“You don’t have to stray
The oceans away
Waves roll in my thoughts
Hold tight the ring
The sea will rise
Please stand by the shore
I will be, I will be there once more”
I started this 6-month journey with a month in Jaco, Costa Rica. Jaco is a pretty mellow little town, especially during the week. Even though it becomes a little bit of a frat party on the weekends, it’s still undeniably a destination for surfers of all ability levels with three distinct beaches all fairly close together.
Now I’m in Canggu which is another surf town on the west coast of Bali. I was here three years ago and fell in love with the vibe. Yes, it’s a bit touristy and not necessarily part of the authentic Bali experience but it’s still an easy place to spend a few weeks.
So clearly I’m drawn to this kind of a place. In the end, I’m spending over 30% of my time on this trip in two surf towns unmistakably known for their waves. So what defines a surf town? And why is it so appealing to me?
Surf Towns Defined
The word “chill” is pretty synonymous with surfers. I’m not entirely sure why the surfer mentality is so laid back… but it most definitely is! It’s nice to be on vacation and feel like you can actually relax. Surf towns mostly have the same energy as their most frequent visitors so the vibe of most of these places is very easy-going.
Perhaps related to the previous point, surf towns are usually pretty basic. Surfers don’t seem to need much beyond the waves and some good food so many surf towns aren’t overrun with fancy resorts and they mostly blend in with whatever local culture was there to begin with. As I said before, Canggu in no way reflects typical Balinese culture but there are still loads of local businesses and many locals still live nearby. It’s seems to be a beautifully symbiotic relationship.
Touristy (but with a different kind of tourist)
OK, so it’s not really that authentic… but that can be a good thing too. Tourist destinations offer many amenities that help a place feel like a little more comfortable. While the goal of traveling is often to get you out of your comfort zone, it’s also ok to know that you have access to anything you absolutely must have.
I have also found that tourists that visit surf towns tend to stay a little longer. It’s not uncommon at all to meet someone at a café that is staying in town for a month or more. So if you meet someone during your travels, it’s entirely possible that you’ll see them again and perhaps make a lifelong friend.
Again, I’m not entirely sure why this trend exists, but most surf towns offer great food that’s usually super healthy. Here in Canggu and also in Costa Rica, there are loads of cafés that offer fresh smoothies and juices. There’s also great coffee and other restaurants that focus on locally and sustainably produced ingredients.
As a means of expressing the chill vibe that defines their character, surfers and surf towns tend to feature a pretty relaxing blend of music. Reggae is the most common example of beach music but there are also many venues that feature some great singer-songwriters playing a variety of surfer favorites.
Great Beaches and Great Surfing
And of course, surf towns offer the best surfing out there and everything that goes along with the beaches at the end of the waves. This includes a typically warm, sunny climate, a collection of fun beach bars, and often amazing sunset views!
Except I don’t like surfing!!
Why Surfing is Not for Me
Given my love of surf towns, I would be the happiest man alive if I surfed. The experts clearly come to these places because they offer the best surfing experience available. I’ve tried to talk myself into surfing lessons but I’m just not interested! And maybe I’m wrong… maybe I would love surfing. Unfortunately, in my head, it sounds like zero fun. Here’s why:
In my head, the “real” surfers wake up at like 5am so they get to the beach before the crowds arrive. This is pretty much a deal breaker for me already since 5am is not a time of day I usually see unless I’m still awake from the night before.
Admittedly, in warm climates, this is pretty easy as I would only need to throw on boardshorts and sunscreen before starting. Further, if you’re on vacation and staying in a surf town, you’re probably not far away. However, in non-tropical climates, the process of getting ready seems much more cumbersome including wetsuits, long drives, and a good amount of time prepping your board (not sure what this entails but I imagine surfers take great care of their equipment).
After having some breakfast, getting dressed, getting my board ready, and driving out to the beach, I’m finally ready to paddle out. This would seem to be easy enough except that unless you’re riding them, waves are pretty annoying and extremely powerful. Here’s two bits of visual evidence supporting my claim:
So I’m beginner which means that I’m spending a good amount of time paddling out and about an eighth of a second actually riding the surfboard. My reward for an honest effort? You can read all about it in the earlier section of this article called “Paddling Out.” According to this article, beginners can expect to stand up on one or two runs per session (with each session lasting 2-3 hours). People complain about soccer because there may only be one goal in a match. Surfing is even worse!
So let’s imagine for a second that I had the stick-to-itiveness to actually be able to stand up on my surfboard more than just once or twice in a session. This is probably where surfing starts to become a little bit more fun. However, this guy actually started timing the sessions of his kids who were practicing for an upcoming competition (so presumably they are already significantly above average). He found that in a two-hour session, his kids caught 5 waves each with an average run time of about 10 seconds. That’s 50 seconds of actual surfing!! Even professional surfers spend only 8% of their time actually surfing, 54% of their time paddling, and 28% of their time waiting. The cost-benefit analysis (cost = time & benefit = fun surfing) just doesn’t add up for me!
The End of the Run
Let’s continue with the assumption that by some miracle, I became an average surfer and could stand up five times in a session. I imagine this 50 seconds of pure bliss is what keeps surfers coming back! It must be truly amazing because how does each euphoric ride come to an end? By getting thrown violently from your board, pummeled by oncoming waves, and having your leg yanked by the cord attached to your surfboard. It’s like scoring that big goal in a soccer match and immediately getting punched in the face. No thanks.
It just doesn’t taste very good and beyond that, it pretty uncomfortable if you swallow it or some gets in your nose. When I watch surfers heading in at the end of a session, it’s basically coughing and spitting the entire way in. I fail to see the pleasure in this.
What I’ll Do Instead
For me, I’d rather spend 2 hours (er… 50 seconds) sitting on the beach with beer watching the sunset.
True, the amount on the board is short, but worth it. And the time spend paddling is a great workout, while waiting can be a tranquil experience because you are on the open ocean and there are no worries around. Until the next kid drops in your wave….
I mean clearly people love the experience because surf towns are always popular… but I just don’t get it.
I think it depends on the type of surf and board. My first time ever was in Hawaii on a long board and I was so exhausted from standing up the entire time and riding (small waves of course) I started to just ride them sitting. I’ll have to let you know how my surf lesson goes come October!
Nice! Happy to hear you’re coming out here. Let me know if you need any tips on where to go.
I’m not sure of your age, but anyone who likes to enjoy food and drink (especially day-drinking) comes to realize in their 30s or 40s that some amount of exercise is necessary and surfing can be one of the most enjoyable types of legitimate exercise.
Plus, I have a compromise solution that might interest you and keep you away from the hardcore locals and aggressive teens in the wave lineup: SUP (Stand-Up Paddle-boarding). SUP entails a more stable board that you spend most of your time standing on and you have a kayak-style paddle to propel yourself. This means you don’t need to be awake when the best waves are around and can enjoy the water at any time. You aren’t in need of waves to get around and you can explore much more ground than just the best wave break. You are essentially as mobile as a small canoe. And, if the mood strikes, you can surf a wave when conditions are right.