Doin’ Dominical

Dominical Beach at Sunset

When heading to Costa Rica most tourists make their way to a beach. After all, when you go to a tropical country known for its miles of sandy shores, it only makes sense to spend time relaxing in the sunshine and swimming in turquoise waters. Since Playa Jaco is the closest beach to the main airport in Alajuela, most visitors head there. But Jaco has devolved into a congested tourist hangout with rows of predictable kitschy souvenir shops, dozens of tour operators offering zip lines or deep-sea fishing, horseback rides on tired ponies, warnings of crime, high-priced hotels and restaurants and clogged main street traffic. Although such fast-paced intensity can be fun, it hardly provides the kind of Pura Vida experience that many travelers are seeking when they visit Costa Rica.

A better option can be found by driving a couple hours beyond Jaco along the Costa Ballena to Dominical where the laid-back lifestyle looks and feels like an old-time hippie festival. Enclosed in natural barriers of majestic mountains to the east, the Baru River on the north, deserted beaches to the south and the endless Pacific Ocean sparkling to the west, the small town of Dominical hides beneath palm trees just a few steps away from the main highway. As you drop down a short slope onto the road through town, the magic of the place is immediately apparent. Rustic buildings house a few surf shops, one yoga studio, the inevitable souvenir shops, several open-air restaurants, plus a real estate office or two. One block over on the palm-lined beachfront road, beach towels fluttering in the tropical breeze provide a kaleidoscope of vivid color separating quaint wooden vendor stalls selling local handcrafts, artwork and jewelry.

Mainstreet Dominical

With its reliable year-round break, Dominical is a magnet for surfers but warning signs on the beach caution swimmers of riptides. Local residents have pooled resources and hired lifeguards because of the dangers. Staying close in to shore, however, is safe enough for waist-deep jumps over the foamy surf and the 2.5 mile long smooth beach is ideal for barefoot beachcombing, bird-watching or just building sand castles.

Marino Ballena National Park

Once you have soaked up some of the local color in Dominical itself, be sure to make the short 10-mile drive to one of the jewels of the Southern Zone of Costa Rica, Marino Ballena National Park. Established only in 1990, this unusual park encompasses over 13,000 acres of ocean, along with just 270 acres of land, including deserted palm-lined beaches where hundreds of magnificent Scarlet Macaws make their nests. Named for the Humpback Whales that migrate along the coast from December to April, Marino Ballena contains the largest coral reef on the Pacific Coast of Central America, making it ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving. The beaches are protected by the reef from crashing surf and offer smooth waters for swimming.

The grounds at Villas Rio Mar

Given Dominical’s appeal to surfers, it’s no wonder that most of the hotels along the main drag offer little more than the basics of a room with a bed. For those of us with somewhat more refined tastes, the place to stay in Dominical is Villa Rio Mar, a beautiful eco-resort located on the north end of town next to the Rio Baru, just a few short blocks from the beach. The hotel is laid out in individual casitas strategically situated within picturesque tropical gardens so as to provide privacy to each cottage while offering views of the surrounding flora. Each casita has an open-air sitting area furnished in dark bamboo plus a hammock for lounging, enclosed only by translucent white curtains. Comfortable bedrooms are clean, well appointed and reasonably priced. Nearby is the large swimming pool with a poolside bar for those late afternoon margaritas. Friendly front-desk help will arrange tours to local attractions such as a horseback ride to Nauyaca Waterfalls, snorkeling on Caño Island or kayaking through the Hatillo Mangroves.

Casita Living Room

Although downtown Dominical has a number of good restaurants, from funky Tortilla Flats to Thai-inspired Coconut Spice, it is hard to beat the food at Villas Rio Mar. The extensive breakfast buffet included in the room rate is excellent but dinner specials here are really the highlight, with a Sesame Tuna plate that is outstanding.

Another impressive aspect of Villas Rio Mar is their commitment to sustainable tourism. Already the recipient of four out of five “leaves” from the Costa Rican Tourism Board, indicating the degree to which they comply with a model of “natural, cultural and resource management,” the hotel promotes its efforts with recycle bins throughout the property and colorful reminders posted on the walls of the casitas, encouraging preservation of the ecology of the area.

If your Costa Rican itinerary includes a trip to a beach, be sure to consider a visit to Dominical for a vacation rich with the natural beauty of this small country and full of opportunities to experience the best of Pura Vida — a tranquil oasis of tropical delights!

Kat Sunlove

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The Costa Rica News (TCRN)
San Jose Costa Rica

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