Words by Stormrider Surf Guides
Costa Rica is by far the most popular Central American surfing holiday destination, attracting an international crowd to frolic in the warm waves that wash up on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Factors like political stability, tourist infrastructure, clean water, natural beauty, friendly people and good security compared to its neighbours has driven a tourism and property investment boom that shows no sign of slowing.
CR’s surf runs the full gamut of shapes, if not size, and each province boasts at least one drawcard wave, often in the world-class category. Volcanic black sand, squeaky white sand and craggy reef can all be found and while the cheapness and emptiness factors have been eroded, Costa Rica is still a place where all surfers from newbies to grizzled shredders can still find that feeling of pure stoke in a sublime exotic environment.
Swell, Wind and Tides
The Pacific Ocean
Central America forms the continental land link between North and South America, showing characteristics of both continents, plus a character all of its own. The Pacific coasts provide size and consistency, while the Gulf Of Mexico is swept by windswell and occasional hurricanes. Costa Rica's Pacific shores rely on the dependable, year-round, long distance, SW swells from the South Pacific, where low pressure systems just to the east of New Zealand seem to produce the most epic waves, despite a journey of up to 12,000km.
This is because the bulk of the swell is pushed off the weather system’s leading edge as it travels east and the clockwise rotation aids a SW direction of origin. From May to October is prime SW swell season, which coincides with the rainy season, and should see the biggest waves of the year arriving at the southerly regions. In the north of the country, WNW exposed regions like Guanacaste will be drier and are also far better situated to pick up the smaller NW swells from the North Pacific during the Nov-March dry season.
These swells barely register down in Golfo Dulce which needs a perfect S-SW angle to penetrate and stimulate the impressive lefts of Pavones. So while Costa Rica is definitely a year-round destination, not all regions work all of the time.
The tropical storms that form off the Mexican mainland from May to November always take a northern trajectory, so rarely will these hurricanes (locally known as chubascos or cordonazos) produce much surf for El Salvador, Costa Rica or Panama.
Costa Rica’s two seasonal variations are the dry “summer” season (verano), from Jan through April and the rainy “winter” season (invierno), running May through December, making them counter-intuitive for a northern hemisphere country. The wind set-up for Costa Rica is nearly ideal with plenty of glassy or light wind conditions throughout the year. In summer dry season, near constant NE offshores prevail, particularly in Guanacaste.
As the rains arrive, katabatic early morning offshores give way to a light SW-W sea breeze that will spring up by noon, but doesn’t always destroy the surf.
Meso tidal range (2-4m) extends throughout Pacific CR, leaving some waves non-existent at low and overhead by high tide. Needless to say that all waves are affected so knowing when to go is as important as where.
Whenever Central America’s Pacific shores go flat, which isn’t very often, a short journey to the east-facing coastline opens up the possibilities offered by the Caribbean Sea. Sizeable and powerful waves lash the Caribbean side of Costa Rica from December to April.
Cold fronts and depressions north of Colombia are responsible for the unexpected winter waves, while rogue hurricanes can throw up swells through the June to November season. A short window either side of July is also worth noting and while the Caribbean coast is normally wetter than the Pacific side, Sept-Oct can be sunny and nice, but usually flat. NE-E winds can be a problem during the prime swell months of the dry season, so get up early to benefit from the offshore breeze descending from the Talamanca coastal range.
Tides never exceed 1m on springs, but don’t be fooled by the micro range that can have a death or glory effect on the already shallow coral shelves.
Guanacaste province abuts Nicaragua, so the consistent, almost year-round offshores are more prevalent at the northern breaks like Potrero Grande (Ollie's Point ) and Playa Naranjo (Witches Rock). This area is surrounded by National Park and requires time, money and effort to access, usually by boat from Playa del Coco.
The reward for all the effort is one of the funnest rights in CR or crystalline tubes in one of the country's most recognisable line-ups. Down the coast is the magnetic party town of Tamarindo, where surf tourists of all creeds congregate to test their mettle at the various reef, rivermouth and beachbreaks that surround the town.
Tamarindo is not the place to come for empty waves, but just down the coast past the growing surf school towns of Nosara and Guiones, the southern coast of the province sees plenty of less frequented beachbreak at Buena Vista, Samara, Carrillo and most notably Camaronal, where any sniff of S swell will hit the river-fed banks. Carillo has some sizeable, offshore reefs and local surf operators provide boat trips for the journeymen, while beginners have an easy wave in the protected bay.
Golfo de Nicoya
The huge coastal province of Puntarenas begins on the Nicoya Peninsula, then crosses the Golfo de Nicoya, extending through Central Puntarenas Province down to the Panamanian border, encompassing the Golfo Dulce. The Nicoya Peninsula is where the thick tropical forest blankets the hills down to the sand, dipping its toes in the Pacific to create a laid-back vibe in the established eco and surf resort towns of Playa Santa Teresa, Playa Carmen and Mal Pais.
This is a great beginner/intermediate zone where the beachbreaks are often mellow, but don't discount some firing morning sessions and some bigger waves on the points. The backside of the peninsula holds some surprising quality when bigger S-SW swells push in and hit a number of breaks that are all offshore in NW winds, which can be handy in the wet season.
Across the Golfo, there are more famous waves like the leg-burning rivermouth lefts of Boca Baranca, the busy tourist and beginner beaches of Playa Jaco, or the often daunting, thumping tubes of Playa Hermosa. Check out the peaks of Esterillos that has flexible, south-facing waves for most abilities.
Playa Hermosa (cam available)
Central Puntarenas Province
The extensive SW-facing coast of Central Puntarenas Province centres around the comfortable hub of Dominical, where the mountainous scenery and adaptable rock and sand breaks again offer something for everyone.
This is a wet season location, well-placed to receive the copious SW swells from May to Nov, but the NW Pacific swells struggle to reach here unless you are on the awesome Osa peninsula in the untouched splendour of the Corcovado National Park.
The Sweet Gulf is a bite-sized cul-de-sac on Costa Rica's southern extremity that cradles one of the sweetest waves on the planet. Pavones is famed for ruler-edged, racetrack lefts that hug the sand and boulder jungle fringe when just the right angle SSW swells penetrate the golfo.
Top-drawer, world-class waves rarely come without a world-class crowd and people make the harsh 10hour journey from San Jose on the right forecast. On the opposite side of the gulf, righthanders peel down some sections in front of eco-lodges who access the incredible wildlife that lives in the National Park, plus there are more options down to the Panamanian border. This zone is all about one wave for more experienced surfers, although as usual, CR always has options for beginners in the vicinity.
Switching to the Caribbean coast and the surprisingly chunky reefbreaks of Limon Province is a seasonal affair with two good windows of opportunity to catch some Caribbean juice. December to April sees the best chance of scoring the short-lived, short period, yet powerful NE-E swells produced by storms churning off Cartagena, Colombia.
June to August sees more possibility to pit your skills against the shallow heaving reefbreaks of Salsa Brava and Isla Uvita where the dead coral platforms are close under fin. Winds are often offshore in the morning, but during the swell seasons, stormy squalls and onshores are common.
This is an experienced surfer zone, with sucky waves, humourless locals, abundant sharks and the odd croc, adding to the slightly edgy vibe found on the streets at night in this reggae-loving region. Despite some easy beachbreak options, newbies will do better on the Pacific coast.
Travelling in Costa Rica
Nature and Culture
Costa Rica translates as the “Rich Coast”, perfectly describing the abundant cloud forests, rainforests, volcanos, hot springs, waterfalls, beaches, mangroves and wetlands. Swarming throughout this incredible natural environment, you’ll find an equal abundance of wildlife - jaguars, snakes, monkeys, crocodiles, birds, insects the size of birds and a huge diversity of sea life.
Costa Rica can rightly claim to be a nature-lovers paradise and thankfully the government has recognised this by implementing management and protection for over 25 per cent of the country's total land area - more than any other country in the world.
Ecotourism is big in CR and along with the hiking and nature-spotting there is plenty to do for the more high energy enthusiasts. Whitewater rafting down the incredible river systems or zip-lining through the jungles are just some of the easily accessible and popular activities that CR has to offer when not playing in the surf.
CR is also a world leader in renewable energy with 99.62% of its power coming from hydro, wind, geothermal and solar so you can relax in the knowledge that the energy you use on your holiday is not polluting or destroying the incredible environment. In fact, by visiting CR you are showing other countries that preserving your natural resources is a great long term plan.
The Costa Rican population (Ticos for men and Ticas for women) is a cultural melting pot of European, Afro-Caribbean and South American influences. Pura Vida (The Pure Life) summarises the culture of the people…it means multiple things, but all of them good and it’s a feeling that permeates Costa Rican life. The people are relaxed, easy going and welcoming and it’s easy to see why it has become the most popular country to visit in Central America. In 1948 CR disbanded its army and has a chilled outlook in its politics and daily life.
The massive tourist numbers over the last 25 years has meant Costa Rica has developed a huge range of accommodations to suit every style of traveller and every budget. Posadas, hospedajes and pensiones offer the more traditional places to stay and start at around $25 a night.
Numerous surf camps dot the coast and offer everything from a basic room with a mosquito net and a fan to the full luxury, 4WD and boat guided tours. Surf/Yoga camps have become extremely popular and surf lessons and coaching are usually on offer at every camp. Prices for all inclusive packages range from $700 - $2000 a week. Low season or shoulder seasons can have cheaper prices.
You can eat well and cheaply in CR if you stick to the local cuisine. Sodas (local restaurants) can be found just about everywhere and you can fill your belly for as little as $3. Gallo Pinto is the national dish and consists of stir fried mixed beans, rice and eggs. Casado is another standard at all restaurants and consists of rice and beans (not mixed) and some meat on the side.
Aside from the local cuisine you can find just about any type of food in the touristic areas. Expat run restaurants provide standard American-style burger and fries, Italian, Japanese, vegetarian/vegan, plus you can find fresh fruit and veggies and great seafood everywhere. Expect to pay $20 for a western-style meal. Imperial is the local beer and guaro is the local liquor…a strong sugar cane alcohol served in shots or in cocktails. Refrescos or frescos is the name for the the delicious fruit smoothies.
Hazards and Hassles
With all the crazy wildlife comes real dangers so you need to be aware especially when leaving the busier tourist areas. Crocodiles at rivermouths and sharks along the whole coast are genuine threats. Fatal shark and croc attacks on surfers have recently taken place in the Tamarindo/Guanacaste area, but these animals exist right along both coasts. Out of the water, poisonous snakes, mosquitos and a zillion other stinging and biting insects will be a danger, but rarely life threatening.
Malaria/dengue/zika is very low risk but cases are recorded every year. As in most places the most dangerous animal in CR is the drunk-driving-human. Take great care walking or riding a bike at night along the narrow roads. Washed out dirt roads in the wet season are a major consideration and even 4x4 doesn’t guarantee access.
In the surf, the heavy crowds will be the most dangerous thing. Expat surfers can often be the most territorial and drop-ins are common, especially with the high number of beginners still learning their wave etiquette rules. Care is also needed with plenty of strong rips and hidden rocks plus the intense burning heat and sun.
Despite CR being the safest and most stable country in Central America, that does not mean you can leave all your gear on the beach or in the car while you surf. Petty crime is very common so take the same precautions you would anywhere. Violence and crime due to the drug trade is a small but growing problem and is extremely rare on tourists - normally petty theft to get money for a hit is as far as it goes. In general, crime levels are higher on the Caribbean coast, especially at night.
The main surf hubs of Tamarindo, Nosara, Jaco, Quepos, Domincal and San Jose on the Caribbean coast all have well-stocked surf shops and gear is competitively priced. With high airline charges for boards, buying or renting a board in CR is definitely an option to consider.
Board rental ranges from $10 - $20 a day depending on the quality of the board and the length of rental. Away from the main surf towns, surf shops become rare, but renting a board is possible at nearly every beach where there is conducive surf. Surf schools are extremely popular everywhere and many surf camps offer lessons as part of a package.
If you are travelling around and not staying at a regular surf camp, shop around as prices vary a lot. Negotiate/confirm taxi fares before you begin your journey, even with the official red taxis.
Things can move slowly in CR so don’t be impatient….relax and go with the local pace and you’ll fit right in. Smoking is prohibited in all public places, even on beaches and national parks. Tipping is not essential, but is often expected. English is widely spoken, but even a few words of Spanish will go a long way.
Cover shot: Witches Rock (aka Roca Bruja) at Playa Naranjo, Guanacaste by Miah Klein.