San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Kite Surfing Is Hard, Especially with Stingrays

The first time I saw a kite surfer take to the air several feet above the tranquil blue water and then land gracefully on his board, I knew I had to try it.

Kite surfers look so elegant and peaceful, the way they move as though weightless across the water, and then once in a while the way they fly, turning like dancers through the air with their brightly colored kites forming crescents above them. Spending a couple of days learning the basics seemed like a plan for a relaxing weekend.

For our beginner lessons, we headed to SalinasBay on the northern Pacific coast, one of the best spots in the country for the sport. The beach was stunning, the clouds moving steadily through the sky, their shadows reflected on the azure water. Kite surfers of all ages scrambled to get their gear set up so they could make the most of the excellent conditions.

The first few hours of instruction took place on land, where the wind whipped sand and small pieces of debris onto our skin and our necks ached from staring directly up at the trainer kite. The idea is to learn the basic technique for flying the kite and to get a sense of how it feels so that it isn’t necessary to crane your head back once you’re on the water, but rather feel the kite and know where it’s supposed to be.

Our stereotypically blond and tousled 20-something instructor was patient and enthusiastic.

An avid kite surfer from Switzerland on a Central American working holiday, Kirsten was vigilant and always helpful if the wind got too strong or the kite began to veer perilously toward the ground. After a couple of hours of practice we moved to the larger kites, learning how to set them up, check their safety lines and how to help launch them into the air.

Power kites are attached to a harness that is worn around the waist and then steered via a control bar. The bar can be pulled in toward your body to increase the power of the kite or released to de-power the kite.

We entered the water and took turns getting the feel of the seven-meter kite and struggling to get comfortable with the force of the wind. The final step of the first day was to try “body dragging,” which is using the power of the kite to pull your body across the surface of the water.We wore helmets with a walkie-talkie attached so that Kirsten could shout instructions as needed.

My turn came, and as soon as I had the control bar in my hands, the hours of patient instruction were instantly blown from my mind. The wind battled for the kite and in a moment of panic I grabbed the bar in fear, pulling it closer to me, clutching the only thing that seemed stable. Before Kirsten could grab me, I shot 10 feet into the air and was yanked powerfully sideways, turning through the air, not quite the graceful dancer I had envisioned. I heard the frantic yelling, “Sheet out! Sheet out!” from the walkie-talkie and quickly released my grip on the control bar. I slammed back into the water, breathless and stunned. After assuring the panicked instructor I was OK, I decided to keep trying.

After several wild, scuttling drags across the water, I began to get the kite to do my bidding. The wind became less menacing as I learned to maneuver the kite. When I got tired and ready to return to the safety of the beach, I started stomping toward shore, triumphant in my first step toward learning how to kite surf.

While focusing on landing the kite in a safe spot on the beach, I felt something sharp strike my ankle. Kirsten grabbed the kite and I exited the water and unhooked my harness.

Then I looked down at my foot. Blood was gushing from a gash just behind my anklebone, though I still wasn’t sure what had caused it.

“I think something bit me,” I told Kirsten.

“Did it feel like ice?” he asked me, in a worried voice.

“I don’t know, I just felt something at my ankle,” I said.

Kirsten took off in a flash to get help for what he seemed certain was a stingray wound.

A stingray? Isn’t that what killed The Crocodile Hunter? I pulled off my water shoes to discover blood pooling rapidly in the heel of the left one. I started to feel weak.

A man down the beach who was a trained EMT from the United States, Bob Selfridge, drove over in his pickup truck and started to spray the wound with some sort of antiseptic.

He explained that I needed to soak the wound in hot water for about an hour to neutralize the protein-based toxin the ray had injected along with the stinger.

We rushed back to the hotel and explained what had happened to the kitchen staff.

They seemed to know just what to do, and within minutes I had my ankle in a large bucket of extremely hot water. Thinking everything was now under control, I was ready to sit back and relax for an hour while the foot soaked.

But another hotel employee wouldn’t let me. He asked to inspect my ankle and when I raised my foot out of the water I realized the ankle had swollen to about the size of my calf and was pulsing as though it had a heartbeat of its own. There was also a second puncture wound that I hadn’t noticed on the beach. The stinger must have gone straight through the back of my ankle.

The insistent employee explained that the danger with such injuries is that occasionally something can get left behind and stuck in the wound.

He asked my permission, but I wasn’t sure for what. Then he tossed aside his cigarette, knelt down and cupped my ankle in his hands.With a quick tuck of his head he placed his mouth around the wound and began to suck, ostensibly to determine if something was lodged inside. His opinion was that the wound was clear, but he urged me to go to the clinic and get proper medical attention. Before anyone else could start sucking on my ankle, I decided to head to town.

And so ended my first day of kite surfing, in a clinic in La Cruz, near the northern border. After two shots and a round of antibiotics, I was sent on my way. The day had begun with a small pain in my neck and ended with two in the nalga.

Though I completed only half of the beginners’ program, the most important lesson was clear: Kite surfers make the sport look deceptively easy.

Go Kite Surfing

Cometa Copal: Beginner lessons $360, nine hours of private instruction,, 676-1192.

Kitesurfing 2000: Beginner lessons $240, two days, six to eight hours of instruction,, 826-5221.

La Sandía: Beginner lessons $390, two days, 12 hours of instruction,, 676-1045.


If You Go

Getting There

By car, take the

Inter-American Highway north

from San José toward Nicaragua. At the town of La Cruz, 65 km north of Liberia, turn left through town and follow the signs to Bahía Salinas, about 10 km.

Buses to the Nicaraguan border stop in La Cruz and depart from beside Hotel Cocorí in San José (Transportes Deldú, 256-9072). From La Cruz a taxi can bring you the remaining distance.

Places to Stay

Blue Dream Hotel and Spa: Ten basic double rooms, all with ocean views and hot water, on-site restaurant and bar, $36 per night, double occupancy,, 826-5221.

Bolaños Bay Resort: Double rooms $82, 676-1163.

Ecoplaya Beach Resort: Full resort amenities, swimming pool, wet bar, Jacuzzi, restaurant and bar, double rooms start at $98 per night, $245 per night for a luxury villa,, 228-7146.

La Sandía: Rooms with double bed or bunk bed, $20 for double occupancy, meals available,, 676-1045.

Progetto Pura Vida: Studios and complete villas with a variety of amenities, $35-110,, 676-1055.


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