When you have a chance to just wander around a country with only a general plan and no reservations, you’re going to end up stumbling upon places that just work. Some of the reasons these places work are tangible – location is convenient, good places to stay, good coffee – other reasons are a bit less so – someone’s warm greeting, the local you met, something about the vibe of the place, the why did I get so many good waves there.
On a recent surf trip to Costa Rica, one where I had the time and freedom to wander a bit more than I usually do, I visited some places I have been recently, some I hadn’t seen in a long time, and some new places that I had always wanted to see, breaks I had always wanted to surf. On this particular part of my trip, the legendary wave of Pavones was the actual destination, but in order to get there from all the way up North I broke up the drive by stopping in Dominical for a couple nights. I would end up having such an amazing stay there that I would hit it again – same town, same wave, same place to stay – on the way back. In fact, the people at the Danyasa Yoga Retreat just went ahead and called my room ‘The Doug’.
So what was it about Dominical that made my stay there so impactful despite my being there only a few days? After all, I have other favorite places in Costa Rica that I love so much I have revisited many times over the years, first on solo missions, later with my whole family.
The reality is that despite being to Costa Rica many times, most of my trips have been up to the Guanacaste region in the northwest, even before the airport in Liberia opened up and made the place much easier to access. I had, of course, heard amazing things about the southern regions of the country, but, what can I say, I had found my happy place.
But after so many trips, I was ready to see the more. As is usually the case when we travel, it was also a matter of just having the time to do it. So this was it. I was making it to Pavones.
Not really having a place to stay left the decision on where to stop for the night a bit up in the air. I also didn’t have a reservation in Pavones, so there was no real deadline to leave, I was free to just go with the flow. I was considering a stop in Quepos to see the famed Manuel Antonio park and with the sun dropping, I was ready for a bit to eat anyway.
Quepos is one of the bigger towns in the area, and as the gateway to Costa Rica’s most famous tourist attraction caters to many of the countries non-surfer tourists. Now, the problem with non-surf tourists is that there are way more of them, which can be hard to believe when you’ve only been to surf towns in this country for the last twenty years. I parked and walked around Quepos a bit and found a place to eat. The casado plate was the cheapest I had had on my trip, but the place was full and I knew that I had to be moving on. Quepos just didn’t really do anything for me, and since I wasn’t really that interested in lining up with the crowds to go find sloths, I made up my mind to move on.
I knew Dominical’s reputation for surf, and it was just another half-hour or so down the road, so I made up my mind to push on. Six or seven hours on the road in Central America is like twice that cruising along highways in the US, so I was pretty beat as I pulled into town at 9pm.
On the map, Dominical is just a tiny grid of streets nestled into a point just off the main coastal road, highway 34. One of the benefits of this is that, unlike places like Nosara where you bump along dusty, twisty, pitted roads for hours after you leave the last bit of pavement (the Guanacaste is notorious for its horrible roads), you are in town as soon as you pull of the road. Easy.
Now, I knew Dominical was small just by looking at it on the map, but when I pulled in I couldn’t believe it. Nine at night and the place was desolate, and completely dark. I mean completely. I had seen small towns on back roads that had more life than this! I crept through town keeping an eye out for pedestrians and dogs in the darkness, did a lap down to the beach and around to the south end of town where some places to stay showed up on my map. In a few minutes I had looped back up to the highway, so I pulled over for a moment to figure things out.
What was that? I couldn’t help but wonder. There’s nothing here!
I decided to loop around again and figure out what I was missing, and in this time the lights came back on. It turns out that the power had gone out, plunging the whole town into complete darkness and turning this little dot on the map into a complete ghost town. Driving through a second time, with the lights on, I could make out the main road with its little shops and restaurants, as well as some small hotels and hostels along the road, just a few blocks long, that points to the beach.
They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and that was an interesting one for Dominical! I’ll never forget it.
With some new, more welcoming, signs of life – signs lit up, restaurants with people inside, I parked so that I could just walk around and find a place to stay. Dominical is the kind of town that only takes a few minutes to walk from one end to the other, so a quick lap pretty much shows you most of the options. There were some great looking local spots, but I couldn’t help the inviting front shop of the Danyasa, plus I was intrigued by the cool architecture of the place. Danyasa is completely built with reused shipping containers, and the way the are arranged – elevated above the steeply downward sloping hillside – gives the impression that you’re walking around on flat land. But it is all a series of cantilevered containers and elevated walkways and wooden decking. I was able to grab the last available small room and settled in.
The containers were small but cozy with nice wooden accents to soften the industrial feel. Each one had its own private outdoor patio, which really helped to diminish the tightness of the space that otherwise would have been there. Claustrophobic by nature, I was really impressed with the job they did on these rooms. Plus, you know what happens when you crank on the air conditioner in a 8 x 20 space? Brisk! And my hand washed laundry dried out for the first time in a few days. I had things hanging up everywhere.
The Danyasa caters to the yoga crowd and they have a large outdoor yoga studio under a beautiful palapa. I joined a class that evening and it was a great opportunity to work out the kinks from my first week of surfing multiple sessions each day and the long drive down from Nosara.
The next morning I was out before dawn to go check the surf. Hoping down the main road, it’s just a few minutes through the sleepy town to get to the beach. Without the vendors that would later set up along the waterfront it was quiet – just a couple of people out.
It’s always interesting to paddle out to a new break. Sometimes an innocuous enough looking wave totally works you, sometimes something that’s cranking actually goes smoothly for some reason. You might be fighting rips, or you might be enjoying the sunrise. In the case of Dominical, for whatever reason, it just worked for me (not worked me). I drifted north with the current, but slowly enough not to worry, and toward the rivermouth at that end of the beach. Always weary of caymen in Costa Rica, I worked easily to stay south of the river. In this spot I caught endlessly long lefts (ok, endless would be redefined in Pavones in a couple of days) and steep rights, enjoying this spot to myself as a more novice crowd on foam boards worked the beach break a hundred yards to the south. For three hours I had this wave machine to myself, catching one head high ride after another. It was heavenly.
With the sun getting stronger and my hunger pangs louder, I headed in to grab breakfast. As I made my way back to the beach I saw the daytime routine starting for the local vendors that were setting up tables with trinkets and clothes lines with serongs and towels to sell. Walking slowly now, without that nervous pre-surf energy, I strolled down the main street that was just waking up to the day – men with their wives on the back of motorcycles getting dropped off to work, a school yard coming to life, the surf school putting boards out in front of the shop.
My room at Danyasa came with breakfast, and I was ready to check it out. In order to get to my room I had to walk past the communal kitchen and eating space which was now full of life as people were just starting their days here as well. I waved to the girl from the front desk and went to grab a quick shower and stash my board.
The communal breakfast was an interesting scene. In Nosara I had stayed at a house with a shared living space, but since I was the only one there I didn’t have to share it with anyone or make small talk about where the other guests were from or the inevitable competition of who was staying away from home the longest.
‘I’m here for a couple of weeks’ always gets that sad look from the ‘I’ve been traveling for three years’ guy.
The breakfast was amazing. Three women in the kitchen had set up a beautiful yet simple buffet of coffee, fruit, granola, and yogurt but the requisite eggs and gallo pinto was available as well. Starving after my surf, I took it all in and grabbed a seat on the couch off to the side where I could observe the breakfast scene before diving in. I wasn’t ready to sit at the group table just yet, maybe tomorrow.
Mostly a yoga crowd, there weren’t many other dawn patrollers in the mix, although one guy would turn up who was among the beginners getting initiated to hold-downs and getting caught inside down the beach. We’ve all been there, and he seemed to have that exhausted happy buzz when he showed up for breakfast shortly after I had.
I had decided to stay for two nights so that I could get a couple of sessions in and a full day in Dominical. I was glad I had since it turns out that each of my surf sessions here would be as amazing. For whatever reason, this place just worked for me.
As I mentioned, some places just work, and it turns out Dominical would be one of them for me on this trip. I would eventually leave and head down to Pavones for an amazing few days of surf, but I would have to eventually come back this same way. Before I left Pavones I called ahead and reserved my room for a night. Close to Dominical was the fork in the road where I would head east into the mountains, to where they grow coffee, breaking my constant north – south travel for the first time.
I would get my same room at Danyasa and wake up to enjoy another amazing morning surf. On my return trip I joined the communal table at breakfast, this time ready to talk with the group.