The Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica Surf

by Chris Smith

Costa Rica surf is some seriously epic stuff. From the party-mad surf town of Tamarindo to the remote Pacific breaks of Santa Teresa, there’s something special going on in this corner of Central America.

Costa Rica surf

Costa Rica surf at a glance

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The good:

  • Uber-consistent SW swells on the Pacific
  • It’s one of the world’s best intermediate playgrounds
  • Costa Rica is SO relaxed

The bad:

  • It’s getting pricier every year
  • Lineups are getting bigger

This is just one part of our guide to surfing in Central America

What will I find in this guide to Costa Rica surf?

An introduction to Costa Rica surfing

Ask 100 surfers to name their top three surf destinations on the planet and it’s likely that Costa Rica will come up time and time again. Now firmly up there with Bali and Portugal among the world’s most revered wave hotspots, this big chunk of Latin America rarely fails to impress. The reason for its prowess? Geography, of course. In fact, CR enjoys exposure on two coastlines: The Pacific and the Caribbean Sea. The first is the most famous for surf, but the latter can also shine when the stars align.

The Pacific side is a real playground for surfers. Different regions work with different seasons, though virtually all work to some degree, no matter if it’s July or December. That’s down to the prevailing easterly trade winds (consistently offshore) and the almost ceaseless SW swells that work their way up from New Zealand. Throw in a trace of NW Pacific swells down from Cali and a dotting of seasonal hurricanes, and you begin to get an idea of just how many waves are up for grabs in these parts.

Quality and quantity – the hallmark of Costa Rica surf

But it’s not just quantity where Costa Rica really excels. There’s serious quality to the waves. Guanacaste Province harnesses that NW hits into A-frame peaks that turn to cruisy beach breaks for beginners in Tamarindo. Then there’s the Nicoya, which hosts still-remote surf towns like Santa Teresa along a stretch of shoreline that’s a true intermediate wonder – think beefy but forgiving sets of fat water that’s rippable and almost always glassy.

The surf on the Caribbean is a welcome change for many who are bruised and battered by the Pacific come December (it only works in December-March really). That’s not to say it’s easy. It ain’t. Coming off stray hurricane systems, the waves are punchy and fast, but a whole different beast than the western ocean. The Caribbean Costa Rica surf really focuses around one town: Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.

The top Costa Rica surf destinations

It can help to split up Costa Rica into individual regions. Each offers something a little different, with varying swell windows and wave types. Let’s take a look…

Surfing in the Costa Rica Pacific

Guanacaste

Guanacaste is best known for Tamarindo, which is the most famous surf town in Cota Riva by a country mile. It’s home to a big beach break that works wonderfully for all levels, especially in the morning before the winds pick up.

However, Guanacaste shouldn’t be judged on Tama alone. Head north and you can enter one of the remoter parts o the country, where the surf territory meets the borderlands with Nicaragua. It’s all largely undiscovered up there, mainly down to protected nature reserves. If you’re willing to travel and have money to burn, it’s the place for boat trips to hidden reef breaks where it should be just you an a few other intrepid surfers.

Top surf spots in Guanacaste

  • Witches Rock – a remote sandbar break at a rivermouth that’s a fast and zippy left and wonderfully hollow on high tides. Hard to get to because it’s at  Playa Naranjo  deep inside a national park Boat transfers and 4X4s are pretty much the only option.
  • Playa Negra – A mecca for quick right tubes. Fantastic at high tide, but better for experienced surfers.
  • Nosara (click for complete guide) – On the Nicoya Peninsula but still int he state of Guanacaste, Nosara is one of Costa Rica’s surf capitals. It’s got waves for all levels, going from reefy rights at Punta Guiones to more beginner breaks in sheltered coves.
  • Tamarindo (click for complete guide) – The surf town numero uno of Costa Rica, Tamarindo has access to the long stretch of punchy beach breaks along Playa Grande. It’s also packed with surf camps and has buzzing nightlife. We love it but it’s busy.

Nicoya Peninsula

We could wax lyrical about the surf on the Nicoya Peninsula from morning to night. For intermediates who want a chilled intro to Costa Rica surf, this is the the perfect place to come. It’s best known for waves like Santa Teresa and Mal Pais. They’re beefy, fat beach breaks that wedge up nicely and have some good kick in the main season. Rippable to the T, you’ll have fun here if you’re just about starting to turn and shift on the wave.

We could wax lyrical about the surf on the Nicoya Peninsula from morning to night. For intermediates who want a chilled intro to Costa Rica surf, this is the the perfect place to come. It’s best known for waves like Santa Teresa and Mal Pais. They’re beefy, fat beach breaks that wedge up nicely and have some good kick in the main season. Rippable to the T, you’ll have fun here if you’re just about starting to turn and shift on the wave.

Top surf spots on the Nicoya Peninsula

  • Santa Teresa (click for complete guide) – Escape to Santa Teresa to find the more secluded breaks of the Nicoya Peninsular. There smaller line ups and it’s a real intermediate dream, with rippable Pacific swells that work virtually all year round.
  • Mal Pais – Just south of Santa Teresa, Mal Pais has access to similar breaks but has a more upper-intermediate edge thanks to the variety of reef breaks.

Puntarenas

Puntarenas is the first region of Costa Rica surf that solely relies on those SW Pacific swell channels. That’s no a bad thing, because they work virtually all year. It just means that there’s a noticeable uptick in the quality of the sets come June and July.

The town of Dominical is the main anchor of the surf coast here. It provides access to hidden beach stretches backed by jungles that have similarly rippable sets to Santa Teresa.

Top surf spots in Puntarenas

  • Jaco – Get mid to high tide and you’ll find Jaco’s beach break churning out lovely lefts and rights that cater to a whole variety of levels. It’s not for nothing that this one has risen to become one of CR’s top surf destinations!
  • Dominical – An intermediate+ spot that’s got lush drop ins and reliable SW swells in the Pacific channel. Rewards those paddling into the offshore with clean-face A-frames. Usually quite busy.
  • Playa Hermosa – Not to be confused with the chilled break of Playa Hermosa on the Nicoya Peninsula near Santa Teresa, this Puntarenas break is a heavy barrel that rocks up on high tides and holds to well overhead. Scary stuff for the pros.

Golfo Dulce

Golfo Dulce pulls in those SW groundswells and turns them into something pretty darn special at Pavones. It’s among the best goofy waves in the country, with a sectiony left that cruises and barrels around three headlands at once. The rest of the region is actually better for rights. They tend to have a bit more pizzazz than other rights and break over sand and rock mixes. The downside is really the accessibility – Golfo Dulce is one of the remotest corners of Costa Rica.

Top surf spots in Golfo Dulce

  • Pavones – A series of two points arranged in a sort of dog-leg pointing SW on the Golfo make up the legendary spot of Pavones. It’s an ultra-long left with rippable peaks and neat hollow sections. One of the best rides in Central America!
Surfing in the Costa Rica Caribbean

Caribbean

The Caribbean side of Costa Rica surf scene is a whole load more particular. The beaches tend to be rocky and sheltered by out-at-sea reefs. That means you need to go beyond the breakwater to catch anything heavy. Out there, the coral gardens glimmer sometimes only feet below where you’ll be dropping in – it’s scratch-the-board territory extraordinaire. The waves are much more fickle, needing Colombian cold fronts or hurricanes (usually August)

When to surf in Costa Rica

The best time to surf in Costa Rica is the wet season that runs between May and November. That’s nothing to do with the rains, but rather to do with the oncoming SW swells. In fact, they’re the reason the whole Pacific coast here gets reliable sets of 4-foot+ and glassy conditions. Check it out…

Wet season/Green Season (May-November)

The peak surfing season in Costa Rica lasts throughout the so-called Green Season, from May until November. The SW Pacific groundswells turn on the goods about then, reaching all the way across from New Zealand to give quality conditions. They’re bolstered even more by the dominant easterly offshore winds (they usually only hit in the morning before switching to onshore – this is dawnie territory).

Mid-season can go pretty gnarly when the hurricane storms that brush Mexico and the Oaxaca coast can be felt along the north-west. They turn the otherwise beginner havens of Guanacaste into something more challenging for a brief day or two.

The Caribbean surf in Costa Rica tends to be much smaller in May through to November. You might get lucky and find a stray typhoon system hitting somewhere north-east of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, which can bring storm swells. However, we’d say the Pacific coast is by far the best bet!

Dry season (December-March)

You’ll feel the SW channels that bless Guancaste and the Nicoya Peninsula with their endless sets of 5-10 footers slacken a little around November. They never shut off entirely, so don’t go thinking a Pacific surf trip in Costa Rica is a total no go. Things are just a little less reliable, but arguably better for beginners as the size of most sets dips somewhat.

The northernmost end of the Costa Rican Pacific coast can get some of the wintertime NW swells down from the northern Pacific. That helps add consistency throughout this season, meaning Tamarindo and north is a decent choice.

Meanwhile, the unique flow-through of cold air from Colombia helps the Caribbean hit a high in December. It usually lasts until March, offering reliability to the reefs and fast shore-break tubes of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.

The best surf camps in Costa Rica

Surf camps in Costa Rica

There are more surf camps in Costa Rica than you can shake an endangered toucan at – but don’t do that, please! Most are located on the Pacific side, where the waves are more reliable. However, you can also catch a few over in the Caribbean. We’ve included both here…

Vista Guapa Eco Surf Camp ($-$$)

Surf-hotel-top-pick

The Vista Guapa Eco Surf Camp is a highly rated surf accommodation near to the lovely breaks of Jaco Beach. It’s got a rustic, organic feel and chilled vibes. The common areas and the lush gardens make it easy to meet likeminded surfers, while the swimming pool is the perfect place to kick-back and relax after a hard day’s paddling. Choose between single beds in mixed dorms and private studio apartments.

Mal Pais Surf Camp ($-$$)

Best for: Intermediate surfers

Mal Pais Surf Camp offers a stay down at the far end of the wave-bashed Nicoya Peninsular (an intermediates heaven!). The rooms are simple but modern and have access to a private pool. Most importantly, the awesome waves of Carmen Beach are just a short walk away!

Playa Grande Surf Camp ($-$$)

Best for: Partying and surfing

The Playa Grande Surf Camp is a top choice for hitting the popular waves of Tamarindo. Okay, so you won’t be alone on the break, but this is Costa Rica’s most lively surf town. The pad has its own colorful pool and tropical garden, along with fun palapa-style bungalows to stay in.

La Tica y la Gata ($$)

Best for: Surfing the Caribbean

La Tica y la Gata is just a stone’s throw from Cocles Beach (the main surf spot in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca). It’s a pretty darn cool spot with sleek interiors done out in polished concrete and whatnot. It’s also pretty peaceful, with a pool and a sunning terrace in the private grounds. There’s also lots of space to stash the board.

What to do when you aren’t surfing in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a wonderland of adventure. From smoking volcanic peaks to hidden Shangri-La national parks filled with howler monkeys, it’s the perfect place for an intrepid traveler, even when there’s not much surf happening (and that’s pretty rare too!).

Manuel Antonio National Park

Every first-time visitor to Costa Rica should consider hitting the wonderful Manuel Antonio National Park. It’s an eye-watering showcasing of the stunning biodiversity of the country, with swinging howler monkeys and gorgeous capuchins making their home within. The beaches are also something else!

Arenal

The Arenal Volcano has risen to become one of the top adventure destinations in Costa Rica. There’s no surfing, sadly, but there is hiking in the jungles, whitewater rafting, and camping on the banks of nearby Arenal Lake.

Monteverde cloud forests

Monteverde is the gateway to the famous cloud forests of central Costa Rica. They town is awash with adventure hostels where you can organize canopy treks to walk through the jungle. Keep the eyes peeled for rare monkeys, blooming orchids, and multi-colored resplendent quetzals folks!

Questions about the Costa Rica surf

Where to surf in Costa Rica for beginners?

Tamarindo is widely considered to be one of the best beginner surf spots in Costa Rica. It has lots of peaks and decent shelter from the uber-strong SW swells. We also like the beach breaks of Nosara (on Playa Guiones) when conditions are smaller and the low-tide whitewash around Jaco. The winter months from November to April are perfect for surfing as a beginner in Costa Rica.

Where to surf in Costa Rica in January?

The northern breaks of Guanacaste province do well to hoover up the NW Pacific swells when the SW swells go low in the winter. They’re a better bet than down in the Golfo Dulce for sure. Experienced surfers might also want to consider the more challenging Costa Rica surf that waits in the Caribbean, which is at its best in December and January.

Is there good surfing in Costa Rica?

There’s fantastic surf in Costa Rica. We’d say it’s one of the world’s top five surf destinations, mainly thanks to the uber-efficient ocean swells that hit the west coast all year round.


We might use affiliate links in this post. Basically, you click em’ and we get a little something from your booking or purchase. They help us keep offering more and more in-depth surf guides to awesome places all around the globe. So, thanks for that!

This is just one part of our larger guide to surfing in Central America