San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Jacó: Still Just a Surf Town at Heart

Walk out onto Jacó beach on a sunny weekend and you’ll find a mass of humanity sprawled along the dark-sand beach.

As if seated in a sand-and-water amphitheater, the beachgoers are all watching a bunch of tiny dots bobbing in the water like turtle heads.

Suddenly, a head-high wave catches one of the surfers and sends him carving across the water before collapsing on him and swallowing him in an explosion of white spray.

Out in the water, bobbing in the lineup with the surfers, if you look back landward, you’ll see construction materials dangling from cranes like foliage from the mouths of giant brontosauruses towering over the tropical beach skyline.

This is a place where people slide across the water to the hammer-and-drill tune of progress. Where the nights are endless and so are the different ways you can slake your desires or escape from your boredom – at least while you’ve still got a little jingle in your pocket. Where Ticos and tourists alike sprawl out in the tropical heat to escape urbanity, listen to the ocean and, judging by the beach town’s bumping nightlife, perhaps sweat off a hangover.

It’s hard to put a finger on what Jacó is, because it is in a state of becoming. But one thing’s for sure: it’s not a bore.

To the contrary, the town is having to face its reputation as a haphazardly developed beach boomtown overrun by tourists, real estate agents and prostitutes.

Though Jacó’s beautiful bodies, appetizing restaurants and free-flowing beer may be an added perk for some, they’re not what make it tick.

What makes Jacó pulsate, at its very heart, is one simple idea: grabbing a surfboard and heading out into the sea.

There’s no doubt about it on the beach, where every third person lugs around a surfboard. Nor is there any doubt about it in the streets, where every third business sells surfboards, surf lessons or surf gear.

Surfing is even the backdrop in the town’s growing number of bars and clubs, where the world’s craziest surfers in Tahiti and Hawaii risk their lives to ride on ungodly waves on big-screen TVs above the heads of grinding, howling crowds clutching bottles of Imperial.

Not only was Jacó the location of the National Surf Circuit finals this year and the third contest in Costa Rica’s recent Triple Crown of Surf, but also the beach’s edifying waves have turned out some of Costa Rica’s best young surfers. From Diego Naranjo to Jairo Pérez to Luis Vindas, Jacó natives are always in abundance at surf competitions around the country.

Jacó was my teacher when I learned to surf.

On lonely weekends, I took growling, winding, jam-packed bus rides to Jacó from San José, hoping to escape the exhaust-clogged, concrete-caked Central Valley.

What I found was a bustling beach town packed with a range of activities and prices, and some of the most friendly, consistently surfable waves around.

The waves in Jacó aren’t heavy barrels or head-high waves like in neighboring Hermosa or farther south in Dominical, but they’re big enough to toss you around like a breathless rag doll, as I soon learned.

Because they’re not too big, but big enough, they’re great waves for learning – particularly the mellower waves down at the south end of the beach.

For the penniless aspiring surfer, board rentals can be affordable, especially if you have the gumption to shop around the many surf shops to find a good price (see sidebar).

Once you’ve got a board, and a safe place to put your stuff (stick with a hotel or a safe in a hotel), the rest doesn’t cost a dime.

But your shoulders will pay. They’ll burn like fire as you paddle frantically to get out past the break. The saltwater will burn your eyes. Maybe you’ll wipe out and slam your foot or face on the board, drawing blood. Or you could break a bone. You might even get scared floating alone out in the surf, wondering what creatures loom below, and quickly draw all your limbs into the board to keep them from sharks.

But it’s worth it. When you feel that rush of water sweep you away from behind and drag you forward toward the beach, your body starts pumping adrenaline by the butt load. You heave yourself up onto your feet as a splash of sea spray slaps you in the face.

You open your eyes, and suddenly, you’re flying. On water.

Learn to Surf in Jacó

Walking through downtown Jacó, surf shops are a dime a dozen, lining the streets.

If you want to learn to surf, a convenient option is JacóSurfSchool (829-4697, www.jacosurf, right on the beach in downtown Jacó, in the tent in front of Bohio Bar and Grill. For $45, you get a two-hour lesson and a board all day, as well as a bottle of water and a fruit salad. You stand up on your board, or you get your money back.

The next tent over on the beach, Salsiboy (881-7209), is also a convenient option.

A good place to rent a board is Cartón (643-3762), a surf shop on the south end of the beach, just a couple of blocks inland. The owner and his crew make boards and rent them for $15-20 a day. This is a good place for beginners to rent, because not only are the prices decent, but it’s also right in front of the best learning waves on the beach.

Don’t be afraid to shop around and see who offers you the best price, which will range from $10-25 a day. Prices are higher during vacations and the tourist season (December through April).

Just south of Jacó, quiet Playa Hermosa doesn’t have a lot of surf shops, but hotels such as Cabinas Las Olas rent boards for about $20 a day.

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