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Costa Rica Zip & Surf

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 die.


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?”



Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge, 787-0003,

Pura Vida Hotel, Alajuela, 506-441-1157,

San Clemente Bar & Grill, Dominical, 787-0026

Tortilla Flats, Dominical, 787-0033

Villas Rio Mar, Domincal, 787-0052,


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Copyright Chelle Koster Walton; it is illegal to reproduce this article or photograph without author's permission.