April 5, 2011
Israelis seek promised wave in Costa Rica
Zula is a delightful beachside restaurant where you can breathe in the salty air as Eyal Golan songs play in the background. It also advertises the best falafel in town, made with local garbanzo beans.
Only Zula, Israeli slang for “relaxation,” is not located in Tel Aviv. It’s off the dusty road of Santa Teresa, a trendy beach town near the southern tip of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula.
For Israelis who have settled here over the past decade, life in this tropical destination is sweet and natural.
The town’s molasses “strip” — the road is paved with this eco-friendly sealant to keep down dust — is lined with more than two dozen Israeli-owned businesses, including hotels, hostels (for post-army trekkers), eateries (a pizzeria, a Tel Aviv-style cafe, a bakery) and bars, clothing boutiques and surf shops.
Santa Teresa is a paradise for Israeli surfers. Almost every day, an hour before sunset, surfers flock to its sands for what one Jewish American resident calls the “chosen wave” — the best surf break.
There are about 5,000 Jews living in Costa Rica, many of whom belong to Centro Israelita Sionista de Costa Rica, the main congregation and political body in the capital city of San Jose. According to Jaime-David Tishler, a former board member of the Jewish Museum in San Jose, the country’s longstanding Jewish community has few formal ties with its burgeoning Israeli community. Most Yordim (Israelis who leave Israel) raising families in Costa Rica home school their children or send them to international schools, keeping Hebrew culture alive in the home.
Avi Avraham, 42, of Bat Yam, owner of the Zula Restaurant and Zula Inn Aparthotel in Santa Teresa, came here eight years ago “for the waves.” He has since married a tica (slang for “local”) and is raising a 10-month-old daughter.
“I’m living the dream of many people,” he said.
Avraham counts roughly 120 Israeli residents in Santa Teresa, about 5 percent of the multinational surfing community, which consists mostly of Americans, Canadians, Argentinians, Brazilians, Italians, French and Swedes. Although their presence here is small, the Israelis are notable. As Amit Londner, a former Israeli surf champ who now runs Del Soul surf school, put it, “Israelis make a lot of noise.”
Mali and Avi Tal, originally from Moshav Ganot, came to Santa Teresa seeking the great surf and pura vida — the Costa Rican slogan “pure life.”
“There was nothing here. It was a natural jungle. Nothing, nothing, nothing,” said Tal, sunbathing poolside at Luz de Vida Surf Resort, the beachfront hotel she owns with her husband.
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“We didn’t realize we sat on a gold mine,” she said. “We quickly bought businesses here. We bought land. A year later, there was a four-page article about us [in Yedioth Ahronoth], and it brought so many Israelis here.”
Surfer Yizhak “Izu” Eskenazi and his wife, Vered, were among the first Israelis to recognize the allure of Costa Rica. The couple arrived from Ashdod 11 years ago and settled in Jaco, a beach resort in the country’s Central Pacific region, about an hour south of San Jose.
Although the Eskenazis have since divorced, they still run a small hotel together, Cabinas Las Orquideas — Izu’s Place, where they have built a synagogue. Every Shabbat, Izu’s home in the back of the hotel swells with travelers.
The Eskenazis claim credit for diverting Israelis from the popular post-army destinations of Thailand and India to Central America.
Down the road from Cabinas Las Orquideas is the Israeli-owned Taco Bar restaurant and Hostel Bait Patuah, a former condo building on Jerusalem Street converted by Yossi Elmakayes, a local real estate developer.
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It’s difficult to miss Bait Patuah — signs on walls around Jaco and on Elmakayes’ 4x4 SUV advertise the hostel in bold Hebrew writing and a bright Magen David.
Inside Bait Patuah, the dining room table on the top floor serves as the reception desk. Handcrafted Jewish stars and hamsas are plastered on the walls.
“Israelis are our blessing, our soul, the motor of this place,” said the former Israel Defense Forces officer, who runs the hostel with his wife, Mary.
However, Israeli life in these beach communities isn’t all about business, parties and surfing.
Hostel Bait Patuah offers a kosher Friday night Kiddush and Shabbat dinner each week. And when it comes to Jewish support in their respective communities, Mali Tal in Santa Teresa and Vered Eskenazi in Jaco say they rely on Chabad Lubavitch of San Jose.
The movement dedicated to ensuring Jewish observance in the remotest parts of the world often sends buchrim to Santa Teresa to plan Jewish holiday experiences that are as halachic as the town’s Israeli parties are wild.
Jewish tradition is important to the Tal family, which expects more than 250 guests in the courtyard of the family villa for the upcoming Passover seder. And Mali Tal has taken it upon herself to keep up the town’s synagogue.
“If you don’t have that, it’s just business,” Tal said. “It doesn’t fulfill you. I feel like if I don’t do it, no one else will.”
North Playa Carmen Bridge
Sunday through Friday 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
Zula Inn Aparthotel
Del Soul Surf & Yoga Retreat
Luz de Vida Surf Resort
Santa Teresa Mal Pais
Cabinas Las Orquideas - Izu’s Place
Hostel Bait Patuah
Jabad Lubavitch de Costa Rica
20 Metros Al Norte