The Three Most Important principles are look forward, relax, and stay low," says my instructor, seven-time Costa Rica national surfing champion Alvaro Solano Delgado. We're perched on a wooden platform on a hillside a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. After practicing my pop-up to surfer crouch a few times, Delgado deems me seaworthy. We load into the Vista Guapa Surf Camp truck and drive five minutes down to Jaco Beach for the real thing.
Once there, Delgado and his teenage nephew Titi unload a quiver of surfboards in varying sizes. "We'll walk out until the water is here," Delgado says, motioning to his chest, "and then we'll get on the board and paddle."
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Gulp. Somehow, until we're paddling toward them, I haven't processed the size of the waves. Jaco is known for its beginner-friendly surf break, and I try to believe this despite the rushing walls of water coming at me.
Beyond the churning breakers is our goal: calm water. But first, we have a gauntlet to run. I paddle out for several grueling minutes with Titi behind me, helping me to stay right-side up. When I reach the promised land, I feel an immediate sense of accomplishment—and an aching in my upper body. Now, it's time to surf.
"Paddle, paddle, paddle!" yells Delgado. "Up!" And, like we practiced, I pop up, stay up, and am gliding toward shore. I feel wobbly, but I crouch low, look ahead, reach my arms outward, and try to relax. It feels amazing, and around me I hear whoops of support. The beach looks even more picturesque from my surfboard, where I can see the entire C-curve of dark brown sand is dotted with palm trees that stretch toward the brilliant blue sky. Beyond that, hills covered in verdant forest roll gently upward. A pair of scarlet macaws decked out in vibrant plumage flies by, wings lifting and falling in unison.
I score several great rides that day, learning that catching the waves—at least under the tutelage of Delgado—is the easy part. It's paddling back against the ceaseless breakers that's the challenge. But the view and the ride are worth it, time and time again.
Returning to the surf camp, I make the steep but short walk to my cabin on the hillside. My Technicolor hammock provides the perfect vantage point for reflecting on the day's adventure. I can see our surf spot below, and it feels like a treasured escape to me after my afternoon playing in its waves.
Later that night, on the way to dinner, I seize the chance to grill my coach about his surfing history—when did he start (10 years old, with a broken board), where are his favorite places in the world to surf (Puerto Escondido in Mexico and, of course, Costa Rica).
Now it's Delgado's turn to ask the questions: "Would you surf every day if you could?" "Oh yes," I answer. "Every day." —Susan Hall Mahon
Rates start at $500 for three nights, meals, and surf lessons; vistaguapa.com.
Photos, from top: Gallery Stock; Frans Lanting/Gallery Stock