my Costa Rica adventures -Daniella

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