The surf in Costa Rica can be broken down into four main regions- the North, Central, South and Caribbean. With year-round waves, warm water, and plenty of accommodations for any budget, it’s no wonder Costa Rica has become one of most highly recommended surf travel destinations for surfers of any level.
Here’s a general overview of the surf in Costa Rica and some other insights that will help get you pointed in the right direction for your next surf trip in Costa Rica.
• WHEN TO SURF IN COSTA RICA •
Let’s just start by saying: anytime is a good time to surf in Costa Rica. There’s beautiful days at all times of year- even in the wet season there will be periods of absolute perfection. So enjoy the rainbows and surf in the rain if you have to. The water is around 80-82 degrees fahrenheit all year long, so it’s all good.
Costa Rica is basically divided into two main seasons- the wet season, and the dry season. While there’s plenty of surf to be had in both seasons, the wet season tends to be bigger, better, and more consistent.
The wet or “rainy” season in Costa Rica is from May until mid-November. It’s during this season that the the Pacific dishes out a healthy serving of northwest, south and southwest swells. Costa Rica loves a good SW swell making June, July, August and September some of the biggest and most promising months. It’s also good to note that northern Costa Rica tends to be drier than the rest of the country during wet season.
The surf on the Caribbean coast isn’t as consistent as the Pacific side, but they get some great waves at certain times of year. October though April is a good time to see what’s brewing in the Caribbean. It’s during these tropical storm producing months that the surf gets some size and the Caribbean coast comes to life.
• THE BEST REGION TO SURF IN COSTA RICA •
This is a tough question, and it really depends on what you’re looking for. Each region has something special to offer. You’ll find world-class waves up and down the coast and depending on the length of your stay, you simply won’t have time to hit them all.
I’d suggest starting with the northern region for a couple reasons- the surf is more consistent, there’s plenty of breaks to explore, it’s easier to get around, and you can find the best of both worlds (developed and lively or rural and quiet).
I like to get a feel for a place rather than bouncing around every other night too. So if you’re planning a seven to ten-day surf trip in Costa Rica I would recommend not trying to explore more than one or two different regions. Even two regions is a stretch for a trip that length. If you’re going to be traveling for two weeks or longer, you can definitely cover more ground.
I’d suggest identifying what breaks are a “must” for you based on your skill level and wave preference. Then think about about how you want to spend your time on land. Pick up a Lonely Planet guide book to read about different areas, and make your decision based on what appeals to you the most. Maybe you prefer the more mellow off-the-beaten path places like Playa Santa Teresa. Or perhaps you’re looking for more action in the beach town party scenes of Tamarindo or Jaco. Your call.
Here is a regional overview to get you started.
• NORTHERN COSTA RICA •
The northern region of Costa Rica is known as the Guanacaste Coast. This region is home to some legendary surf breaks like Playa Naranjo (better known as Witch’s Rock per the Endless Summer II) and Ollie’s Point, a world class right point break that can go for 300 yards.
The Guanacaste Coast is home to the lively beach town and surf breaks of Tamarindo. The surf around Tamarindo can get quite good and there’s plenty of breaks to choose from (both lefts and rights), but many breaks will often come along with heavy crowds. Playa Grande, Playa Langosta, and Avellanas are nearby and can all get really, really good. So with a little luck and determination you’re bound to score some mesmerizing and uncrowded waves.
The southernmost point of northern Costa Rica is called the Nicoya Peninsula. This is where you will find Mal Pais, Playa Santa Teresa and Playa Carmen. Costa Rica is a beautiful place in general but this little slice of heaven is next level. Discovering where the tropical rainforests meet the desolate beaches of Santa Teresa is well worth the extra effort the get there.
Mal Pais has miles and miles of really good beach breaks with both lefts and rights in the area and some rocky reef points that can hold very big swells. Be very careful visiting here if you have other things to do in life because you just might fall in love with the place and never want to leave. Just ask a few of the local expats who live there.
Santa Teresa has been quite developed with eco-resorts and surf hostels over the last few years but it still maintains its off-the-beaten-path sleepy beach town feel. If you like a more laid-back less touristy scene, then this is the place for you and is quite different than what you’ll find up in the Tamarindo area to the north and Jaco to the south.
• CENTRAL COSTA RICA •
Boca Barranca is one of central Costa Rica’s main attractions for surfers, and for good reason. On a bigger swell you can ride this left hand river mouth point-break for longer than eight football fields. Just beware of crocs. And that goes for any river mouth break in Costa Rica.
Continuing south, Playa Esterillos is a cluster of breaks with many faces. This spot has something for everyone depending on the tide and swell. You can find rippable reef breaks and hollow sand bottom A-frames. You can also do some tow-in surfing on the outer reefs if that’s your cup of tea.
• SOUTHERN COSTA RICA •
The southern region is home to some of the best surf in Costa Rica. It’s rugged, rural and can be really rainy. It’s not as consistent as the central and northern regions, but when it’s on, it’ll be a game changer for your long overdue professional surfing career.
Imagine riding a single wave for three minutes that runs for nearly a mile on a good south swell. A ride so long that your unconditioned legs are exhausted and trembling halfway through. The local peanut gallery smirks as you decide your legs have had enough for one ride and you disgracefully cut it short. Welcome to Pavones – one of the longest left hand point breaks in the world.
But don’t get your hopes up too high just yet. Pavones only works during south swell season which is normally from around May through October, and even during the prime time you can get skunked and go weeks without waves.
It also ain’t no walk through the park getting there. It’s about a ten hour drive from San Jose, with the last two hours requiring a 4-wheel drive and someone who knows where they’re going and what they’re doing. The roads in southern Costa Rica are not suitable for the inexperienced or unfamiliar tourist.
On the north side of Golfo Dulce is Matapalo. A right hander with a ton of potential but less consistency than its world famous neighbor across the gulf. This area is mostly remote jungle and lacks general western amenities. But have no fear- just three hours up the coast is Dominical, a beautiful mountainous little beach town with all of the western amenities that you’ll ever need.
• CARIBBEAN COSTA RICA •
The east side of Costa Rica is quite different than the west side. There are far fewer breaks and the surf isn’t consistent year-round like the Pacific coast. Costa Rica’s Caribbean also isn’t the most inviting- in more than a couple ways. Sharks are not uncommon and crocs can be found in the lineup at river mouths. But it’s not even the sharks and crocs that you should be concerned about.
This is the kind of place where you don’t necessarily want to be walking around alone at night.
The two main breaks in the area are Cahuita and Salsa Brava. Cahuita has a few reef and beach breaks on offer and Salsa Brava is one of the heaviest barreling reef breaks in Costa Rica. When a good swell is hitting town, you can count on any of these reefs, breach breaks and points to come along with heavy crowds. And of course, the locals and expats have it wired and are known to be a fairly territorial bunch.
Being respectful, aware, and street smart are a must for navigating the nuances of this tough but beautiful region of surf in Costa Rica. There are other fun breaks up and down the coast but be sure to exercise caution and get the lowdown on rocks and sea life before paddling out anywhere.
As rugged and intimidating of a place that it is, there will still be plenty of good people having a good time enjoying the Costa Rican way of pura vida and rocking out to that sweet reggae music.
The moral of the story is that wherever you end up going in Costa Rica, there will be great waves and great people to be found. There’s a reason why surfers flock to this country in droves- and it ain’t just the Trits (this sounds NSFW, but it’s just a seriously addictive ice cream sando).
Ready to start planning your Costa Rican adventure? Check out our guide on surf trip costs in Costa Rica. Pura Vida!
Featured image (of Suck Rock Point Break) via Red Palm Villas