• Michael Donlea

Costa Rica - My Top Surfing Destinations

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

As a result of its eco-friendliness, bio-diversity, political and economic stability and ‘pura vida’ atmosphere, Costa Rica attracts an ever-growing number of visitors each year. However, it’s also a surfing mecca, with a seemingly never-ending list of surf spots scattered up and down the Pacific Coast. It’s not an overstatement to say you are spoilt for choice in this regard!

Equally though, for a first-time visitor it can be somewhat overwhelming to know where to go. In my first post therefore, I’ll be pointing you in the direction of some of my most talked-about surf destinations with clients, colleagues and friends from my professional experience of selling exciting trips to this wonderful country . The map below pinpoints the destinations I’ve chosen to cover, each of which I’ll go through below.

1 - Tamarindo

As one of Costa Rica’s most well-known coastal destinations, the developed beach town of Tamarindo is hardly a secret among travellers, but I firmly believe it's a great option to consider due to the many different surf spots here that cater to all levels. Also, the levels of infrastructure in Tamarindo ensures that when you want a break from surfing, other activities such as snorkelling, diving, zip lining, banana boating and day trips to Palo Verde National Park and even Nicaragua to the north can easily be arranged through local tour operators in the main town. Furthermore, Tamarindo is a popular destination for families, so if you have teenagers who are keen to hit the waves, the surf schools here can easily arrange lessons.

Tamarindo experiences some of the warmest and driest climates throughout Costa Rica, with temperates tending to sit between 25-35°C year round.

Where should I go?

Experienced surfers will feel right at home at Playa Grande on Tamarindo Bay, as its waves and wind conditions are reputedly some of the best in the world. It’s a little less visited than some of the other beaches, but it does tend to get popular on weekends so get there early.

Witch’s Rock is a well-known surfing spot, but it is only reachable on a day trip from Tamarindo, so isn’t as easily accessible as places like Playa Tamarindo and Capitan Suizo, which are much closer to town and are better for beginners.

How do you get there?

Tamarindo works well on an overland transfer from places like Arenal Volcano and Monteverde Cloud Forest to the east (maximum half a day’s travel), and other coastal destinations on the Nicoya Peninsula to the south. Its accessibility is also helped by Tamarindo airport, which offers several daily flights to/from San Jose with both Sansa Airlines and Aerobell reliable domestic carriers.

Tamarindo Sunset

2 - Nosara

One of my favourite areas in Costa Rica, Nosara is a beautiful and rugged stretch of northern coastline with a laid-back vibe and unspoilt beaches, meaning this could be the perfect getaway for you if you’re looking for a truly authentic Costa Rican experience. The burger shacks, vegan cafes and juice bars in town are a nice plus, offering the perfect refuelling station after a morning on the ocean. Nosara is also well known for its wellness retreats and clean eating, so yoga enthusiasts will be well catered for here.

Did you know that Nosara is well-known for its turtle nesting? The nearby Ostional Wildlife Refuge plays host to the arribada - a mass migration of Olive Ridley Turtles that from June to December crawl up the beaches as frequently as every 2-4 weeks to lay their eggs in the sand.

Where should I go?

For intermediate and advanced surfers, Playa Guiones is undoubtedly one of the most famous spots in country, playing host to annual surfing tournaments due to the excellent conditions found here. This 4 mile stretch of beach is undeveloped though, so don’t turn up expecting to find sun loungers and beach bars. It’s all about the surfing here. Playa Nosara is a better bet for beginner surfers, and there are a number of surf schools in town, so you’ll be well looked after, regardless of your level.

How do you get there?

It’s a little further down the coast than Tamarindo, but Nosara can be reached from well-known inland destinations like Arenal and Monteverde. It also has its own domestic airport, with daily flight to and from San Jose.

Turtle, Nosara, Nicoya Peninsula

3 - Santa Teresa

On the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula sits Santa Teresa, a surf town that is popular with backpackers and young couples eager to surf in an unspoilt part of Costa Rica. Whilst activities available such as fishing and yoga are available here, the overwhelming majority here primarily come to surf.

Santa Teresa and Nosara are located in the Nicoya Peninsula - a stunning area designated as 1 of the world's 5 blue zones due to the unusual longevity of its local residents.

Where should I go?

Playa Carmen is a good spot for beginners, and can be surfed year-round, however there are a number of rocks jutting out from the sea bed so I would suggest booking a lesson through a surf school to ensure you surf safely and avoid these areas. Playa Santa Teresa is a better bet for the more experienced surfer, with Suck Rock at the northern end of this beach an excellent point break. Waves here are rumoured to reach as high as 20 feet.

How do you get there?

Santa Teresa is admittedly further out the way than most places, but don’t let that dissuade you from visiting this tropical paradise. It’s only around 1 hour’s drive from Tambor airstrip, with daily flights to and from San Jose. Just up the coast from Tambor airstrip you’ll also find the port of Paquera, and frequent ferries across the Gulf of Nicoya connect the southern half of the Nicoya Peninsula to the mainland. Santa Teresa is easily accessible therefore, it just a little more effort.

A weather-beaten surf shack, Santa Teresa

4 - Jaco

A different destination to what I’ve covered so far, Jaco is so because this once-sleepy beach town is now party central, with bars and clubs littered all around. Perfect for some backpackers but perhaps not quite so for families! You won’t necessarily find authentic ‘Tico’ (Costa RIcan) culture here, but the quality of surfing here is beyond dispute. If fun-filled nightlife in combination with challenging waves sounds like your cup of tea therefore, read on.

The nearby Carara National Park extends to nearly 13,000 acres and is home to more than half of Costa Rica's wildlife and birdlife. This includes the colourful Scarlet Macaw, an endangered species, yet more of these birds reside here than anywhere else in Costa Rica.

Where should I go?

To escape the bustle of Jaco, I recommend heading to Playa Herradura, just 3.7 miles to the north. This small beach in Herradura Bay has seen the effects of tourism in Costa Rica, with large hotels like the Marriott Los Sueños popping up in the main town as well as a nest of condos and high-rise apartments, but it’s much quieter than Jaco. Whilst there isn’t any surfing to be found at this beach, Isla Herradura is a short boat ride away, or strong swimmers can paddle there from the beach. Be aware though that the waves are inconsistent and the area is rocky, so I would only recommend this area for experienced surfers.

Another option would be to venture 3 miles down the coast to Playa Hermosa. This black-sand beach stretches for nearly 5 miles along the Pacific and is renowned for its consistent and powerful breaks, Annual surf tournaments take place here, yet the beach isn’t nearly as busy as you might expect, meaning this is a brilliant option for the experienced surfers out there. Beginners and intermediate- level surfers should steer well clear though - the riptides are as strong as the waves are fierce.

Beginners would be best served by surfing at Playa Jaco. The waves are far easier to manage here and the main surf schools in town will ensure you get a solid grounding here before progressing to a more challenging spot.

How do you get there?

Jaco's attraction is helped by the fact that it can be reached in as little as 2 hours from San Jose. If you really don’t want to waste any time, you could therefore get a bus straight to Jaco on the day you land in Costa Rica. The perfect tonic to beat that jet-lag.

Jaco Beach

5 - Manuel Antonio

The most built up destination on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, Manuel Antonio attracts everyone from backpackers to honeymooners to college kids and retirees. Any visitors looking for somewhere cheap and low-key should avoid Manuel Antonio, but the demographic here tells you that this area has something for everyone. One of its most well-known attractions is Manuel Antonio National Park, the country’s smallest and most popular national park and one that plays host to monkeys, sloths, iguanas and a wide variety of tropical birdlife among many other species. In all honesty, I wouldn’t say that Manuel Antonio is a major surfing town, but I decided to include it in this list because it’s a good destination for beginners, and when you fancy a break from surfing, there is so much you can do here.

This coastal town supposedly takes its name from Manuel Antonio, a conquistador who was killed by the native population centuries ago and buried on a beach in the local area.

Where should I go?

As I have mentioned, Manuel Antonio is not renowned as a challenging surfing destination, so those of you with plenty of experience should probably consider elsewhere. First-timers though will be well served here as there are a variety of spots from which to choose.

At the northern end of Playa Espadilla and just half a mile from the National Park, Playitas is a small beach offering fairly consistent breaks. Make sure to plan your visit with a surfing school though so that you can attempt to avoid the crowds. Playa El Rey to the south of Manuel Antonio is a little further away but is a little more challenging also, so could be a natural progression from Playitas.

How do you get there?

Approximately 3 hours’ drive from San Jose, Manuel Antonio is also served by the nearby Quepos airport. Whilst most domestic flights go to and from San Jose, the fact that Manuel Antonio is a major destination in Costa Rica means that companies like Interbus offer frequent air-conditioned shuttle buses to and from the coast (a great option for those on a budget).

Overlooking the Southern Tip of Manuel Antonio National Park

6 - Dominical

Just an hour or so’s drive down the coast, but in stark contrast to Manuel Antonio in terms of its development, is Dominical, a former fishing village that evokes a rustic charm with its lush tropical rainforest and bumpy dirt roads. This is an area held in high regard amongst the surf community, but before I discuss this it’s worth noting that the area is also great for hiking with plenty of waterfalls in the local area, sport fishing and dolphin watching tours (year round) and whale-watching tours (seasonal) through Marino Ballena National Park as well. If you’ve come from the hustle and bustle of Manuel Antonio and fancy somewhere quieter, cheaper and significantly-less developed, the tiny town of Dominical is well worth considering.

Fancy a break from surfing? Isla del Caño is easily reachable on a day trip from Dominical and offers the best snorkelling and diving in all of Costa Rica.

Where should I go?

Playa Dominical offers consistent and powerful breaks, and is an obvious choice for experienced surfers. The waves at Dominicalito to the south of the town are slightly less challenging but well worth considering. Just keep in mind that with the strong waves in Dominical as a whole come riptides, so don’t stray too far from the shore.

How do I get there?

At roughly 4.5 hours’s drive from San Jose, it certainly takes more effort to get to, but experienced surfers will certainly not be disappointed. To make the most of your time on the Southern Pacific, I would recommend combining a trip here with some time in Manuel Antonio, Playa Hermosa by Jaco or the wildlife gem that is the Osa Peninsula, in the far south of the country.

Waterfall hiking from Dominical

7 - Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

In the far south of Limon Province and just a short drive from Panama lies Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a laid-back beach town that with its Bob Marley-esque cafes and reggae beat exudes a strong Caribbean vibe. It’s for this reason that this is an area that is so popular with backpackers and younger clientele. Aside from the surfing though, you’ll find activities such as zip lining, cycling trips, horse riding tours, hiking through Talamanca Reserve and wildlife spotting in Cahuita National Park. This is a beautiful area of Costa Rica, but in my opinion one that gets overlooked largely because of its location. The infrastructure this part of the country aren’t great, but if you can brave the roads then you’ll be visiting a fabulous part of the country.

The Talamanca mountains (and extending into Panama) is home to the Bribri, Costa Rica's largest indigenous group.

Where should I go?

The waves are inconsistent at Salsa Brava, but when your luck is in, this area is reputedly one of the most challenging surfing spots in the Americas. Playa Cocles is another area to consider, and is a favourite with locals, but again is suitable only for advanced-level surfers. Beginners should consider Punta Uva, a great little beach with less-intimidating waves and one that many surf schools will take you to for your first lesson.

How do I get there?

Talamanca’s drawback is that it is in the far southeast of Costa Rica. An overland transfer from San Jose therefore may take as long as half a day, but Limon airport (around 2 hours from Talamanca) and its regular flights to/from San Jose is always an option. Looking at the positives though, Puerto Viejo works very well for anyone travelling overland from Panama. In fact, it’s pretty much the perfect Caribbean pit-stop before you venture inland or further up the coast to somewhere like Tortuguero. As long as you can put up with the questionable roads and the younger crowd, it’s a great destination to consider.

Playa Cocles, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

There you have it. These are my 7 favourite surf destinations in Costa Rica, many of which as you cans see have much more to offer besides riding the waves. I’ve only scratched the surface though, so let me know about your favourite surf spots in the comments section below.

Before I wrap up, I’d like to emphasis a few notes on safety. I would strongly advise that any novice surfers among you always make sure to book lessons through reputable local schools before venturing out on your own. Only surf in waves you feel comfortable in, and ask about the possibility of riptides before surfing in a new spot. Finally, remember that if the beach is manned by lifeguards, it’s for a reason. Respect the lifeguards and locals, stay hydrated and have fun out there.

Pura vida!

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