surf & service trip to costa rica with rustic pathways

These are the types of experiences I live for! An international trip with 15 people from across the United States who have never met but still come together to create an unforgettable trip, a new family, and lifelong memories.

Going into this trip I was filled with 90% excitement and 10% nerves. I was excited about the unknown because I knew none of the students going on the trip or who our leaders were going to be. Excited about learning how to surf. Excited for adventure. Excited about traveling internationally again. Excited to learn about Costa Rican culture. Excited to pretend I’m an extrovert and meet new people. But also just a tiny bit of nerves. I think a little bit of nerves is always called for when there is some unknown.


East coast residents of the three different Rustic Pathways trips that were leaving at the same time, met in Newark. So yes I backtracked a little. I flew from Charlotte to Newark and Newark to San Jose. There were very few students on my specific trip flying out of Newark. I happened to meet one girl just before boarding the flight who did happen to be going on Surf and Service and we instantly connected. The flight felt long and I have to say it was my first time flying through lightning but we arrived safely in San Jose.

Our group of about 25 students met the Rustic Pathways leaders outside the airport and boarded a bus to the hotel for our one-night stay in San Jose. I happened to room with the girl I met just before boarding the flight! After an early wake-up call, we ate breakfast and met up with the rest of our Surf & Service group along with our three leaders. There were fifteen students from varying states including Texas, Delaware, New Hampshire, Florida, Illinois, and Virginia. We boarded the bus to begin our six-hour drive to Playa Grande and for the first time I got to see San Jose in the daytime. WOW! It is quite a bustling city! The ride, although very bumpy at some points, had the most pristine views of the Costa Rican mountains. The drive was quite relaxing actually. We started with introductions and reviewing ground rules, safety, and the itinerary for the week. My head was glued to the windows because the scenery was so pretty. When the majority voted to turn off the AC and open all the windows fresh air from the rich coast rushed in. We solved riddles, played car games, and got to know one another better. We made pit stops at local markets on the side of the road and picturesque bridges to move our legs.

Then we finally turned onto a dirt road and drove about 10 more minutes to arrive at our humble abode: Casa Serena, otherwise known as the Serene House. And serene it was indeed. A perfect fit for 15 students, 3 leaders, 2 cooks, and a roaming dog. The beachfront outdoor villa housed a grand pavilion with a ping pong and pool table as well as a large dining table to gather at. There was also a pool and a rooftop perch which had ariel views of the ocean and the villa. There were 4 rooms with bunk beds and tall palm trees and greenery throughout. Don’t forget all the hammocks too!! So basically you could say we were on a trip with Boujee Pathways.

We were greeted by our 2 talented cooks who had dinner prepared for us upon arrival. Let the fine dining commence! Throughout the week we ate traditional Costa Rican food such as rice and beans, plantains, fish, and more. The talent of the dynamic duo did not end there. We also ate banana pancakes, scrambled eggs, pasta, nachos, and burgers always with a Costa Rican touch. Each meal was served with fresh-squeezed fruit juice. Mmmmmmm!!!! I became close with our cooks because I could speak Spanish to them. They were the best!

After we ate and settled into our rooms we had some free time before our first surfing lesson. I was mid ping pong match when I looked up to see a group of people walking through the front doors of the house. In slow motion they strut down the walkway, the wind blowing through their hair and their golden skin glistening in the sun. It was like a scene from Baywatch. Meet our surf instructors. They looked like they were born right on the beaches of Costa Rica. The ocean was in their blood. We couldn’t have had a better experience with them.

We started surfing with theory training and safety instructions on the beach. Once we all had the basics and the technique of the pop-up down it was time to go into the water. We used the momentum of the white water where the waves have already crashed to give us a push and practice standing up. The water felt great! It was the perfect temperature. I did pretty well, standing up a few times on the first day. We watched the sunset from the water in between episodes of wiping out and inhaling salt water. Or if caught a good run you were able to ride into shore. It was quite the evening.

We surfed every morning for the rest of the trip. Wake up call was based on the schedule of high tide. After fueling ourselves for the day we grabbed our boards, headed for the beach, and stretched before jumping into the waves. I surfed in the white water for the first three sessions and then I leveled up to the advanced group who were paddling out beyond the waves to catch some real ones. AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE. First of all the current of the water was the strongest I have ever experienced. No joke, you could be standing in knee-deep water one second and the next you found yourself taking steps deeper into the water because the ocean was pulling you and there was nothing you could do to resist. Riptides were also something to be very aware of! But anyways on the fourth session when I was called to go with the advanced group with two other girls I was like oh crap this is really happening. Step 1: Wait for a break in between the sets of waves. Step 2: When you see the break and the instructor yells “PADDLE!!!” you hop on your board and paddle like your life depends on it. The goal is to get out past the break before the next set of waves start. The worst position to be in is to get stuck where all the big waves are crashing on top of you. So you duck under a wave, hop back up, and paddle paddle paddle paddle. Duck under a wave and paddle paddle paddle some more. Your arms are numb and you’re not sure if they are still attached to your body anymore but you don’t stop paddling because you aren’t gonna let the waves knock you off. Paddle paddle paddle and then… calmness. Absolute serenity. You made it past the break. The water is as smooth as glass. You sit up on your board and finally have the chance to turn around and take in the coastline. The first thing that comes into my mind: Wow. Such a rich coast. The greens so vibrant. The sand so smooth. The trees so fluffy from afar.

That was exactly how my first experience paddling past the break went. All I really wanted to do was lay down and take a nap on my board swaying and bobbing with the ocean. After I caught my breath and finished being speechless and in awe of the beauty of the water it was time to catch a wave. I dropped in, popped up, and rode a wave for a few seconds! It felt amazing! I caught a few more waves that day.

The next two days of surfing the waves were too big to go out far. It was made clear when I was mid-paddling out, ducked under a wave, and came to the surface with a surfboard no longer attached to my chord. It was a little scary treading water in the middle of the ocean with nothing to hold onto to say the least. Thankfully an instructor was nearby, so I hopped on his board and we managed to get back to shore. White water it was for the rest of the week. I had the time of my life learning how to surf because it has always been on my bucket list.

After mornings of surfing, we chilled by the pool and hung out, ate lunch, then got ready to go to service in the afternoons. We drove to a little town called Matapalo where we worked at an elementary school for the week. The school figured out that the foundation of the tile floors was not placed correctly when the tiles started popping up and injuring students. Our job was to take up the tile floors, gracefully, because any full pieces would be donated to other families in need. Day 1 was pretty easy. We were able to take out all the tile floors. On day 2 we returned to the school with the news that we were to take up the layer of brick that was underneath the tile we tore up previously. Tearing up brick is quite the manual labor if you were wondering. Those who felt strong enough went at it with 6ft solid steel rods and others got down and dirty with a hammer and chisel. The work was slow and tedious but by the end of the week, we managed to get the brick up as well as the concrete underneath.

During service, we usually took a break to visit the local supermarket to stock up on snacks and beverages. My favorite: plantain or yucca chips. Also, we got lucky when the coconut man stopped by the school to sell $1 fresh coconuts that he would machete to crack open for us. How could life get any better?!

Throughout the 9 day trip we were lucky enough to fit in two excursions. The first being a sunset catamaran cruize with snorkeling. We took a catamaran out of Playa Flamingo and sailed north along the coast. Everyone was chilling on the front of the boat sipping on juices and soda. Again, call it Boujee Pathways. We arrived at the snorkeling destination and everyone got their snorkels and flippers before jumping in. We snorkeled in a cove guided by the snorkel master. We saw lots of fish and sea urchins in the beautiful blue water. The star of the day was a little octopus that our guide found and brought to us to hold. It was about the size of two hands put together. We even saw it ink! After we were finished saying hi to the octopus it was returned to its home. Once we finished snorkeling we returned to the boat to find a table full of beautiful food. Chicken, beef, and veggie burritos, with chips, guac, black bean dip, and fresh fruit to finish it off. We enjoyed our food while relaxing and taking in the rock formations around us. We also watched a thunderstorm quickly approaching. People jumped in to swim in the water some more before we set sail again back to shore.

Everyone looked at once when someone pointed out the beautiful sunset that was forming behind us. I was on the far side so I crawled under the mast to find a better viewpoint higher on the boat. The music was loud, the mood was perfect. It was one of those moments in life where you look around and time stands still. It was something I will never forget.

The second excursion was white water rafting on the Tenorio River. On our drive back to San Jose from Playa Grande, we made a pit stop to test our rafting skills. Our bus took us to the meeting location to board the truck to begin the journey to the river. This was one of the prettiest drives ever. We drove past rolling hills, cowboys on horses, and roaming cows. A guide on the back of the truck gave us safety instructions while we listened and took in the scenery. “And this is the ‘Oh My Gosh’ bridge!”, the tour guide said excitedly. All of a sudden we begin crossing a wooden rickety bridge with just a piece of rope on one side. I look over the edge of the truck to find a canyon with rushing rapids far below. Everyone gasps Oh My Gosh at the same time haha. Thankfully the bridge was short enough that we finished crossing before you even had the chance to be scared that the huge truck pulling the rafts was crossing a wooden bridge with no railings and you were teetering on the edge of falling to your death in the canyon below.

Once we arrived at the river we were handed life jackets and paddles. In groups of four, we got situated into our rafts, met our guides, and took off down the river. It was amazing! Rafting through a jungle?! What?!! The river was formed from the Tenorio volcano so there were crazy rock formations along the sides. The Tenorio River is a class 3 river with some class 4 rapids. The rankings go from 1-5 so I wasn’t sure what we were getting ourselves into. Most of the ride was pretty smooth and we stopped to see owls, toucans, and a sloth! The toucans were pretty cool cause you could see the vibrant colors of their beak flying through the sky. The sloth was farther away so it really just looked like a brown blob in a tree. There were 3 different drops, a 4ft drop, a 6ft drop, and a 10-12ft drop depending on the water levels. They were so much fun! It had not rained in a bit so the drops were definitely manageable and no one fell out. There were photographers on each side of the river taking pictures and they came out so wonderful!!!

Overall the trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I couldn’t be more thankful for each of the people that God placed on this trip with me. The experiences were breathtaking but the people are who made the 9 days the most memorable. Thank you Rustic Pathways. I’ll see you again soon Costa Rica! Like super soon!!! And I can’t wait to be back because it is one of the prettiest countries. Farewell…