Pura vida, indeed.
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Jen Murphy surfing with surfX Costa Rica
Credit: Courtesy of Chon Fotos

"Pura vida. Pura vida." After a long lull, the ocean has come alive, and a massive set of waves is rolling in at Witch's Rock, an iconic surf break on Costa Rica's northwest coast. The two dozen or so ticos in the water have erupted in a chant of the national mantra, which translates to "pure life," as if thanking the surf gods for bringing us waves. We all paddle fiercely toward the horizon, scrambling to line up in perfect position to catch a ride.

As one of the few gringos in the water, I would typically sit back and give locals priority, but with Jair Pérez by my side, I'm treated like surf royalty. Costa Rica's 32-year-old reigning national surf champion is a local hero and happens to be my guest surf coach for the day, along with Hanna Storrosten, the 28-year-old co-founder of SurfX, the new women-run surf school at the Four Seasons Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo.

The beach and surf boards at surfX Costa Rica
Credit: Courtesy of Jen Murphy

Overexcited, I start to paddle for the first wave, but Pérez quickly grabs my leash and yanks me back. "Patience," he says with a smile. Over the years, I've learned that the secret to surfing is being able to read the ocean, and at a new break, it helps to be out with someone who intimately knows the waves. The first wave closes out on two riders, just as Pérez predicted. 

"Start paddling hard now," he yells, "and go left."

Storrosten paddles alongside me, reminding me that the board will follow my gaze. "Look down, you'll go down," she says. "Look left, you'll go left."

My hands claw into the water. As soon as I feel the momentum of the wave beneath my board, I pop to my feet, set my edge, and gaze left toward the beach as I fly down the face of the wave. The other surfers cheer me on with more shouts of "pura vida." The ride takes me all the way to the shores of Playa Naranjo, part of Santa Rosa National Park.

As I paddle back out, I admire Witch's Rock, or Roja Bruja, a mystic monolith towering behind the lineup of surfers. With the national park still closed due to COVID-19, the only way to access the surf break is by boat. This morning is quiet, with just four boats bobbing by the imposing rock, and Storrosten and Pérez know nearly every face in the water.

The wind is blowing offshore, and the swell is growing in size. Pérez attacks a massive wave, carving up and down its face with both power and grace, revealing why he's nicknamed "the Little Giant of Latin America." He barely stands 5 feet tall, but he's a powerhouse in the ocean. Storrosten, a lanky blonde, takes off on the wave behind him, nearly getting barreled.

I've dreamed of surfing Witch's Rock ever since I was a teenager. Immortalized in director Bruce Brown's seminal surf documentary, "Endless Summer II," the A-frame wave draws surfers from around the globe.  

The Four Seasons is blessed with not just one but two world-class waves in its backyard. Ollie's Point, a legendary right-hand point break, is another 20 minutes away by boat. "If one wave isn't working, we go to the next," Storrosten explains. "It's rare that we can't find surf."

The exterior and signage at surfX Costa Rica
Credit: Courtesy of Jen Murphy

Wanting to showcase the diversity of Costa Rica's waves beyond the Guanacaste region, SurfX has plans to introduce surfaris at year's end that will utilize helicopters, private jets, and high-speed boats to whisk surfers to spots like Pavones, one of the world's longest left-handed breaking waves located on the south Pacific coast, or the barreling reef break Salsa Brava, on the southeast coast.

The mission of SurfX isn't just to spotlight the country's famous waves. The program also aims to celebrate local surf culture. Previously, an Australian outfitter operated the Four Seasons' surf school. When COVID-19 hit, the resort saw an opportunity to reimagine the program through a local lens and with two women at the helm. Storrosten, along with Andrea Diaz Coto, take a unique approach to surf coaching. Their goal goes beyond getting people of all abilities up and riding waves. They want them to feel the pura vida vibes and feel empowered by their ocean experience.

Both women credit surfing for building their confidence in and out of the water. A city girl originally from San Jose, Costa Rica, Diaz Coto didn't touch a surfboard until she was 16. A former competitive swimmer, she took to the sport naturally. But in the early 1990s, women were still the minority in the ocean. "Early on, I remember paddling out and having a blonde French dude tell me women shouldn't be in the lineup," she says. "I knew I needed to change the status quo."

The surfing staff at surfX Costa Rica
Credit: Genna Marie Davis/Sean Davis/Courtesy of Four Seasons

Diaz Coto learned to let her surfing do the talking and soon became recognized and respected for her fearless, hard-charging style. After becoming the first woman to grace the cover of Surfos, the most prominent Latin America surf magazine at the time, she was picked up as a Roxy team rider and went on to become Costa Rica's first female surfing national champion.

Now 46 and a single mother of three children, she coaches rather than competes and is considered one of the top surf educators in the country. "Women have a different teaching style," she says. "We take more time to break down technique and help [surfers] find the sweet spot of a wave."

I've come to SurfX hoping to progress my skills in bigger waves. Storrosten talks me through technique and also helps me find the right mindset. 

"A big part of surfing is learning to believe in yourself," she tells me. 

Originally from Norway, Storrosten surfed her first wave while visiting Costa Rica at age 19 and was so hooked she postponed college to chase waves. 

"I had never felt more alive," she recalls. "I was immediately addicted to that feeling." After earning a degree in biology, she returned to Costa Rica, and the surf community embraced her like a local. Through SurfX, she hopes to support and raise awareness of local talent by contracting athletes like Pérez and Valeria Salutsri, the national stand-up paddleboard champion, as guest coaches.

When competitions were put on hold due to COVID-19, Pérez needed another source of income. SurfX pays its freelance instructors six times what they would make teaching lessons with other companies in the surf town of Tamarindo, and full-time staff are salaried with benefits. And guests learn more than surf skills from the pros. They also get an intimate glimpse into the local surf scene.

On our boat ride back to the Four Seasons, Pérez shows me photos of jaguar prints on the beach at Ollie's and a viral social media image of an actual jaguar resting on the beach as a surfer paddles a few hundred feet away. The Billabong Pro Pipeline contest is taking place on the North Shore of Oahu during my visit and Storrosten and Pérez stream the competition so we can cheer on Costa Rican rookie Carlos Munoz and rising star Brisa Hennessy, two athletes who hadn't even been on my radar. We chat about local surfboard shapers, and they debate the best post-surf taco shacks.

Earlier, Diaz Coto had commented, "our waves are great, but the best thing about Costa Rica is the people." Her words rang true. If you come to surf and don't mingle with the locals, you're missing out on the very best part of the Costa Rican surf experience.

Learn more about the SurfX program, and all the accommodation options available at the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo, here