Surfing Costa Rica, everything you need to know
Costa Rica also called” the Switzerland of Central America”. But why is this? Many think it is because Switzerland has no army, as Costa Rica abolished theirs in 1949. If you’ve ever seen Macgyver, you know about the Swiss army knife. Even the pocket knife used in the Swiss army is actually a dark green and not red (back in the days of Macgyver the knife in use was silver), Switzerland has an army. No, the reason why it got that name has more to do with its everyday comforts (excluding public transport), its stunning nature, its democracy, its peace, its health care and education system and economies. It is rated the worlds number one in the “Happy Planet Index” the second time in a row.
Embedded between the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean, Panama lying in the South and Nicaragua in the North, Costa Rica is a lush green country that holds a huge density of biodiversity. Around one quarter of the landmass is National Parks or protected areas and deforestation has almost stopped which is a big difference to some of its northern neighbors. The soil close to many Volcanoes is rich and makes everything grow strong and fast. This in combination with the equatorial sun and all the rain makes it a country full of life. From tarantulas to howler monkeys, snakes to crocodiles, birds, and butterflies, it has it all.
It has it all, and not just animals. The same goes for the weather; with much more moderate temperature in the Central Cordilleras, Tourism from cheap to chic, and waves from perfect for beginner, to long point breaks and fast barrels. As it developed so fast and so much over the last 30 or so years, many people came here to retire, or fly down here from the USA with cheap, short flights from Florida, to have their vacations in a close by paradise. Costa Rica became more expensive over the years and is much more expensive than its neighboring countries. But on the other hand, this means the locals are used to tourism and many speak English. If they do or not, this won’t change there “Pura Vida”-lifestyle, two words you will hear over and over again. These two words mean: “pure life” and is actually the pure life of the Ticos (People from Costa Rica). They use it for everything and it can mean everything. So it’s better not to expect things to work the way that you are used to because the answer for a late bus, a not so well cleaned room or whatever else, good or bad, will most probably be a charming smile followed by those two words.
Traveling through Central America on the cheap, this country can become a bit of a challenge for your budget. Accommodation is relatively expensive, so is food and transport. And the later is the difficult one. With its streets and bridges often washed away by all the rain, and a not so dense road network, going from one place to another can be quiet a mission. Buses are often rare, even to frequented travel destinations, and taxis are expensive. If you have a rental car or someone who drives you around, it makes your life much easier, and you going to see and to surf much more.
Surf-tourism is nothing new here.
Many of the older generations will tell you that the golden age is over.
This is probably true. But only because we can’t time travel, we shouldn’t stop traveling.
Most of the well-known places are overrun by now. But with almost 1300km of coastline, there is probably still something that suits you. Doesn’t matter if you’re looking for beginners waves with some parties close by, some of the longest point breaks, or heavy reef breaks. As I told you already, here you can find it all. And not only this, you’ll find waves all year round.
Big parts of the Pacific coast are facing more or less south and get the swells from around late April until October. Other parts are more west facing and pick up a fair bit of the north swells during the rest of the year. Plus the Caribbean season which is around December to March. This all year surf in warm water and the diversity in waves is probably one of the reasons why it became such a popular surf destination. By now around 20% of tourists here come because of the waves.
Coming from the North, you’d probably enter from Rivas in Nicaragua and your first stop would be the City of Liberia. Be careful at the bus station. Here are many pickpockets at work, and even if you think of yourself as a well-trained traveler, they are probably better trained in their trade. From here you find busses to most parts of the country, or to the capital city, San Juan where you can get another bus to the East or South. If you want to go to Tamarindo, tell your driver that he can let you out at a crossroad with some junk-food restaurants and a close by bus stop from where the local bus leaves. But don’t be late, there are only a few busses a day.
This place is also known under the name of TamaGRINGO, and for a good reason. Close friends of mine had been there for the first time in 2000 and in all the years after I have heard stories about how much it has changed. In 2011 I finally went there myself to see what it became. As the bus rolled in, I could see many Restaurants and Hotels as expected ( I couldn’t see the beach, as it was hidden behind all those buildings), but I was a bit surprised to find some American fast food chains here. Tamarindo became a favorite place for backpackers, holiday makers and people who want to learn how to surf. It is your cliche place if it comes to surfing Costa Rica.
Tamarindo has a couple of different beaches within walking distances and bars close enough to crawl home! The cheapest places to stay are some Hostels a few streets back. As you should know if you come here, it’s not really cheap, but if you do it on a budget it’s also not super expensive. You could also stay in a surf camp and let them take you to different places every day. If Tamarindo is the kind of place you want to spend your time or not, this is your decision, but here you can find everything you need. There are a good number of surf shops and even more boards, doesn’t matter if you’re looking for a second hand, brand new or even custom shaped, you’ll find it here. There are a couple of different places to surf in town. Right in front of all the hotels is a perfect beach to learn, and there are more than enough schools to rent a board and a beach boy to tell you how to do it. If the swell is good, you can walk to the river mouth and surf a great wave there, or cross it and walk all the way up to Playa Grande, probably the best place to surf in Tamarindo. But keep in mind that you are in Costa Rica and that some crocodiles are living in this river. If this is too much for you to swim across, you can pay a few coins and take a small boat to the other side. Playa Grande has a lot of different peaks and is a wide open beachbreak that can change a lot with the sand shifting or the tide coming in or going out. It gets crowded, but there is always the option of surfing a peak a bit up or down with less or no people on it.
If you walk to the other direction from the river, there are other places where you might find waves. Around the rocks is another beach called Langosta. This beach is more exposed and a good option if it gets small.
Witches Rock/ Olli’s Point
North of Tamarindo there are some of the best surf spots in this country, such as Witches Rock and Olli’s Point. But they are extremely difficult to get to. You need a good 4X4 and need to drive through Santa Rosa National Park. A good 4×4 is not enough though. You need a good swell for the wave to break, and no rain for some time to make it to the beach. If you have all the camping gear and food to stay there for a few days, would be amazing, but make sure you get informed well before you go. The other option is by boat. This is a much more reasonable way to do it, but also much more expensive. It’s your call if it’s worth the money, there are waves in walking distance while staying in Tamarindo, but this one would be a unique experience with that huge rock out in the water and perfect lefts and rights for only you and your friends
A bit south of Tamarindo is a small place called Playa Negra. There are a few cheap places to stay, many houses to rent and a number of restaurants, as well as a small supermarket to buy some food if you prefer to cook your own food. Also ask for the food truck, one of the possibilities to save some money. In most of these remote places in Costa Rica comes a food-truck a few times per week. They are fresh and cheaper than at the supermarket.
Playa Negra has an amazing right hander that starts working with a small swell and holds a lot. It can be surfed with more or less every tide. On a lower tide, you will most probably find some relatively easy to make barrels and on a higher tide more open faces. It’s so close to Tamarindo that people with cars often drive down for the surf. But as soon as they’re gone, it’s super quiet and entertainment is up to you.
It’s a really long beach with many rocks in the water. Ask around, or go and check it out yourself to find other waves. Here, most of the spots depend much on the tide. What sometimes looks unsurfable can turn in to be a perfect wave hours later.
The next well-know place down the Nicoya peninsula is Nosara. It became loved by many and chosen by a good number of them as a second home. It is much more laid back than Tamarindo, but feels a bit superficial, with all its new buildings, day spas, mini golf and golf carts in the streets. Even so, it still is a nice place and has a few budget options where you can stay as well. There are a good number of different beaches around, offering a variety of waves and it’s pretty consistent. Not only the waves are fun, but the winds are good for surfing most of the time as well. Nosara is touristy enough to offer you other things than just surfing. Activities such as horseback riding or the just mentioned mini golfing. This was of course also seen by some people who built their surf camps here, it has a few by now and a good number of surf schools too.
Further south from here are such places as Samara or Mal Pais/ Santa Teresa on the southern tip of the peninsula. All along the way are different beaches with good waves and surf camps or hostels. As most of those places are foreign owned, they are usually easy to find online.
This is the capital of the so called Central American Switzerland, but to be honest, it’s one of the dodgiest places I’ve ever been to! It is well known to be dangerous and even most of the hostels are in a better area, you might be told not to walk around outside at night.
I can’t tell you what to do or where to go in this city. I’m sure there are nice things, but probably best is to know where you want to sleep and then get out of there as soon as you can. There is so much amazing nature around.
Volcano Arenal is just a bit north of the city and is surrounded by vast vegetation. I’d say it’s worth a visit if you have the time, even it has stopped erupting only a short while ago.
From here you are close to the Central Pacific Coast, where you’re going to find waves most of the time.
Jaco/ Playa Hermosa
Jaco is one of the closest beach towns from San Jose and its international airport. I’m sure it used to be an amazing place! Embedded in such nature, but with all the tourists and the money that came in, it changed a lot. With the financial crisis, the cash flow stopped and many buildings that you’re looking at look as if they are still under construction or already ruins, you’re never quiet sure what it is.
It has many hotels and they are higher than in most other beach towns in this country. These hotels are filled with tourists, a lot of them from the United States and most of them are the stereotypical US tourist. If you can handle that or if this is what you are looking for, perfect. There are many different places to stay, from backpackers to nice hotels with a lot of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. The nights here are wild and long, but this doesn’t really matter, as the waves are most of the time small and gentle. If you’re looking for better waves, take a bus, cab or hitch a ride to the small beach community of Playa Hermosa around 6km down the coast.
Here in Playa Hermosa are a lot of different places to stay and most of them are of the cheaper sort. You will also find some restaurants, and what most people come for, you’ll find waves. It’s a beachbreak that picks up most swells from whatever direction and has waves all year round.
It breaks close to the shore and is hollow, powerful and fast.
The beach is really long and if you don’t have to surf on one of the main peaks in front of the restaurants and you’re willing to spend some energy to walk down the beach, you’ll find an empty peak with great waves and no one on it.
Here the whole stretch of coastline has great waves. Again, if you have a mean of transportation, go and explore, if not, walk or surf with the crowd.
Pavones is down south of this coast. It’s one of the most famous waves in this country and if you catch it on a good day, you know why! Maybe Pavones made Surfing Costa Rica so famous?!
It’s a mission to get there. There are only two or three buses a day. One option is to go to Golfitos and take a bus from there. There is a cheap hotel just opposite the bus stop. It’s not nice at all, but if you come too late, you can stay here relatively cheap and safe and take the bus around 10 am the next day. There is also a backpackers close by as another budget option. If you’re not looking for a cheap place to sleep and can afford it, just take a cab to Pavones. The other way to get there is from Paso Canoas, the border town to Panama. Ask around if there are buses and at what time as they are not leaving from here, but a short cab ride away. You can also take a shared cab to make it cheaper, just ask around, people are helpful. You may even get lucky and hitch a ride with someone, talk to everyone with surfboards on their cars or who look like surfers. Many people from Pavones come here to do their shopping or a visa-run, your chances are good to get a ride. And if you have to do some shopping, there are some good malls here with a lot of tax-free stuff.
Once you made it all the way to Pavones, you get regarded.
Nature here is overwhelming. Monkeys and parrots making noises in the trees that are loaded with fruits and every kind of animal the average girl would hate, crawls around on the floor. There are many places to stay and for every budget. It’s easy to find a place when there is not much swell, BUT if a good swell is forecasted, the town fills up with surfers from everywhere. The wave is often called the second longest left in the world. It is not! But who cares, it’s incredibly long anyways! It’s actually a river mouth, and this is from where you paddle. There is a long wave on both sides of it, and if it’s big enough, they can connect. The swell window is small but only a few degrees make a big difference here from a hot doggers heaven to a race-track of a wave. The left side of the river (looking from the beach) is usually bigger, but not as clean as on the right side. The wave is usually broken up into many sections. Just choose the one you like with the number of people you like and enjoy. Further down the wave was the (in)famous cantina, that was burned down in late 2011. Here the wave gets much smaller and usually slower and becomes the perfect place for longboarders and for the ones who don’t want to be part of the hustle at the peak. If it’s good, everyone wants a piece of it and people often leave there manners and ethics at the beach when their paddling out.
There are a couple of other waves in this area, but most of them need a bit of a swell to start working. Ask around and you’ll find out about them. Or you can cross the “Golfo de dulce” and go to the Osa peninsula, to surf the amazing right-handers of Mata Palo.
I’ve never been up to this part of Costa Rica. Probably the best place to surf here and enjoy the Caribbean vibe and chill is Puerto Viejo. From here, you can cross the border into Panama and get to Bocas del Toro. The season for waves here is short and inconsistent, but the waves are powerful and worth to travel.
Costa Rica became what it is, not without any reason. It’s a country with incredible nature, happy and friendly people with all kinds of different waves of great quality, nightlife in the touristy areas (and San Jose) and much more to offer other than only surf, especially if you like outdoor activities. It’s definitely more expensive than all other Central American countries, but it’s easy to travel if you don’t speak much Spanish. If you only come for vacations and don’t care about spending a few more Dollars, it’s for sure the place to go. To keep the cost low, you can always eat Gallo Pinto (rice and beans), the national dish here, and a never ending argument with Nicaragua who invented it.
The Pura Vida spirit is still alive! Even in touristy areas where the locals are after your money, it’s always with a smile, the sort of smile that looks way more honest than in many other places, and if you are careful and avoid the dodgy areas at night, I’d say it’s a fairly save country.