Costa Rica – the rich coast. The name was first instituted by Spanish conquistadores plundering Central American shorelines for fruits and food and gold back in the 1500s. But it could just as well have been created by the first intrepid surfers of the 50s and 60s, who came this way south of the US border looking for something new. They didn’t leave disappointed.
Yep, Costa Rica is blessed with some of the longest and most productive surfing territory on the globe. Drawing a squiggle between the North Pacific and the South Pacific, and with another foot firmly in the Caribbean Sea, there are two whole coastlines to get stuck into.
They’re divvied up into curving beach breaks that seem to go on for miles and miles, splintering reefs that can offer the barrels of your life, and point breaks that give leg-busting rides for up to a whole kilometer.
Everyone’s stoked to be here, too. Costa Rica is consistently rated among the world’s top five happiest places on the planet. It’s easy to see why: Life is good. Come, surf, shack up in a salt-washed cabana by the sea, eat gallo pinto all day long. You won’t want to return home.
I’ve scored several of the best surf spots in Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast and have been writing about adventure travel and surf travel in this corner of Central America for over seven years. Whittling down the finest breaks among the thousands hasn’t been easy, but here are my top eight picks…
A cocktail of world-class surf breaks, gorgeous beaches, lush jungles, and pure backpacker hedonism, Tamarindo is now firmly established on the forefront of the Costa Rican wave scene. It’s nigh-on impossible to believe that this was but a snooze-under-the-coconut-palm fishing hamlet until the early 90s.
The town’s astronomical rise to fame and the release of a certain groundbreaking surf movie – Endless Summer II – in 1994 are certainly no coincidence. As if overnight, flocks of Americans appeared on this honey-colored beach on the Nicoya Peninsula with the boards in tow.
Fast forward 25 years and the Tamarindo of today is a pulsating mismatch of hostels, rambunctious rum bars, microbreweries, and surf lodges. Despite the development, it’s undeniably loveable, and I’d say every first-time surfer to Costa Rica should drop by at least once.
There’s a handful of cruisy waves to enjoy. They cater to all levels and string up ever-busy Playa Tamarindo – the main beach. Further north, over a crocodile-filled river on Playa Grande, more advanced surfers can chase barreling estuary waves that are pure perfection.
2. Santa Teresa
Santa Teresa was a best-kept secret until only recently. It saw a steady trickle of yogis and beach bums before a few surfers dropped by and were treated to the ridiculous consistency of the 2.5-mile stretch that is Playa Santa Teresa. Well…the consistency and the sheer beauty of it all…
Mhmm, this corner of the deep, disconnected south of the Nicoya Peninsula is seriously stunning. Blankets of wild jungle trough and peak overhead, covering rugged hills that hide waterfalls and lookout points and groups of vocal howler monkeys. All that eventually cascades right down to meet a frothing Pacific Ocean, which rolls into a string of coconut palms. Paradise. Yea, paradise!
So, what’s the catch? Remember I said that Santa Teresa was a best-kept secret? No longer. Tech bros out of Silicone Valley are seen frequently in the boho beach cafés and there’s always a crowd of board-touting folks looking to score the waves.
Thankfully, the beach is very long and has hundreds of separate peaks, so the line up is nicely spread out. Beginners usually find their way north to Playa Hermosa, which has mellower ankle breakers perfect for practicing on.
Further reading: Best Beaches in Costa Rica
Nosara is the laid-back hub of the Nicoya Peninsula. Around about halfway between aforementioned Tamarindo and Santa Teresa, it’s made up of a series of biscuit-colored beaches that arc and bend around a series of low coast hills topped with gallery woods and palm trees.
The town really cut its teeth as a yoga center. As such, there are now umpteen surf schools that offer surf-yoga packages that last four, five, even 30 days. They’re all about morning downward dogs on shalas overlooking the Pacific and then a couple of hours’ surfing before the hammock time kicks in.
Told you Nosara was chilled!
Pretty much all the surf in Nosara happens on Playa Guiones. It’s a touch to the south of town and has a cluster of excellent point break rights at its northernmost end. From that, endless punchy peaks filter down the miles of bay. It’s particularly fantastic for total beginners and improvers because the whitewash is forgiving and there’s hardly a rock to be seen.
4. Manuel Antonio
Say Manuel Antonio and it invariably conjures images of sloth-filled rainforests and jungles that spill onto idyllic Pacific beaches inhabited by dolphins and whales. That’s because it’s the name of the most iconic national park in the country; the smallest but the most iconic.
Yep, the Manuel Antonio National Park covers just shy of 2,000 hectares of land, spreading across the coastal jungles of Puntarenas Province. It’s been hailed as one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors with its web of hiking paths and top-quality wildlife viewing.
But it’s not all monkey spotting and sloth safaris in these parts. No surfing is allowed within park boundaries, but there’s a whole beach that extends north towards the town of Quepos that’s blessed with sculpted A-frames and peeling reef breaks.
It’s one of the best destinations out there if you want to combine two of Costa Rica’s most indelible draws: Wildlife and surf.
More on Costa Rica: Best Resorts in Costa Rica
Jaco is a resort town of two halves. There’s the chilled surfer half. Then there’s the tacky expat half. Both converge here on the Puntarenas coastline directly west of the capital in San Jose, creating a buzzy place that’s got great waves and just a touch of no-holes-barred nightlife.
Most of the surfing in Jaco happens down on Hermosa Beach, Playa Hermosa in the local lingo. It’s a classic Costa Rican black-sand run with palm trees clambering out of the jungles to stoop over waves that can be pretty challenging. When the banks align after the wet season, it’s possible to score fast wedges and mini barrels up and down its length.
What’s really great about Jaco is just how accessible it is. You can be here in less than an hour after leaving the airport, and the travel is all on paved roads (still something of a rarity in the Costa Rican Pacific). Just don’t expect the prettiest surf town in Central America.
Super-consistent Dominical benefits from a beach that’s exposed to the north and the south, meaning swell comes in here during the dry season (November-March) and the wet season (April-September).
Add to that the almost ceaseless offshores that occur because of the warm breezes that drift down from the surrounding sierras and you’ve got yourself the perfect combo for surf, no matter the time of the year.
The main beach is a black-sanded beauty. It bends northwards from the big estuary of the Baru River, which is where you’ll find the main breaks. When it’s a strong swell with some S in it, expect those to be rifling left-hand barrels that can go for 100 meters or more. When it’s more westerly or northerly, they’ll transform into punchy A-frame wonders.
You can either stay in Dominical itself, where there’s a growing cluster of surf camps aimed at intermediate riders, or head a little south to Uvita, a major whale-watching town with an iconic isthmus beach in a marine nature reserve. Both are great options.
If you’re looking for a location to stay I suggest you read our guide on where to stay in Costa Rica.
Goofy riders everywhere salivate over the prospect of ripping up the lines of Pavones. Some rate this as the longest left in the Americas. I think Peru might have something to say about that, but it’s nonetheless a doozy of a lefty, that sucks up SW swells and refracts them neatly around a headland in southern Costa Rica to offer rides of up to 1,000 meters in all!
Those glorious, kilometer-long romps are reserved for the very best days in the calendar. Most of the time, Pavones will be broken in a series of sections; some bowly, others hollow. The most powerful of them are right on the main point, and the wave gets progressively mellower as it hooks into the cobblestone reefs on the inside.
Pavones remains unchartered surf territory. It’s far from the trodden tourist haunts of Tamarindo et al further north; still a place for the most dedicated of strike missions. That hasn’t stopped surf camps setting up shop. Some occupy pride of place right on the cliffs above the main take-off zone. Perfect.
8. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Lastly, whisk over to the eastern side of Costa Rica, to where the glistening azure waves of the Caribbean Sea caress the shore.
Don’t go thinking that just because this is Caribbean territory that riding is in short supply. Not so. Pulsing hurricanes and typhoon systems push fantastic swells onto the coastline here between December and March. When that happens, this place will go off like a bomb.
Some of the spots are proper legends. Take the Salsa Brava barrel. It’s a hollow monster that sucks off coral and rock reefs to create fast, popping pits that only the pros can handle. Then there’s Playa Cocles, with its pushy little longboard waves that break on coconut-strewn white sands.
The town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is an interesting one. It fuses the uber-chilled character of Costa Rica with a bit of Caribbean pizzazz. Expect rum bars and colorful surf hostels, and plenty in the way of nightlife.