Backpacking in Dominical and Uvita, Costa Rica
The area around the small towns of Dominical and Uvita, on the Pacific coast of southern Costa Rica, is one of my favorite places in the world. I’ve visited the region four separate times over the course of six years, and although through that period of time there has been many changes, the overall energy of the magical region remains untouched. More hotels and restaurants are popping up constantly; but thankfully, surfing, nature, and late night bonfires are still the main draws. Every time I’ve visited I’ve been on a tight budget (Like always, I would never be able to travel like I do on a waitress’ salary if I wasn’t!) but I’m managed to have an amazing time nonetheless. Here is a collection of the spots that have made my visits memorable. Pura vida!
The main attraction are, of course, the beaches and the thriving culture they inspire. Uvita’s are picture perfect with endless white sand and lush jungle lining them. The waves range from soft and mellow (by the beach house me and my friends rented south of town there was only a slightly surfable wave every ten minutes) to perfect even beginner waves near Flutterby House, my all-time favorite hostel. Uvita’s beaches are part of Marino Ballena National Park, and while you are supposed to pay to use them all, (Shhhh…secret!) the beaches by Flutterby are not regulated. In all my experiences in Uvita I’ve never seen the beaches crowded. Not to miss: the famous Whale’s Tail, the pinnacle of the National Park.
Alternatively, the sands of Dominical’s beaches are covered with rocks and driftwood. The waves are famous for their long rides and perfect barrels, and consequently have made the small town a surfer mecca. Watch out for the riptides! They are strong and dangerous. Please listen to the muscular, tanned, and perfectly sculpted lifeguards when they tell you where to and not to swim. The beach of Dominicalitos south of town is a fun excursion and has friendlier waves.
There are surf camps and schools everywhere. If you’re a beginner and on a perpetual budget like me, I recommend finding a local or expat teacher on the beach. They are everywhere, and will charge about $20-30 for a lesson, which could be an hour or many hours. Many times you can cut the price by offering to spring for beers after class. Because they are not associated with a company they don’t have to pay a company commission and therefore can give you a much better price. If your goal is just to stand up and learn a bit about how the local tides work, than you do not need to pay $100 to be in a class with 5 other people. That’s my opinion anyways…
Another warning: be careful leaving belongings on the beaches! Thefts are common in both Uvita and Dominical.
Visiting Bamboo Yoga Play in Dominical has become an integral part of my experience. The large raised studio is set next to the jungle and ocean, and is right off the main road. While in the studio you can feel the fresh breeze wash over you, and hear tropical birds chirp all around. There is honestly nothing that simultaneously uplifts and grounds me as much as a great open-air yoga session. Although there is a wide range of yoga and movement classes to choose from, I highly recommend Koha Yoga with Whaca and Sara if you are lucky enough to catch them. One session might literally change your life. If you are looking for something different to immerse yourself with, there are constantly workshops, performances, and retreats going on at the studio, check the website for the latest offerings.
An insider secret: at Bamboo there are three different rooms for rent in the downstairs area. Email ahead to ask about renting a room or check in the reception inside the Bambootique. The rooms are all unique and made of modified shipping containers. There is a communal deck with couches, and an open kitchen area showcasing views of the Baru River. The beach is minutes away, and you have full use of the yoga studio while classes are not in session. Namaste.
Tired of the beach? Both Uvita and Dominical have their own waterfalls! The Dominical one has a large swimming pool and lots of large rocks to recline on. The Uvita waterfall has a rock waterslide. Be careful about jumping off. The locals make it look easy, but they’ve probably been doing it their whole lives. Still want more waterfalls? Up the road towards San Isidro you can also hike or horseback ride to the epic Nauyaca Waterfall.
There are tours all around where you can find anything to do from rock climbing to zip lining to parasailing to boating… you get the picture. Shop around for the best prices, and get recommendations from other travelers.
The area is also rich with volunteer opportunities at organic farms. Volunteering is a great way to live for very cheap or free, get in touch with nature, and see a part of the country you might not have found normally. In addition it is a fast way to form genuine friendships. Hippy girl secret: check out WWOOF or make your way inland to San Isidro for the Thursday Feria when all the gringo farmers come out to sell their organic vegetables and gluten-free cookies.
While in Uvita my partying consisted solely of drinking beer and rum in Flutterby and staying up late with new friends around bonfires on the beach. Except for the amazing Envision Festival, an art, yoga, sustainability, and music festival that took place in Dominical in 2011 and in Uvita in 2012. The music went on all night long and had me dancing in the jungle at sunrise every day I was there. The festival has many ties to local communities; and the owners of Bamboo Yoga, Maracutu, and organic farms in the country help to produce it.
In Dominical the party scene is more cultivated, and although you should still only expect some late night bar to beach mischief instead of an out club night (read: flip flops vs heels), on the right nights you can easily drink and dance the night away, pausing only to realize the sun is beginning to rise. The party night moves nightly from bar to bar. Ladies’ Night at Maracatu is definitely a worthwhile event to shitshow at. Free shots for the ladies! Literally free! I’ve had some fun times there, I only wish I could remember all of them.
As a general rule: to find the night’s hot spot just ask around in town and follow the crowd to where the music and drink specials are. Happy partying!
In Uvita I loved Creperia Marquesa in town. The whole place is bright and cheery, the owner is a sweetheart, and the food is European yummy. Last time I was in town I stayed in a house right by Bob’s Roadhouse169, south of town by the mile 169 marker and found a second home. The space is a great open-air restaurant with regular live music and events taking place. The Tex-Mex-Tico food is bursting with flavor, and the bartenders pour stiff drinks with easy smiles. Say “hi” to Bob, for me. If you’re lucky (like I was many times) you’ll get to taste test the night’s special for free.
While in Dominical, the beachfront surfer hangout Tortilla Flats is my all-time guilty pleasure. They have, literally, the best nachos I’ve had outside California. More of my guilty faves include the coconut-crusted mahi-mahi, seared ahi steak with wasabi coconut cream, and the fried calamari. San Clemente Bar and Grill is also an affordable fun place to spend a few hours eating, dancing and drinking. The whole place is covered with broken surf boards; if you bring in your own you can sign it and leave it to commemorate your legacy and get a free taco and beer in return. Maracatu has the greatest seafood and vegetarian food, and there is live music what seems like every night (and ladies’ night for the winning point).
Budget advice: hit up San Clemente’s margarita and taco night.
My new favorite hostel in the whole world is Flutterby House in Uvita. It has a magical hippy vibe with its tree houses, bright murals, open-air dorms, and shirtless staff. The location is to die for with a flawless beach minutes away. It is easy to lounge the day away on one of the numerous couches with a cold Imperial and a group of new friends. For some low-key adventure time they have surfboards, bikes, and more for rent. If you want to be near to town I’ve also had friends stay at Tucan Hotel and recommend it. If you made the trek out to Flutterby and they’re full, or if you something more private, continue along the dirt road and follow the signs for Esmo’s Cabin’s. They are even closer to the beach, and the prices were lower than any other cabins I’ve ever found in Costa Rica.
In Dominical I always stay at Pyramis, another brightly painted beach hostel with funky rooms, an open air dorm overlooking the ocean, and the best burgers in town. To find it keep on walking south on the beach road, and about two minutes out of “town” you’ll find it. I’ve also stayed at Tortilla Flats and Cabinas San Clemente, both are decent surfer crash pads, but aren’t anything memorable and get really noisy at night time.
If you’re really on a budget people camp every day on the beach in Dominical, just watch out for your belongings!
Ah! I miss Dominical and Uvita so much! Additional and duplicate shout-outs to Josh and the hot bartender from Maracatu; Soffiah, Brandan, Waca, Sara,Leah, and Yasmine from Bamboo Yoga Play; that old blonde surfer dude from Orange County who gave me a free lesson for a beer; Juan-Carlos from Tortilla Flats; and Bob from Roadhouse169. See you all in time for Envision 2013.