Surfing Lite

A Perfect Set in Costa Rica is One Part Mellow Paddling and Two Parts Extreme Leisure

Costa Rica has a mix of beginner-worthy breaks and advanced-rider hot spots     Photo: Corel

So you want to learn to surf. You want to experience the good-vibrations, enlightened-oneness-with-Mother-Ocean thing, but you've outgrown the sleep-under-the-pier, suffer-for-your-wisdom technique. Besides, more than simply learning to hang ten, you'd like someone else to make breakfast, fold the towels, and dial you in to the local scene. For this you'll need a guide—and the man to see in Costa Rica is Alvaro Solano.

HQ is Vista Guapa Surf Camp, which 28-year-old Solano opened in September 2002 above the Pacific coast town of Jacó. Three sunny duplex casitas cascade down a narrow ridge, pointed right at what may be Costa Rica's most reliable surf break. Each air-conditioned surf shack is aligned to ensure unimpeded valley views and discreet distance from fellow guests. There are no more than a dozen surfers during each weeklong session, and though you're only a ten-minute walk from Jacó's main drag, it's easy to forget there's anyone else in the valley when you're on your deck. From the beach below the lodge, Solano took his first rides on a broken plank as a kid and polished the moves that have made him Costa Rica's four-time-consecutive national surf champion. He picked this spot for his camp because it offers a beginner-worthy break with waves that average three to four feet—yet advanced-rider hot spots like Boca Barranca, the world's third-longest left, are nearby.

Though it's not quite sink or surf, the Vista Guapa doctrine emphasizes learning by doing. Classes are taught by Solano or Lisbeth Vindas, a three-time national champion; I had just one fellow pupil for my first attempt at the sport. Solano showed us how to count wave sets and mark reference points for the likeliest takeoff spots—and then let the waves do the instructing. At first, I waited, watching the ocean and letting my mind wander before turning, taking a few strokes, and dropping in. Solano's approach worked: I caught the first wave I pursued.

Soon I'd found my own rhythm, on and off the board. I slept in each morning, missing the 6:30 sunrise and the dawn asana session on the outdoor yoga deck but rising in time to shuffle over to the main lodge for the monstrous breakfast of beans and rice, omelets, and fruit, during which Solano ticked off tide times and entertainment options. Each day passed in a blur of watching and paddling, and soon enough we'd start debating the big question of the day—where to have dinner—wrestling between the pan-seared tuna at Playa Hermosa's Jungle Surf Cafe and Juanita's seafood platter over in Playa Herradura.

Surf's up a maximum of four hours daily, which leaves ample time for the multisport cornucopia within an hour of town—Class III-IV whitewater rafting on the Naranjo River and zip-line tours of the forest canopy, for starters. Learning that extreme leisure is the necessary counterpoint to surfing, I started easy, hopping in Solano's minivan for the tranquillo cruise south to Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. There I met the surfer's spirit animal: a three-toed sloth, slung like a sack of mangoes from a branch. But most afternoons were spent in my hammock, where I found myself able to spend hours meditating about which flip-flops to buy.

My big breakthrough came on the fourth morning. Straddling my board, watching the sets roll in, I experienced a moment of the transcendent clarity I'd always imagined would come from being one with the ocean. Suddenly it was all very clear: I could have the shrimp and the lobster for dinner.

DETAILS:
Lodging: The Vista Guapa Surf Camp (011-506-643-2830, www.vistaguapa.com) charges $675 per person per week, $1,200 for two people, including twice-a-day surfing at one of 22 surf breaks, lodging, breakfast and dinner, rentals, and field trips to attractions.
Sports: The surfing around Jacó is consistent year-round. Green Tours (011-506-643-2773) offers a gamut of nearby outfitted adventures.

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