Treks Through Costa Rica
Credit: Christopher P. Baker / Getty Images

I woke at sunrise to the roar of pounding surf and eagerly poked my head out of the tent, like a kid on Christmas morning. I was stoked to see a sizable swell, but the tide was rising toward the campsite. So we gathered our gear, faced the ocean, and took a left.

A decade ago, when a buddy and I hiked down this same 60-mile stretch of Costa Rica's Pacific coast from Tamarindo to Playa Guiones, that was our mantra: "Wake up and take a left." We were trekking down the Nicoya Peninsula looking for perfect waves; when we found them we'd set up camp on the beach and start surfing. If we woke up the next day and the waves were flat or crowded, we'd just keep heading south.

Ten years later, I wanted to recapture the special feelings of freedom and access I got from traveling Costa Rica on foot accompanied only by my knapsack, tent, and board. Surfers call this "going feral," a tip of the hat to animals like the wild pig that roots around dirty and carefree looking for something tasty to eat. By walking every inch of the coastline, I'd have the chance to explore hidden coves and fishing villages, meet more locals, and sniff out uncrowded waves. Still, even die-hard surfers consider it a crazy way to travel. "Why exactly are you doing this?" asked Joe Walsh, the owner of Witch's Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo, when I told him about my plan.

The answer was simple: That first trip, a two-month odyssey fueled by surf, cerveza, and señoritas, had changed me, convincing me to move to Southern California and pursue the surfing life. Now things were different: I was 32 years old, with a wife, toddler, career, and mortgage. Of course, trying to re-create a memory is a risky proposition. (The popular wisdom: You can never go back.) But I yearned to rediscover that spontaneity of my youth and to see how much the country I loved had changed. So last November I strapped on my knapsack, tent, and surfboard, recruited my friend Ben from New York to join me, and set off to become a wild pig again.

In 10 years, Tamarindo had changed from a sleepy fishing village into Costa Rica's booming surf hub: Internet cafés dot every corner, bars show 'Monday Night Football' live, and there are even a couple of sushi places. I expected to have to walk for a few days before finding vacant surf. But after just three hours we rounded a point north of Playa Avellana and saw something that stopped us in our tracks: peeling rights breaking off a rock reef – with not another surfer in sight. Back home in Southern California, I'd be battling 50 other surfers for waves like this.

Paddling out, I realized the surf was about eight feet, breaking fast and hard. As the first big set marched in, I took four strokes and was screaming along the face. I blasted through three long sections before the wave exploded in a mass of roiling whitewater. We surfed alone for two hours, sharing the break with only a string of low-flying pelicans that glided above the water.

This was obviously a fickle spot: Onshore winds and a rising tide junked up the waves just 10 minutes after we dried off. Had we been here an hour earlier, or later, we'd have never known this wave existed. It was a reward for walking, and, hopefully, a taste of what lay to our south.

As we hiked away from Avellana, the sand squishing between my toes as rough as a cat's tongue, my mind began to wander. For the first time in ages I had the luxury of thinking about absolutely nothing. The steady rhythm of my steps and the gentle tug of the backpack had me almost in a trance. Sometimes Ben and I talked. Other times it was quiet – only the crunch of shells under our bare feet and the shish-shish-shish of the sand. I had successfully broken the tethers of my wired life – no cell phone, e-mail, or fax machine. I had nowhere to be and plenty of time to get there.

Over the next few days the terrain changed from low, cactus-covered bluffs to bright green jungle to steep cliffs where iguanas scrambled up the sun-baked rocks. We awoke often to the screeching howler monkeys who patrol the treetops along the beach, like an eager, hairy cheerleading troupe. We appreciated the encouragement: I had estimated that we needed to do about seven miles a day but failed to account for the distance added by the countless nooks and crannies of the coast. In reality, we were logging close to 12 miles each hiking day – five to seven hours of walking. If the surf was up, we'd have a morning session; otherwise we'd try to make some mileage before the sun started to blaze. As sunset approached we surfed again and searched for choice camping spots. By 6:45 each night, we'd usually be zipped inside our mesh tents.

Along the way, we encountered stretches of nothingness peppered with thatch palapas, old fishermen's shacks, and sometimes a row of newly constructed mansions. After seeing how built-up Tamarindo had become and knowing that tourism in Costa Rica has increased by 85 percent since 1995, I expected the rest of the coast to be more developed. But we encountered a heartening lack of growth. Food and water were touch and go, so we carried granola bars, canned tuna, and water, and gorged on rice, beans, and grilled fish whenever we found a small restaurant. On average, we came across only about a dozen other humans a day – local fishermen, or ticos, commuting to work at nearby resorts, sometimes the odd traveler.

It wasn't long before we found ourselves sinking into a feral state. We realized that our gear was destined to be damp – whether from rain, sweat, or ocean spray – and our arms and legs were like armadillo skin, a composite of bug spray, sunscreen, and sand. Our inner thighs were chafed raw by the salt crystals caked inside our trunks, despite the bottle of medicated powder I'd poached from my son's diaper bag. But those discomforts paled beside the feeling of freedom. Every so often I'd stop and look back at our footsteps snaking along the coastline, and a sense of accomplishment would pour over me:

We'd literally walked as far as the eye could see. The view to the south was mostly the same: just a sweeping curve of sand and rock. Some might find the similarity monotonous – I thrived on it.