Hangin’ with Joe Walsh at Witch’s Rock

From the print edition

Years after starting his restaurant and surf school in Playa Tamarindo, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, Joe Walsh sits in his office and reflects on the series of events that led him to open the doors to Witch’s Rock Surf Camp.

“I think with surfing,” he says, peering out the window toward the beach, “if you surf the same spot all the time, you kinda create an intimate relationship with it, you start to figure out all of the wave, all the little details of how it works. … That’s kinda what I’ve done, living here all these years.”

Walsh underestimates his experiences. He’s done more than just create an intimate relationship with the perfect right-hand barrels at the river-mouth break. He’s built a thriving business, started a family, expanded his surf camp from a rag-tag operation based out of a smoke-filled school bus into a bona fide surf-culture experience and, more recently, launched his own line of Witch’s Rock micro-brewed beer. 

Without spending much time celebrating his accomplishments, Walsh quickly diverts attention. “Hey look, there’s Jersey Phil,” Walsh says wistfully, pointing at a surfer with a gleaming mane of white hair and a fluorescent-orange surfboard tucked under his arm, jogging toward the break. “You can spot that guy from a million miles away.”

Walsh watches Jersey Phil paddle out into the surf while we chat. With a similar build to Jersey Phill, Walsh has the sun-bleached air of a lifelong surfer – from the Southern California “bro-talk” to the clear blue eyes set under perfectly white eyebrows. 

As he settles back into his office chair with a smile, Walsh says he gets to watch these waves every day. Despite his natural inclination to surf, it’s too late today, he says. The wind just changed. I follow the line of his pointing finger with my eyes and sure enough, the barrels have faded.

Vans and buses 

A 20-something Walsh walks into a Volkswagen dealership in San Diego at the end of 2000. He has $20,000 in his trunks pocket from an insurance settlement over an accident in his first 1978 Volkswagen van, in which he “kinda put [his] head through the windshield.” His latest VW van broke down on the way to a job interview, and the surfer wants to buy a new VW van to commute to a job he’s sure he’ll land as a school bus driver.

Walsh already traveled to Costa Rica to surf a few years before, but wandered back to San Diego to finish a college degree in music and art.

“I was literally at the dealership, and I was like: ‘You know, or I could take this money and go to Costa Rica and start a surf camp,’” says Walsh, who walked out of the dealership (probably a good thing given his previous VW karma) and instead bought a $4,000 school bus.

“I was just realizing that that was way more what I wanted to do. I didn’t even want a job, I didn’t want to commute to work and I was already a bus driver. I had no real business skills,” Walsh says. “So I bought a bus and I figured that I can make it like a house I can live in it, keep life pretty cheap.”

Ideas like Walsh’s gain traction fast with a certain set of people, and by the time he’d finished converting the bus into a roving surf bungalow, a whole gaggle of folks, including his father and girlfriend, had thrown their lot in with him. They headed south from California hugging the Pacific coast and surfing through Mexico, El Salvador, and Nicaragua before touching down at Playas del Coco in northwestern Costa Rica, in February 2001. Walsh bought a boat, fired up a website and started running surf trips to the breaks at Witch’s Rock and Ollie’s Point (rumored to be named for Oliver North), which provide some of Costa Rica’s finest surfing.

The gig at Playas del Coco was a hit and soon Walsh was sending out two boats of surfers a day, but, he says, something wasn’t working for him.

“I realized there were a lot more people learning to surf and it was a lot better to become friends with people when they were first starting surfing because, basically, you can have them join your community and be a big influence in their surfing world, their surfing life,” Walsh says.

Witch's Rock 2

Eat at Joe’s fuels surfers up before they hit the waves.


Gabe Dinsmoor

So, in September 2001, he drove his bus to  Tamarindo, parked it by the beach, rented a house next to where he parked the bus, started Witch’s Rock Surf Camp and started building a community. Today, the school bus is gone, and where it used to sit is an 18-room hotel with an infinity pool. The old house Walsh rented is where he and wife, Holly, raised their kids, Happy, 6, and Otis, 9, until they recently moved into a new house nearby. 

The camp spawned Eat at Joe’s, a hotel and beachfront bar just a few yards away, and the surf shop, where groups of eager surf neophytes congregate. There’s also a board-making shop where pros and even legendary board-maker Robert August, of ‘The Endless Summer” fame, come to shape world-class surfboards.

Walsh himself attracts a lot of attention in his camp. Everybody around wants to sit down, knock back a few Volcano Brewery Witch’s Rock Pale Ales (brewed at Walsh’s other project on the shores of Lake Arenal) and talk waves. But there’s a different air – a kind of awestruck hush – when August cruises the bar. He’s the kind of guy that it’s hard to finish a conversation with because a constant stream of breathless fans are waiting to tell him what his movies and surfboards have meant to them.

“It’s a great honor to have someone like Robert feel the energy from a place like this and want to be a part of it,” Walsh says of August. “I feel that energy, and I put off that energy, and we attract people with a similar vibe. Whether it’s guests or employees. Somebody like Robert, he loves to surf, that’s why he does what he does. He didn’t get into surfing because he was trying to make more surfboards than anyone else and make … [a lot of] money.”

August is the walking, wisecracking embodiment of that amiable, surf-centric vibe at the heart of Witch’s Rock Surf Camp. He beams when he tells me his 12-year-old daughter asked him to ferry her and her friends to the beach the next morning at 5 a.m. to catch waves.

There’s a purity of spirit among the people here – no sell-outs allowed. Walsh tells me he’s turned down numerous offers to franchise the Witch’s Rock Surf Camp experience.

“I don’t think it’s about the amount of money you make,” he says. “I mean you gotta make some money. Everybody needs money, I get it, but you only need a certain amount. It’s about doing something that you’re stoked on.”

Lessons

Witch’s Rock Surf Camp is all about the surfing. Guests come to participate in surfing workshops that include daily surfing lessons and nightly seminars on topics from the history of surfing (led, of course, by Robert August) to board-shaping (also August).

A few hours before I head out to see what I can do with Walsh, he’s in the surf with his kids. Happy, 6, is on a 9-foot long board, while his dad pushes him along to help him catch some small waves. Happy is trying to jump up and spin 180 degrees in the air before landing on the board with his dominant foot forward – the opposite of how it’s normally done. This is an advanced technique.

When Happy and Otis are tired, Walsh and I head to the break at the river mouth. I’ve told him I’ve been out surfing about eight times and feel pretty comfortable using a 6-foot, 8-inch board.

I don’t even know enough to know how much I don’t know, but Walsh humors me and we head for the break. The first wave I try to catch hoses me. I get smashed in the face with a wall of water, and my board flies into the air, and then the wave grinds me into the sandy bottom, forcing about 16 gallons of seawater and possibly a minnow up into my sinus cavities.

“One of the really important aspects of learning how to surf is not being afraid to really throw yourself out there and really go for it,” says Walsh, taking my surfboard away from me and pushing it in towards the shore. “You’ve definitely got that, bro, but why don’t we put you on something a little bigger?”

A few minutes later I’m laying on the same 9-foot long board Happy was riding earlier, and Happy’s dad is pushing me along on some little waves, just like he did for his kid. And then, just like that, I’m standing up and riding a wave. Walsh hoots his approval and throws me a “shaka” – the universal surfer’s “hang loose” greeting, thumb up, pinky out, fingers curled, wrist twisting – and after a few more rides on the long board, I feel like I may have legitimately earned it.

Later, back in the bar at Eat at Joe’s, I ask for Witch’s Rock Pale Ale, but the thirsty surfers have drunk up all the pale ale. I hear the same tune when I ask for the Gato Malo, and Walsh grins then shrugs, and I settle for a Pilsen without feeling too bad. I’ve already contributed significantly to the shortage of Witch’s Rock and Gato Malo on the grounds. The Pilsen is cold and cuts the salt crust leftover from surfing out of my mouth.

Walsh, a dude who by all counts is living The Dream, points to the river mouth break where the waves are barreling – it’s a right-hand break – and he tells me that from inside the barrel, on your board you’re looking straight down the line of the wave right at the surf camp. 

“The best feeling for me,” he says, “is just to pull into one of those barrels and you hear the sound of the wave, it’s sucking up over you, and you see the view with the lip in front and out there you can see the surf camp and you’re, like, heading towards it and I just want to one day to catch a wave that’ll bring me right up into the bar, and when I surf all the way up here Maria’ll be down here with the pale ale, a Witch’s Rock frosty beverage, waiting for me.”