by TIM EBERLY photography by TODD WRIGHT & MATT VAUGHAN
NOSARA, COSTA RICA In this crescent-shaped cove, bordered by a jagged cliff and lush vegetation, the water is so clear that stingrays are visible in the shallows. The white-sand beach is strewn with seashells so exotic and colorful that government officials confiscate them from tourists. And rising high above the palm trees and brush is a quirky hotel that looks like a Dr. Seuss space rocket.
But for most who come here, that’s all window dressing. The real stars of this remote little beach are the waves: powerful hills of water, thick and steep, yet somehow soft and gentle. You can set a watch to their arrival in the late fall, the dry season.
This is Nosara, Costa Rica, an international surfing destination and for almost 30 years the southernmost tip of Virginia Beach. Since the late 1980s Nosara, some 2,000 miles southwest of Virginia, has attracted a steady stream of them, so much so that Tidewater surfers have dubbed it Little Virginia Beach.
Some have even made Nosara their permanent home. A clean-cut salesman from Virginia Beach grew out his hair, opened one of the first surf shops here and is such a local brand that you can find his hot sauce on the shelves. The owner of a once-popular Virginia Beach bar moved here and never made it home; his gravestone sits in a small cemetery, steps from the beach.
Even more have made this little town a second home, buying property and becoming regulars. The area’s appeal is not hard to understand. It has Hawaiian-style waves without the 12-hour flight. And the native Ticos and Ticas, many of whom speak passing English, are generally friendly and welcoming, both on land and in the water.
The area has drawbacks. Petty crime is a problem. Surfers bury their flip flops in the sand so locals don’t steal them (which often leads to a game of “Where’d I hide my flip flops?”). Visitors are also advised to keep their valuables away from windows, for fear of the smash and grab. Some surfers even hire Ticos to stand guard at their houses while they go out for dinner. Nosara is not much cheaper than the States, and rogue police officers have a reputation for shaking down tourists.
Yet to the surfers, the good still far outweighs the bad. Gorgeous waves have a way of tilting the balance.
Nosara, with a population of about 6,000, is a small farming and cattle-raising community on a peninsula in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Province.
Long ago, the region was occupied by the Chorotegas, a tribe of corn farmers. Spanish settlers took control in the 16th century, filling the Nicoya Peninsula with massive cattle ranches. The region got its first dirt and gravel road in 1979. More have been added since then, but they’re all in sad shape. Howler monkeys hang out in trees, distracting drivers who already must snake their way around craters, sometimes driving off the road in search of passable terrain. Locals spray molasses on the roads to keep the dust from covering their homes and cars. It’s a losing battle.
The locals do what they can to make money, selling pottery on the beach, coconuts on the roadside and fruit from the back of flatbed pickups. The lucky ones stay in spare rooms or mother-in-law units on lavish compounds and take care of the property in exchange for free or reduced rent.
And dogs wander the streets and beaches, going where they want and taking life as it comes.
The first surfers from the United States discovered Nosara sometime in the 1970s. But one of the early Virginia Beach locals to move here was not a surfer; he was a fisherman.
Bill Lancaster, a 1977 graduate of Cox High School, has been here since 1994, predating telephones and televisions. Neighbors back then would communicate using two-way radios, and each had a call sign. Burly and bearded, Lancaster is “Marlin Bill,” thanks to his snagging one in a fishing
tournament years ago.
On a muggy March afternoon, he sat at a round table in his second-story open-air steak and seafood restaurant, visiting with two surfers originally from Virginia Beach. “You know the season’s here when you start seeing familiar faces coming around,” he said.
Ron Swan and Allen White went to Princess Anne High School, but they shared a mutual friend with Lancaster. Mike Cannon, “Mango Mike,” died in June 2008 after crashing his motorbike on a Nosara roadway. He was 63. His closest friend, Butch Maloney, rode a wave just off Virginia Beach’s 61st Street, with some of Cannon’s ashes in his pocket, before scattering them on the water.
Cannon, who co-owned the popular bar The Shack on 17th Street, had quit drinking at the time of the crash, but for a while he was known for strolling around Nosara with cigarettes, rum and Coke stuffed in a fanny pack.
Lancaster and Swan tried to recall how long after the scooter crash Cannon died. Lancaster thought it was two or three months later; Swan thought it was two or three days. Regardless, about two weeks after he died, Cannon’s gray cat, Moose, appeared at Marlin Bill’s and decided it suited him.
“He’s been living here ever since,” Lancaster said, nodding at Moose as he roamed the far corner of the restaurant.
Swan and White are part of a large group of friends from Virginia Beach who have been traveling to Costa Rica since the 1980s, back when the twin-propeller plane bringing them often made several passes at the runway to shoo away cattle.
Those in Swan and White’s circle of friends can rattle off more than 20 who make the trip, but the travel list changes year to year. This is White’s first trip with the group in 15 years. The 59-year-old now lives in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and owns a surf shop there. But his link to the region runs deep. He owned the now-closed Sea Level surf shop in Virginia Beach and has won East Coast Surfing Championships division titles four times – and his custom-made boards can still be found in city surf shops today.
Swan, 62, who lives in Croatan, is the mother hen of the group, the one who reminds his friends to bring their stingray barb removers and arranges lobster feasts while refusing to take money from anyone. He’s also one of the few Virginia Beach surfers who can hold conversations in Spanish, thanks in part to a couple stints in Brazil as a long-haired college dropout in the 1970s. Natives tell him he speaks Spanish with a Portuguese accent.
On this trip, White and Swan were staying at a friend’s house with several other Beach surfers. Still others were staying at hotels. Most mornings the group met up in the water, usually at Playa Guiones, where several hundred yards of coastline is loaded with takeoff spots for surfers.
It is a busy beach. Surf schools take carloads of novice surfers there and dump them in the water, sometimes six or eight at a time. But Swan, White and their friends navigated the crowds well, getting enough waves to satisfy them. Crowded waves, though, increase the chances of run-ins or collisions with other surfers.
One of the surfers from Virginia Beach, Robert Whilden, liked to perch deep in the lineup and pick off the biggest waves. And he did it well, so well that it upset another surfer. She made a snide remark to him as he paddled back, so he made his way toward her and smoothed things over.
In the same surf session, Bobby Chenman, a Virginia Beach surfer with a number of contest championships to his name, collided with Swan while traveling down the face of a wave.
“I have a huge ding from our collision,” Chenman told Swan later as the two stood around a swimming pool.
“Well, don’t run me over any more,” Swan deadpanned.
At dinner, one of the other surfers, Ed Walko, jokingly took Whilden to task for what he considered showboating at his expense.
Walko, 53, a physician in Virginia Beach who talks with his hands, described how Whilden carved a big turn in the water, splashing him as they crossed paths.
“Is that why you gave me a big old stink eye?” Whilden said.
Whilden, 51, who co-owns an HVAC and refrigeration company in Virginia Beach, tried to tell his side of the story. Walko wasn’t having it.
“No, you went around and splashed me,” he said, miming a splash in the face by putting both hands in the air and averting his eyes. Crowding at Virginia Beach came to mind. “I felt like I was at First Street.”
After dinner, the group headed to a popular hangout – Beach Dog Café – to grab drinks and meet up with their friend Coconut Harry.
Hampton native Harry Heinke, 65, wears long, white-blond hair down to his shoulders and has the lean frame of a 20-year-old. And the young, attractive Ticas – he’ll tell you – still notice him.
While living in Virginia Beach, Heinke made money selling lab supplies. He bought a two-bedroom bungalow in Nosara in 1995 and moved there in 2001 to open Coconut Harry’s surf shop. It wasn’t Heinke’s nickname at the time, just something catchy that Cannon came up with for the shop. Now it will likely be on his tombstone.
“He’s Mr. Nosara,” Swan said.
Heinke sold his shop a few years ago to a New Yorker named Steve. The place is still named Coconut Harry’s, but the guys from Virginia Beach call it Coconut Steve’s. Heinke doesn’t live year-round in Nosara anymore. He comes for four months or so of the dry season and spends most of the summer and fall in Jacksonville Beach, Florida.
On this evening, he sat in the corner of the bar, drinking an Imperial, a Costa Rican lager. His old friends from home buzzed around him; energy was in the air. Everyone had a drink – or two.
It was open-mic night at the Beach Dog Café. And the man at the mic was a singer from Colorado named Terry Gulley. He was attempting Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz, freestyling.
Oh Lord, why don’t you buy me a surfboard with a leash, because Coconut Harry back there’s been renting by the week…
On a Friday afternoon toward the end of their trip, Swan and White walked to the beach to check the waves. But the water was a bit too choppy, so they headed south, down the beach, past the break where they usually surfed. Then White spotted something.
“Look at that, Lefty,” he said, using Swan’s childhood nickname, in a slow Southern drawl picked up from summers on the Outer Banks. “It’s peeling.” The wave, he meant, was holding up nicely as it broke.
Swan didn’t buy it. “I think it’s breaking shallow, with the reef right under it,” he said: It may look nice, but it’s not rideable.
“Let’s go see,” White said.
The two trudged out into the water. They were waist deep before they turned back to shore.
“Allen’s right,” Swan said. “I think we can ride it.”
“It’s definitely a break,” White said. “We’re going to try it tomorrow.”
The trip was almost over. Swan would soon return to his automotive products and services company. White would go back to shaping boards at his surf shop. Walko has patients to look after, Chenman a scrap metal yard to run.
So, for the rest of the year, they will concern themselves with mundane responsibilities and workaday lives. But this time next year – set your watch to it – they’ll be back.