Exploring Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula

Thirty years ago, George and Karen Harrison bought a stunning piece of beachfront property in Montezuma, Costa Rica. Using ox carts to bring in materials, they built what is now Peaks N’ Swells, a professionally coached surf camp run by their daughter, Hillary. We booked our first family surf camp in 2011, and within weeks of our return home had already decided to return the following year. In and of itself, the camps are incredible, but it’s the local knowledge imparted by the Harrison family that makes the trip exceptional.

Peaks N’ Swells family surf camps are offered in November, March and April—months that the Harrison’s know from experience offer great weather and predictable swells. The all-inclusive camps include breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily surf and yoga sessions, villa-style accommodations, massage, and professional photography (by none other than Karen herself). Unlike many resorts where times are set for meals or surf lessons based on convenience, Peaks N’ Swells religiously checks the tide charts to make sure you and your kids are in the best possible conditions at the best possible break. If Internet is down, Hillary calls her friends around the peninsula to get a first hand report on what’s happening in the surf.

2:1 ratio of coaches to kids in the water make for safe and fun surf sessions

While the camp kept us busy for part of every day (read this post for a more detailed review), we did tap into the Harrison’s extensive knowledge of the Nicoya Peninsula do some exploring.

One of the most memorable of those excursions was a hike to the Montezuma Waterfall. Hilary told us that the “old school” route was to bypass the first pool and continue hiking to the top where we would be rewarded by a rope swing and majestic views from the top of the waterfall, and she was spot on. The hike is technically challenging, especially for small children, but so worth it.

Another highlight came one morning when the baby sea turtles at the sanctuary out front hatched. We were able to hold the babies, and then release them on the beach where, incredibly, their instinct directed them to scurry right into the surf.

releasing the baby sea turtles

On our day off, Karen loaded us all into the truck for a trek out to Cemetery Island. You can only access the island during low tide, so the trip has to be timed perfectly. Once on the island, there are shallow tide pools to explore and, true to its name, a cemetery marking the final resting place of Nicoya locals. On the way home, we pulled up under a huge tree so the kids could fill their t-shirts with marañón, the cashew fruit, which we later dried and ate with dinner.

exploring tidal pools at cemetery island

One afternoon while the advanced surfers in our group ventured into more challenging waters, Karen took the rest of us to the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve, 1,270 acres of preserved forest at the very tip of the Peninsula. Karen impressed the kids (and the adults) with facts about sloths, monkeys and history of the area as we watched iguanas scamper around and took in the incredible views.

After a big session of surf at Playa Hermosa, Hillary detoured into Santa Theresa so that we could stop into Kina’s surf shop, where we stocked up on sunscreen and rash guards. While the guys looked at surfboards, the girls snuck next door to try on the cutest bikinis made by a local surfer who knows that you don’t want to be fumbling around with straps while trying to catch a wave.

On the nights we ventured into town for dinner, the Harrison’s recommended their the best places to eat, including Playa de los Artistas, which is probably my favorite restaurant anywhere in the world. Café Organico also became a regular stop for snacks and smoothies, as did the authentic Italian gelateria in town. Hilary also arranged for Jorge to stop by the camp at lunchtime with a steaming basket of his famous empanadas. However, the single best piece of local knowledge (from the viewpoint of my boys) came from Hilary’s husband, Ryan, who introduced us to Trits—a super sweet, almost marsh-mellowy Costa Rican version of an ice cream sandwich.

Peaks N’ Swells is about learning to surf with incredible instructors and spending time with family, but for us it was also about exploring another part of the planet with our kids. This trip embodied everything we wanted in a family vacation—adventure, culture, and a sense of authenticity that comes with a small, family-owned property.


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