Central America surf means hitting some of the world’s most treasured breaks. From Costa Rica to Nicaragua, this is a land kissed by the Pacific and the Caribbean.
Central America surf at a glance
- Hardcore Pacific Ocean swells
- Great reef breaks on the Caribbean side
- Warm water
- Political instability has been an issue
- Lack of infrastructure
- Growing popularity = growing line ups
What will I find in this guide to surfing in Central America?
An introduction to Central America surf
Central America is the squiggle of countries that connects South America to North America. It’s roughly defined as running from the Mexican borderlands and Guatemala all the way to the Darien Gap (one of the most inhospitable areas of the globe) and the ends of Panama. Anyone with a radar for waves should see the potential the moment they look at the map. Why? Well: Central America has a coastline on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean. Each of those counts over 1,100 miles of shore. There’s not a single place in the region that’s more than 125 miles from a wave. You get the idea…
These days, the Central America surf really revolves around a trio of countries. They are each blessed with long Pacific seaboards and renowned for their reliable swells. Costa Rica probably tops the bill, flaunting uber-accomplished surf towns like Tamarindo and Santa Teresa. Then comes Nicaragua, which has an ever-lengthening surf coast running north from San Juan del Sur. Finally, Panama offers top breaks on its Pacific isles and untouched south-west coast.
The real draw in this part of the world is consistency. Central America surf isn’t just about lefts or rights, point breaks or beach breaks. It’s got the whole shebang. Long, sandy bays unfold down the Costa Rican peninsulas, but there are also rocky reefs that throw up big waves for the gun toters. You’ll find remote island breaks, but you’ll also discover pumping surf towns filled with bars and nightlife. We’d just recommend keeping an eye on the political situation – this isn’t the most stable corner of the planet!
The best surf destination in Central America
Central America is riddled with awesome surf destination. Some are famous – think Costa Rica’s Tamarindo and Nica’s San Juan del Sur. Others remains pretty undiscovered. They might be a little trickier to get to, but they do offer lonely line ups in pretty settings beneath volcanic peaks and green jungles. Let’s take a look at what’s on the menu…
The award for the most famous surf nation in all of Central America probably should go to Costa Rica. Home of Pura Vida – the Pure Life – it’s garnered a reputation as an eco-friendly adventure destination in recent years. That’s brought something of a boom, and the surf breaks haven’t been spared the increase in popularity. But they are well set to handle extra crowds, particularly the long and consistent beach breaks of Playa Guiones and Playa Hermosa. Drawing the beginner crowd, Tamarindo is brimming with surf camps and backs it up with a buzzy nightlife. Remoter Malpais and Santa Teresa boast some harder reef breaks that can handle heavier swells. There’s oodles to go around.
Over 1,500 miles of coastline fringes the Central American nation of Panama. That helps to make it an obvious spot for a surf trip in the region, especially if you’re after reliable but undiscovered wave territory. Just take the likes of Playa Venao, which was an unknown fishing hamlet as recently as 2010 but now flaunts a wide bay that hosts peaks for all levels, no matter the swell direction. Santa Catalina remains the highlight in these parts. In fact, it’s considered by many to be the highlight of surfing Central America as a whole. We’d say it’s primarily intermediate and up, mainly thanks to the triple overheads that can crack into La Punta.
The south-west coast of Nicaragua is one of the frontiers of Central America surf right now. Things started in the colourful coast town of San Juan del Sur. But then surfers started exploring the bays and beaches to the north and south. What they found was a steady stream of sands and points that just seemed to get better and better. The jewels in the crown are Playa Maderas, an uber-consistent and hollow wave, and the rare regional lefts of Manzanillo, but there are umpteen options laying in wait between the two.
El Salvador might not have the most stable of political pasts, and the country has recently been shoved into the spotlight by its less-than-savoury murder rates, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t waves. In fact, El Salvador boasts some of the region’s top right-hand points. They play out over more than 300km of coastline, on both the Pacific and the Caribbean. The most famous spots are Punta Roca (a onetime WQS event host) and Playa El Tunco, a swell magnet that also has some protected bays for beginner surfers.
Belize is a bit of a strange surf destination. On the one hand, that huge dash of dazzling coral reef that is the second largest barrier reef on the planet offers fantastic diving and all manner of marine life. On the other hand, it shelters much of the coastline from dominant ground swells coming in of the Caribbean and the Atlantic. Not so at Long Caye, which has a glassy, if mushy, wave that’s good for improving intermediates. Upsides include warm water and that laid-back Cairb vibe.
A guide to the Central America surfing season
The best way to get a grip on the surf season in Central America is to divide the region into two halves: The Pacific and the Caribbean. Both coasts offer surf breaks. Both also tend to have their own unique climactic conditions that affect the waves and swells. Let’s take a look…
The Caribbean coast of Central America is a much fickler prospect than its Pacific counterpart. That’s to be expected – one’s an ocean, the other’s a sea, after all. Main swell windows come with the dry season between December and April, but don’t come expecting the consistency that lets you surf each day: This is the winter dry season, and it relies on strong northern storm systems to get things pumping. One more bout of waves tends to roll into places like Bocas del Toro and the Belize reefs in July. That’s usually smaller and cleaner – better suited to intermediates.
The surf season on the Pacific half of the region runs for virtually the whole year, save for a short dip with the rainy season in September, October and August. Still, that break isn’t to do with swells. There are always swells. It’s just that increased precipitation can churn up the waters, give annoying cross shores, and leave the water filled with palm fronds and whatnot. Beginners eager to find smaller, chest-high swells rolling into Panama, Nica and Costa Rica will prefer the tamer but clean months from December to early May. Meanwhile, summer sees huge southerly groundswells come into play and that pumps up the bigger breaks across the Pacific coast, going all the way up to Mexico and beyond!
Top things to do in Central America when you aren’t surfing
Central America is a bucket-list destination, and not just for its surf. Costa Rica beckons with national parks packed with three-toed sloths and other awesome creatures. Meanwhile, blinding beaches you have to see to believe await in Panam. Finally, there are amazing ancient ruins that pop out of the jungles up in Guatemala.
Eat, eat and eat some more
There’s no doubt that surfing Central America can work up an appetite. Thankfully, this part of the globe is blessed with more fruit, organic ingredients and fresh veg than you can shake a papaya at. So, get ready for mornings filled with avocados and sweet mangos, along with evenings of grilled fish salted and straight off the BBQ. Yep, the gastronomy is a real draw for surfers heading to this corner of the globe.
See some wildlife
If there’s one thing that ties together all the nations of Central America, it’s probably their astounding levels of biodiversity. Panama and Costa Rica tend to lead the way. Both are home to unique habitats that run through cloud forests (check out Monteverde) and soaring volcanos (see Arenal). Around them are some of the world’s most animal-rich habitats. Keep the eyes peeled for sloths, resplendent quetzals, howler monkeys – the list goes on and on.
Get your fix of history
This part of the Americas has been a melting pot of human history for millennia. Ruins like Tikal, in Guatemala, and Copan, in Honduras, reveal the mystical lives of pre-Columbian civilisations like the Maya. They are amazing places to visit, usually tucked deep in jungles of palms and vines. On top of that, you have enchanting colonial-era cities like Granada, in Nicaragua, and Antigua Guatemala, which have cobbled lanes and centuries-old churches dating to the age of the Spanish conquistadors.