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Central America

Beaches, Rum, Dogs, Friends, Surf & Learning: Diversity in Costa Rica Travel

by Jack Albritton

As much as I enjoyed the serenity and fresh weather of the mountains last week, I was very happy to return to the beach on Monday. There is nothing like getting away for a while to give you perspective on where you live.  It’s easy to take for granted what many people consider paradise.

It is somewhat of a ritual for some of us to wander down to the beach sometime close to sunset, and watch the last bit of daylight slip into the central Pacific Ocean. Myself, I like to think of the connection with like minded tribes all over the world who observe this daily practice. In our little corner of the planet this is often celebrated with a good stiff drink of fine Nicaraguan rum!  This is also the time of day when many pet owners take the doggies for their daily walk.  Don’t have a dog?  Don’t worry!  There is no shortage of dogs to play with, throw a stick to, or just get a friendly nudge. 

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Even in paradise it is easy to get caught up in the day to day of life, and forget the things that brought us down here in the first place. I’ve recently reconnected with the real beach life and am generally much happier. There is nothing like a little beach time to give you a real attitude adjustment.

The Playa Jaco area is blessed with some of the most consistent surf in Costa Rica. Third World Surf has been offering surf vacations in this area for 10 years. They offer a set Surf Camp package including accommodations, surf instruction, yoga classes, some meals, massage, a non-surf excursion and round trip airport transfer. Third World is flexible and they can alter this package to suit your specific needs. They are partnered with The Surfer Factory for surf instruction and you couldn’t ask for a more qualified, professional group of surf instructors.

Instructors are ISA (International Surfing Association) and Red Cross First Response certified and are fully insured. You can actually see how thorough they are at Third World Videos. Yoga classes are offered and go very well with surfing for recovery and increasing your flexibility.

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Accommodations are with Hotel Poseidon and the package includes breakfasts and dinners. Breakfast is offered daily at the hotel so that the guest can get up and eat at their leisure. Dinners are at various restaurants in the Jaco area, including local Costa Rican spots. A massage to sooth those sore muscles and a non-surfing excursion are included to round out the package.

Packages can be adjusted and/ or customized for families who might want to do meals on their own, substitute other activities or choose an upgrade in accommodations. Houses and condominiums are available also. You can basically build your own package to cater to what you want to do and see on your vacation. There are many non-surf activities in the area to choose from, including ATV tours, Zipline, Manuel Antonio National Park, Tortuga Island Boat Trip with Snorkeling, and much more. There are several nice spas in the area that will pamper the ladies in your group. Sportfishing is world class and there is an 18 hole golf course located in the same area as the marina, so there is plenty to keep you busy besides surfing.  There are many great restaurants in the area to choose from, serving local Costa Rican dishes, some of the freshest fish and seafood you have ever eaten, quality meats, gourmet fare as well as plenty of choices for the kids. A representative from Third World will meet you at the airport for your transfer to your destination.  And you will be returned to the airport at the end of your stay, so all you have to do is just sit back and enjoy the ride.

The School of the World in Playa Jaco, Costa Rica has added some exciting new workshops to their already popular learning vacations.  The school was founded and created 14 years ago by artist and photographer Zach McDuffie.  The goal was to take a creative approach to learning by combining aspects of a language school, surf school, photography workshop and adventure travel, to create an unforgettable travel experience.

School of the World has a core program of Spanish, Surfing, Yoga and Photography and students are able to do any one of these or a combination of two. Programs are 1 week, 2 weeks and 4 weeks and lodging is offered on location at the school.  The rooms are comfortable and creatively designed. There are several common areas for the students to hangout when not surfing or in classes and a well equipped kitchen for all of the students to share.  Home stays with local families are also offered.

Spanish is taught by native Spanish speakers and classes are kept small to insure that each student receives sufficient individual attention.  The classes are taught for approximately two hours each day covering new material.  A lab is also offered for an additional 1-2 hours and is primarily used for practice and reinforcing the class lesson for the day.

Surfing was the second program added to the school soon after it was founded and is a natural for a school located in Jaco.  The Playa Jaco/Hermosa area is widely regarded as the most consistent surf in the country.  Playa Hermosa was host to the Billabong International Surf Association World Surfing Games in 2009 and is one of the favorite surf spots of 10 time world surfing champion Kelly Slater.

Beginners will learn to surf with a conscientious  and experienced staff that love surfing and love to teach others to surf.  Students learn the basics of paddling, standing, turning, wave selection and most importantly of all, safety.  Surfers with previous experience are taken on guided surf sessions in the area. 

The yoga program offers a wide variety of approaches including Iyengar based Hatha yoga, Power Yoga, Vinyasa Flow and Anusara based classes.  Yoga is a great addition to surfing for adding flexibility, balance and strength.  Classes are suitable for beginner students to advanced practicioners.

Rounding out the programs at the school is Digital Photography. This course is designed to give students a working knowledge of the elements of photography including lighting, composition, apertures, shutter speeds and more.  The program also explains how digital cameras work and how to improve shots.  In addition, students learn basic digital workflow and photo editing using programs such as Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.  With the beauty that is everywhere in Costa Rica, you couldn’t pick a better place to learn photography.

School of the World has recently added several new learning vacations in the form of specialty workshops that will be rotating throughout the year.  These workshops are planned and scheduled around the regular programs so students can add them to any of the regular combination programs without having to worry about scheduling conflicts.  Most of the workshops offer an hour and a half of instruction per day, five days a week for a period of one to two weeks.  The programs are affordable and are also open to those living in the area.

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Workshops that are planned for 2011 include Songwriting, Surf Balance and Technique Training,  Intro to Salsa Dancing, Cooking with Caliche, Portraits and the Digital Darkroom, and Yoga – Art and Wellness.  The classes are kept small, so it is  best to check and sign up well ahead of time.  For more information on the school, it’s programs and other programs of interest in Costa Rica, visit us at Third World Travel.
For many of our “perpetual tourists” in Costa Rica, doing the border run to update their visa is a chore.  To me it is a welcome chance to take a short vacation.  I boarded the bus in the rain on a Tuesday in San Jose headed for the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, which is roughly a six hour drive.  At the border one never knows what they will find.  At times it can take a couple or three hours to go through immigrations and customs in Costa Rica and in Nicaragua, or you can slip right through.  Even when it takes a long time, I generally like the time at the border.  There is time to eat some of my favorite local food from Nicaragua.  I always get a couple of quesidillas or an order of vigorone.  Quesidillas are a special type of cheese found in Nicaragua, along with a sort of pickled onion relish wrapped in a thick tortilla-like shell.  Vigoron is a mixture of fried pork skins, mushy yucca, and cabbage salad with a chile sauce wrapped in a banana leaf.   It is a great place to people watch with all the money changing taking place and locals selling their wares. 

Tica Bus is very good about guiding you through the process on both sides of the border.  Once finished at the border, you can do one of several things.  You can take the bus onto Granada or Managua.  Granada is approximately another hour and Managua is approximately an hour and a half.  Granada is a great colonial town with much to see and do in the area.  I will get more into Granada at another time, but this time I wandered into San Juan del Sur.  I always try to stay at Hotel Azul Pitahaya.  I have stayed at the hotel at least 4 times and can’t praise it highly enough. It is not 5 star and not super fancy. It is immaculately clean with AC, cable tv, wireless internet and has breakfast included.  All of this for a single costs $35 per night.  In the front of the hotel is Barrio Cafe, which is a nice little coffee shop and restaurant. It seems to be a favorite for tourists, locals and expats as well. The staff for the hotel, as well as the restaurant is very friendly and attentive. It is located right in the center of town on the main street and is approximately one block to the beach. You can see more on their website  at   

This is the sixth time I have been here and it is mostly a lazy vacation for me, although there is plenty to do in the area to keep you busy.  There is a shuttle that will take you to Playa Maderas, which is great for surfing.  Or you can take a private taxi.   The ride is approximately 15 minutes by car from San Juan Del Sur.  It can be slightly longer in rainy season.  Maderas is a consistent, sand bottom, beach break, which picks up both north and south swells.  It can hold up to double-overhead waves, but most days it is not so intimidating.  There are several peaks in the area, with the best tide usually being the mid-incoming tide.  High tide down to mid-outgoing also breaks well also most of the time.  While Playa Maderas can be very crowded, you can usually find a bit of space around one of the peaks.

San Juan Del Sur Surf and Sport offers a sunset cruise for approximately 2 ½ hours, which at $16 is one of the best deals I’ve ever found on a tour in Central America.  They have good fishing gear and will show you some fun inshore fishing if you like or you can just sit back and enjoy the sunset view.

The bay directly in from of the beach in SJDS is fairly calm and great for taking a dip after lounging on the picturesque beach, lined with various restaurants and bars.  Some people will find the pace slow, but is a great little beach town for lounging, swimming, surfing, meeting fellow travelers and sharing a Tona (local beer) at one of the many beach bars. One such bar is Henry’s Iguana Beach Bar and Restaurant.  The upper deck offers a great view of the bay.  The beer is cold, the beach drinks tasty and they have a wide variety on their menu at very reasonable prices.  Food in general is very reasonable in SJDS.   In the times that I have visited, I have found the town  to be clean, safe and friendly to visitors.  So, next time you need, or just want to cross the border, this is a great place for a mini vacation from Costa Rica.

Vacation  means different things to different people.  Not many countries offer the variety of experiences and activities that Costa Rica does.  Many travelers start out in the Arenal area.  The climate is temperate and the annual temperature in between 21 and 28 degress C. Of course the main attraction of the area is the volcano.  It is active and sometimes on clear nights the view of lava flowing is spectacular.  There are multiple hot springs in the area, which feel great to the muscles after a long day of hiking or any of the other many activities in the area.  The hanging bridges offer spectacular views of nature and wildlife from an exciting vantage point.  Don’t feel like hiking?  Take one of the Sky Tram gondolas through the rain forest to see beauty from every angle.  Once you reach the observation deck you will be able to view  the south face of the volcano for as long as you like.   When you are ready you can either ride the gondola back down, or for the more adventurous, you can take the canopy zipline to the bottom.  Both offer amazing views, the latter just includes a bit of adrenaline.

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Close By tours also include rafting down the Toro River.  The Toro River offers some of Costa Rica’s best rafting, full of nonstop class 3 and 4 rapids.  Big waves, technical rapids and continuous whitewater will definitely get the heart pumping.  ATV tours and mountain biking are also very popular. Cano Negro Wildlife Reserve is a one and a half hour transfer away, where your adventure begins.  You will take a four hour guided safari along the Rio Frio, seeing lush tropical rainforest and wildlife as you go.

An ideal day trip is the nearby Venado Caverns, a 2700 meter stretch of limestone caves. The caves are full of stalactite and stalagmite formations.  Wildlife include bats, monochrome frogs, fish and marine fossils. One opportunity not to be missed is the Rio Celeste Adventure. The hike will take you through the rainforest and along the Celeste River. The phenomenon you will see does not look real.  If your friends bring back photos you will swear they have been doctored in Photoshop.  Two brooks come together, turning the water into the most amazing shade of turquoise that you can imagine.  This chemical reaction is caused by volcanic minerals present.  Words cannot describe the site you will see at this unique location!  There are so many things to see and do while in the Arenal area, it is really just a matter of how much time you have there.  Upon leaving, I’m sure you will already be thinking about coming back to see the things you missed…