by Chelle Koster Walton
The termites in the rainforest tasted
like peanut butter and the sole road through Dominical after a summer’s rain looked like tortilla soup. Young mop-haired
backpackers sloshed through the mud, guzzled their cheap Pilsen beer, and crashed in their equally cheap cabinas
or beachside tents after a day of crashing in the waves, happy to be in Surf City Costa Rican-style, where the waves never
What was I doing here? I wondered
over my own cheap beer at a surfer’s bar. I must have forgotten I’d aged 20 years since my backpacking days in
the tropics. But Dominical had sounded so tempting in the guidebooks, had appealed to that inner bum that has never grown
up. Hopefully never will.
Some day in the not-too-distant future
that will be my son, Aaron, living in board shorts and sleeping in hammocks, for heaven’s sake. But, as a “surf
mom,” I argued back with myself, I had an obligation to my son and husband to build waves into family vacations. (Truth
is, I love surfing as much as them. Except I just like to watch. Yes, I’m a vicarious surfer, a surfing voyeur, I admit.
I’ve actually gotten up on the board myself a time or two, but like sailing and some of those other high-maintenance
sports, I find the most romance in the on-looking.)
So then, having neatly justified all
that, I now stood a hundred feet above the ground leashed to a wire so I wouldn’t fall off the tree platform as I awaited
my turn to zip through a tree canopy like some sort of Fear Factor chump – what on earth was I doing here?
It was a question that bounced around
my mind a good many times during our family trip to Costa Rica’s south Pacific Coast. It first reared its ugly crooked
question-mark head when we landed in San Jose with a first-year’s knowledge of the language between us and Spanish
For Dummies tucked into our backpack.
Luckily, Jose, our driver from Pura
Vida Hotel, where we were to spend our first night before driving to Dominical, spoke enough English to identify himself to
us and we were off into the rush of headlights and humanity that is capital San Jose. The time was July so the coolness of
San Jose, 3,000 feet up, came as a pleasant surprise. We awoke to the flowery gardens, volcano backdrop, and strong Costa
Rican coffee of Pura Vida. A sweet little boutique property near the airport at the edge of town, it offers the convenience
of airport pick-up and rental car delivery.
Our 4-1/2 hour drive down the gulf
and Pacific coastlines took us through ooh-ahh mountains, ramshackle villages of stucco and corrugated tin, ox-drawn carts,
palm oil plantations, rice fields, and finally within eyeshot of the Pacific waves for which my surf-guys had been foaming
-- much like the whitewater -- at the mouth. The last 44 km of road – unpaved and rutted, delayed our arrival to surfing
town Dominical. (Talk is of paving this last stretch, which threatens to turn off-the-beaten-path into just another gringo
hot spot.) We arrived under sunny skies, nonetheless, the last we saw during our stay because summer (known here as “winter”)
rains everywhere, particularly in the green-velvet rainforest directly behind the dark-pebbled sands of Dominical.
The beach itself is less than spectacular,
when compared to Southwest Florida’s bleached-white blessings, and difficult to walk with its obstacle course of smooth,
round rocks. It’s all about the surf and visitors here eat, sleep, and drink surfing. At San Clemente Bar & Grill,
broken surfboards decorate the ceiling. Contributors to the collection get a free beer – hardly incentive but perhaps
something of a balm for bruised ego and budget. The Starving Surfers breakfast costs 1200 colóns (about $2.60) for
two eggs, beans, and coffee.
From Tortilla Flats restaurant, you
can watch (if you’re like me) the surfers while you quaff a buck-and-a-quarter beer and fill up on a casado
(the house’s entrée, usually with rice, salad, and beans) for under $4. It also rents cabinas. On Sundays,
festivities often center around the town soccer field, sending up the smoky-greasy aroma of grilled pork and crescendos of
Spanish cheering that carry the length of town.
Most accommodations along downtown’s
dirt roads are sparse and inexpensive. We stayed at Villas Rio Mar, just outside of town, where (you’ll know if you
understand at least as much Spanish as we) river meets sea. Rio Mar is one of the town’s plusher lodgings, but still
without AC and high price tags. A 15-minute walk up a potholed road from town, it’s within surfboard-carrying distance
to the beach and rents boards for a reasonable price. Surf shops in town also rent and offer lessons.
Dominical lies between the larger
towns of Quepos and Uvita, a couple of hours north of the Panama border. Besides its terrific year-round surf, affordability,
manana pace, and close proximity to the country’s famed eco-treasures recommend it to the first-time or repeat
visitor. It lies about 20 minutes off the Pan-American Highway, a sky-high, cloud-infiltrating drive down the mountainous
middle, which we followed for our return to San Jose.
Rio Mar arranges daytrip tours to
five nearby national parks, home of jaguars, tapirs, sloths, monkeys, toucans, and other rare birds. It also provides transportation
to the closest preserve, Hacienda Barù National Wildlife Refuge, where we did our Flight of Toucans canopy zip-line tour.
Here’s your chance to chew a
termite – tasty revenge as it turns out. We also sucked cocoa seeds and wore live lizard earrings. Our able and entertaining
guide, between a dozen zips from treetop to landing, pointed out a spotted two-toed sloth and toucan through a powerful binocular.
Because it was raining lightly, fewer animals made an appearance, but the good news was, the zipping was faster. We spotted
some iguanas and lots of poison dart frogs, vivid and rubbery like the toy ones I used to buy Aaron.
When our guide told us we would do
our last zip backwards, without turning around, putting total trust in his assistant to “catch” us, I had to ask.
You guessed it: what am I doing here? As it turns out, I was setting aside all notions of my safe and “normal”
life on Sanibel and eating bugs, speaking bad Spanish, driving across precarious bridges, getting lost in San Jose traffic
without a clue, taking risks, meeting a special breed of people whose philosophy is expressed in the simple motto, pura
vida, pure life. And I was loving it all.
The one question I ask these days
is “when can I go back?”
Information: www.dominical-costarica.com, www.tourism-costarica.com
Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge,
Pura Vida Hotel, Alajuela, 506-441-1157,
San Clemente Bar & Grill, Dominical,
Tortilla Flats, Dominical, 787-0033
Villas Rio Mar, Domincal, 787-0052,