The Early History of Surf Travel in Costa Rica
Living in Nosara for over ten years now, we have witnessed many changes. We first came to Nosara on vacation in August of 1994. It was raining when we arrived and we checked into the Estrella del Pacifico, which became Villa Taype, and eventually evolved into Harmony Hotel.
I remember looking out over the vast expanse of Playa Guiones and said to myself “this is it; endless waves”. There was no gas station, bank, or much of anything really. We needed fuel and ventured into Nosara Centro and found a palm thatched rancho that sold gas out of 50-gallon barrels. A lovely gentleman known as ‘Flaco’ poured gas into our tank out of a two-liter coke bottle. We searched high and low for a place to eat, and ended up at an eclectic rambling Swiss hotel hidden in the jungle somewhere in Playa Pelada. The owner was surprised to see us, but agreed to cook us dinner.
We lived in Florida and would return each year for our annual surfing vacation. In 1995 I lucked into a job with a small family run surfing travel agency called Surf Express, which specialized in arranging surf destination travel packages, mainly to Barbados and Costa Rica. Costa Rica quickly became our number one destination. Nicaragua and El Salvador, now popular and successful mainstream surf destinations, were considered off limits due to political instability and revolutions.
A sweet benefit of this job allowed me to travel twice a year to Costa Rica expense free. I got a free rental cars and comped rooms as I searched the coastline for new ‘end of the road’ destinations with good surf, a cabina to crash in, and a place to eat. At one time I knew every surf operation up and down the coast from Pavones to Witches Rock. Back in the office in Florida I would sit at my desk, headphones on, and enthrall prospective travelers with stories of empty tropical lineups, cheap beer, and fresh fish. Before 9/11 the travel business was a different animal. We had secured contracts with airlines who extended generous wholesaler discounts to registered travel agencies, thereby allowing us to sell the cheapest tickets anywhere.
We also had exclusive arrangements with participating airlines that allowed board bags to travel at no extra charge. We printed tickets at our office and would send out Information packets with maps, travel notes, hotel and restaurant guides, and general travel rules and recommendations. We even had our own bright yellow Surf Express baggage tags which were supposed to ensure VIP handling. If date changes were requested we would actually put a sticker over the printed date and wrote in the new one. Tickets were easily transferable to another passenger, and name changes were written by hand. As the internet age blossomed and upstart discounters like Expedia and Travelocity came on the scene, specialty travel agencies lost their ability to be competitive with fares and special perks. Internet bookings made it possible for passengers to procure low airfares through endless fare wars and airline promotions. To further encourage internet reservations, airlines imposed commission caps on travel agency contracts.
The impact of 9/11 turned the travel business (and life as we knew it) upside-down. Hyper-extreme security, the TSA, shoe inspections, and routine body searches made travel tense and tedious.
Surf Express was a wonderful part of my life. It was the Camelot period of the surf travel business. I spent 10 years there selling surfing dreams, and eventually moved to Nosara full time!