10 Tips for a Costa Rican Surfing Trip

Cowabunga, Costa Rica-style! See more surfing pictures.
Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock

Whether you're the type who's just curious to see if you can catch one of these waves you've heard so much about, or the kind who regularly catches air on a reef break, the appeal of surfing in Costa Rica is pretty strong. Not only are there over 730 miles (1200 kilometers) of coastline, but that shore contains water at a blissful 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius) [source: TravelCostaRicaNow.com].

Costa Rica is in the unique position of having two oceans (the Pacific and Atlantic) a mere six-hour drive from each other. It's no wonder, then, that it's the third largest destination surfing spot, after Hawaii and Indonesia [source: Murillo]. When you can catch your first wave of the day on the Caribbean Sea and take a last ride before dinner on the Pacific, you know it's a surfer's paradise. Just be aware that the Pacific side has pretty terrific swells most of the year, while the Caribbean side can be a bit more seasonal.

Rookie or veteran, keep reading to get some inside tips and helpful hints to getting the big breaks on your Costa Rican vacation.

10
No Time Like the Present

As we said, Costa Rica is in the unique position of having a couple different oceans to choose from when picking your surfing destination. For that reason, it also presents an almost ideal surfing spot year-round.

The Northern Pacific coast is going to look ideal when the doldrums of winter set in for those of us north of the equator (keep in mind that December to April is summer in Costa Rica). From December to March, it has offshore winds that provide a nice swell. The Caribbean Coast is also going to be a good bet from November to March. Count on the Central and Southern Pacific coasts from May to November [source: SurfCostaRica.com]. Of course, keep in mind that these are just guidelines, and weather patterns vary and change.

You also might want to take into account crowds. If you're a northerner and you think escaping the snow and sleet is a great idea in December and January, you're not alone. While it's the hottest and driest time of year in Costa Rica, it's also the busiest for sun-deprived tourists. Take your love -- or hatred -- of crowds into account when you're planning your trip.

9
Just Bring Yourself (and Updated Medical Records)
As much as you love your board, traveling with it can be tricky.
As much as you love your board, traveling with it can be tricky.
George Doyle & Ciaran Griffin/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

The endlessly agonizing question for surfers on vacation is always whether or not to bring your beloved board. Or two. Or three. And it is tempting; it's your board, after all, and you know it and love it. (Not to mention it tips off everyone that you are a Serious Surfer.)

But crating around boards is no small task. First off, if you're a serious surfer you're probably going to be doing a fair bit of traveling around the country. Rental cars won't always be equipped with racks, and beware airline baggage rules. If you're using intra-country air travel (or traveling by air to nearby countries on your vacation), the restrictions vary. Some commercial lines don't allow boards as baggage due to weight or space restrictions. Plan ahead so you're not kissing your beloved board goodbye at the gate.

Although it's not necessarily just for surfers, be aware that some regions of Costa Rica are at risk for high malaria incidence. Talk to your doctor about where you're going and discuss whether an anti-malarial drug or any other vaccinations should be administered.

8
Axed for the very first time?

So perhaps you're not exactly getting endorsements for your surfing career yet. In fact, maybe you're even not entirely sure you know which part of the board should point where. No fear; even surfers so wet behind the ears they're actually just swimming can find a safe, comfortable place to practice in Costa Rica.

One beach, Tamarindo on the Northwest Pacific Coast, might be a particularly good bet if you're looking for your first surfing experience or if you just aren't yet confident about your surfing skills. It's a fairly touristy beach, which means that decent breaks (that is, waves) will be within walking distance from hotels and restaurants. It also means there are plenty of surf shops and schools crowding the area to give you lessons, or rent you equipment.

Playa Jaco and Playa Hermosa are both Central Pacific coastal beaches near each other that are also good for beginning surfers. In popular tourist areas, there'll be plenty of people on both beaches that can give you an idea where surfing rookies are safe to practice.

7
More Advanced Surf Spots

More experienced surfers might desire a slightly different -- and perhaps far more challenging -- trip. Because of Costa Rica's incredible lengths of coastlines, intermediate and extremely advanced surfers can all find a place to lay their boards.

Ollie's Point (on the North Pacific side) is a well-known spot for surfing, but dangerous rocks and a tide-dependent ride mean that it's best for more experienced surfers. Just keep in mind that there's no road access, and you'll have to take a boat to get there, which is also a plus for keeping crowds away during most weekdays.

Consider yourself an expert, or just extremely reckless? Well, you're in luck. On the Caribbean side, Puerto Viejo is the place for experts--and seriously folks, this means only experts--to test their mettle. The gold ring is the Salsa Brava, a gigantic wave that can reach up to 16 feet (4.8 meters) [source: Surf Voucher].

Of course, even experienced surfers need to remember to watch the swells, and pay attention to seasonal windows. Salsa Brava, for instance, is going to really hit its peak from December to April, and June to July. Don't be caught off-guard.

6
Bringing friends or family?
Your non-surfing companions can enjoy kayaking near Playa Jaco.
Your non-surfing companions can enjoy kayaking near Playa Jaco.
Kevin Schafer/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

If you're a diehard surfer but you're traveling with your politely disinterested partner or friends, don't put away your board just yet. Costa Rica is a terrific spot for a group with a diversity of interests, and several great surfing beaches are surrounded by culture, shopping or other outdoor activities.

For instance, Playa Jaco is a great beach for surfing (especially May to December, when swells are best), but it's also a tourist-friendly spot for those more interested in other outdoor activities. Eco-tourism is popular there, and horseback rides into the jungle or tours led by University of Costa Rica ecologists are options for those not interested in the surf.

Witches Rock -- a spot on Playa Naranjo -- is an excellent surfing destination, but it'll be appealing for those in your crew who are more interested in exploring on dry land. The beach is actually located within Santa Rosa National Park, where you can hike through jungles to waterfalls, spotting exotic birds and animals along the way. Playa Nancite -- a hike away from Naranjo -- is also home to the Olive Ridley sea turtles. Between September and October, 75,000 turtles will nest, with up to 10,000 at any given time. Solitary turtles can also be spotted during the year, so your non-surfing friends can stay entertained while you venture out [source: Baker].

5
Surf Hotels

Surf hotels are a popular choice for tourists hoping to surf their way through Costa Rica. And while it sounds like some Disney-inspired hotel under the sea, a surf hotel is usually just a hotel that's in (or should be in) a prime surfing spot, and offers amenities or options appealing to those who are interested in the waves.

There are advantages to staying in a surf hotel (which might also be called surf camps); first off, there are a lot of knowledgeable people around who can guide you to the best spots and give you tips on the particular breaks. Lessons are offered for those who need guidance, and often times they'll have planned excursions to more remote spots where you can catch a wave that you otherwise wouldn't have knowledge of or access to.

However, know that a surf hotel doesn't guarantee prime surfing conditions. This can especially be an issue if you've bought a huge package of activities along with your room: some camps and hotels have extremely overpriced lessons, equipment rental and even accommodations. Staying in a good location and doing some research on cheap, good places to pick up a board or lessons might serve you just as well.

4
Don't Forget the Nightlife

You might have a laser-like focus on surfing, and treat your Costa Rican trip as nothing more than a way to touch as many waves as possible. But even the most hardcore surfer will probably want some sort of adult beverage at the end of a long day.

Lucky for you, Costa Rican nightlife is serious business. And leading the way is the Northern Pacific town of Tamarindo. Not only does Tamarindo have a coastline that suits advanced and less-experienced surfers, but it also has Vegas-like atmosphere for partying and other not-so-cultural pursuits. If you're looking for good surf during the day and a lot of suds at night, look no further.

And while we also touted Playa Jaco as a great surfing spot for those who also want to explore other vacation-y pursuits, we forgot to mention that over-imbibing and partying all night are pursuits that often pop up for visitors to the town. Beware the tourist hordes that descend on the town at night ... or make it easy on yourself and join in the revelry.

3
Most Popular Destinations
Playa Hermosa, or "Pretty Beach," lives up to its name.
Playa Hermosa, or "Pretty Beach," lives up to its name.
Hemera/Thinkstock

While it may seem like being far away from the hustle and bustle of touristy areas is a good idea, there might be some compelling reasons to stick closer to the most popular spots in Costa Rica as you plan your surf vacation. For one, these spots are usually consistent (but remember that all popular spots aren't necessarily easy for a beginner). They're also close to a host of accommodations and services, which makes your trip a little more comfortable.

If you're looking for a popular spot, Playa Hermosa, near Playa Jaco, is a good bet. Although it's not great for swimming, this spot has become globally recognized as a surfers' mecca. The waves are consistent and safe for less experienced surfers, and the "Corner" (a deeper part of the coastline, which provides taller and longer waves) has long been a prestigious surfing spot. While Playa Hermosa has a few higher-end places to stay, there aren't loads of offerings. However, just a couple miles away (about 5 kilometers) is Playa Jaco, which, as we mentioned before, has a surplus of tourist activities and services. Also a plus is the short two-hour trip to the international airport in San Jose.

2
Wanna be alone?

While surfing alone is frowned upon for safety reasons, there is something to be said for the solace of just you and the water. Costa Rica is generally overrun with tourists, but with a little legwork, you can find a spot to surf that won't require you to be cheek to jowl with your fellow wave enthusiasts.

Matapalo, in the south region of the Pacific side, is one such place. The surf isn't always consistent, but it does have three point breaks that can be terrific in the right conditions. But remote is not an exaggeration; there are no restaurants, so the few hotels are all-inclusive. Nightlife is pretty much nonexistent. If you're truly looking for remote, Matapalo is your place.

Pavones, on the southernmost Pacific side, will also provide the quiet-seeking surfer a place to be alone. But at a price: It's not easy to get to (4WD might be a good bet) and like Matapalo, the services are limited. Also like Matapalo, the swell can be extremely rewarding -- and finicky. And always remember to be respectful of locals, who are less thrilled with eager tourists than their compatriots in busier spots.

1
Safety
This guy probably isn't the surfing companion you had in mind.
This guy probably isn't the surfing companion you had in mind.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

We'd be remiss if we didn't send you on your Costa Rica-surfing way without some serious warnings. While Costa Rica has a low crime rate and is generally an extremely tourist-friendly country, that doesn't mean you shouldn't be aware of what you as a guest -- and a surfer -- are doing.

One thing to watch for as a surfer? Well, we haven't yet mentioned the crocs. Yes, crocodiles do live (and eat) near river-mouth estuaries, so ask locals about the area and dangers before you jump in. In fact, it's a good reminder to ask locals about conditions virtually anytime, especially if you're new: talking to shops and those in the know is absolutely essential for due diligence about a surfing spot. If you're looking at a popular break that looks terrific (and is empty), don't dive in. Ask about conditions; you can't always visually identify riptides, and they account for a huge proportion of Costa Rica's drowning deaths each year [source: Adventure Inn].

Don't forget your sunblock, and remember that petroleum jelly might be a life-saver when it comes to chafing. (A rash guard is also a good idea for both sunburn and abrasive board wax.) You might also want to talk to your doctor before you leave about ear drops, as infections are a pretty common surfing occurrence that can make an otherwise fantastic trip miserable.

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