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Surf Rovers: Using 4x4s to Search for Costa Rica’s Perfect Wave

Posted in Features on April 12, 2018
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We secured our surfboards onto the roof rack of our Land Rover Defender 110, left Alajuela and headed towards the Pacific Ocean via the Inter American Highway. An hour later we arrived at the ferry crossing in Puntarenas in our well-equipped rig, eager to head into unknown territory in search of the perfect wave. Over the years, we had shredded many surf breaks from the Ventura County Line in California to Baja Mexico, but had longed to rip some waves in Central America. As we glanced across the Golfo de Nicoya in Costa Rica, we hoped to find what we were looking for. An epic surf and four-wheel-drive adventure was in our crosshairs.

A few weeks earlier we contacted Fabio Perrone and Luis Rojas, owners of Nomad America, an overlanding rental company based in Costa Rica. They specialize in all-inclusive 4x4 adventures and provide Land Rover Defender 110s, Toyota Hilux trucks, FJ Cruisers, Toyota 4Runners and Suzuki Jimnys fully equipped with rooftop tents, camping gear, cookware, cellphone, snorkeling gear, surfboards, and stand-up paddleboards. With the help of Gustavo Fuentes, a professional guide and manager of Costa Rica 4x4 Experience, the three men planned our off-road surf adventure to the Nicoya Peninsula, which was described as a challenging route consisting of dusty jungle tracks, river crossings, and secluded surfing beaches. When we arrived at the company’s headquarters in Alajuela, we were excited to see six vehicles lined up and ready to go. We drove onto the Tambor II ferry and crossed the Golfo de Nicoya enroute to Paquera, a small port town on the east side of the peninsula. While on the ferry, we had ample time to get to know our fellow adventurers and discuss our itinerary for the next few days. The boat ride took a little over an hour and we passed many small islands in the gulf, some of which are protected biological reserves inhabited by colonies of maritime birds. Nearing one of the tropical isles, Luis pointed out a surf break that appeared seemingly impossible for us to get to. Instead we turned our attention to the peninsula that lay ahead, unfolded a map marked with secret surf spots, and planned our first camp.

Costa Rica has some of the most amazing beaches on Earth. Breck Rudd leads the pack down Playa Manzanillo in search of the perfect wave.

Costa Rica is a relatively small country, roughly the size of West Virginia. Even though it accounts for only 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface, it contains nearly 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity; more than 500,000 species in all. The varied terrain shifts between forests, valleys, mountains, volcanoes, plains, and wetlands, making it one of the best places on the planet for exploration and adventure. We disembarked our vehicles and motored west from Paquera passing through Montezuma, a funky beach town on the southernmost tip of the peninsula. From there, we navigated a rough, rugged, and dusty road that followed the coastline most of the way to Playa Malpais, where we set up camp just before sunset. Afterwards, we got better acquainted with our new friends and had the opportunity to check out their vehicles before making dinner and settling in for the evening.

Our diverse group of adventurers traveled in six well-equipped 4x4s. Gustavo guided us in his Toyota Land Cruiser Prado 150 Series fitted with an Old Man Emu 2.5-inch lift and Mickey Thompson Baja MTZ tires. Other mods included a Smittybilt X20 12,000-pound winch mounted to an ARB front bumper, ARB Air Lockers, an ARB Fridge Freezer, ARB Safari snorkel, and ARB Series III Simpson rooftop tent. Luis Rojas, wife Mela, and son Miguel, joined in their Toyota Hilux truck. It was powered by a 3.0L diesel engine and equipped for adventure with an ARB front bumper, Old Man Emu suspension, ARB Safari snorkel, Safari rooftop tent, Mickey Thompson Baja ATZ tires, and a Warn M8 8,000-pound winch. Victor Aguilar, Nomad America’s right-hand man, tagged along in a company-owned Suzuki Jimny fitted with an ARB bumper, Pro Comp suspension, Mickey Thompson tires, Warn winch, Safari rooftop tent, and ARB Safari snorkel. Maarten and Marijke de Wit, paying customers from Holland, drove a Toyota 4Runner equipped with an ARB front bumper, ARB Safari snorkel, Ironman 4x4 2-inch suspension lift, and Safari rooftop tent. We were joined in Paquera by Yeison Kim, owner of Mytanfeet, a Costa Rican travel blog, in his Isuzu D-Max LX truck equipped with an Ironman 4x4 suspension, ARB Safari snorkel, and GEO Adventure Gear rooftop tent. We drove a stock Land Rover Defender 110 modified with a Safari double rooftop tent, ARB Safari snorkel, roof-mounted PVC shower, and BFG All Terrain T/A K02 tires.

Breck Rudd reviews the route with Gustavo Fuentes at the Nomad America headquarters.

The next morning we enjoyed a traditional Costa Rican breakfast consisting of scrambled eggs, gallo pinto (rice and beans), local cheese, and fried plantains, then broke camp and headed north to catch some waves. Gustavo turned off of the dirt road and onto the white sand beach at Punta Pochote. He led us to his secret spot at Playa Manzanillo where we surfed an isolated reef break with 3- to 5-foot sets and a light offshore wind. We had the beach all to ourselves and were super stoked to paddle out in the 80-degree water…there was not another surfer in sight. After an amazing two-hour surf session, we packed our boards and left for Samara, where Gustavo knew of another surf spot that was off the beaten track. We headed northeast on the unmarked coastal road and carefully crossed Rio Ario. River crossings can be tricky in this area since the currents and water depth are unpredictable. However, we took a close look at the bottom before choosing a line that made for an easy passage through the waist-deep river.

Later that day we negotiated our second water crossing at Rio Bongo while passing a farmer driving a tractor with a trailer load of hay. He gave us an inquisitive look as he went on his way. A few hours later we arrived at the turnoff for our surf camp and drove down a rutted dirt track to the beach. Our path was blocked by some large driftwood that had washed ashore during high tide. Some of the guys cleared the logs while Gustavo waded through the flooded track near the beach and poked the sandy bottom with a long stick. It proved to be hard enough to drive over, so we shifted into 4-Lo and motored through the murky water onto Playa Barrigona. While driving to the north end of the beach to set up camp, Victor got his lightweight Suzuki Jimny stuck in the sand and had to be winched out. During the extraction, some of the crew went about the business of setting up camp while others took advantage of some tasty surf. We were super jazzed to paddle out through the sets and drop into some nice barrel-shaped waves. After surfing until sunset, we were finally ready to kick back at camp. We sat around the campfire under a starry sky and enjoyed ice-cold cervezas while telling stories of past adventures. We slept surprisingly well, considering the loud, deep, and guttural cries coming from a troop of howler monkeys that lived in the jungle next to our camp.

Fabio Perrone, co-owner of Nomad America, at his office in Alajuela.

Shortly before sunrise, we waxed our boards, hit the surf, and were bombarded by a squadron of pelicans cruising the shoreline in search of their morning snack. After an hour or so, we grew hungry and headed back to camp for breakfast. During our meal, we reviewed the map and discussed the route for the day. We broke camp under the watchful eyes of the resident monkeys and motored north to Nosara for fuel and supplies. From Nosara, we set our GPS for Playa Tamarindo, the surf capital of northern Nicoya. Formerly a sleepy fishing village, this hip surfer’s haven is also a center for sportfishing, diving, and snorkeling. It offers a variety of surf including beach breaks, rocky point breaks, and a nerve-rattling river-mouth break. Better yet, there are a few isolated surfing beaches nearby including Playa Langosta, Negra, and Avellanas that were less crowded. We decided to set up camp at the southern end of Playa Tamarindo where we had easy access to all of the best breaks. As we deployed our rooftop tents, a troop of howler monkeys made it clear that we were on their turf. We named the beach Howler’s Surf Camp. For the next few days we spent most of our time shredding the surf around Tamarindo. Early one morning, while surfing near the Tamarindo river-mouth, we spotted a large crocodile basking in the sun on the riverbank. It was a little nerve-wracking paddling back out into the surf after that.

Our adventure in Costa Rica exceeded our expectations. We explored remote backroads by 4x4, surfed some of the best waves in the country, and left with a deeper understanding of what the locals refer to as pura vida—the pure life.

Gustavo Fuentes coordinates loading our vehicles on the Tambor II ferry.
Breck Rudd gets acquainted with Luis Rojas (co-owner of Nomad America) and family aboard the Tambor II while crossing the Golfo de Nicoya.
A random couple dancing aboard the Tambor II.
Disembarking with our vehicles at the Paquera landing.
The road to Cabuya on the southern Peninsula de Nicoya.
Luis Rojas setting up camp at Playa Malpais.
The group driving on Playa Manzanillo in search of waves.
Luis Rojas and family in their Toyota Hilux on Playa Manzanillo.
The team spots some surf in the distance on Playa Manzanillo.
The lineup from left to right: Yeison Kim, Gustavo Fuentes, Maarten and Marijke de Wit, Victor Aguilar, Luis Rojas and family, Michael and Breck Rudd.
Breck Rudd pushes through the Rio Ario in our Land Rover Defender 110.
A farmer crosses the Rio Ario with a load of hay.
Breck Rudd drops into the Rio Bongo in our Land Rover Defender 110.
Mela Rojas enjoying the ride in their Toyota Hilux.
A few of the guys clear the track of debris so that we can cross a saltwater pond to the beach.
Gustavo Fuentes pushes through a saltwater pond at the entrance to Playa Barrigona.
Luis Rojas takes his time as he crosses a murky saltwater pond at Playa Barrigona.
Maarten de Wit drops into the murky saltwater that had flooded the track to the entrance to Playa Barrigona.
Maarten de Wit emerges from the saltwater pond onto Playa Barrigona.
Maarten de Wit gets his Toyota 4Runner stuck in the sand at Playa Barrigona.
Gustavo Fuentes uses his winch to help Victor Aguilar get his Suzuki unstuck from the sand.
Surf camp at Playa Barrigona.
A surfer rides a semi-hollow wave at Playa Barrigona.
A surfer checking out the waves at Playa Barrigona.
A surfer sprints into the ocean near the Tamarindo Estuary, eager to catch some waves.
A surfer carves a nice wave at Playa Manzanillo.
A surfer catches a fast right at Playa Tamarindo.
Setting up for a frontside turn at Playa Tamarindo.
Maarten and Marijke de Wit relaxing at Playa Barrigona surf camp.
A surfer negotiates a frontside snap on a wave at Playa Manzanillo.
A surfer carves a fast right break at Playa Tamarindo.
Breck Rudd deploys the rooftop tent on our Defender 110 at Playa Malpais.
Breck Rudd checks the surf conditions at Playa Tamarindo.
Surfer girl at Playa Tamarindo.
Spearfisherman at Playa Tamarindo.
Breck Rudd watching the sunset at Playa Tamarindo.
Crocodile seen on the riverbank at the Tamarindo Estuary.
Iguana on the beach.
White heron in flight at the Tamarindo Estuary.
A cowboy with horses for rent on Playa Tamarindo.


Costa Rica 4x4 Experience
Nomad America

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