Costa Rica: Where Even a Workaholic Could Be on Vacation

By Rick Steves
Rick Surfing, Costa Rica
It took a while, but Rick finally learned how to stand up on a surfboard.
January 2009

When I travel in Europe, I’m working. So when I take a vacation, I like to go elsewhere. I asked my friend Kurt Kutay, who runs Wildland Adventures, to set up the best possible eight-day Costa Rican vacation for a variety of experiences. This was a rare chance for our entire family to be together for the holidays.

Half of Costa Rica lives in a relatively moderate climate in the central plain. But we stayed where it’s muggy to the max. On the west coast, laundry doesn’t even dry when hung in the sun. The temperature is the same all year. Our lodge was off the grid, powered by its own generator; there was no air-conditioning, just fans. But for being away from it all, it was perfect. Kayaking up a lazy lagoon, daydreaming through a plush garden of sticky flowers, learning the art of the hammock, munching fresh-baked cookies, enjoying a little personal downtime with tiny lizards — even a workaholic could be thoroughly on vacation here.

It wasn’t all relaxation. The adrenaline experience of the trip was doing a zip-line tour — a Costa Rican favorite rarely found in Europe. Platforms built high in the rain forest canopy are laced together by cables, each 100 to 400 yards apart, as high as 200 feet above the ravines. Zipping down the cables gave us modern-day Tarzans the thrill of our dreams. With guides clipping us from one cable to the next, we couldn’t have fallen to our deaths if we tried. There were no lessons in nature here…just the smell of burning leather as we pulled down on the cable with our hand brake to slow each landing. Coursing through the trees was thunderclaps of fun.

And after zipping…surfing. There’s lots of surfing in Europe, but I had never tried it. In Costa Rica, I decided to take a surfing lesson. At breakfast, a man who surfed throughout his childhood confided in me that he had tried it the day before — he couldn’t stand up on the surfboard and was “humbled.” Later, my guide taught me the one critical motion for surfing: While lying down on your stomach, arch your back, keeping your hands on the board while your right leg stays back. When the wave comes, quickly snap to your feet, bringing the left leg to the front as you stand.

At first, the lunge muscle in my left leg was just not working, and my arms weren’t strong enough to throw my body up. I failed and failed again. I’d come close and then tumble. The board spun disobediently away from me, dragging me toward the shore like a small boy deserving a spanking. Then my guide critiqued my technique. Don’t stop at the knees, don’t think face-down, and pretend your head is going up first. Your head should rocket up in one motion, springing the body off the board. Forget the right leg — it stays behind.

Suddenly the water was smooth and quiet. It was the calm before the next wave. My coach said this was it, and gave me a strong push. I pulled my head back, seeing the entire front of the board as I arched up. Then, in one motion, I pushed everything up. My left leg landed just right — immediately under my body, and, like a weightlifter struggling for a personal best, I straightened up.

Suddenly I was rushing before a foamy cauldron as the wave charged toward the shore. I was standing high above the noisy rush, playing with my control, and traversing the wave to extend the ride. Then I crouched as if I was racing before the engulfing tunnel of a giant wave, even though I was on the baby slope of a harmless three-footer. The ride seemed longer than it was. That 15 seconds of surfer exhilaration was worth all the prior flips and flops.

Then the last morning finally arrived. I spent the hour before our departure face down on a massage table. Wistfully, I strapped my wristwatch back on, and we headed for the lodge’s airstrip. There was no rush, as this was the first time in our lives the plane would wait for us. My daughter said she wanted to take flying lessons. My son marveled at how he hadn’t held a cell phone in his hand for a week. I reflected on how travel refreshes our bodies, minds and souls — and then redirected my thoughts to a land where the flora and fauna is more…European.