On the first day of our 5-week Costa Rican sabbatical, which began in Tamarindo, we woke to the sound of the wacky birds making a major racket just outside our door. We’d rolled in late the previous evening after an epic travel day. Despite the expert and free packing list by Travelers Todos, I still forgot swim goggles, so our first errand was to buy a set from the surf shop across the street. I also forgot the kids’ homework (oops).

I had brought my two daughters, age 8 & 11 to Witch’s Rock Surf Camp for several reasons. The first was because I wanted them to gain some surf tips that would help them enjoy the remaining days of our trip. The other was more personal: I wanted to see the changes I’d heard about in the little town I fell in love with 15 years ago.

Walking into Witch’s Rock Surf Camp HQ that first morning, with my young daughters in tow felt surreal. The restaurant where I spent so much time heckling my friends and reliving every wave brought back so many memories, mostly, of being younger. When I became a parent I was ready to trade in my freedom for something bigger, something so much more lasting and meaningful, but I’d be lying if I didn’t suffer just one little pang for the days when life was easier, when I could just jump on a surfboard or read a book when I felt like it.

The first surf lesson went great! The girls had their own lesson with an adorable young woman named XiQuiu (pronounced CQ). She pushed them into whitewater waves and they belly-rode them gleefully with the accompanying squeals of delight.

To say Tamarindo has changed since the last time I said goodbye would be a major understatement. I remember dirt roads, frogs chirping in the bog located on the way to the minimart, and a youthful, friendly vibe. The vibe is still here, but the town has exploded (and I’m no longer young). Big hotels, and plenty of souvenir shops and kiosks, coffee shops, and a large grocery store. The beach hawkers blow their colorful clay whistles day and night and from every corner – not buying one felt offensive. The low-key feel is gone. At night, it felt like a much bigger city–not a place I would want to be wandering alone. 

Day 2 of surf school began in tears when my youngest admitted that she didn’t want to learn to surf. This even after telling me she was so looking forward to surfing together on Christmas Day in two weeks when we’ll be in Santa Teresa. I wasn’t completely surprised: she’s my cautious one, and rarely even surfs whitewash waves with me on my board. But I was crushed. The only choice was to let her make the one that she needed, which was to bow out of the week of lessons I’d paid for.

After a week with Xiquiu, my older daughter had started to stand up! On one day, she had a different instructor named Mao who pushed her a little harder than Xiquiu, and though my daughter didn’t fully appreciate this, I noticed a difference (she was also now in private lessons). He pushed her into little green-face wind waves that were a perfect little ride, yelling “up!” which she did again and again for a solid 45 minutes. I’m feeling confident that if she wants to take her learning further, during our 3-week stint in Santa Teresa, she can.

On the final day, both of my daughters joined Xiquiu for a lesson, though my younger only rode waves with her sister. Though little surfing took place, the two girls playing in the warm waves with their young guide was the highlight of the trip.

Will I return to Tamarindo? Probably not. I would visit for a few days, see old friends, enjoy the excellent restaurants. But the town is loud–music plays 20 hours a day, and it’s very tourist-centered. Witch’s Rock offered great surf instruction and a fun vibe, but it’s not really geared for families with younger kids. My future teenagers will likely love it, so maybe we have another trip in us yet.