A pair of siblings from Lake Ridge learn to surf in Costa Rica

Liz Penning and her brother, Matt, headed to Nosara, Costa Rica, for a week of surfing lessons.
Liz Penning and her brother, Matt, headed to Nosara, Costa Rica, for a week of surfing lessons. (Nosara Photography)
Sunday, April 4, 2010

Liz Penning of Lake Ridge is the latest contributor to Your Vacation in Lights, in which we invite Travel section readers to dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. You won't win a million dollars if your story is featured; in fact, you won't win anything but the thanks and admiration of your fellow readers. To file your own trip report, see the fine print below.

THE TRIP: Surf adventure in Nosara, Costa Rica

WHO: My brother, Matt, and I

WHEN: July 27-Aug. 3

WHY: This was a late high school graduation present for my little brother (he's 20, I'm 24). We have always wanted to learn to surf and were stoked to find a surf school for adults that was laid-back and offered other fun adventures.

ALL-INCLUSIVITY: For a little less than $2,000 a person, we got a round-trip flight from Washington to San Jose, a night at a bed-and-breakfast, a round-trip flight to Nosara, transportation to the hotel, breakfast and dinner daily (plus beers), two hour-long surf lessons a day, two adventure trips and photographs of us surfing. You can customize the package, such as adding yoga and massages.

LIFE IS GOOD: In this rural beach town, "pura vida" (pure life) is not just a saying; it's a way of life. You'll find lots of smiles and a peaceful, anything-goes attitude.

THE SURFING: The ratio for lessons was two students to one instructor. They rotated the instructors, so we had a variety of teachers who were all patient, encouraging and extremely knowledgeable. The waves were fantastic, the water clean and the beach beautiful.

NIGHTLIFE: We found live music -- jazz, reggae, salsa -- at several restaurants, and salsa dancing at a bar. The Tropicana was a crazy discoteca with an 80-20 mix of locals and tourists.

SPEAK SPANGLISH?: We did all our planning with the two American brothers who own and run the Safari Surf School. The hotel and restaurant staff and surf instructors are Costa Rican, and they spoke passable to excellent English. On our own in town, Matt and I did just fine with our high school Spanglish.

HOWLER AT THE MOON: The ad for the school said you could hear howler monkeys from your hotel room -- and indeed, they were right outside my room. The monkeys put on a noisy show at around 7 p.m. and again at 4:30 a.m. This was charming and annoying at the same time. We also saw bright orange crabs, tree frogs and iguanas scuttling around.

BEST BITES: Fresh fish (guests who went on a deep-sea fishing adventure brought it back for us), mangoes (nothing in the United States compares) and ice cream (Rita's ice cream is made on-site; try the oatmeal flavor).

DARK SIDE: There are no streetlights in Nosara, so the nights are very dark. Bring a flashlight. And though safety was never an issue, common sense should prevail: After sunset, go in groups. Luckily for us, many of the instructors liked to socialize with their surf students, so we had built-in friends wherever we went. Also, people drive like crazy here, and traffic rules are more like suggestions. Lastly, the ride on the tiny plane from Nosara to San Jose was quite turbulent. I fly a lot, but I've never had a flying experience like that before.

ATV GONE WILD: One of our excursions included driving an ATV to a snorkeling spot. It turned out to be a crazy ATV adventure with a side of snorkeling. The vehicle had a stick shift, which Matt and I had never used before. We drove for two hours through running streams, over swaying one-lane bridges and around horses, people, cars and dogs -- all on dirt roads. Definitely an adventure for the experienced ATV rider (not us; this was our first time) with nerves of steel.

ZIP IT: For our zip-line adventure, we went up into the mountains, where the view was breathtaking. The guides were funny: One gave me a special leaf tattoo and another played a practical joke on Matt, jumping out of a tree in a gorilla mask (remember, we were in the jungle). Some hiking was involved, and we swam in a waterfall at the last zip line.

IT WAS ALL WORTH IT WHEN . . . Matt and I got "up" on the first day. It was such a humbling, peaceful feeling to catch that one amazing wave.

Want to see your own vacation in lights? We'll highlight one report each month. To submit, use the categories above as a guide (use as many as you wish, or add your own), and send your report to Your Vacation in Lights, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071; or e-mail

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