Treks Through Costa Rica
Credit: Christopher P. Baker / Getty Images
In the late afternoon of day four we rounded a point and arrived at Playa Coco, about 35 miles from where we'd begun. A thunderstorm rumbled over the dark jungle, but shafts of sunlight broke through the clouds above the sea. The sunset had painted the sky a thick mix of deep orange, maroon, and yellow, turning the froth of the ocean blood red. It looked like a lost world, the Costa Rica I'd stored in my memory bank.

The waves were breaking head-high and freight-train fast. After walking most of the day I couldn't wait to surf this surreal seascape, so I paddled out and waited. Suddenly a large shadow skimmed below my dangling feet. Shark! I quickly laid flat on my board to get my legs out of the water. I scanned the surface for a dorsal fin or any other sign of movement. I noticed my breath – shallow, quick – and did my best to remain calm.

Just then a large set of waves on the horizon diverted my attention. I stroked frantically, hoping to duck-dive under them without getting slammed. The first wave reached me – easily a seven-foot face. I pushed my right foot on the tail of the board and slipped smoothly under. I continued scratching seaward just far enough to slide under the second wave. As I resurfaced I saw a third, even bigger. I turned and took two quick strokes. The peak jacked up and I jumped onto my board and raced along the undulating wall. I could see the water feathering out just over my head as the wave formed a hollow barrel behind me. No time for turns. I began pumping the board with my feet, trying to outrun the falling wall of water. After about five seconds, I pulled out in front of the wave with just enough space to kick out before it detonated in a thundering whoosh.

For the next two hours I rode perfect waves alone, until the sun had set and my arms felt like overcooked linguini. We decided, for the first time since leaving Tamarindo, that tomorrow morning we'd wake up and stay put.

The next day I sat on the beach eating the last of my granola bars when two gringo surfers waded into the ocean nearby. After not seeing another surfer for four days it was jarring.

"Where are you guys from?" I asked, knowing full well they were American.

"From here."

I must have shot back a puzzled look, because one of the guys explained: "I'm actually from the Florida Keys, but I live in Nosara. The waves aren't as good down there, but the real estate business is booming. It's the next Tamarindo."

The small talk continued and we soon found out that one of the guys, a 26-year-old named Brandon, was a real estate agent. He'd buy up large parcels of land from locals, then subdivide them and sell them to rich Americans. Mostly, though, he spent his days driving around with his scruffy dog searching for waves.

With his single-minded obsession for surf, Brandon reminded me of myself 10 years ago. Normally I'd be jealous of a guy like that, but now I, too, was living the dream. Watching the sun rise and set every day had rebooted my system, and I reveled in the raw simplicity of walking the coast. With every step we took and every wave we rode, my desk-jockey shell molted away, and I felt a youthful energy I hadn't sensed in years.

The surf was still pumping at Playa Coco a day and a half later, but we had to move on so Ben could catch his ride to the airport and I could meet up with photographer Corey Rich, who was joining me for the final leg of the journey. Corey quickly fell into my pace and we made good time, although at a crocodile-infested river mouth we had to borrow a rowboat to get across with all his gear.

One day around sunset, as we rounded a steep point near San Juanillo, our way was blocked by a 50-yard-long wall of vertical rock. The tide was coming in quickly and darkness was weighing heavy on the rocks. We had to find another way around.

We backtracked for 30 minutes in the darkness and found a tiny goat trail leading into the jungle. Peeling apart the green, we slipped through the thick vines. The path, singletrack and steep, looked as though it hadn't been used in years, and we got lost several times. The forest was alive with sound and constant movement – frogs croaking loudly, faceless birds screeching nearby.

Finally we found the skeleton of a house in a tight clearing and ducked under a fence and onto a narrow dirt road. I was muddy, sweaty, and bleeding from the rusty barbed wire.

"I can't remember whether or not I've had my tetanus shot recently," I said.

"It doesn't matter," Corey laughed. "It'll be days before lockjaw sets in."

We walked south on a dirt road in the pitch dark for three or four miles. No sign of humanity until, at the top of a steep hill ribbed with thick mud ruts, we saw a mirage shimmering in the distance: a small, warmly lit hotel. Before I knew it, we were soaking in a Jacuzzi, drinking ice-cold Pilsen beer, and peering out across the inky jungle toward Playa Ostional.

The next morning we trekked back to the beach and watched sea turtle hatchlings squirm in the sand and head for the sea. But ironically, we couldn't even surf – the nesting turtles meant ocean use was restricted, and locals and tourists were slowly filtering onto the beach to watch them. It was the highest concentration of humans I'd encountered on my entire journey, and it made me feel uneasy – almost claustrophobic.

Joe Walsh had agreed to pick us up the next morning in his speedboat and bring us back to Tamarindo. It required a grueling afternoon of hiking to get to the meeting spot, and the sand felt rock-hard under my tent that last night. But the hardness was familiar and oddly comforting. I watched a pair of shooting stars streak across the sky through the mesh ceiling, then focused my headlamp on a pair of well-worn photos I carried in my pack: one of my wife, Ilene, the other my son, Luke. Although they were thousands of miles away and I hadn't spoken to them in a week, I somehow felt closer to them than before. I turned off my headlamp and let the waves lull me to sleep.

Around noon the next day Walsh's boat came gliding over the horizon and anchored just beyond where the waves were breaking. We paddled our gear out to the boat – duck-diving under the waves with waterproof packs strapped to our backs. By the time we finished loading the boat, the tide was dropping, and the wind suddenly turned offshore. It seemed the Pacific was offering me one last gift. So along with Joe and his boat captain, Rodrigo, I savored the shoulder-high surf. The bathtub-warm ocean felt thick and viscous, almost embracing me as I paddled.

Later, as we sped toward Tamarindo a couple of hours away, I sat near the bow and gazed at the shoreline that had challenged me over the past nine days. Instead of the obstacle course of rocky points, river mouths, and sandy swatches, it looked almost inconsequential, blended together into a flat green and brown backdrop. The breaks we'd surfed looked like anonymous blurs of whitewater.

"Well, the good news is we just surfed great waves all by ourselves," Joe yelled over the roaring engine. "The bad news is we may not have enough gas to make it all the way back to Tamarindo."

"No worries," I said, chuckling. "We can always walk."