This eco-paradise is the perfect place to embark on a Central American safari, and if you plan well, you can even have the monkeys mostly to yourself
Author Jacqueline Detwiler Photography Al Argueta
DAY TWO | Upon waking at 6 a.m. for the second day in a row, you determine that howler monkeys may be more reliable alarm clocks than, well, alarm clocks. Still, early to rise, early to surf. This morning you’re driving to Dominical, a surfing mecca in Costa Rica’s Central Pacific region that has thus far avoided the surge of development that has hit towns farther north.
After an invigorating spritz in your private outdoor shower, you hop into your rental with a package of mangoes and cookies from the front desk and wend your way north along the cliffside highway over the Golfo Dulce, which keeps stunning you with its exquisite views—with deleterious effects on your driving.
By lunchtime, you’ve reached (and missed several times) the turnoff to Dominical. Unpaved and dotted with surf rental shops and flophouses, its towering palms shading tin-roofed beachfront bars and jeeps laden with longboards, this is Costa Rica as it was before the boom. You wander into a promising-looking natural foods and live music venue called Maracatu and demolish a platter of juicy fish tacos, washing them down with a Libertas golden ale, a local microbrew that sprang up a few years ago to rival the long-dominant Imperial brand. You ask the bartender about the surfing. “The biggest waves are on that side of the beach,” she says, pointing north. “Everything’s a little easier on the south side.”
You are very good at taking it easy, but less good at surfing, so you rent a longboard from Dominical Surf Adventures and head south. The waves today are immaculate—clean, heavy three-foot lefts and rights in consistent sets. As you heave yourself onto them, acing a few, getting rocked by others, you see the occasional local wandering down the beach with a salty dog and a stick. Otherwise, it’s just you and the ocean. Hours pass before you’ve got enough water in your nose to call it quits.
After a quick change, you’re back in the car and heading to Ojochal, about 20 minutes to the south. The community here, hidden from the main road, is home to a number of French Canadian expats famed for their fantastic cooking. You decide on dinner at Exotica, a 10-table terrace that specializes in French–Asian–Costa Rican fusion, and order a plate of Tahitian tuna carpaccio with bananas and the Chicken Exotica, which is stuffed with plums, cream cheese and bacon and topped with a creamy red pepper sauce. It’s a wonderful dish, and you make a point of saying so to the chefs, Bob and Lucy, who take a seat at your table and do a dangerously good job of making you want to live here.
He and Lucy are quite well traveled, says Bob, but the moment they landed in Ojochal, “We just fell in love.” Bob goes on to call the place “perfect” and—with the cicadas humming, a tree frog hopping by and a bowl of passion fruit sorbet appearing on the table before you, you’re inclined to agree. You practically have your bags packed by the time you leave.
Your mind turns to the mechanics of driving on your way to your next hotel—a bracing 30-minute journey that culminates in a series of dirt switchbacks that become progressively more vertical until, finally, you are only managing 5 mph with the accelerator slammed to the floor. By the end, you imagine that you are spiraling up a mountain of Seussian precipitousness, hotel perched precariously on the tip. When you do reach Rancho Pacifico, that’s not what you find, of course, but it’s mighty close.
You’re staying in the resort’s standalone TreeHaus Hideaway Villa, a sort of architectural display cabinet made almost entirely of glass that overhangs the edge of a spectacularly high cliff. You’re so far above sea level that the air is cooler and dryer. You run around opening doors and windows, of which there are many. On one of your two porches is a hot tub. Lounging in it, you don’t even feel earthbound, and that’s long before morning allows you to see the faraway contours of the Ballena coast.